Obey the Old Testament?

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One of the biggest questions that Christians have been confronted with since the beginning of the Jesus movement is what is our responsibility to all the commands given to ancient Israel in the Old Testament?

Some people say that the Old Testament commands still apply to us today. Some people say that they don’t apply to us anymore. Some people outside of the church point to some of the Old Testament commands as reasons for labeling Christianity as irrelevant or out of touch with modern society. And then some people inside the church are so confused about these Old Testament commands that they prefer to just get rid of the Old Testament altogether.

The problem with all these views is that they simply misunderstand or seek to oversimplify the purpose of the Old Testament commands, and they do not honor Jesus’ own attitude and teaching concerning them.

Matthew records a famous story that we know as the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus goes up on the side of a mountain to teach his followers specific guidelines for how to live as a new community of God’s people that would show the rest of the world what God is like. And it’s near the beginning of this teaching that Jesus addresses our responsibility towards the commands given in the Old Testament when he says:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)

What does Jesus mean when he says that he has come to fulfill the Torah and the Prophets?

Jesus Has Come to Fulfill

When Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the Torah and the Prophets, he is saying that he has come to pick up the story of God’s plan that the Old Testament (Torah and the Prophets) left unfulfilled, and that he is now going to take that story forward through something new that he is doing. The focus will now be on him and his teaching instead of ancient Israel and their Torah. That doesn’t mean that God’s people can now ignore or set aside the Torah, but it does mean that they must now view all of its commands through the lens of what Jesus teaches.

We as Christians need to possess the same attitude towards the Old Testament that Jesus and his first followers had. Jesus said that he did not come to set aside or to replace the Old Testament but rather to fulfill it. He constantly taught from the Old Testament, and his followers did the same. Any brand of Christian teaching that attempts to undermine the authority of the Old Testament is a brand of teaching that Jesus and his first followers would have rebuked.

So does that mean that we are supposed to obey all the rules and laws in the Old Testament today?

We Are Called to Obey

Well, the laws of Moses given in the Old Testament were given to ancient Israel in the context of the covenant that God was making with them at Mt. Sinai. Jesus has fulfilled that covenant with the new covenant. And so this means that we are no longer bound by the rules and laws of God’s covenant with ancient Israel. However, we are still called to uphold their importance in the overall plan of God, and we are commanded to learn from them and to even teach them to others.

Christians need to honor, respect and teach the Torah like Christ, and we must learn how to filter the laws of Moses through the teaching of Jesus.

What do we mean by that?

It means that we have to learn how to read a command from the Old Testament and then discern if it should still be obeyed at face value or if there is a principal underneath the command that should still be obeyed or if the command seems to be a custom specific to ancient Israel’s covenant with God that we can learn from but that we don’t need to put into practice today.

To give a couple examples, the commands to have no other gods and to not steal should clearly still be obeyed at face value because they provide us with practical ways that we can make sure that we are fulfilling Jesus’ command to love God and to love others. However, the command to not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain is not as clear for us today. While it does seem cruel to muzzle an ox that’s working for you so it can’t eat any of the grain that falls, many of us don’t own an ox or a field.

But this is a particular command where we can still find a principal underneath the command that we should still obey today. And this is exactly what Paul does when he uses this command about muzzling an ox in two of his letters to point out that Christians should not withhold financial support from those who have worked hard to help them grow in their faithfulness to Jesus. And so, Christians should still obey the principal that this Old Testament command about muzzling an ox teaches us.

And so, as Christians, we must have the same attitude towards the Old Testament that Jesus had. We must learn how to filter the laws of Moses through the teaching of Jesus so that we can obey all that God has commanded. And we must be what God intends for his people to be and live as a new community of God’s people that shows the rest of the world what God is truly like.