Under the Law of Moses or the Law of Christ? Christians and Old Testament Law, Part 2

Are Christians under the Old Testament Law of Moses? Are we under all of it, none of it or part of it (the Ten Commandments)? Many believers either disagree on this issue, agree but express what they mean differently, or are just totally confused on the subject. Tom Schreiner’s book, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, helpfully walks us through the teaching of Scripture on this important topic. We will draw some main ideas from his book as we look to the Bible for help.

The Law of Moses was Intended to be Temporary

First, we see that the Law of Moses was part of God’s covenant with the political and physical nation of Israel, not the church. The Law, summarized in the great Ten Commandments, showed Israel how to love God and neighbor as their worship response to his gracious rescue from Egypt. But the New Testament teaches that the Law of Moses (like the entire Old Testament Scriptures) looked ahead to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44-45; John 5:39, 46). The Law was intended by God to reveal sin and create longing for the salvation of God, which would come in Christ (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:19). When Christ came this purpose was fulfilled in him, and the shadows of the Law faded away as Christ, the Substance to which they pointed, became the focus.

Consider these Scriptures:

  • 2 Corinthians 3:6-7, 14-15. In this passage Paul makes a distinction between the old covenant in Moses and the new covenant in Christ. He also makes a point of comparison between the temporary nature of the law of Moses and the fading glory of Moses’ face when it was given. Paul even includes the Ten Commandments (“carved in letters on stone”) as part of the old covenant ministry that has faded and passed away with the coming of Christ and the new covenant ministry in him.
  • Galatians 3:19, 23-25; 4:1-7. Here Paul also speaks of the Law of Moses in temporary terms. He says the law was added “until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (3:19). He adds that before faith came we were imprisoned under the law “until the coming faith would be revealed” (v23). The law was our guardian “until Christ came…But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (24-25). Paul continues this terminology in his example in chapter four (“he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father”). The continued use of the word “until” highlights the fact that the Law of Moses was temporary. It was in force until Christ came.
  • Romans 6:14; 10:4; 7:6. Paul says that “we are not under law but under grace,” and that “Christ is the end (telos – “goal”) of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” In a comparison with marriage, Paul writes that “we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (7:6).
  • Hebrews 7:11-12, 18-19; 8:7-13. The writer of Hebrews says that there has been a change in priesthood (from the Levites under the old covenant to Christ in the new, who is priest in the order of Melchizedek), and thus “a change in the law” (7:12). The law was weak and useless to make perfect, and God has given “a better hope” (7:18-19). He later speaks of the new covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31, and concludes, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13). Commenting on this passage, Peter O’Brien writes, “According to Hebrews, God established the first covenant, and he has replaced it with a new one. …To call it a new covenant does not simply mean to describe it in a fresh way… Rather, the language points to a new act of God to which Scripture bears witness. …For Hebrews the old covenant was near its end as soon as the oracle was spoken. It had passed its ‘use by’ date, its demise was a foregone conclusion” (The Letter to the Hebrews, p302-3).

The conclusion from these passages is that the Law of Moses was intended to be temporary. The law pointed to Christ and served to highlight sin in order to produce hope in the salvation only God can provide. Now that Christ has come and has instituted a new covenant, the old covenant is no longer in effect for the people of God.

Is Part of the Law of Moses Still in Effect?

For centuries many believers have divided the Law of Moses into three parts: the moral commands, the ceremonial commands pertaining to Israel’s worship and life as a people set-apart to God (food and purity regulations, the priesthood, festivals, etc), and the civil commands involving the government of the nation. The common assertion is that the ceremonial and civil laws no longer apply to the people of God in Christ, but the moral laws do. This would mean that the Ten Commandments are to be strictly obeyed by the church (the church being in that sense ‘under’ the moral law), while much of the other laws are no longer in force.

