Reply 2: Relevance of the Old Testament Law


Yes, but does that mean that every law in the Old Testament is irrelevant in today’s world? Is “you shall not murder” irrelevant? Of course not. So how do we sort out what is still relevant and binding on us today from the Old Testament, and what is not? We start with some important distinctions (quoting something I wrote previously):

      “The classic understanding for handling these issues has been the conceptual separation in Old Testament law of moral, ceremonial and civil laws; this distinction is reflected in several Reformation confessional statements. Moral laws (like ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’) are presumed to be universally applicable and eternally enduring; they apply in all places at all times, for the Christian church as for the people of Israel. The ceremonial laws (like the ban on sexual intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period, the ceremonial uncleanness that a man would experience if he had a ‘wet dream,’ <<e.g., Deuteronomy 23:10>> or the many dietary and cleanliness restrictions on the Jewish people) were grounded in creating a distinctive culture for the covenantal people of God so that they might have a clear sense of identity apart from the pagan people surrounding them. It was these ceremonial laws that Jesus, in his earthly ministry, often set aside, and it was these rules that the early apostles agreed not to lay upon the Gentile converts to faith in Christ <<see particularly Acts 10-11; 15:22-35>>. Finally, the Old Testament contains numerous civil regulations. The Hebrew people, after all, were not just a religious body but were also a nation. Hence you find in the Old Testament regulations such as civil punishments for moral crimes (e.g., the civil death penalty for the immoral act of adultery), as well as rules for many things from sanitation to building codes <<on sanitation, Deuteronomy 23:12-13; on building codes, Deuteronomy 22:8>>. Some of these regulations and penalties seem puzzling or even barbaric to modern readers, but often careful study can help to put these harsh penalties into context.

For reasons known only to God, these three types of laws are often mixed in a confusing way in the same passages. Generally speaking, the Church has understood 1) Christ to have set aside the ceremonial laws as he preached a Gospel universally applicable to an available to people of every tribe and nation; 2) the civic laws of the Old Testament to have been applicable to the nation-state of Israel, but not binding on modern pluralistic, multi-religious communities; and 3) God’s moral laws to be of universal and timeless application.

There’s something to be learned from every aspect of the Old Testament, but the fact that we consume shellfish and so forth doesn’t mean God’s moral law regarding sexuality is irrelevant.