Understanding Old Testament law in New Testament times
I found an absolutely outstanding article clarifying my understanding of how laws in the Old testament apply to our lives now in the New Testament times. Basically it comes down to understanding that many of the seemingly “harsh” laws that are found in the old Testament were given to the nation of Israel, not to the body of New Testament believers. I find in many of my evangelizing conversations that people will point out these harsh laws and try to take a shot at God’s love and mercy.
Anyway, I will not be able to explain it nearly as well as the article I found so I will let it speak for itself. The article can be found at: http://titusinstitute.com/applyingot/applying.php
How Do We As Christians Apply the Old Testament to Our Daily Lives?
Our desire as Christians is to understand what God has revealed about himself and his will for us in the Bible and to follow it. To do this, we need to be sure that we understand how the Bible applies to our lives in the instructions that God gives to us in it. In understanding how the Bible applies to us, the greatest confusion among Christians tends to be with the Old Testament and how it applies to our lives.
If we do not understand how the OT applies to our lives then we will be hopelessly confused in trying to discern God’s revealed will in a large section of the Scriptures. How do we apply the Old Testament to our daily lives as Christians so we can know the revealed will of God?
We need to realize that the Old Testament applies to us in a different way than the New Testament. The New Testament was written to believers in Jesus Christ who had become believers after Jesus died on the cross and the Holy Spirit was given to us at Pentecost. That’s who we are. Therefore, many of the exhortations especially in the epistles can be directly applied to us.
The Gospels and Acts are transition books from the OT to the NT times. Sometimes Israel is spoken of and sometimes Christians are spoken of. We need to realize that the commands and exhortations that are given to Israel do not apply directly to us, nor do the commands and exhortations given to Christians apply to them.
This is also important because the Old Testament is rich in revelation for believers of all ages about the character and nature of God, how he works in the lives of people, and how we can trust and obey Him. It is also full of revelation that was given directly to Israel and is directly applied to them only. If we try to apply the OT laws directly to our lives we will become hopelessly confused in making decisions God’s way and following Him the way He desires. There are three key questions that we can ask ourselves to help us apply the OT to our lives. Let look at the first one.
1. “Is this OT statement part of the Mosaic Covenant which does not apply to me as a NT believer?”
The OT portions that reflect God’s plan for Israel in the Mosaic (Old) Covenant applied to them only.
A lot of Christians get confused in this area because they do not understand that God’s covenant with us as believers in Jesus Christ is not the same covenant as He had with Israel as a nation. The Mosaic Covenant he had with Israel does not apply to us as New Testament believers.
As believers who exist after Christ came and died on the cross, we are NT Christians. Paul clearly reveals this in Eph.2:20-22 when he talks of the NT church being built upon the foundation of the apostles. He says, “And you, [the church] are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom all the building fitly framed together grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together for a dwelling of God through the Spirit.”
This is the church of Jesus Christ, a completely new and unique spiritual creation of God. Later, Paul tells the Ephesians that the revelation of the church was not made known by God in the OT. He says in Eph.3:5-6, “Which [this revelation] in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to his holy apostles and [N.T.] prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel…”
Our lives are founded directly on the NT and the NT is founded upon the OT. What we use to interpret the OT in applying it to our lives is the NT. The entire OT reflects truth about God and is useful to us, but not all of the OT can be directly applied to our lives. There are several things that you as a Christian need to understand about the OT if you are to apply it to your life. The OT can be divided up in terms of two covenants God made, one with Abraham and one with Moses.
The Abrahamic covenant is given in Gen.12:1-3 and is an unconditional covenant where God told Abraham that from his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. In Gal.3:16 Paul tells us that the “seed” is Christ and therefore, the blessing in Gen.12 is salvation. This is a covenant that lasts forever and every believer has become a part of that covenant at the moment of salvation. That covenant has only one provision; you must accept it by faith.
However, God needed to make another covenant with Israel (an additional one for a different purpose) when he brought them into the land hundreds of years later because the Abrahamic Covenant was not given to govern them, but to save them. This covenant was made with Moses and is called the Mosaic Covenant. This covenant is conditional and was given for the purpose of governing the nation of Israel in the land God had given them. It was not for salvation. And it was only for Israel.
The Mosaic Covenant was given to govern Israel as a nation. Deut. 4:39-40 and 28:1-68 reveal that it was a conditional covenant to the nation. God told them if they fulfilled it as a nation, God would bless them as a nation. If they didn’t fulfill it as a nation, then God would drive them out of the land as a nation.
