The Old Testament has laws about all kinds of things – stealing, retaliations, charging interest, homosexual acts, and so on. How can we tell which of these Jesus intended to apply to his followers?
Various answers are given:-
- he intended all OT laws to apply (Christian Judaism)
- he intended only the moral and civil laws to apply (theonomy)
- he intended only the moral laws to apply (moral nomianism)
- he intended only laws he taught to apply (new covenant theology)
- he did not intend Christians to live by laws at all (antinomianism)
How can we begin to resolve this?
The status of the law, Matthew 5:17-20
Jesus here confirms the abiding status of the entire law, and teaches that his disciples are to be more righteous even than the scribes and the Pharisees.
Interpretation of the law, Mark 2:23-3:6
When the Pharisees criticised Jesus for breaking the Sabbath, he responded by pointing to its purpose:-
“The Sabbath was made for [the good of] man, not man for [the good of] the Sabbath.”
It follows that Christians do not have to keep the Sabbath on a Saturday, the purpose of rest and refreshment is fulfilled whichever day they keep.
Raising the standard, Matthew 5:21-48
The pattern here is, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”. Thus,
- he extends the law against murder (Exod. 20:13) to anger (21-26)
- he extends the law against adultery (Exod. 20:14) to lust (27-30)
- he makes the law restricting divorce (Deut. 24:1) stricter (31-32)
- he takes the law designed to prevent lying (Num. 30:2) further (33-37)
- he takes the law designed to restrain retaliation (Lev. 24:19-20) further (38-42)
- he extends the command to love one’s neighbour (Lev. 19:18) to enemies (43-48)
However, raising the standards had different effects on different laws. For example, raising the standard of, “You shall not murder” still includes murder as well as being extended to anger. But raising the standard of “an eye for an eye” has the effect of forbidding all forms of retaliation. In one case, the new standard subsumes the old one; in the other case, the new replaces the old. The new standards is summarised in the new commandment, John 13:34-35.
Although the same principle can be applied to laws not specifically mentioned by Jesus (including those on homosexual acts, charging interest, and so on) this must of course be done with care.
Jesus did not only raise the standard of Old Testament laws; he also raised the standard of wisdom. Proverbs 15:6; 21:20 speaks of the virtue of laying of treasure and not dissipating it, our Lord spoke of laying up ‘treasure in heaven’, Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 12:13-34.
In Matthew 19:3-13, Jesus appears to say that there are certain standards of behaviour that are applicable to his followers (“those to whom it has been given”) but not to the world.
Jesus had little to say about civil law, although he did recognise civil authority, Mark 12:13-17.
Summary of the law, Matthew 22:34-40
Jesus taught that love for God and others sums up (but does not replace) the law and the prophets.
The new covenant, Matthew 26:27-29
By his death, Jesus made redundant all those aspects of the law by which forgiveness was sought. See also Hebrews 8-10. Again, his death did not destroy those laws, but raised them to a new level. There is still a sanctuary, a priesthood, a blood-sacrifice, but these are the difference between shadow and substance.
By the same token, law-keeping becomes inward and spiritual. The dispute related in Acts 15 was over the law as Moses had given it, rather than as Jesus had taught it. Paul taught that Christ is the ‘end’ (termination, goal or fulfilment) of the law, Romans 10:4. To be ‘under grace, not law’, Romans 6:14; Galatians 5:18, is to fulfil the righteous requirement of the law.