Since we recently started a new podcast series on the Old Testament I thought it good to address a few questions concerning the law of the Old Testament. Scores of books have been written about this topic, so a blog seeking to limit itself to no more than one thousand three hundred words is merely scratching the surface. Yet I write in hopes that you will continue the conversation by seeking out truth for yourself.
When we speak of law we could be referring to the Pentateuch, the Ten Commandments, the six hundred and thirteen commands found in the Torah, the civil, ceremonial, and moral law, or the prophetic or teaching function of the law. For our consideration today I don’t want to focus in on any one of these, but rather hope to give a broad stroke as to how we can understand the entirety of the Old Testament use of law and how it relates to us today.
The Law Reflects the Nature of God
The Law is the reflection of the nature of God. Though we are not under the law1, there is value in knowing the law, for in the law we see the holiness of God. When Jesus summarizes the law with the two great commands, love God and love your neighbor, he is summarizing the nature of God (note the proclamation of God’s name, which represents his character, before Moses in Exodus 33-34). God, first and foremost, has love for himself (Yahweh, whose name is Jealous). The Bible often eludes to this through language such as: my name (Isaiah 43:6-7, Psalm 106:7-8, Eze. 36:22-23), my glory (John 17:1, 2 Thes. 1:9-10), I am Jealous (Exodus 20:5, Deut. 32:16), etc. Therefore, if we are to be pleasing to God, if we are to life a life that reflects his beauty and brilliance, we too must be lovers of God.
The same can be said about loving our neighbors. We love others because God loves others (abounding in steadfast love). What’s more, that love for others is really an outpouring and overflowing of a love for God. God created us in His image. We have ascribed worth because God has put a bit of Himself in us. The law values man because man is made in God’s image. Every bit of the law is teaching us something about God. They are not merely imperatives, “do or do not.” They are descriptors of God’s nature. Note how God and His law are both described as good (Luke 18:19, Romans 7:12), holy (Isaiah 5:16, Romans 7:12), righteous (Deut. 32:4, Romans 7:12), truthful (Deut. 32:4, Psalm 119:142), perfect (Matt. 5:48, Psalm 19:7), etc.
The Law Fulfilled in Christ
Christ has come to fulfill the law (not do away with the law – See Matthew 5:17) and in so doing he enables us to live under grace, not the law. But that does not mean the law is of no importance.
The law is good (Romans 7). It has the power to reveal sin and to show the standards of righteousness. It is an outworking of the holiness of God. So it reveals sin in us by revealing to us the holiness of God. In that sense, the law is extremely important for us to meditate upon. The psalmists agree with this assessment. Psalm 19:7 reminds us, The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
But the law can not remove sin. So, the law falls short in that regard. It shows us what sanctification is, but can not sanctify us. It reveals sin in us, but can not remove sin from us. To lean on the law as if it can make us holy is legalism. This is what Paul means by school master (Gal. 3:24), the Law is teaching us about holiness and sin and creating a longing in us for one to come to fulfill the law and write it on the tablets of our hearts (Prov. 7:3, 2 Cor. 3:3). Listen to how Jeremiah writes of that coming day when the law would be fulfilled in Christ: For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer. 31:33).
You might be thinking, “So the law is fulfilled, therefore we can forget the demands of the law!” Yet to disregard the law is liberalism. The law is not removed, but rather placed inside our very hearts! The curse of the law was to demand without offering the desire to obey, thereby sentencing us to death. The curse was never the law. Paul adamantly denies that the law was anything but good and holy.
The Law Applied Today
So how do we use the law today? Ray Ortlund offers some helpful advice, “If we read the Bible as law, we will find on every page what God is telling us we should do. Even the promises will be conditioned by law. But if we read the Bible as promise, we will find on every page what God is telling us he will do. Even the law will be conditioned by promise.”2 Through Christ’s work on the cross we are enabled to keep the law, therefore the law must always be filtered through the promised Christ.
Through Christ we keep the law not out of a sense of becoming holy, but because we are holy; not because we think it will grant us relationship with God, but precisely because we have been granted relationship with God. Even in the Old Testament this truth is portrayed. The Law comes after Abraham, the man of faith who was given the promise. It comes after the Exodus. It was never meant to be a means by which God would deliver us.
Today we are under the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2 – grace), yet the principles in the old law still apply. The Character of God in the Old Testament is still relevant. The Biblical narrative and overarching theme in the Old Testament is still vastly important for us today. And the laws themselves teach us principles for conforming to the image of Christ, for in them we see His image.
For example, we no longer offer sacrifices of goats or ram, but the concept of sacrifice is still binding on us. Paul explains it in Romans 12 like this: now we are the sacrifice that is offered to God. And what we are offering are very lives, holy and set apart (without blemish).
As you read Leviticus you will note the many laws we no longer practice: mixed fabrics, food laws, etc. Instead of ignoring this book, we ask what the principle behind these laws is teaching us. The overarching theme in those Levitical laws is that the people of God are to be different, set apart from the world. That is an extremely important message for today’s world. In an attempt to be relevant, we have become not only in the world, but also of the world, a message that is very anti Leviticus (and anti-Jesus).
So I implore you to read the law and meditate on it day and night (Psalm 1:2). But read it through the lens of Jesus, the one who has fulfilled it and is enabling us to fulfill it as well.
1. To be under the Law is to repeat the error of the Israelites who in bondage to sin looked to the Mosaic law as an end in itself, not as a guardian to take them to the Messiah (Rom. 6:14–23; Gal. 3:21–26). As Augustine says, people “under the law” are motivated by the Law’s threatened torments, not love of righteousness – RC Sproul (https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/not-under-law/)
The Law is the reflection of the nature of God.
The Law reveals sin in us, but can not remove sin from us.