I recently had a friend write and ask me about a situation where she was being told by some Messianic Jewish friends that Christians are supposed to keep the Old Testament Law – all 613 of them! I wrote her a reply and my wife told me that it would make a good blog – so here it is! Thanks for the question A.C.!
HOW SHOULD A CHRISTIAN VIEW THE OLD TESTAMENT LAW?
#1 – We HAVE to differentiate between issues regarding what it takes to be saved from issues that are centered around other things (which could be myriad). If someone insists that we must keep the law in order to make God happy, that is quite different than someone who insists that we have to keep the law to be saved. The first is an emphasis on how we are to be sanctified, the other is an emphasis on how we are to be saved. I think you understand that. We make that distinction all the time regarding other things (pre-trib, spiritual gifts, worship style, etc.). Where it comes to a head for you (I think) is whether you/your family should be sitting under a teaching that is telling you something about the “how” of sanctification/pleasing God AS a Christian, that you disagree with. If you can recognize what you disagree with and why, and can agree to disagree with them and still glean what is good from their Jewish ways and history, I would have no problem with that. You obviously are discerning enough to “eat the meat and throw away the bones.” The question you’d have to wrestle with in that case is whether you feel your family is discerning enough to do the same, or whether you will be able to discuss it with them in a way that enables them to see why what they are hearing there is NOT true. There are Christians all over the world who believe differently about these kinds of side-issue things having to do with Christian living (i.e. “What type of clothing is modest and godly?” “What kind of music honors God?” etc.). This one just has a “Jewish” tendency/flavor to it. Are we going to separate from ALL Christians we believe come up with an unBiblical answer to those kinds of “side issue” questions?
#2 – The other issue has to do with what role the law should play in our lives as believers in Christ. Your Messianic Jew friends may or may not EVER agree completely with you on this, and you’ll have to reach a point where that is O.K. with you if you want to continue your association with them… you can trust them to the teaching of the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t mean that as you get this doctrinal issue more readily understandable to yourself mentally you shouldn’t speak the truth in love when you have appropriate opportunities. It just means that if you hit a brick wall you will in some ways have to leave it with the Lord. So – let’s look at the issue of the law as it relates to believers…
First, I’m going to make a distinction scripture only alludes to but nevertheless is clearly true… and that is that the law had different components to it: Levitical, civil, & moral. The Levitical was the “how to”s on the sacrificial system and issues of religious ceremony. The civil law had to do with things like public health, laws to govern society well, punishments for law-breakers, etc. The moral law had to do with individuals and their personal obedience before God (adultery, murder, covetousness, etc.). The difficulty is that the Torah weaves them all together with no clear distinctions like I’ve made here, but nevertheless those 3 types of law are clearly present. The Levitical law is no more, because there is no longer need of sacrifice – Christ was the final and perfect sacrifice for all who believe (Hebrews chapters 9 & 10 are KEY here). The civil law is no more, because God’s people are no longer comprised ONLY of a political entity known as Israel, but rather “one new man” who is comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, spread all over the world in various places and countries (Ephesians 2:11-22).
BUT, the moral law of God still remains, at least in part because it flows out of His character, which is unchanging and eternal… and we as His children are to imitate Him (Ephesians 5:1). But it’s the HOW of keeping that moral law that makes all the difference!
In one sentence Jesus both affirmed the Law and also emphatically stated that He would fulfill it Himself (something people had NEVER been able to do on their own up to that point – and still can’t… (Matthew 5:17-18). And He did fulfill it by His perfect life of obedience (Hebrews 4:15). As a result of that fact, Paul teaches us that as partakers of the righteousness of Christ we are not to consider the law as our master, but rather to understand that when we walk by the guidance and control of the Spirit of God, the righteous requirements of the law are fully met in us (Romans 8:3-4 – read it carefully and slowly). So in a way, your Messianic friends and you can fully agree on this – we DO need to keep the moral law because we are God’s children! But you my friend are going to do so via a means OTHER than personal effort or legalism…
My understanding of what that type of life looks like practically comes from the book of Galatians. Jesus gave us His Holy Spirit to be our Teacher, Guide, and Help (John 14, John 16). When we hear, listen to, and obey the Spirit, we accomplish what the moral law of God requires – automatically (Galatians 5:18, 22-23). That’s because the Spirit NEVER leads us in a way that is contrary to the moral law of God – which seems to be a no-brainer to me, since the Spirit IS God. So in effect, we don’t have to worry about these lists of 613 laws to obey, we only need to cultivate a listening ear and an obedient heart so that when the Spirit of God leads us, we obey.
So, does that mean we should not read/learn from/teach the Old Testament law? Not at all! I can glean TONS from a good sermon about one or all of the 10 commandments (for example) in terms of what it LOOKS LIKE to walk in the Spirit in a particular area. That helps me to be more conscious of what the Spirit might be saying or how He might be leading at any given time. It may also be a means the Spirit uses to convict me about an area where I’ve been disobedient or resistant to His leadership. But I should not take what I learn as a “rule” for me to follow. THAT would be living a life guided by law, not the grace of the Spirit (Romans 6:14). So we are live by the Spirit, in close relationship to Jesus through the Spirit… not by our own efforts to keep the law or any other rules.