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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Treatment of Parents (21:15, 17). God takes treatment of parents seriously. Attacking or cursing your parents is a capital offense.
- Kidnapping/Slavetrading (21:16). Kidnapping, slavetrading, people trafficking is another capital offense.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.