Whole Story Resources: How the Hebrew Laws Apply to Us

March 20, 2016 // Articles+Guides

On March 20th, Pastor J.D. Greear preached a sermon on Leviticus 16. One of the topics that he handled in that sermon was how the Law applies to us today. As you are reading through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it becomes apparent that we do not follow all of the laws as Christians. We eat certain foods and wear certain clothes that would have been forbidden for the Israelites living near the Tabernacle.

However, the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:17-20 ring in our ears: 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We cannot be true to our Lord and Savior if we take a frivolous attitude toward the Law. In fact, Jesus actually taught stricter versions of “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery” (see Matthew 5:21-30). Three questions emerge: 1) Are Christians being frivolous by not following every law?  2) How are we supposed to be more righteous than Pharisees if we do not follow every law?  3) How do we apply the Law today?

1) Are Christians being frivolous by not following every law in the Old Testament?

There are cases where Christians are being careless and are generally unconcerned with personal holiness. That’s bad. However, there are some very good and logical reasons why we do not apply every law to our lives. The difference in how and when we do and do not apply certain laws to our lives is fairly straightforward. It has to do with the difference that Christ has made by living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died. In doing this, Christ fulfilled the requirements of the Law for us!

Pastor Greear mentioned a three-part way of categorizing the laws in the Old Testament: civil, ceremonial, and moral. These are not perfect categories, as many Old Testament professors will tell you, because some laws fall into more than one category, and because the biblical writers did not specify this distinction. However, theologians like John Calvin gravitate to these categories to explain the difference that Jesus made in salvation history. Let’s look at each briefly:

Ceremonial: all the laws about sacrifices and rituals can be described as ceremonial. We do not have to follow the ceremonial laws because Jesus atoned for our sins once and for all. The way we worship God and the way we repent of sins all comes through Jesus now. The book of Hebrews explains in detail how Jesus fulfills many of these different ceremonies. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice AND high priest AND temple, etc.

Civil: when Jesus died, he reconciled Jews and Gentiles into one family of God. There would no longer be one chosen nation fulfilling God’s civil commands. Laws that were intended to govern, laws about land management and finances, laws about crime and punishment can all fit into this category. But because Jesus opened the door for all nations to come to him, we are not bound by the civil portions of the Law. Acts 15 and Ephesians 2 cover some of this territory in the New Testament.

Moral: the laws that basically tell us how we are supposed to treat one another as human beings can all fit into the category. Because God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, he is generally going to want us to act in many of the same ways that he required in Ancient Israel. Loving your neighbors, treating others with respect and dignity, tending towards healthy practices (physically, socially, psychological, and spiritually) are all generally still applicable. Often, the New Testament either reaffirms these laws, or even enhances their requirements.

Jesus fulfills the moral law for us by living a perfect life. He earned the righteousness we all need in order to live in God’s presence. But on this score, we should recognize that when we are in Heaven with God, we will not be able to act immorally any more. We are going to have to keep overcoming sin in this life, or at least trying to, in preparation for our eternal future. If we want to live in Heaven, we will have to decide whether we want to be with God more than we want to hold on to our sin. So, in many ways, the laws in the Old Testament can help us think through what kinds of behavior God will allow in his kingdom and what kinds of behavior will be wiped from the earth. More on this in Revelation 21 and in part 3.

2) How are we supposed to be more righteous than Pharisees if we do not follow every law?

Usually in conversations about the Law, Paul’s ideas in Romans and Galatians hold weight. To sum up, Paul says that we should not live by the letter of the Law, but by the Spirit. The Spirit teaches us to live in ways that no law has ever forbidden. Grace has overcome the Law, and therefore our lives will be more marked by grace than by following the rules of Leviticus. Right? At this point, someone trying to understand Christianity might squirm a little bit. Is Paul dissing the Old Testament? Is he ignoring the Law and doing injustice to what other Biblical writers have said?

Here is the bit you most need to understand about this conversation: when Paul makes these arguments, he is referencing and alluding to the Old Testament! In Deuteronomy 28-30, Moses gives his evaluation of the Covenant that included laws. He gives out blessings and curses that will come on the people if they follow or disobey these laws. In those chapters, it becomes clear that Moses is predicting that Israel will, in fact, fail their end of this covenant. The rest of the Old Testament testifies that this covenant did not produce what it was designed to produce.