This could be a useful and helpful way of thinking about the law and the Christian if not pressed to far. After all, the New Testament does quote or allude to several of the Ten Commandments when instructing believers. But there are a few problems with this understanding. First, the New Testament nowhere speaks of the law as being under these three headings. We are never given a clear statement that the moral laws of the old covenant still apply to the church, while the civil and ceremonial do not. Secondly, there seems to be some overlap between the three sections of the law! It is quite difficult trying to break down all of the laws of the old covenant into these three categories. Some of the ceremonial laws have a moral aspect to them; the same for the civil laws. Who decides which old covenant laws still apply to the church and which do not? Finally, as we have seen in the Scriptures above, the New Testament seems to speak of the old covenant Law of Moses as one cohesive unit. All of the laws rise or fall together. We are either in the old covenant or the new; under law or under grace. The Law of Moses has faded (2 Cor 3), is obsolete (Heb 8) and has vanished away. We have died to the law to become married to another (Rom 7) – Christ!

It is also helpful to understand that the two different covenants were between two different peoples. The old covenant was between God and the physical nation of Israel, through Moses the mediator, entered into by the blood of animal sacrifices. The new covenant is exactly that – new. It is between God and the multi-ethnic, spiritual nation of the church of Jesus Christ, through Jesus the Mediator, entered into by the blood of Christ himself. Israel rejected their Messiah and received judgment (Mat 21:43). Peter can now refer to the church as the “holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9-10) using the same language God used of Israel in Exodus 19! The old covenant is gone, and the new covenant people of God are one “new man” created from the two; a multi-ethnic, spiritual church:

  • There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:28-29
  • For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace. Ephesians 2:14-15

The old covenant is gone in all its parts, as God has made a new covenant through Christ’s blood with a  new people, the multi-ethnic church.

The Law is Fulfilled in Christ

Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Mat 5:17). He fulfills the law in the sense that it pointed to him and finds its truest meaning in him. Jesus has also kept the law for us, perfectly obeying the Father. Through Christ we who are lawbreakers are forgiven of our trespasses because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross. And his righteousness is given to us who believe, so that we are counted not guilty and perfect in the sight of God on the basis of Christ. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). All of the civil, ceremonial and even moral laws looked ahead to Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ was so monumental that it has fulfilled the intentions of the law, accomplished the purpose of the law and changed forever the way the laws are applied by his people. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Circumcision. In the new covenant the people of God do not have to practice circumcision (Rom 4:9-12; Gal 2:3-5; 5:2-4). Rather, circumcision is fulfilled in Christ, as he was cut off for us at the cross. Now we who are in Christ are circumcised in heart through faith in Jesus (Rom 2:29; Phil 3:3; Col 2:11-12).
  • Passover. The New Testament makes clear that in Christ we are not required to observe the festival days of national Israel (Rom 14:5-6; Gal 4:10; Col 2:16-17). Rather, Christ is our Passover lamb, and through faith in him we keep the festival in its true fullness (1 Cor 5:7-8).
  • Sacrifices. There are no animal sacrifices for God’s people in the new covenant (Heb 8:5; 10:1). Jesus is our sacrifice, who was offered to God for us at the cross once for all (Rom 3:25-26; Gal 3:13; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 9:11-14, 24-26)!
  • Priesthood. In the same way, we no longer have priests over us besides Christ. He is our High Priest (Heb 9:11-12).
  • Temple. There is no holy building in the new covenant for the people of God. Jesus himself is the temple (John 2:21). And because we are united with him, believers are a temple where God’s glory and presence resides (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21).
  • Food and Purity Regulations. These are all done away with in the new covenant (Rom 14:14, 20; Gal 2:11-14; Col 2:16-17, 20-23). In the new covenant we learn that it is only false teachers who forbid “foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:3-5).
  • Sabbath. Some are surprised to learn that Paul can specifically mention the Sabbath in Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16-17 as merely a shadow that points to the Substance, Christ. Hebrews 3:12-4:13 teaches us that in the new covenant Christ is our Sabbath rest! So those who come to God through faith in Jesus, ceasing their efforts to earn their own righteousness through works, have entered God’s rest and are keeping the Sabbath in its fullest, truest sense!

Christ is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses! His coming has changed things forever! Christ is therefore the filter through which all commands must pass in order that we might see how they apply to us in light of his Person and work. Some commands in the old covenant will change very little or not at all in the new covenant, because of the unchanging character of God. For example, the Ten Commandments instruct us to honor our parents. Though the Law of Moses has faded away and a new covenant has taken its place, believers in the new covenant are still instructed to honor our parents (Eph 6:1-3). The command has not changed, but it is given to us not on the basis and authority of the old covenant, but of the new.

But some commands from the old covenant change drastically when filtered through Christ into the new covenant. For example, Paul quotes a command from the law (Deuteronomy 17:7), which required Israel to kill those who break the covenant as a way of purging Israel. But Paul, understanding how that covenant filters through Jesus, uses this as an instruction to the church at Corinth to exercise church discipline on an unrepentant member (1 Cor 5:13)! Because Christ has fulfilled the law, and his people in the new covenant are not the physical nation of Israel, but the spiritual and multi-ethnic community of the church, the purging of God’s people looks quite different! Removing sinners from the old covenant community through death has become removing sinners from the new covenant community through church discipline. The teaching of Jesus must guide us in our interpretation.

We Are Under the Law of Christ

 Though God’s people in the new covenant are not under the Law of Moses, it is important to understand that we are not free to sin (antinomianism). The New Testament speaks of the “Law of Christ:” “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Paul said that he was not under the law, but that he was indeed under the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:20-21). Christ’s law is love for God and neighbor (Gal 5:14 in the context of 6:2; the “royal law” in James 2:8). Love for God and neighbor was also the purpose of the Law of Moses, which is why many of the commands in the old and new covenants are similar.

But this love is not disconnected from ethics. Romans 13:8-10 makes clear that our love of neighbor is expressed through moral behavior that does no harm to neighbor. This is, again, why we are not surprised to find some of the Ten Commandments being quoted in the New Testament. But they are not quoted because we are under the law, but because God’s character does not change. God gives us moral commands in the new covenant which guide our love of God and neighbor as we walk in the Holy Spirit.

It is also important to remember that the law is not bad! It is the holy word of God, which reveals God’s character and heart to us. Even when the coming of Christ changes the way the people of God apply his word, his word is never wrong; the law was not a ‘mistake.’ The law only brought death and condemnation (2 Cor 3:6-7), but it was not the fault of the law! It was our fault; sinners cannot keep the law. And that was always the point. So when we speak of the law as having faded away, or as being obsolete; when we say that God’s people are no longer under the law, we are not speaking negatively of the law but only using the words of the New Testament. Paul asks, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31). In other words, when we speak of Christ fulfilling the law and setting us free from the old covenant obligations, we are only saying that the law fulfilled its purpose. Its goal has been met in Jesus! The Law of Moses looked ahead and bore witness to the new covenant salvation in Jesus (Rom 3:21). Jesus has come, and we are free!

May believers in Christ rejoice that we are not burdened by a crushing, old covenant law, but rescued by Christ from our sins, and empowered to obey him through his precious Spirit! May we not have a ‘bad taste in our mouth’ concerning the law, or rip the Old Testament from our Bibles, but rather see Christ on every page! He is the Substance of the shadows. Hallelujah!

Look at Part 1 in this series for more about the Christian and Old Testament Law.


  • Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  • ESV Study Bible notes. ©2008 Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
  • 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law; Thomas R. Schreiner, ©2010, Kregel Publications; Grand Rapids, MI.
  • The Letter To The Hebrews, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, by Peter T. O’Brien. © 2010. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, MI.

Love God and Neighbor – Christians and Old Testament Law, Part 1

Few things are as confusing to many Christians as understanding and applying Old Testament Law. Some fall prey to extremes, from believing all the law applies to us in the same way it applied to Israel, to thinking the entire Old Testament is off limits. Many are guilty of cherry picking some verses from the Law and leaving others out, with little rhyme or reason.

Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), and that everything in the Old Testament was looking ahead to him (Luke 24:44; John 5:39, 46). His coming and ministry changed the way the Law was to be understood and applied, for Christ is the final and authoritative interpreter of Scripture (see how he taught with authority in the Sermon on the Mount [Mat 7:28-29], and let his word stand on equal ground with Scripture [Mat 5:21-22; 27-28; 31-32, etc), and the fulfillment of the pictures and prophecies. He is the Substance of the shadows of the law (Col 2:17); faith in Christ releases us from being under the “guardian” of the law (Gal 3:23-26). Jesus, then, is the filter through which all of the Old Testament must pass. All Scripture must funnel through his Person, ministry and message to see how it applies to his disciples in the New Covenant. Because God’s character does not change, many of the laws will remain the same for Christians (such as honoring parents, Eph 6:1-3). And yet, because he is the fulfillment of what the laws looked toward, much of the law will change drastically for believers, or even cease completely (such as animal sacrifices, Heb 9:11-14, 23-26). Paul can speak of not being under the law of the Jews, yet being under the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:20-21). This law of Christ (or “royal law,” James 2:8) is summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor (Mat 22:37-40).

