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This Is Why the Old Testament Law Still Matters

old testament law
Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve been there. You start the new year with the lofty goal of reading through the entire Bible before the next new year and . . . you run into Leviticus. Then your wonderful plans get derailed because, well, because reading chapter after chapter of the Old Testament law seems—if you’re being honest—boring and irrelevant. Yet these laws are in our Bible. That means they are God’s holy, inspired words. So what do we do with the Old Testament Law? Why don’t we follow Old Testament laws?

On top of this question, there’s another complication. It seems to be fairly common these days for people to point to the laws God gave Israel in order to discredit Christianity. Here is one such accusation: 

Is Maury right? And if not, then why not?

Why don’t we follow Old Testament laws? (The Old Testament Law matters. A lot.)

“If we believe the Bible is the word of God, then this is one of the massive subjects in Scripture,” says Kevin Bywater, Director and Resident Scholar of the Oxford Study Centre. Bywater has been trying to wrap his mind around the topic of why don’t we follow Old Testament laws for most of his life, and he gave a talk on it at Summit Ministries in Colorado a few years ago.

When we say, “the Law,” says Bywater, what we’re talking about are “the legal stipulations and Levitical system affiliated with Moses.” The Law therefore includes more than 600 ritual, civil and moral laws (and the punishments for breaking them) associated with Moses.

While he naturally doesn’t have the answer to every single question someone might ask, Bywater believes he has arrived at clarity about some key issues regarding why don’t we follow Old Testament laws. And these show that there is a coherence to God’s Word we often miss. 

What are some of the (inadequate) ways people try to explain the Old Testament Law?

1. The Old Testament Law was part of the Old Covenant that ended with Jesus, so Christians don’t have to follow any of those laws any more. 

Well, says Bywater, we might want to ask ourselves if we are really going to throw out the Ten Commandments, which include prohibitions against murder and adultery. But possibly the most compelling response to this argument is the fact that Jesus himself did not throw out the Law. When asked what the greatest commandment in the Law was (Matt 22:34-40), Jesus quoted Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 when he gave his answer. On top of that, Paul says we are to fulfill the Law by obeying the two greatest commands and he says that doing so includes obeying the the commands not to covet, steal, murder…i.e., the 10 Commandments (Rom. 13:8-10). So it doesn’t work to simply say we don’t follow laws recorded in the Old Testament anymore. 

2. We only have to obey the Old Testament laws that are repeated in the New Testament.

Bywater says he appreciates the instinct of this position, but is not convinced of it. First, where does the Bible teach that this is how we’re supposed to treat the Law? If anything, it seems as though the disciples assumed they had to follow all of the Law unless God said they didn’t have to any more (as when Peter sees the vision revealing all foods are “clean”). 

Here is another problem: There is no place where the New Testament bans bestiality, whereas the Old Testament does. If we were to say that we only obey repeated laws, that would mean bestiality is permissible. Few people are likely to argue for that, of course, and it doesn’t seem consistent with the overall sexual ethic God has given us. So while this approach at first seems promising, it is lacking something.

3. We can make sense of the Old Testament Law by understanding that God gave the food laws for reasons pertaining to health and hygiene.

This viewpoint is a common Jewish tradition, says Bywater, but some rabbis question it. The reason why is that this approach is not sufficient for accounting for all of the animals that were banned. Also, Deut. 14:21 commands the Israelites not to eat anything already dead, but they are allowed to give that animal to a foreigner living in the land. Does this mean that God is protecting the health of the Jews, but is deliberately trying to harm Gentiles? Once again, this seems inconsistent with God’s other instructions for how to treat foreigners. There is no doubt that the Israelites were God’s chosen people, but He also commands them to be kind to foreigners in the land because they were once foreigners in Egypt (Lev. 19:34).