I love bacon. I have the collection of bacon t-shirts to prove it. After my heart attack, I wore a bacon t-shirt to my cardiologist appointment as an open protest.
So as a Bible-believing Evangelical, why do I bother to eat bacon when Leviticus 11:4, 7 commands: “Nevertheless these you shall not eat . . . the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you.” It would appear that the Bible says no to sweet swine meat. So I am consigned to an eternity in fiery condemnation for willfully violating the Old Testament commands? I mean – I’m not going to stop eating bacon regardless of my cardiologist’s absurd musings.
Everyday, Christians seem to ignore a bushel of blatant Old Testament commands:
When is the last time that you stoned an adulterer? Consider Leviticus 20:10.
Why are you wearing clothes with mixed fibers? See Deuteronomy 22:11.
Have you sat where a menstruating woman has previously sat? If you’re adhering to Leviticus 15:20, you probably shouldn’t.
For many casual Christians, this topic is often a hugely confusing stumbling block to meaningfully interacting with the Bible. For many atheists and agnostics, Christians’ ignorance of the Law represents a log-filled eye of hypocrisy. If Christians are nutty enough to take the Bible literally as THE Word of God, then it seems to be highly hypocritical for Christians to virtually ignore the seemingly archaic Levitical laws. Aren’t Christians just picking and choosing what seems good and practical to obey and sweeping the embarrassing stuff under the carpet?
Back in 2007, Esquire Magazine writer A.J. Jacobs embarked on a year-long journey to be obedient to every single command in the Bible. As a self-described agnostic Jew, Jacobs approached the challenge with fairly unbiased eyes. In the best-seller that he wrote based on this experience (The Year of Living Biblically), Jacobs concludes the following about the Bible’s commands: “The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion… But the important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se… the key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones.” Jacobs comes to the same conclusion that many uninitiated to Christianity believe: Christians pick and choose.
But the widely held notion that Christians pick and choose betrays an ignorance of the New Testament. Christ and the apostles have given us a framework for the interpretation of the Old Testament, and Christians cling to that framework. The New Testament is largely a commentary on how to interpret the Old Testament.
When we speak of the capital “L” “Law” as the New Testament speaks, we are referring to the revelation God gave to and the covenant God made through the prophet Moses (Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:44). As part of that covenant, the prescriptions and prohibitions that God gave to the Moses and the Exodus generation of Israelites are recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Deuteronomy represents a second giving (or reinforcement) of these covenant requirements as given to a new generation of Israelites. Although the New Testament refers to “Law” in the singular, the “Law” is technically comprised of 613 unique commands that God gave to the Israelites to follow. The commands of the Law represent the terms and conditions of the special covenant (think: contractual) relationship between God and His chosen people, the Israelites. These commands range from the famous (10 Commandments) to the infamous (the aforementioned Leviticus 20:13).
Fast forwarding thousands of years to New Testament times, the Law was so revered that an exhaustive system of oral laws had been developed by fanatical rabbis and zealous Pharisees to protect and “build a hedge around” the Law. In essence, more man-made commands and principles were created to bubble wrap the ones that God had already given. The protecting God’s commands had become an OCD-like obsession. According to Jesus, the Pharisees apparently went to incredulous extremes, such as tithing (or giving 10%) of their spice racks and straining gnats out of their drinks (Matthew 23).
Now, 613 is a huge number of commands. Add thousands more oral laws to protect the original 613 commands. I can hardly remember to take my blood pressure meds in the morning, so I’m pretty sure that I’d be a colossal failure at remembering (much less breaking) all 613 commands. Except for the one about not boiling a goat in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21). Pretty sure I don’t have the butchering expertise (or the milk from a goat’s baby momma) to carry that one out.
After the resurrection of Christ, the debate over the Law was THE most controversial argument that dominated the life of the apostolic church. Through the persecution of the church, Christianity quickly began to spread from majority Jewish Jerusalem to non-Jewish (a/k/a Gentile) regions, such as the Samaria (Acts 8:27), Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19). Then, missionaries were sent forth from the Antioch church to intentionally spread the Gospel message of Jesus northward to Galatia (modern day Turkey). As Christianity spread like wildfire, a faction of Christians – called the “circumcision party” (think: political party and not fiesta) – also grew, arguing that all Christians – including Gentiles – must be circumcised and follow the Law to be saved (Acts 15:1). After all, God’s covenant people had been getting circumcised, following dietary laws, practicing religious festivals and all of the 613 commands of the Law for thousands of years. It’s always been done that way.
