“...that I may gain Christ and be found in him...”—Philippians 3:8-9, NIV1984

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Old Testament and New Testament - How to Know Which Laws Christians Should Follow and Affirm and Defend

There is much confusion among Christians and non-Christians about all of the laws or rules in the Bible, and the short answer to the question posed by the title is that we should follow some of them. There are different types which I will refer to as moral, civil, and ceremonial.

Before explaining the laws, I’d like write briefly about interpretation. I've had a fair share of conversations on web sites and outside in the “real world” to know that Christians have a lot of different ways of interpreting what Jesus (as well as other New Testament writers) did and said and what they meant by their teaching. Non-Christians have even more interpretations. I am writing this assuming you are a Christian, meaning that you are a born-again, saved, converted (whatever terminology that you want to use) believer who has placed your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, and not yourself or anything you can do, for salvation from sin both here and now and for all of eternity.

I believe that only one interpretation of Scripture is correct, and we (Christians) should strive to interpret it correctly. Yet, we are human and our minds are limited in our understanding of spiritual and eternal things and are only enlightened as the Holy Spirit reveals God’s truth to us (see John 16:13). It’s often a process. We may not find the perfect interpretation of every verse in the Bible until we spend eternity with our Lord. But for the sake of unity and living wisely toward outsiders, let’s at least try to establish our interpretations and convictions on sound reasoning from the Scriptures rather than hearsay, which is the basis of many people’s interpretations, especially those who don’t have a habit of reading, studying, and obeying the Bible. If we disagree with some, let’s at least try to understand the reasons behind the person’s interpretation and acknowledge that some passages of Scripture are not very clear. We show charity and humility to some different possible interpretations of more difficult passages of Scripture. In humility, we understand that our interpretation or parts of it, may be wrong, and that God will eventually correct us (see Philippians 3:15). With that said, I will try to answer this question about laws in the remainder of this article, beginning with the ceremonial laws.

The ceremonial laws that brought the Jews into a covenantal relationship with God in the Old Testament (different from the moral and civil laws) don’t apply to us today (though we may do well to apply some of the principles behind many of those laws). They were made obsolete by Jesus who brought a New Covenant, not symbolized by tablets of stone, but by His blood (see Heb. 8:13, Luke 22:20) based on grace (see John 1:17) through faith in Him (see Ephesians 2:8-9). We don’t need to be circumcised which was the issue in Paul’s day (see Galatians 2). We also don’t need to bring the many different offerings to the altar in the temple. There is no more earthly temple anyway.

The other type of Old Testament laws that don’t apply (at least in their verbatim form) to us as Christians are the civil laws between the Jews. These had a purpose limited to the sovereign nation of Israel which did not remain sovereign for very long as God brought other nations in to humble them, discipline them, and lead to them to repentance. Yet, there are some very good principles from these civil laws that helped shape the U.S. Government’s Constitution and laws. God’s truth and wisdom are woven through all the laws! I will also explain more about the civil laws and their relationship to the moral laws below.

As Christians we should still follow the moral laws, but “should” means nothing unless we understand how to discern which laws are moral and why it matters whether we follow them or not.
First, let’s start with what Jesus affirmed about all of the laws (commandments):
‘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 foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘ You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’—(Matt. 22:37-39, NASB).
All of the laws were established so that the Jews would know what loving God and loving others looks like. The Law also has the purpose of showing us that we’re evil and deserve eternal judgment so that we’ll know that we need the Savior, Jesus (see Gal. 3:24). Yet, Jesus’ affirmation doesn’t reduce the moral law to be defined as whatever we believe to be loving (which is what many believe). Our natural selves keep creating ways to do evil or redefine what is loving and good. Perhaps this why some Christians think marriage between any two or more people who love each other, same sex or not, is good and acceptable!