An Example From Exodus

We will take a look at a section of the Law in Exodus to help us see how to approach Old Testament Scripture from the perspective of being fulfilled in Christ. God has rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, brought them to himself at Mt. Sinai, and is entering into covenant with them. They will be a special people to him, a holy nation (Ex 19:6). God then thundered the Ten Commandments from the top of Mt. Sinai in the hearing of Israel, through Moses the mediator. The Ten Commandments show Israel how to love God (the first four commandments) and their neighbor (the final six). But these ten instructions are not all. God gives Moses The Book of the Covenant (24:7) – which are additional laws for Israel, and take up several chapters in Exodus (from 20:22 until 23:33).

Overview of the Laws

These ‘rules’ (21:1) are descriptions of what Israel’s loyalty to God looks like; they elaborate on the Ten Commandments, applying them to specific situations in daily life. They describe what a ‘holy nation’ to God is going to look like when God brings Israel into the promised land. This holy people is to be different from all other nations (19:4-6). They are to display to the world what God is like – to bear his image and declare his glory. Through this special nation will come the Messiah, who will bring blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3) – salvation!

These are things to keep in mind as we consider this Book of the Covenant:

  • The Law follows Grace. Remember that this law is not intended to save Israel if they can just keep it; they are already redeemed! God has already brought them out of Egypt by the blood of the Passover lamb, with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, bearing them on eagle’s wings to himself! Since they are so highly favored by God, and have already seen his grace and love and redemption, they must respond with obedience, which is their worship. The Law of God defines for them what this gratitude and love looks like.
  • The Law is Corporate. While individuals must walk in this law, it is given in the context of a redeemed community. A people who will reflect God. As we seek how we should apply this to ourselves as New Covenant believers, we can’t forget the corporate aspect. This is about a people of God, not me and how I can be a better person.
  • The Law is Love. Jesus said that to love God and love neighbor is the fulfillment of all the law and prophets (Matthew 22:36-40). God’s law describes what it looks like for Israel to love God and love their neighbor.
  • The Laws flow out of the 10 Commandments. The Ten Commandments are all over this Book of the Covenant. It defines, describes and applies the ‘Ten Words’ to daily life.
  • The Laws are not Exhaustive. God does not here describe every minute detail of life. He gives examples from various spheres of life. Israel’s judges (ch 18:25-26) can use these laws as precedents, illustrations and examples to learn how to judge Israel in every matter according to the character of God.
  • The Laws display God’s Character. In the law as a whole we see the glorious attributes of God displayed in Israel’s daily living. We see wisdom. Love to God and neighbor. Justice. Mercy. Compassion. Righteous Wrath. Supreme devotion to the glory of God.
  • The Law weaves Worship into the national DNA of Israel. This law begins with worship laws (altars) and weaves them into the social, judicial, financial fabric of the life of the nation.

This diagram shows how God’s Law flows into Israel’s everyday life: 

Law Diagram

The Laws

Now that we have overviewed the Book of the Covenant, let’s look at some of the specific laws God gave Israel. First, we need to understand the laws as they applied to the physical nation of Israel.

