And what are these “more important matters,” according to Jesus? They are “justice and mercy and faithfulness.” Even elsewhere in the New Testament, says Bywater, idolatry, immorality and injustice are still priorities (see 1 Corinthians).
Back to the Ritual Laws
As already noted, there are differences in the types of Old Testament laws. Some of them are civil. Some outline procedures for rituals and ceremonies. The point to notice here is that if someone becomes ritually unclean, that does not in itself mean that person has sinned. Bywater points out that many aspects of daily life in Israel would have made God’s people unclean as a matter of course (Lev. 11-15). Examples include having a child, touching a dead body, and making love to one’s spouse.
Even some of the instructions God commanded the priests to obey (Numbers 19) would make them unclean! “It would be hard,” says Bywater, “for the average Israelite to avoid becoming unclean on the average day.” So it is a misunderstanding to equate eating hot dogs to breaking laws governing sexual behavior.
What then is the purpose of these ritual commands? Bywater believes their main purpose was to distinguish Israel from the nations around them. In many places in Scripture, God said that Israel was his chosen people, set apart from the other nations (see Deut. 7:6 and Ex. 19:4-6). Social differences, says Bywater, can reinforce religious differences. But these practices do not carry over into the New Covenant. “The New Covenant doesn’t reinforce the national boundaries, nor the civil laws of the nation of Israel,” he says. Circumcision, calendar, and cuisine get renegotiated, and many of the rituals (circumcision is one example) from the Old Covenant become metaphors in the New Covenant. Another major difference is that being from a particular nation no longer grants people any kind of status (Gal. 3:28).
Scratching the Surface
Of course, all of this barely scratches the surface of the topic of the Old Testament Law. There is far more that could be said and even more that Bywater addressed in his talk that we don’t have room to cover here. If you’re interested in exploring this subject further, you can check out Bywater’s post, “Jesus Christ, Greater than the Angels?” He is also planning to add some other relevant articles he has written to his blog.