The reasons given above are some of the reasons why I believe God took great pains to continually elaborate on what the Law is and the consequences of breaking it. First He just gave Adam and Eve one rule (see Gen. 2:16-17) (or two if you want to consider Gen. 1:28) and noted the consequence would be death (spiritual and physical). Then He gave the nation of Israel 10 (see Exodus 20), then more until they reached more than 600 moral, civil, and ceremonial laws.

The reality of our day is that well-meaning “religious” people, and maybe some not-so-well meaning, invalidate much or all of the Old Testament and New Testament moral laws so that they don’t need to change their behavior or lifestyle. Rather, in the case of same-sex marriage and other immoral behavior, they want everyone, especially the civil government to validate their behavior and protect it.

So how do I know which are moral and which are not? This a good question. The way I answer this is by saying that the moral laws were independent of time and place. I think this because the most straightforward interpretation of the moral laws would imply nothing dependent on culture, but on natural order. Take murder for example (one individual killing another out of malice). Murder is against natural order because God created life and intended for it to live. Adam and Eve messed that up for us (and all us would have done the same if we were in the Garden). There is nothing culturally relative about it.

Same sex marriage and homosexuality and whatever-sexuality that happens between two or more people of the opposite or same sex is evil when it is not in the bounds of a committed marriage relationship between one man and one woman. It goes against the natural order of God creating a man and a woman and telling them to be fruitful and multiply in the confines of a committed marriage relationship. Jesus re-affirmed God’s original definition of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6 (NIV1984):

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ [from Gen. 2:24]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
These are self-evident truths that our consciences bear witness to.

Another example of morality being independent of its historical setting is Romans 1:18-32. I know Paul did not refer to morality that depended on culture because his historical basis is (v. 20) “since the creation...” In contrast, often the civil laws had a moral, culturally independent, component, and then a penal component that depended on the government of the people. So the nation of Israel had moral laws with a governmental, penal component. I.e. Adultery was punishable by stoning.

Then I have had several people ask, “If there are moral laws from the Old Testament that Christians should still adhere to, why did Jesus not stone the woman caught in adultery?” This is a great question, and I am encouraged by the fact that some people have really wrestled with this issue.

Here is my answer. The Jews in the Roman Empire during Jesus’ time had their civil penalties invalidated by the Roman government. They were not allowed to put anyone to death (John 18:30-32), and in my opinion, the scenario of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53–8:11 was not even about whether the woman deserved to be stoned. It was really brought to Jesus’ attention to try and trap Him in treason against the Roman government or blasphemy against God by invalidating the Laws of Moses. Jesus could not tell them to put her to death. That would be treason against Rome. He could not say she’s innocent and not deserving death, because she was as an adulterer (and we’re all guilty [see Matt. 5:17-32]). Of course, Jesus in His infinite wisdom completely side-stepped their purpose and caught them off guard by pointing His finger at their hearts. He did not say, “Nevermind the civil laws.” They lived under Roman authority. He did not say, “Nevermind the moral laws.” They lived under God’s authority, and God created man in His image to reflect Him. This is one main reason why we keep the moral laws and don’t say, “Well, I’m forgiven, therefore I have a license to sin (see Rom. 6:1-7).” (Besides if we think that way, we really need to question whether our faith is genuine.)

Aside from trying to reflect the glory of God, another reason why we live by all of the moral laws is because, as I mentioned earlier, all of God’s laws reflect His truth and wisdom. Keeping them is a primary way we show our gratitude and love for Him and know Him and experience His love more fully (see John 14:15; John 14:23; John 15:10; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 1:6). They are the best way to live. They protect us and help us to prosper and receive His blessings in every way.

One last reason that I will mention is related to the reason above and related to living out the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:18-20). The foundation of all of the world’s problems is that man is inherently evil. The only way to overcome this and redeem the world is through the transformation that takes place through people trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. Hopefully our lives, as we strive to live morally, are an example of Christ’s redemptive work in the lost world. Our lives should be living proof that God is true and every opposing man is a liar (Rom. 3:4).

Please feel free to comment on this article for the sake of bringing in other points of view.