How Do We Obey the Old Testament?


One of the theological issues underlying many Holiness standards is in how we ought to interpret commands from the Old Testament. There is a variety of opinions within Holiness, and many of the more respected preachers would agree that we can’t just pluck a verse from Deuteronomy and say it applies to today. However, many Holiness people do defend a modern Christian practice with sole support from the Old Testament. But is this claim justified?

Let’s examine what the Bible has to say.

Let me be clear; I believe the Old Testament is the Word of God. It is divinely inspired and helps us understand many things about God’s unchanging character. The psalms model praise, the proverbs model wisdom, and the prophets demonstrate God’s omniscience. 1 Corinthians 10:11 teaches that the stories in the Old Testament serve as examples which Christians can learn from. In that case, Paul was using Old Testament stories to show that idolatry and sexual sin displease God.

Unhelpful ways to distinguish Old Testament laws

The Old Testament also contains several kinds of law, although the exact categorizations are matters of opinion and not stated in Scripture. Generally, people divide God’s commands in the Old Testament into ceremonial, civil, and moral laws. Ceremonial law, such as animal sacrifice, existed before the law of Moses, though the law of Moses added many details. Civil law, such as capital punishment for certain offenses, also predates the law of Moses, but the Mosaic law lists many commands in detail. Moral laws, such as not murdering, were prescribed before and after Moses as well. The problem lies in how we pick apart the categories. Most of things prescribed by Holiness people as “moral laws,” such as not having tattoos of any kind, are understood by many other Christians to be ceremonial laws.

There is no tell-tale marker in the Old Testament to tell us which laws are of which type. I have heard some people say that the word “abomination” denotes that a law is moral. While that is a tidy explanation, a simple word search of “abomination” will show that one of the most common associations is with dietary law. If we use this rule as our guide, then Christians can not eat shellfish (Lev. 11:12), remarry their own wife that they have divorced (Deut. 24:4), or eat bacon (Isaiah 66:17). Furthermore, there are two separate Hebrew root words translated “abomination” in the KJV and the KJV sometimes also translates them “abhor” or “detest.” If the word “abomination” is supposed to be our cue for moral law, then we would expect one consistent root word in Hebrew and English – not two root words with three main translations. That’s not a cue, that’s just confusing.

The moral laws are also not grouped separately from the other types of laws. Laws condemning incest, bestiality, adultery, and homosexuality are lumped in with the command not to have sexual relations with a woman within seven days of her period (Lev. 18:19, Lev. 20:18, Lev. 12:2, Ez. 22:10). Despite how many times that last command appears (and the fact that it listed as an abomination), I have never once heard it preached against. Laws condemning bribes and oppression of the poor are lumped in with the command to not plant crops in the seventh year (Ex. 23). Even the ten commandments lump in not making any molten or graven image with everything else, and that would include the Statue of Liberty. Not to mention the debate about whether we are obligated to keep the Sabbath, and on which day, and to what extent.

For the people to whom these laws were written, none of this was confusing. That’s because to the Jews, all of the Mosaic law was moral. God told them to do these things and to disobey would be an abomination. For them it was easy. For us, I believe the Bible teaches that it is also easy.

How Christians should understand the Old Testament

Why? Because Hebrews chapter 8 makes it clear that the old covenant is obsolete.

7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. 8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: … 13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. -Hebrews 8:7-8, 13

Hebrews says that the old covenant is “old” and “ready to vanish away.” The word “old” is the same word used in Luke 12:33, to refer to what happens to earthly money bags – they become old and not good for their original purpose. The law is the same way, it is good for something, but not good for its original purpose of prescribing God’s commandments for our lives.

Paul reiterates this idea in Romans 7: 4-6 Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

Paul says the law is dead. I don’t know about you, but to me, dead rules don’t sound like rules that need to be followed.

But what about the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5:17-18?  “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” Doesn’t this mean we have to follow the Old Testament? Be careful with that logic. Jesus doesn’t distinguish the different types of law here, he just says that nothing will pass from the law until it is fulfilled. This predicts a future fulfillment, in his death and resurrection. That fulfillment changed the nature of how we relate to God.

The covenant or “contract” that we have with God is different than the one that God had with Abraham and Moses. God had a few versions of the covenant as he revealed it from Adam through Moses, but essentially, the covenant was “have faith in God and follow these rules.” The rules were myriad and served many different purposes. Don’t trim your beard, don’t eat pork, don’t commit adultery, don’t have tattoos, don’t pick up sticks on Saturday. These rules weren’t arbitrary, but they were highly specific to a time and culture – they were tailored to wean Israelite off of pagan practices. God made a lot of promises to them in return – that was his side of the deal. He told them that if they followed him that he would “bless their land” among many other things.

