Understanding the Old Testament
When Christians discuss the Bible we are often accused of choosing Bible verses that support our position and ignoring those that oppose it. Usually this takes the form of quoting some law found in the Old Testament and asking why we don’t practice it. Since we consider all of the Bible, including the Old Testament, to be the Word of God this is a reasonable objection that should be answered.
God has given two kind of commands in the Bible. One kind consists of moral laws that are given to all people and are always in effect. Jesus said that these laws can be summarized in two commands:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
All of the other moral laws of the Bible are simply detailed instructions on how to carry out these commands.
In addition to giving universal commands that apply to everyone God also gives commands to specific individuals and groups that apply to them but to no one else. For example, he told Noah to build an ark to keep all life from being destroyed in the flood. This command was given to Noah and his family alone and God never intended for anyone else to obey it.
After he had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt he chose them to be his people and gave them laws which they were required to obey. These laws included all the moral laws which apply to everyone but they also include commands which weren’t ever given to anyone else.
The question is, which of these commands must we obey today and which were only for Israel and don’t apply to us?
Israel was a nation. The Church isn’t a nation but is a body of believers who are subject to the laws of the nations in which they live. A nation has the authority to enforce its laws and punish those who violate them, even executing them if their offenses are serious enough. A church doesn’t have the authority to impose any kind of physical punishment but is limited to expelling from its membership those who continue in sin and refuse to repent.
A nation has the right to engage in military activities to protect itself against other nations. Christians are engaged in warfare but it is spiritual, not physical.
If church leaders in the past had kept these distinctions in mind the Crusades and the Inquisition probably wouldn’t have taken place.
God commanded the Israelites to offer animal sacrifices to atone for their sins and he established a priesthood to carry out these sacrifices. These sacrifices were intended to show what Christ would do when he died for our sins.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Since Christ has offered himself as the perfect sacrifice which takes away all our sins we no longer need to make animal sacrifices.
The Israelites were given laws regulating what kinds of food they could eat and were commanded to observe special holy days. These commands, like the sacrifices, were intended to be illustrations of what Christ would do and we no longer have to obey them.
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
The fact that we are not required to follow some of the laws in the Old Testament doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t study them. Second Timothy 3:16,17 says,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
Many of the commands were intended to illustrate spiritual truths. One example of such a law is Deuteronomy 25:4.
You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.
In 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:8 Paul quoted this command to show that Christians are to financially support those who work full time at preaching the gospel.
When you read a command in the law you should think not just about its literal meaning but what spiritual truth it illustrates.