While Israel is encamped at Mt Sinai, following their exodus from Egypt, God gives to Moses a set of laws for the new nation. These laws cover the spectrum of life for Israel, from moral, to health, to civil, to religious. Obedience to these laws was not optional, but was required if Israel was to remain in covenant relationship with God.
Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2 NIV
From reading through the Old Testament one gets the impression that Israel actually did a rather poor job of living in obedience to the Law, and suffered as a consequence. Only during those times when Israel made an effort to live in conformity with the Law did they prosper. And that raises a question for believers today; what relationship does the Law have to our walk with God? Is it still something that we are expected to follow? Or is it no longer a requirement?
I know many believers who insist that Christians today are expected to keep the Law. Yet I know none of them who actually do so; at least in its entirety. A significant portion of the Law deals with the sacrificial system, and I have yet to meet anyone who follows any portion of that. Another big chunk of the Law deals with health and dietary issues, and again few, if any, make any attempt to follow those regulations. A third portion of the Law deals with civil issues, like what to do if an ox gores someone, and these are likewise generally ignored.
It is only the portion of the Law that deals with personal morality that anyone attempts to follow today, and even then they are somewhat selective in the portions they choose to follow; generally agreeing, for instance, with the prohibitions against homosexuality but not in how to deal with victims of rape.
“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. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Matthew 5:17-18 NIV
This passage is used by many as proof that the believer has not been exempted from following the Law (or at least that portion of the Law they want upheld). Indeed Jesus says that his intent was not to abolish the Law, although he did seem to eliminate portions (see Mark 7:19) and changed others (see Matthew 5:38-42)
It seems to me though that focusing on the ‘not abolishing’ portion of that passage is probably not the correct point of emphasis. It would seem like the ‘fulfill’ portion is actually the central point. It is what Jesus came to do; fulfill the Law. What does Jesus mean by this expression?
At least 13 times in the gospel of Matthew the expression “this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet”, or something similar, is used. The author of Matthew was very concerned with demonstrating that Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies made about him.
And the author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to argue that the sacrifices mandated by the Law were only shadows of the sacrifice that Jesus would offer. They simply pointed forward to Jesus fulfillment of them in his death on the cross.
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. 4 It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
7 Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, my God.’”
Hebrews 10:1-7 NIV
I believe that what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:17-18 is not that I have to follow the Law, but rather than it was pointing to him, and he has fulfilled it, echoed in his cry from the cross, “It is finished.”
In contrast to those who would advocate that we are still obligated to uphold the Law are those who will argue that the Old Testament Law is not applicable to Christians today; and I must confess to being more sympathetic to this view. The Law belonged to the old covenant established by God at Mt Sinai, a covenant that was replaced at Calvary. The new covenant is one of grace rather than law. By no means does this mean that I am free to do anything I want. But it does mean that my relationship with God is not based on obedience to the Old Testament Law.
One of the earliest conflicts in the church dealt with Gentile believers and the Law, particularly circumcision. It appears like the Jewish believers continued seeking to follow the Law in their daily practice. But what about the Gentiles. There were those who advocated that Gentiles should be required to follow the Law, while others felt like it was an unnecessary burden. The 15th chapter of Acts describes the Jerusalem council where representatives from both sides of this issue met to decide this issue. One the one hand were the backers of the Law:
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
Acts 15:5 NIV
And on the other side was Peter, along with Paul and Barnabas, who said:
Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Acts 15:10-11 NIV
Ultimately James, speaking for the church, ruled that the Gentiles should not be expected to follow the Law, although the Gentile believers were asked to be considerate of the Jewish folk among them by avoiding some things that would cause them offense.
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Acts 15:19-21 NIV
Paul refers to this council meeting when he writes the letter to the Galatians, in which he argues strenuously against making observance of the Law something that is required to gain or to maintain God’s favor. For sure, Paul is not opposed to the Law, but he sees it as being something that is applicable to those who have not yet come to faith. But once we have come to faith in Christ, we are no longer under the rule of the Law.
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
Galatians 3:23-25 NIV
So, under the new covenant, what is the role of the Law? In the first few chapters of Romans, Paul works to wrap all humanity up under sin, separated from God. And in that discussion he says that it is through the Law that we become conscious of sin, it is the Law that makes clear to us that we have fallen short of the perfection that God requires.
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
Romans 3:20 NIV
No one has ever been, or ever will be declared righteous based on observance of the Law. Instead the Law proves our need for a savior. Once we have experienced the gift of righteousness that comes from God through faith, the Law has performed its function; it has been fulfilled.
Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
Romans 3:31 NIV
The Law is a good thing, so long as one uses it properly. Obedience to the Law is not a replacement for, or enhancement to, faith. But it continues to be stand as the standard that the unbeliever can measure against to help them realize their inability to please God based on their own efforts.