Purpose of the Old Testament Law

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Purpose of the Old Testament Law

Why did God give the Old Testament? On one hand all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and on the other hand we are told that some scriptures were mainly for Israel. How do we deal with that? Although all scriptures have some kind of application for us, that application is not always a direct one. There are various reasons God gave us the OT law. This article outlines a few of them...

There are many OT scriptures which are mind boggling to New Testament (NT) believers. For example, Exodus 23:19 commands chefs not to boil a goat in its mother's milk. What does that even mean, and what does it have to do with us today? Dispensationalists believe that many of those Old Testament (OT) scriptures no longer apply to us. Others say that all scriptures apply to us. So what do we do with them? And why were they given in the first place?

Three Reasons God Gave the OT laws

God gave the OT laws because of the hardness of man's heart

1 Tim. 1:9, 10 makes it clear that God never intended for man to live by laws. The law was only introduced when the Israelites sinned in the wilderness by worshiping the golden calf. God always wanted man to live by His guidance and leading. But the OT people were not willing. As a result God gave them a list of rules. He only did this to maintain law and order until the fullness of time had come when He would send Jesus. A perfect example is the divorce law. He only allowed it because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. Divorce was never His highest purpose for anyone.

God gave the law as a remembrance of his great acts

God gave the laws so there would always be a remembrance of Him. In Deut. 6:20-25, anticipating that there would be future generations of Israel that did not know the God of the Red Sea, God commanded the people to teach the laws to their children. The laws and statutes would naturally arouse curiosity among the children. This was God’s means of creating a history of remembrance of His mighty acts to future generations.

God gave the law to foreshadow Christ

Col. 2:17 teaches that many of the OT rituals were given so that they foreshadowed what Christ would later do. It was one of the tools used by the writers of the NT to argue for Christ.

Dispensationalism teaches that God dealt with man in different ways in different eras. Before the Law was given, people still followed God, implying that the Law was not a necessary part of following God. Abraham is a prime example. But Jesus' first coming was a crucial point in God's history. Jesus had to come personally to atone for Adam's sin, but God did not intend to send him immediately. He waited 4000 years. Therefore, something was needed during the interim. Galatians 3:24 states that the Law was a school master designed to lead us to Christ. Once we come to Christ, there is no longer any need for the Law.

Which parts of the law are we required to keep?

So which aspects of the law are applicable to us and which aspects are no longer applicable? We know that most of the ceremonial laws were specific to Israel. There are numerous New Testament references suggesting that we no longer have to observe Feast Days (Col 2:17; Romans 14:5,6) and food laws (1 Tim 4:3). Most of the ceremonial laws were merely foreshadows of Christ, and are thus no longer required.

But what about the moral law - the 10 commandments? 9 of the commandments are repeated in the New Testament - the exception being the 4th one pertaining to the Sabbath. Once we are in Christ, our righteousness comes from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit inside us. So we don't really need the moral law. Abraham achieved righteousness even though the Law was not yet given in his day (Romans 4). Scriptures like Romans 7:7 make it clear that we are not supposed to live even by the moral law. Paul cites "Thou shall not covet" as one of those laws that caused him to stumble. This was one of the 10 commandments. Trying to keep the law activated Paul's flesh and worked against the Spirit. Instead we are to achieve righteousness by God's work in us, rather than our attempts to keep the law.  However, the moral law does give us a good guideline to guage whether we are truly being led by the Spirit or not.

So the law had its place. And God had reasons for giving it - reasons that no longer apply to us who are in Christ. We need to learn how to be led by the Holy Spirit. God's law needs to be written in our hearts.

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Should Christians observe the Food laws?

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© 2001 Denver Cheddie

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