In light of brewing controversy in the church body, the leadership of the church came together to settle the controversy at what is called the “Apostolic Council,” recorded in Acts 15. Among the opponents of the circumcision party were some unlikely advocates. A converted Pharisee turned missionary named Paul recounted to the Council about the miraculous work that God had been doing amongst the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). In addition, the Jewish apostle Peter made critical arguments opposing the circumcision party:
Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. – Acts 15:7-11
At the core of Peter’s argument lies the sovereignty of God. By the time of the Apostolic Council, God has already done a miraculous work amongst the Gentiles, and has given the Holy Spirit as evidence of that work. And none of these Gentiles are faithfully adhering to the Law. So do the gathered apostles challenge or tweak what God is already doing by telling him: “Hey God! You’re saving people all the wrong way! They’ve got to follow the Law first, right?!?” If God is saving Gentiles apart from following the Law, certainly man has no place in telling God that He’s wrong. God is God after all. In addition, Peter questions the need to burden Gentile Christians with 613 commands that Jews have never been able to follow. The prophetic books of the Old Testament are “Exhibit A” that Israel could not obey the Law as God’s covenant people.
In essence, Peter argues two of the central themes of the New Testament: (a) No one has ever perfectly complied with the Law; and (b) All believers – both Jew and Gentile – are saved by God’s grace and not by the impossible task of obedience to the Law. The Law was given to Israel and Believers are now under Christ’s “new covenant” of grace and love. The corpus of the New Testament reiterates these points over and over:
- For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. – Romans 3:20
- For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. – Romans 6:14
- Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. – Romans 7:4
- There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:1-2
- For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:4
- Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. – Galatians 2:16
- For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. – Galatians 2:19
- But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. – Galatians 5:18
- For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, – Ephesians 2:8
So does that mean that Christians just should ignore the 1st five books of the Bible? In Read The Bible For Life, Old Testament scholar J. Daniel Hayes answers that question this way:
As the New Testament makes clear, we should acknowledge that we are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant. Therefore, although the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy are still Scripture (God’s powerful, inerrant and infallible Word to us, to which we are to respond in obedience), they are no longer law for us. If someone breaks one of the laws today, they are no longer punished by the community as they were in ancient Israel. Thus we should read and apply the Old Testament legal material not as direct law but in a similar manner to how we would read the Old Testament narratives (stories) that contain the law. We need to understand the principles in the passages we are reading. What do they teach us about God? What do they teach us about human nature? What guidelines do we find here that can help us live for the Lord in the world today?***
Too many of the finger-waggling and mocking militant atheist crowd try to brand Christians as hypocrites by – quite correctly – pointing out that Christians don’t follow the Old Testament Law. Thank you, Captain Obvious … Of course we don’t. Following the Law is a fruitless exercise. No one has ever perfectly complied with the Law. No has ever earned favor with God by following the Law. Christ has set believers free from the burden of attempting to please God through the Law. That’s the central theme of the New Testament.
Perhaps here’s a better question for those same hate-fueled atheists: Do you think that you could be fully obedient all 613 commands of the Law?
Or better yet: If the 613 commands are God’s measuring stick of what it means to be “good,” how could anyone possibly please God by their actions?
That’s why we need God’s grace and forgiveness. In spite of our abject inability to please God or follow His commands, He still loves us with a furious and boundless love (Romans 5:8). He forgives our failures, our fake-outs, our rebellions and our sins. He adopts weak, broken and repentant people as his beloved children with a glorious eternal inheritance. Because of God’s forgiveness expressed on the cross of Christ, a great exchange takes place between what we deserve for our rebellion and the gracious treasure of forgiveness that we receive from God. The grace of God through the work of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit enables and empowers us to love and become obedient to God.
For the believer, God’s 613 commands should remind us of the thousands of reasons and ways that God has forgiven us. The capital “L” Law should remind the believer that we are now under a new law of Christ’s love. The number 613 should drive us to our knees in thankfulness that God is merciful, gracious and forgiving. The number 613 is the ghostly reminder of a prison cell that we no longer call home. The number 613 point us to the one Savior sent to us free.
Praise God because the number 613 no longer has any power over me.
*** George Guthrie’s Read The Bible For Life is a fantastic introductory book to the interpretation of the Bible, and I highly recommend it for any level of experience with Christianity.