  1. Altars (20:22-26). Like the 10 Commands, the Book of the Covenant begins with worshiping God. They are to make simple altars rather than elaborate altars their hearts might idolize. He must be seen as holy, so they may not use steps for their altars (men’s clothing was like a type of modern woman’s dress, and with no underwear. They were not to be exposed as they walked up the altar!). God is holy.
  2. Slaves (21:1-11). These laws are for voluntary servants, not the kind of slavery that most often comes to our modern, western minds. It is not racial. Further, these laws describe how God’s people are to show love for God and neighbor within a broken world; God allows for the hardness of the human heart (Jesus, Matt 19:8). So these laws describe godliness within an imperfect society. All that being said, God is concerned to see that Israel does not become what they just came out of! They have been oppressed as slaves in Egypt; now God enforces rules that will keep Israel from doing the same to others. Their voluntary slaves will not be permanent slaves, unless that is their desire. A poor family might sell their daughter as a slave/wife to a rich man. She will have her needs met, and the rule prevents her exploitation.
  3. Murder (21:12-14). God recognizes the difference between premeditated murder and a crime of passion, or involuntary murder. Cities of refuge will be provided by God, where someone may safely stay until their case is resolved.
  4. Treatment of Parents (21:15, 17). God takes treatment of parents seriously. Attacking or cursing your parents is a capital offense.
  5. Kidnapping/Slavetrading (21:16). Kidnapping, slavetrading, people trafficking is another capital offense.
  6. Personal Injury (21:18-32). Various laws detail who is responsible when injury occurs. God wants Israel to value life. Of note – these laws call for a sense of personal responsibility and thought about the welfare of others in all our actions. If we are in a fight, we should see who is around us that might be hurt. If we have an animal that is prone to hurting others, we must restrain it. Love of neighbor considers the welfare of others and takes responsibility. What about ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth?’ The purpose of this rule is not cruelty, but to ensure that the punishment is not greater than the crime. God wants Israel to seek justice, not exorbitant cruelty (eye for eye; not eye+ear+tooth+legs for an eye).
  7. Restitution (21:33-36; 22:5-6; 10-15). Love of neighbor calls us to restore what we damage, lose, break, injure, etc. It also calls for forethought: how will my action affect others (example, the man who digs a pit and leaves it open for others to fall into; he must restore). Love of neighbor means being responsible for our actions.
  8. Theft (22:1-4; 7-9). Restitution must be made for what is stolen. If a thief is breaking into a house at night, they may kill him to protect their family. If it is during the day, the threat is lessened, and they must not kill him; let him go to a judge and answer for his crime. Again, God is calling for justice, not exorbitant cruelty.
  9. Social Laws (22:16-31; 23:9). Even the social life is filled with love and justice.
  • A man seduces a virgin. Though it was consensual, the man must still pay the bride-price to the woman’s father. This produces forethought; a man should not take sex, or women, lightly. A woman who has been dishonored would have a hard time in this society. But this rule ensures that she must still be taken care of.
  • Three detestable acts. God required the death penalty for a sorceress (magic instead of God; manipulation instead of trust in God’s plan), someone who has sex with an animal (dishonors the image of God in man and destroys the picture of marriage – Christ and the church; this was also a practice of other religions), and someone who sacrifices to another god. These three acts are deemed destructive to the holy nation’s social life.
  • Treatment of aliens. Because the Israelites were themselves strangers in a foreign land, they should be compassionate to any foreigners in their land. God reminds them, “you know the heart of a sojourner” (23:9).
  • Orphans and Widows. God promises to take vengeance on those who mistreat the downtrodden.
  • The Poor. Do not charge interest to the poor. Do not keep his cloak as a pledge (he will need it to be warm at night). These laws, again, call for special consideration and thoughtfulness about the needs of others!
  • Respect authority. Do not revile God or curse a ruler of the people. Recognize authority.

10. Judicial Laws (23:1-3; 6-8). God demands honesty from witnesses and prohibits going along with the crowd because it feels right. Rather, JUSTICE must be maintained. Surprisingly, he even says not to be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. Impartial justice; No bribes! Do not punish those who are not guilty.

11. Your Enemy (23:4-5). The people must even show compassion and responsibility toward their enemies! This is not foreign to the Old Testament, as some suppose.

12. Sabbath and Festivals (23:10-19). God commands the people to observe the Sabbath in days, and years. In the Ten Commandments the reason given for the Sabbath was theological (the Lord rested from his work in creation); here it is more humanitarian (that your workers and animals may rest and be refreshed). Every seven years the land must not be planted, but left for the poor and the animals to eat from it. Three yearly festivals are given as well. He reminds them to bring him the first-fruits of the ground. They are not to appear before him empty-handed. Worship of God is woven into Israel’s calendar, lives, culture.

Boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk? Many explanations have been offered for this one, but it seems that this is forbidden either because it is unnatural (the milk of its mother is supposed to give life, not bring death), or because there is evidence that this was a worship-practice of other nations, and thus God is forbidding Israel to worship him the way other nations do.

Fulfillment In Christ

So how do these laws look when filtered through the Person and work of Christ? Consider these truths:

Jesus died for our transgressions and disobedience. None of us have lived up to God’s demands. We have not loved God or neighbor. But through Christ’s death and resurrection we who believe are forgiven for our sins. Full atonement has been made. The price is paid!

Jesus is the true Israel who obeyed the Law of God perfectly. Jesus did what Israel failed to do. Through faith in Jesus we are declared righteous – justified forever!

Jesus empowers his people to obey his commands. By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, believers walk in obedience to God. The law is written on our hearts and minds (Jer 31:33, Heb 8:10). We are not under the Law of Moses; we are not the physical nation of Israel. But we are under the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:21), which is loving God and neighbor. Through the fruit of the Spirit and the power to obey New Testament commands, such as the ‘one another’ commands, the church is a partial realization of God’s vision for Israel. And an even greater fulfillment is coming with the fullness of the kingdom! There we will experience perfect love of God and neighbor, and will live as the glorious people of God, enjoying the Lord forever!

So for believers in Christ, in the New Covenant, this looks like:

    • Love God: We learn from the Book of the Covenant to put God first; we worship him with obedience and loyal love. We love God by remembering him and honoring him in all of life, and worshiping him with the community of faith in the assembly. No other gods!
    • Love Neighbor: We also learn how to love our neighbor in these chapters of Exodus: Consideration of others. Forethought of other’s needs. Honesty. Compassion. Trust. Responsibility. Accountability. Mercy. Justice. Respect. Special concern for the downtrodden (widows, orphans, aliens, the poor). All of this is done corporately – loving God and neighbor together, as the people of God.

For more in this series, look at Part 2: Are we under the law of Moses or the law of Christ?


  • Promises Made: The Message of the Old Testament; Mark Dever; ©2006, Crossway Books.
  • How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart; © 1981, 1993, 2003. Zondervan.
  • How to Read the Bible Book by Book; Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart; ©2002, Zondervan.
  • 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law; Thomas R. Schreiner, ©2010, Kregel Publications; Grand Rapids, MI
  • Exodus – The New American Commentary Vol. 2 ; Douglas K. Stuart; ©2006 B&H Publishing Group; Nashville, Tennessee.
  • Genesis – Leviticus – The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised Edition Vol. 1; Walter C. Kaiser Jr (Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, General Editors); ©2008; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530.
  • Exodus – The NIV Application Commentary; Peter Enns; ©2000; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530.

Spiritual Adultery

By Cary Cox

God designed the institution of marriage as a living sermon proclaiming his gospel to the world. The intimacy and love shared between a husband and wife is a small taste – a glimpse! – of the great joy and pleasure of being united to Christ forever. In the presence of God is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). All marriages, whether Christian or not, point the watching world, the angels and demons, and all of creation to the great salvation of God in Christ for his covenant people. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 5:25-27, where he calls husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, for the purpose of presenting her to himself. When a husband tenderly loves his wife and puts her needs ahead of his own he is preaching about the love of Christ for his church. In verses 31-32 Paul goes even further. He quotes from Genesis where God said that a man should leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, becoming one with her. “This mystery is profound,” Paul writes, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (v32). A great mystery is being revealed in these words! God has ingrained a picture of his great salvation – Christ and the church joining together in love and shared joy forever!! – into the very fabric of the institution of marriage.

This is what makes sexual sin so unique, and so heinous. A bad marriage preaches a false gospel. We distort the gospel picture when we step out of our roles in marriage. An abusive husband preaches through his actions that Christ is not a tender Savior to his church. A woman who will not follow the loving leadership of her husband thereby proclaims that the church should not respect her Lord. Homosexuality distorts the gospel picture, as man uniting with man presents a Christ-with-Christ image (selfishly keeping his love for himself rather than pouring himself out for the rescue of his bride), and woman uniting with woman displays a Christ-less church-to-church relationship. Divorcing your spouse when things get hard proclaims to the world that Christ can give up on us when loving us becomes inconvenient. And adultery invents a false gospel of a cheating Christ or church. We quickly begin to see that there is more at stake in our marriages than our personal happiness. It has to do with the glory of God.

