How Christians Should Apply the Old Testament Today
Every Christian should ask why they adhere to certain laws found in the Old Testament while others they simply ignore. Hays points out, “Christians violate a number of Old Testament laws with some regularity.” Most Christians would agree the Ten Commandments are at the foundation of Mosaic Law, but the question still remains: are these adhered to because they are still relevant today, or is there some other reason? Part of the problem lies in the fact that there is so much legal material buried in narrative and without the proper exegesis, the text cannot be properly interpreted.
Hays believes, “The Law is tied to the Mosaic Covenant, which is integrally connected to Israel’s life in the land and the conditional promises of blessing related to their living obediently in the land.” This writer believes Hays to be correct, but when applying the traditional approach it is important to note all laws either become moral, civil, or ceremonial. Christians today in large follow the moral laws due to their timeless truths, but does that mean the civil and ceremonial laws can be ignored or should be ignored? When these laws were written, strict obedience to them was paramount. If any of them were broken, a blood offering was needed to atone for the sin and the seriousness of the offense determined the type of sacrifice needed.
Hays does a superb job illustrating the strengths and weaknesses of this approach by demonstrating how Christians can take a passage of scripture like “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is a timeless truth, but pay no attention to the very next verse, “do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” (Leviticus 19:18&19) Who decides what commandments are timeless and which are universal? How can Christians adhere to one commandment while rejecting the very next one?
This article only served to highlight how important it is to have a sound understanding of the interpretation of scripture. Hay’s example of observing the Sabbath was also very compelling because it is both a ceremonial law as well as a moral one. What this writer found even more disturbing was the fact that most Christians would agree observing the Sabbath is required, but going to church on Sunday hardly qualifies as obedience to this sacred law. People tend to do what is convenient for them in their adherence to the law. They may plead ignorance, but God sees the heart in whatever they do. While the entire Bible is the inspired word of God, in all text you must understand who wrote it, who it was written for and why it was written before you can begin to say what the text possibly means for Christians today.
Law or Grace
A very popular approach to validating and reconciling which Old Testament laws are timeless and universal is whether they are mentioned in the New Testament. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “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.” Hay’s points out, “the Law and the Prophets refers to the entire Old Testament.” This passage of scripture is profound because it is announcing not only Jesus as Messiah but also that He was the fulfillment of the Torah.
Tradition is not easily broken and that is why in Romans 7:1-6, we see Paul having to address this issue. He explains it is by the breaking of this Mosaic Law of bondage, one is truly joined with Christ. He was trying to show them they had died to the Law through the body of Christ. This was a complex issue then just as it is now because the question still arises: how can something like the Law be good and bad? Early Christianity had to wrestle with this concept of how obeying God’s Law was now leading to sin, bondage, and death and Paul continually had to address these issues of faith versus works and law versus grace. In Galatians he taught a man is justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone and now that faith had come, they were no longer under the law. Paul made no distinction in what type of Law it was as Hays note, “If there was a distinction between civil, ceremonial, and moral Laws, it was unusual that Paul ignored it.”
When Jesus said He came to fulfill the Law, what He essentially meant was He came to bring about its intended purpose and meaning. He had come to set the captives free and the Law was holding them captive. Breaking the Law demanded a sacrifice; a blood atonement and Jesus, the spotless lamb became the ultimate sacrifice for all of humanity. In none of Jesus’ teaching regarding the Law was He telling the people what to do. “He was proclaiming that the meaning of the Law must be interpreted in the light of His coming and in light of the profound changes introduced by the New Covenant.”
By applying the Law in the life of today’s Christian, one popular method is using principlism. In this approach one must treat the entire Old Testament as the inspired Word of God while making sure it corresponds with New Testament teaching. One key advantage in using this approach is being consistent in Old Testament interpretation. Using this method, one must be aware of its strength in making things simple and consistent, but that it also has the potential to oversimplify very complex issues.
For example, if we are looking at Leviticus 11:1-41 which addresses the clean and unclean food, the first step in using principlism is looking at who the intended audience was and what situation was going on during that time which might have required a commandment. In this case, the main issue was how to remain holy before God in the presence of unclean things. The Israelites would be defiled if they touched anything unclean and approaching God and worshipping Him was impossible if you were unclean. The laws and commandments were given in order for the people to stay clean and pure.
The second step after discovering what the verse’s intended purpose was and who its intended audience was is looking at the difference between them and Christians today. With the Levitical laws above, they do not apply to Christians today because, “believers in the present age are under the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant.”
The third step is identifying any timeless principles or universal truths that can be found within the text. The universal principle and timeless truth in this text refers to God’s holiness. Just as sin separated them from God, the same holds true today. If they became unclean, they had to be purified by a blood sacrifice and if a Christian sins, they must repent and turn from their wicked ways. Sin is universal and what one does after sinning remains true: you must become holy in the eyes of the Lord again.
The fourth step is looking to see if there is any correlation from the original text with anything written in the New Testament. If a law or commandment was restated in the New Testament it became a commandment of Christ. In some cases the New Testament validates a law, modifies or expands one, while other times it establishes new ones. In this passage of scripture, it’s more about what comes out of man than what goes in him which makes him unclean. Since the Spirit of God dwells in Christians and no longer in a temple or tabernacle this passage of scripture is now more about how to stay holy and pure in the eyes of the Lord. The New Covenant covers your sins and transgressions at the moment of salvation by the blood of Christ. In the original text, a sacrifice and confession of sin was needed to make the individual clean again while under the New Covenant confession of sin is all that is needed because Jesus became the sacrifice for all past, present and future sin.
The fifth step is applying the universal principle today and once any text is truly understood, this should always be the final step. By asking yourselves how this principle can impact your life today you are identifying areas of your life which are leading you away from God instead of towards Him. Doing anything unclean that separates you from God is sin. Sin separates you from God, “however, if one does fall into sin, he must confess it, and through the death of Christ, he will be forgiven and fellowship with God will be restored.”
Hays, Daniel J. “Applying the Old Testament Law Today.” Bibliotheca Sacra 158: 629 (2001):
21-35. Accessed September 1, 2014. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_law_hays.html