Christians and the Old Testament laws
Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you truly, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or slightest stroke of the pen will pass away from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore, whoever sets aside one of the smallest of these commandments and teaches others to disregard them will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness goes far beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
God gave his ancient people the “Law and the Prophets” (another name for the Old Testament) to help them identify the Messiah and prepare for his coming. In the fullness of time, the Messiah came to accomplish what the Scriptures predicted. This did not abolish the authority of the Scriptures, but the role of the first testament changed when the One it pointed to arrived. Since Jesus’s coming, every Old Testament commandment must be filtered through what we might call a “fulfillment-in-Christ” grid. We do that by identifying the eternal principle behind the commandment and applying it to our circumstances.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of how Old Testament laws can be filtered through the fulfillment-in-Christ grid and applied in today’s world:
- Let’s start with an easy one. Leviticus 19:9–10 says, “When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop–do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.” Our God is overflowing with love and compassion for the destitute and displaced. We can honor this law today by being compassionate to the poor and sensitive to the needs of the immigrants and refugees living among us.
- The commandment found in 19:28 is a little trickier: “Do not cut your bodies to mourn the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. “Why the commandment against getting a tat? Is God against body art? Is there something inherently evil about putting ink into your skin? No. The problem in ancient Israel was not God’s aversion to inked skin. The problem was idolatry. In the ancient world, people did not get tattoos to beautify themselves– they got tattoos to signify their loyalty to their god(s) and point others to their religion. And getting tats for pagan worship purposes is as forbidden today as it was in Moses day. God still hates idolatry. On the other hand, tattoos have flourished in Christian cultures since the third century, and every day people get tattoos that point others to Jesus. That is not idolatry. So when I filter the law against tattoos through the fulfillment-in-Christ grid, I come to the conclusion that some tats are God-honoring, and some are not.
What all this means is that Christians are not locked into a list of do’s and don’ts. Commit your life to Jesus, and you will soon discover that following him is a lot more challenging than following a rule book. God’s truth never changes, but the way it should be applied may change according to circumstances.
This is why Jesus warned his disciples that, “unless your righteousness goes far beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That statement surely stunned the people listening to Jesus’s sermon. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was legendary. If they weren’t righteousness enough, what hope was there for anyone else? But the righteousness of the religionists was external and focused on tradition and ritual. Jesus speaks of a righteousness that is based on the character of God, not a list of “thou shalt nots.” His righteousness is focused on loving God and others. Jesus calls his apprentices to a different quality of righteousness, not a greater quantity of righteousness.
King David expressed the process well when he prayed, “Wash my guilt and cleanse me from my sin, for I know I am rebellious, and my sin is ever before me… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me… You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God” (Psalm 51:2–3, 10, 16-17).
In his sermon, Jesus offers six examples of the righteousness that “goes far beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees.” Jesus wants his followers to learn that God doesn’t make us righteous from the outside-in by giving us a list of rules to obey. God’s righteousness envelopes us entirely–body, mind, and spirit are changed.
Next: You have heard… but I say to you… (about anger)