A Biblical Theme

The theme of marriage as a picture of God in Christ uniting with his people in joyful relationship runs throughout the whole Bible. God proclaims himself the great husband to his covenant people and speaks his love for her. And sin begins to be spoken of in terms of spiritual adultery! When God’s people give other things first place – the place that God alone both deserves and demands – we have committed adultery against our Lord. God is passionate about both his own glory and the good of his covenant people, and this passion is seen in his divine jealousy. Rather than a petty human jealousy, the jealousy of God for his people is both good and right. Because of the glory of his Person, God is glorious and is worthy of all worship. And as the Creator and Redeemer of his people he alone deserves our loyalty and love. Therefore, God’s highest and greatest commandment for his people is to love him with all our heart, soul and strength. To love anything or anyone else before him is to commit spiritual adultery. We see this idea in both the old and new testaments of Scripture.

Old Testament

In the Old Testament God proclaims to Israel that their Maker is their husband (Isaiah 54:5). He will take pleasure in his people, rejoicing over Israel as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride (Isaiah 62:5)! As a husband is pleased with his wife, finding joy in her love and beauty and friendship, so God delights in his covenant people!

We also see sin presented in terms of spiritual adultery in the Old Testament. In fact, God uses very strong and shocking language to describe Israel’s unfaithfulness. He refers to them as prostitutes, harlots and whores, who give their sexual love to almost anyone. God, through his prophets, uses this strong language to reveal the extreme filthiness, wickedness and treachery of his people’s sin. He calls them to repent of their adultery and return to him.

The language of spiritual adultery begins almost as soon as Israel enters into covenant with God at Mt. Sinai. In Exodus 34:13-16 God warns Israel of the dangers of falling into idolatry when they enter the promised land. They must destroy the idols in the land lest they be tempted to “whore after” the false gods of the land (v16). In Numbers 15:39 the Jews are instructed to make tassels on the bottom of the men’s robes to remind them of God’s laws, that they will not “whore after” other things. And before Moses died, God warned him that after his death Israel would break their covenant with God and “whore after the foreign gods among them in the land they are entering” (Deuteronomy 31:16).

When Israel did enter into the land they failed to drive out all the sinful nations as God had commanded. And, just as God had warned, they found themselves overcome by the strong spiritual and cultural temptation toward idolatry. “They whored after other gods and bowed down to them” (Judges 2:17). This became the pattern throughout the time of the judges and into the time of the kings. Israel’s songs of worship reflected on their tendency to ‘cheat on’ their God. Psalm 106:35-41 tells the sad story of their idol worship, “which became a snare to them.” Their entrapment to these “demons” (v37) even caused them to sacrifice their children in worship of strange gods! In doing this, God said “they played the whore” (v39).

Yet it is in the prophets where this language of adultery is at its strongest. Through Jeremiah God tells Israel that he remembers the love they used to have for him in their youth, which was “as a bride” (2:2). But then he recounts their unfaithfulness to him: “On every high hill and under every green tree you bowed down like a whore” (2:20). God goes on to describe Israel as a camel or donkey in heat, sniffing the wind and looking for lovers (2:23-24)!

In Ezekiel God’s language becomes more and more shocking. In chapter 16 he tells the story of his relationship with Israel. Israel was like an unloved baby, thrown in a field to die. God passed by and found the baby, kicking in its blood, as good as dead. He spoke life to the child, who grew into a beautiful young lady. The Lord treated her with tenderness and kindness, giving her elaborate gifts. But she trusted in her beauty, forgot what the Lord had done for her, and began to offer herself to other lovers. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God says that Israel “lavished your whorings on any passerby” (v15), “offering yourself to any passerby and multiplying your whoring” (v25, where the Hebrew literally says “spreading your legs”). “Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband!” (v32).

Ezekiel takes this language even further in chapter 23, describing Israel’s idolatry as the fondling of her breasts (v3) and lusting after her lovers (v5). Her lovers, who are the surrounding nations, are described as having “whoring lust” (v17) and genitals the size of donkeys, “and whose issue was like that of horses” (v20). This language is meant to disgust Israel and shame them as they realize what they have done by forsaking God.

Though there are many more examples of this in the prophets, Hosea is a unique book. God called Hosea to more than just a message. His very life would be a living prophecy! God commanded Hosea to go and marry a prostitute who would cheat on him, because Israel has committed adultery against their Lord. Things deteriorated to the point where his wife has became a slave. Hosea purchased her and spoke tenderly to her (ch3) despite her wickedness, just as God is calling Israel to return to him in repentance.

God warns Israel and calls them to repent through the prophets, and he disciplines them for their wicked unfaithfulness. Ultimately he sends them into exile in Babylon for seventy years. Yet, in all of this we see the tender and patient, steadfast love of God for his covenant people. He brings them back from exile and they wait for 400 years for Messiah.

New Testament

It is into this context that Jesus Christ came, proclaiming that he himself is the bridegroom! He uses the well-known language of God as the husband and points it to himself (Matthew 9:15; 25:1-13). John the Baptist also refers to Jesus as the bridegroom (John 3:29). Christ is “God with us” (Mat 1:23), the Old Testament husband of Israel who has come down to rescue his bride! At the cross Christ poured himself out for his people, the church (Eph 5:25), who is no longer ethnic Israel but believers from every tribe and tongue. Through his blood Christ has entered into a new covenant with his bride.

In the epistles, the apostles also use the ‘marriage as picture of God and his people’ theme to call the church to faithfulness to Christ. Idolatry is still spiritual adultery, and the church must be devoted to Christ alone as we wait for his return.

In 2 Corinthians 11:2-4 Paul speaks of his planting the Corinthian church in these terms. He says he “betrothed” them to “one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” But the church has become willing to receive false teaching, and this concerns Paul. “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.” We hear in Paul’s words the same heart we heard in God’s words to Israel. In fact, Paul describes his feelings as “a divine jealousy.” Paul shares the love of God toward his people and he is compelled to warn them against spiritual adultery. The church must reject fake Jesus’ and different spirits and false gospels. We must fight our tendency to wander from a pure devotion to Christ. He is first place, and he is enough.

James also uses this language, warning believers that friendship with the world (by which he means a love for the world system in place of God) makes us an “adulterous people” (4:4). The people of God in every generation are still in danger of committing spiritual adultery.

When we get to the final book of the Bible we get a glimpse of the consummation of God’s great plan. The God who has declared himself to be the bridegroom of his people, who has pursued his covenant people through all their wanderings and failings, is at last united with them in glory and joy! In the final pages of Scripture we hear these words: “the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:7-8). Here at last is the pure church for whom Christ died! The great story has come to a joyful conclusion, as “the dwelling place of God is with man” (21:3). We are shown “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” coming down from God, “having the glory of God” (21:9-11). When this day dawns, the institution of marriage is no longer needed. The picture is obsolete, as we enter into the joy of what marriage pictured: Christ and his people, united together in shared love and joy, forever!

A Picture We Can Understand

We can understand the heartache of adultery. When we hear God speak as a husband who has been cheated on, we are moved in our affections. We understand the anger and hurt of betrayal. Marriage is something we “get.” Even imperfect marriages know something of the joy of two people sharing love. Perhaps God has ingrained this gospel picture into the common experience of marriage to help us understand more clearly both his great love for us, and the extreme wickedness of our spiritual adultery.


Have we too committed spiritual adultery against the Lord? We must admit that our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” How quickly does our gaze move from Christ and his glory, being captivated by lesser things! Idolatry is a very real and dangerous threat. May we confess it and forsake it, repenting of our spiritual adultery and renewing our love for Christ, by his grace.

Jesus praised the church in Ephesus, but had one thing against her: she had forgotten her first love (Rev 2:1-7). He called her to repent and do the works she did at first. May the Lord restore to us the joy of his salvation! May we be a faithful church, clinging to Christ in single-hearted devotion until he comes!