In Deut.28:1-2 it says, “And it shall come to pass, if you shall listen diligently to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command you this day, that the Lord your God will set you on high above all nations of the earth; and all these blessings shall come on you, and overtake you, if you shall listen to the voice of the Lord your God.”
In Deut.28:15 it says, “But it shall come to pass, if you will not listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe and do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day; that all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you…”
These conditional “blessings and curses” do not apply to us but to Israel as a nation.
The Mosaic Covenant had three kinds of laws to govern Israel, moral laws, civil laws, and ceremonial laws. The Mosaic Covenant was not given to save anybody. It was given to govern a nation, not save it.
Salvation in the OT (based on the Abrahamic Covenant) was always by faith, and never by works. Abraham was saved by faith, not by works and he is the prime example of how everyone has always been saved. Paul says in Rom. 4:3-5, “… Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. Now to him that works [for salvation] the reward [of salvation] is not reckoned of grace, but of debt [God is indebted to give him the salvation he has earned]. But to him that does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
The Mosaic Covenant was Israel’s constitution, bill of rights and laws of the land. It was given and explained in Exod.20 through Deuteronomy 33. Therefore, it encompasses part of Exodus, all of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. However, the Mosaic Covenant forms the backdrop for the entire OT after Exodus Chapter 20.
The Mosaic Covenant given in the OT was given to Israel to govern itself and to point out its sin. The religious ceremonial laws were given to focus Israel on worshipping the one true God and to prepare her for her messiah. It has been fulfilled in Christ and no longer applies to us Christians as a rule of law to be followed. However, the underlying moral standard it demonstrates is applicable because it comes from the nature of God.
Jesus came, fulfilled and completed this covenant and it no longer applies. In Matt.5:17-18 Jesus said, ““Do not think that I have come to destroy the law [Mosaic Covenant], or the prophets [exhorters of the Mosaic Covenant]: I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall pass away from the law, until all is fulfilled.” Jesus was not saying that the OT Mosaic Covenant applies to us, but was telling the Jewish nation that he has come to fulfill it and complete it. After his death on the cross, it would no longer apply.
That is why Paul says in Gal.3:23-25, speaking specifically of the religious ceremonial laws of Mosaic Covenant (the sacrifices and its condemnation of sin), “But before faith [in Christ] came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed [when Christ came and died on the cross]. Wherefore the law was our moral tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith has come [when Jesus came and died], we are no longer under a schoolmaster.”
When Jesus talked of a new covenant in Lu.22:20 at the last supper, he was speaking of his fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (remember he was the “seed” of Abraham – Gal.3) at the cross. It was “new” in relation to the Mosaic Covenant and was bringing a “new” relationship to Jews and Gentiles who will now form one body in Christ (Eph.2:11-18).
It is true that some of the moral instructions in the Mosaic Covenant are clarified and incorporated in the New Testament to apply to NT believers. The Mosaic Covenant consisted of moral, civil, and religious laws, which includes of course, the Ten Commandments. Underlying the Mosaic Covenant is God’s moral standards some of which are stated in the Ten Commandments. These moral standards never change.
One example of this is when Jesus clarified the moral standard about adultery given in the Ten Commandments. In Matt. 5:27-28 he said that the application of the commandment is more than just physical adultery; it also applies to lust in the heart. When he said this, he was giving us the NT application of the OT commandment as well as clarifying for the nation of Israel what that commandment really meant.
In Matt.22:37-39 Jesus summed up the God’s moral standard underlying the entire Ten Commandments. They are “Love the Lord your God…” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the Ten Commandments are restated in the NT to apply to us except one, the keeping of the Sabbath. That one was part of the Mosaic Covenant and does not apply to us. Paul says in Col. 2:16-17 that believers are not to be judged because they do not keep the Sabbath or other Jewish holidays.
The Ten Commandments do not apply to us today because they are part of the Mosaic Covenant, but the moral standards, which they reflect and which are repeated in the NT, do apply to us. Again all of the commandments are repeated in one form or another in the NT except the Sabbath. The Sabbath was for Israel as a nation, not for the church.
However, the laws of the Mosaic Covenant reflect God’s beliefs and values regarding moral and spiritual issues and can be used to give us an idea of how God feels about certain moral and spiritual issues. We will see this in the next newsletter.
So, when we are looking at the OT for application for our lives we need to ask the question “Is this OT statement part of the Mosaic Covenant, which does not apply to me as a NT believer?” If it is a part of the Mosaic Covenant, it is not God’s will for us to follow it. It was God’s will for Israel to follow it, not us.
2. Does this OT statement reveal a truth about God?s unchanging nature and attributes?
The OT portions that reflect God?s unchanging nature and attributes can be applied to our lives (as interpreted in agreement with the NT). Even though much of the OT involves the Mosaic Covenant, it still reflects the nature and character of God as all His works do. We can apply the OT to our lives by realizing that it reflects much about God.
Let me give you an example. Suppose you want to know what God says about going to psychics. That?s a practical issue. You would first search the NT for any info on it. You would find that Gal.5:19-20 condemns idolatry and witchcraft. Psychics fall under the category of witchcraft and idolatry. Then you can use the OT to reinforce God?s feelings about witchcraft and idolatry.
In Deut.18:9-13 Moses tells the Israelites how God feels about these sinful practices. He says, “When you have come into the land which the LORD your God gave you, you shall not learn to follow after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or who uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before thee.? This demonstrates that God detests these practices and Christians should also.
Let me give you another example. In Matt. 5:27-30, Jesus takes one of the Ten Commandments (Exod.20: 14, Deut. 5:18) ?Thou shalt not commit adultery? applies it to the NT period and clarifies its application. It applies not only to the physical act, but also mental activity. Jesus does not carry over the Mosaic Covenant standard of stoning someone for the sin of adultery, which is given in Lev.20:10. The stoning penalty was given as a criminal penalty (capital punishment) to help govern the nation of Israel. The stoning to death of adulterers no longer applies because it is part of the Mosaic Covenant. But this does reveal how serious God feels about adultery. It not only destroys a marriage, but it can destroy a nation.
The prophets are the exhorters for the Mosaic Covenant and thus the same principle applies. We can use their words in understanding how God feels about things, but the penalties do not apply to us. Many statements in the OT reveal great truths about God, his nature and attributes. These truths still apply to our understanding of God because God’s nature doesn’t change. Isa.43:10-11 says, “You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the LORD; and beside me there is no savior.”
The statements about Israel apply directly to them. However, they reflect similar statements made by Jesus about us the church in Acts 1 being his witnesses. The statements about God’s nature reveal that God is the only God that exists and the only Savior. This is a majestic statement that there is only one God. This applies to God in all ages because his nature as the one God never changes. Of course, in other Scriptures we find out that he exists as one God in three persons which we call the doctrine of the Trinity. So, many OT statements reveal a truth about God’s unchanging nature and attributes. This is the second principle. There is a third.
3. Does this OT statement reflect God’s relationship with believers of all ages (as interpreted in agreement with the NT)?
The OT statements that reflect God’s relationship with believers of all ages can be applied to our lives (as interpreted in agreement with the NT).” An example of this is from the Psalms. David was an OT believer and much of what he says about his relationship with God applies to believers of all ages. Ps.23 talks of the Lord being our shepherd and leading us and guiding us. That clearly applies to believers of all ages. Prov.1:7 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” This clearly applies to believers of all ages. How do we know which OT statements apply and which don’t? Again, the NT is the interpretive key.
Does that OT statement agree with the NT teaching on the believer in Jesus Christ? OT believers and NT believers are both saved by God’s grace through faith. But they have different life experiences depending on whether they were members of the nation of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant or members of the church of Jesus Christ. This question “Does this OT statement reflect God’s relationship with believers of all ages (as interpreted in agreement with the NT)?” is really the summary question you must always keep in mind when trying to apply the OT to your life.
Let’s look at Ps.51 to see how to apply this question to the OT. When David or another believer speaks in the psalm, he can speak both as a believer saved by God’s grace by faith and as an Israelite under the Mosaic Covenant. Ps.51 is a great example of this. This psalm is David’s prayer of confession to God for his adultery with Bathsheba. This prayer of confession David prays as both a believer saved by grace through faith and an Israelite under the Old Covenant.
Verses 1-9 can basically be applied to believers of all time as we confess sin. Every Christian can identify with David when he says in v.2-4, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only have I sinned…” This is God’s teaching for believers of all ages concerning confession of sin. V. 11, however, cannot be applied to us. David says, “Cast me not away from your presence; and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.” This refers to the experience of an OT believer who could lose the Holy Spirit in his life. The ministry of the Holy Spirit in the OT and in the church of the NT is different. The ministry of the Holy Spirit was temporary and for specific purposes in the OT. The ministry of the Holy Spirit for the NT Christian is permanently indwelling him or her. We know this from numerous NT passages.
We can apply the three principles to all the other parts of the Old Testament.
Why is this important?
Paul says in Rom.15:4 that the Scriptures were given to us that we might have encouragement and hope. We cannot receive God’s encouragement and hope if we do not apply them properly to our lives. When properly applied we receive the blessing that God intended for the Old Testament to be in our lives.
Copyright: 2003, The Titus Institute
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