Notice a few verses: Deut. 29:4 “But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” Deut. 30:1-6, after all the blessings AND curses come upon you, after you go into exile, then you should return to the Lord. He will “circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” The fifth book of the Bible already establishes that the Law will not produce the righteousness that we need to love God. (Those of you taking the SJI Old Testament class with Dr. Tracy McKenzie saw this last week!)

In the time of the Exile, Jeremiah refers back to this concept from Deuteronomy 28-30. Jeremiah 31 describes how God will get his people to be righteous like they need to be: 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LordI 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. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Compare this with Ezekiel 36, written in a similar situation, describing what God will do in the future to make his people righteous: “25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

Paul was not looking for a way out of the law when he became a Christian. He was realizing that his approach to the Law as a Pharisee had been all wrong. This was not a new doctrine Paul was creating, these were ideas that the Old Testament had already established. They just had not made sense to Paul until Jesus established this New Covenant and made it a reality.

God’s plan for making us more righteous was always to put his Spirit within us.

3) Since we have God’s Spirit within us, how do we apply the Law today?

First, let’s quickly address two mistakes that people make today in applying all these ideas. The first mistake involves thinking that, because we have the Spirit in us today, we can use our own instincts to pick and choose what laws to apply. Having the Spirit in us helps, but we must listen to Scripture (which the Spirit inspired and will not lead you to abuse), to other Christians (who also have the Spirit, so consider what they say when they tell you not to do something), and to your conscience (which the Spirit informs). This is not a “do what you feel” spirituality. Reading the Old Testament Law will help us understand what God celebrates and what God defines as sin. Redefining these categories in the name of “spirit-filled” Christianity will not help.

The second mistake involves how Americans have recently been misunderstanding grace. Some think that “living under grace” means not having boundaries and not being held accountable for your actions. However, as we are seeing so far in our Whole Story small group guides, sometimes God’s acts of judgment are also acts of grace. It would not be loving for him to not respond negatively to teach us not to sin. Ultimately, Christians will not pay the full price for our sin. But that does not mean God won’t put difficult things in our lives to steer us away from our own destructive behavior.

We saw in the answers to question 1 and 2 that God does not require us to uphold the letter of the law now that we are in the New Covenant. But it can still be helpful for Spirit-filled Christians to read and apply it. First, we learn what kinds of things count as destructive behavior. We will get a general sense for how to treat each other, and how to celebrate God’s work in our lives. God revealed things about his view of sin and his hope for mankind in giving the Law. We can look for principles and guidelines in the Law that we can transfer over to today.

For instance, one law says to build a fence around the roof of your house. Something like that just wouldn’t make sense in most parts of the world today, so that law simply does not apply. Houses are shaped differently here, and we are not in the habit of walking around on the roof, as they did in Ancient Israel. But there ARE ways that I can do things around my house that considers the safety of my neighbors (cutting down rotten trees, building a fence around my pool, etc.). For me, as a Christian, to follow this Law has little to do with copying the actions shown exactly in the Law, and much to do with seeing God’s intention in giving that Law, at that time, to that people. You will see that God cares about public health, public safety, economic justice, judicial fairness, caring for the poor, loving your neighbor, treating foreigners well, having parties, and so much more.

Second, reading the whole Law reminds us how short of the mark we all fall. God’s requirements are vast, thorough, and beyond our capability. We can not follow everything unless he brings about a significant change in our lives. That change will come by the Spirit. When you read about the ceremonies, laws, and rituals this way, you get a much deeper sense of what Christ accomplished in saving us. Then, when you read about the curses and judgment that God brings upon people who didn’t follow this law, you understand something significant about the safety that God provided in Jesus. Because of the difference that Jesus makes, neither the Law nor the judgments in the Old Testament apply to you directly. But because of the difference that Jesus makes, both become precious to you as you learn more about God’s salvation in Jesus.

In other words, your entire Old Testament reading can become worshipful. You begin to see Jesus in so many places, and you understand what the New Testament writers were so excited about when they discovered who Jesus was and what he fulfilled. Remember that the New Testament writers were Jews that took the Old Testament way more seriously than we typically do. They grounded every doctrine about Jesus in the Old Testament, and as you consider questions like this, you begin to understand why. The reason why we want you to read the Whole Story, is to fall in love with your Savior over and over again.


Article by Eric Stortz, with references to sermons by Pastor J.D. Greear