Jesus didn’t tear up that contract – that’s what the Pharisees accused him of. He said he would fulfill it. He made the sacrifice that all of the other sacrifices merely pointed towards. He provided the righteousness that all of the rules hinted at. However, once he fulfilled the contract, it did become null and void. We are no longer obligated to stone rebellious children. We are no longer obligated not to pick up sticks on Saturday. Once a business contract is complete it is not right to say it is “abolished” – but it is right to call it “obsolete.” The Bible calls the old covenant “ready to vanish” in Hebrews 8:1-13 and “dead” in Romans 7:4-6.

It’s like if you have a mortgage debt and you say, “Soon this house will be mine.” I say, “You are trying to abolish your mortgage and default on your debt!” And then you say, “No – I’m not going to abolish my mortgage, I’m going to fulfill the terms and pay it off in full.” Once you pay it off, you no longer owe the bank $700 a month. Nor do you owe them a part of the $700 every month. The contract wasn’t abolished – it was fulfilled, and then it becomes obsolete. So something can be fulfilled, not abolished, and yet be obsolete. It’s not just playing games with words – there is a difference between abolishing a contract and fulfilling it so that it becomes obsolete.

Where does this leave us? Doesn’t that mean that we can murder now, if none of the old covenant is in effect? No. But maybe not for the reason that you have previously understood. It’s like if you move from New York to Texas. When you move to Texas, you will no longer be subject to New York law. If New York has a law against theft, you are not bound by that law. If you steal in Texas, it will still be illegal, but it will be illegal by Texas law and no one would reference the New York law in court.

All possible ways to understand the Old Testament

Basically, there are three possible ways to see the Old Testament laws.

A) The Old Testament rules are in effect unless the New Testament has specifically declared a rule “fulfilled.” This interpretation would leave most of Mosaic Law in effect, minus animal sacrifice, circumcision, and dietary laws about animals.

B) [A + subjectivity] The Old Testament rules are in effect unless the New Testament has specifically declared a rule “fulfilled” or if it seems like they should be considered fulfilled from subjective interpretation. While this is a common view, it leaves the interpretation of Scripture largely up to opinion. “I think we don’t have to follow the command to not cut our beards, but we must follow the command to not have tattoos” – even though those verses are listed side-by-side.

C) The Old Testament rules are fulfilled unless the New Testament has specifically declared a rule a moral principle that we should still follow. Paul reiterates the 4th commandment to honor our parents. Though we could also have also reasonably inferred it from the commandment to love one another. Paul doesn’t reiterate the 2nd commandment not to make statues, though he does make it clear that idolatry is still wrong.

Methods B and C arrive at 90% of the same conclusions, but the 10% of things they differ on are all of the controversial issues – the stuff that isn’t obvious. Method B makes you define a separate position on each issue, according to your subjective interpretation. “Does this issue seem ceremonial or does it feel more like a moral command?” Method C just gives you the answer. Jesus fulfilled the law. So if there is a “do” or “don’t” that you want to impose on other believers, you have to find clear justification for it in the New Testament. Finding it in the Old Testament may give you the insight to look for it in the New Testament (just like there is a good chance something illegal in New York is also illegal in Texas), but it doesn’t count as proof that the behavior is wrong or required.

If you need additional proof that C is the correct interpretation, I would encourage you to hear Pauls’ strong words to the church at Galatia. The Galatians want to practice circumcision and we can easily imagine their arguments. After all, circumcision was pre-Mosaic; it was always how God marked the children of Abraham. If it was a requirement for the physical children of Abraham, why not the spiritual children of Abraham? Don’t Christians have to be separate from the world? Only the pagans are uncircumcised, so why would we be participating in their pagan practices? People who rejected God in the past did so by rejecting circumcision (Joshua 5:5). Jesus was circumcised, isn’t he our perfect example? Circumcision isn’t easy, it’s painful – but aren’t Christians called to suffer? Isn’t God the same yesterday, today, and forever?

 In Galatians chapter 5, Paul lets them know what he thinks of their arguments:

1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. 3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. -Galatians 5:1-5

Paul said that to follow the Old Testament law was tantamount to rejecting Christ. But how were the Galatians supposed to know that? After all, Jesus never preached that circumcision was unnecessary, he only mentioned it positively. But yet, Paul clearly thought that the Galatians had gone off the rails – “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?” Paul clearly thought that the Galatians shouldn’t be consulting Mosaic law for church policy. If nothing was said by divine revelation through Jesus or the apostles to reaffirm that a law was a moral one, then it was not to be taught as a requirement. The positive proof of that is found in Acts 15.

22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas and Silas, chief men among the brethren: 23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; … 24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: -Acts 15:22-24

The apostles here are inferring that if they don’t give a commandment reiterating an Old Testament practice, then that practice is not to be preached. Essentially, the apostles are expressing their agreement with method C. The Old Testament is not to be consulted for rules. If a rule still applies, the apostles will explicitly specify that the rule still applies.

As it turns out, reading the Old Testament doesn’t have to be confusing. Read the New Testament to find out how you ought to live. Read the Old Testament to learn more about the unchanging nature of God. But don’t keep paying on a mortgage that Jesus paid off on the cross.

-Nathan Mayo

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