What’s The Point of the Old Testament Law?

My guess is most Christians at one point have made the commitment to read the Bible cover to cover. It starts off well and with good intentions. Genesis is pretty exciting. Exodus can get a little dry and some skim reading happens. And then comes Leviticus… You’re luckily if you get more than a few chapters deep. Law after law. It’s dry and can be tedious to get through. So most give up. Sound familiar? I’ve been there.

This is probably the most ignored section of the Bible. This section of the Bible is called the Torah, also commonly called the Books of Law; or Old Testament Law. It contains the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We have little idea of what to actually do with it and what’s its purpose was/is.

More articles on how to read the Bible

How to Read the Bible (better)

How to Handle Contradictions in the Bible

Some still hold that there is value in this section. Tithing, keeping the Sabbath, and most of all The Ten Commandments are still held tightly by many Christians. Many will fight tooth and nail to keep The Ten Commandments in prominent places as if they are the foundation of our faith. 

This leads us to a question that every Christian should wrestle with. What weight should the Old Testament Law hold in my life?

To better understand that let’s first look back at the Law for the Nation of Israel.

What the Law was in the Old Testament

The Torah, which means To Teach, were the most important texts to the Israelites. Traditionally most scholars hold that Moses wrote these books around 1400 B.C., although some will contest the authorship. The rest of the Old Testament as we know it was assembled by the time Jesus and his disciples were roaming the earth. But even still the Torah was held as a greater significance to the Jews.

The purpose behind these books was twofold. First it was to teach them about God, who He was and what He had done. Specifically this follows the story of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. The second was to teach them how to live in light of what God had done for them. You could break it down more than that, but those are the two major themes in the Books of Law.

The Way the Law Worked

The Torah contains 613 laws. These laws stemmed from the promise God gave Abraham that He would bless him and his descendants. The law worked like this:

Follow The Law = God’s Blessing

Disobey The Law = Removal of God’s Blessing

God knew that they His people could not do this perfectly so He made a way to atone for their sins: sacrifice. When you broke a law, something, an animal, had to die to pay the price for your sin.

This is an over simplification, but it gives you an idea. The problem was the Nation of Israel just couldn’t live up to the demands of The Law. Their story is very cyclical. They follow God, things are good. They abandon God, things get bad. They repent, God brings them back and things are good again. Repeat, over and over again.

If you want more information on the Law this article offers a great summary: Introduction to the Pentateuch

What Jesus Said About the Law

Then Jesus enters the picture. The Law has been in place for well over a 1000 years. They had seemingly gotten better at following the Law. It was ingrained in their DNA at this point. Especially among the religious leaders of the day. You didn’t dare challenge the Law or Moses who delivered the Law to them. This is one of the main reasons Jesus got in so much trouble. He would not leave the Law alone, and He kept comparing himself to Moses.

Besides Jesus actually breaking the law and comparing himself to God, this infuriated the religious leaders the most.

Jesus deals with the law many times through his life. But there are several cases in which He directly address it. Matthew 5:17-20, Luke 16:16-17, Mark 12:28-34, and John 13:31-35 are some cases. Since we don’t have all day, we will focus on the first and the last.

In Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus claims that He came to fulfill the law, a curious statement to the listening Jews. To fulfill the law was impossible. It wasn’t something you could fulfill, it was something you follow. Later in this passage He makes an outlandish claim, that for the Law to save you, you would have to follow it better than the Pharisees. There ain’t nobody that could do that. Well except Jesus… More on that later.

If we flip over to John 13:31-35 we see Jesus claiming, “A new commandment I give to you.” This isn’t an addition to, but rather in place of. He clarifies this by saying, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples.” Those listening would have been thinking, whoa, calm down Jesus. The Bible (the Old Testament) tells us that we are known for our observance of the law. You’re telling us that now we just have to follow this one commandment?

Recommended Resources for Understanding the Bible

Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book

Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral

Scott Duvall’s Grasping God’s Word

In short yes. We have the benefit of knowing the full story. His followers didn’t. Jesus would indeed fulfill the law on the cross. He would fulfill it and replace it. No longer do we need the 613 laws for us to be righteous; we are now marked by our love for God and others. No longer do we need to sacrifice an animal each time we sin; Jesus died once for all.

Jesus fulfills the law, something no human could do. And replaces it with a new law. One that’s much simpler to understand. But so much harder to live out. Just read Matthew 5-7 and see what the expectations of this new commandment are… It was clear to His 1st century listeners what He was doing. They tried to kill Him in order to stop Him from doing it. But in the end it only helped in accomplishing His mission.

What the Law Means to Us Today

We are no longer bound by the Old Testament law. We don’t have to follow those commands. Some people will claim otherwise. But I’ve never met anyone that actually follows the law. Some of it yes. Many people will hold tight to the 10% tithe, keeping the Sabbath, and of course The 10 Commandments.

But what about not mixing fabrics, welcoming in foreigners, and certainly nobody is killing anyone for one of the many offenses in which it is warranted. In other words, no one is actually following the law. Most are just holding onto a portion of it.

I take no issue if somebody wants to follow parts of the law for themselves. The problem comes in when the law is placed as a requirement on anyone else. The law is not required to follow Jesus.

Before you lose it, hear me on this… I do indeed believe that murder is wrong, rest is needed, jealous destroys us, and we should be generous. Much of the law has good principles to live our life by. But our call is no longer to adhere to these laws. Rather Jesus replaced it with one. Love God, Love Others. The whole law is summed up in that. The world should know us by that one law. Everything else in the New Testament is commentary on how we should live out the one law required. 

Christians are not required to follow the Old Testament Law anymore. We wouldn’t be able to anyway; we’d be just like the nation of Israel. Jesus did what we couldn’t. He lived it out perfectly and then offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the payment of our sins. Our righteousness is no longer based our adherence to the law. It’s based on Jesus fulfilling the law. In response to what He did we love like He loved. Not because our salvation is tied to that, but so that others may know.

Paul summarizes it best in Roman’s 8:3-4… The law of Moses could not save us, because of our sinful nature. But God put into effect a different plan to save us. He sent his Son in a human body like ours, expect that ours are sinful. God destroyed sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the requirement of the law would be fully accomplished for us who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. 

How has the Law impacted your view of God and how you practice your faith?

Jeffery Curtis Poor
Follow Me

Share With A Friend

DISCLOSURE: This post may contain affliliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links. This is at no cost to you and helps keep Rethink up and running.
Notify of
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments