613: Do Christians Need To Follow The Old Testament Law?

chainsDo you eat bacon?

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.

Loving The Old Testament Without Dying of Embarrassment

hebrewscrollEvery church has them: “Spare” Bibles. You know the Bibles your church keeps around for the absent minded, the lackadaisical and the stray atheist. Most of these “spares” are just copies that church members left at church and forgot to pick up again.

I vividly remember the “spare” Bibles from my youth Sunday School room. These “spares” were “reader versions” of the Bible, meaning that they only contained the New Testament and (occasionally) Psalms. Maybe Proverbs if you’re lucky. I used those “spare” Bibles a lot. So when the youth leader told you to take out your Bible and turn to the book of Exodus, you’d have to awkwardly read over the shoulder of your unsuspecting buddy in the folding chair next to you instead.

Now I fully understand the purpose of publishers printing copies of the Bible containing New Testament and Psalms / Proverbs only. Many outreach organizations (which I dearly love), such as Gideons International and the Navigators, hand out introductory (and free) “reader” copies of the Bible designed to point non-believers to the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. If you’ve got five minutes to make someone an evangelistic presentation, you want to point them to the solution to their problems without having to exposit Lamentations.

However, most Christians often treat the Old Testament like these “spare” copies of the Bible: We believe that the Old Testament is non-essential to the Gospel story. Or it’s filler that keeps you from the “good parts” of the Bible … It’s incomprehensible with its bloody sacrifices and levitical ceremonies … It’s boring with all of the strange names and tribes … It’s unnecessary so we take our mental scissors like Uncle Joey and cut … it … out.*

Moreover, my concern is also that most Christians simply don’t know what to do with 37 out of 39 books of the Old Testament. We treat the Old Testament like that odd uncle with a record that no one wants to talk about. Or like an unwashed child that must be immediately thrown into the bath to get cleaned up and presentable. We’re embarrassed by the levitical laws about mold and menstruation. We’re horrified of and perplexed by the violence perpetrated by God and His people, such as random judges killing Philistines with ox goads. We’re uncomfortable with the tawdry and morally ambiguous stories about the sex lives of the patriarchs. And we’re bored to tears by Chronicles, because … well … nobody likes Chronicles except my Seminary Hebrew professor. When atheists ask Christians fairly straightforward questions about Levitical food laws or the genocide found in the book of Joshua, we’re completely stumped to the point of stammering. We love our babies’ nurseries decked out in cute Noah ark themes but have no comprehension of the sheer carnage of the Flood narrative. Honestly, we’d rather just change the subject to the love of God instead of confront the messiness of the Old Testament.

Shame on us.

As a result, Christians often read the Old Testament in a variety of crazy (and incorrect) ways. Case in point: One of the retired pastors of my current church told me the mind boggling tale of how a former congregation member vehemently argued during an Old Testament Bible study that Jesus was – in fact – not Jewish. And – by osmosis – didn’t obey the Jewish festivals and food laws. I kid you not. Oy vey.

However, there are other quite popular methodologies that Christians commonly use to poorly interpret (or even attempt to make sense) of the Old Testament:

  1. Legalism: Legalism dumbs down the Bible into a laundry list of rules and regulations that mankind must comply with to keep oneself right with God. In this vein, every Old Testament command is taken extremely seriously, because one cannot be righteous in God’s sight without obeying every command. Like modern day Pharisees, the Old Testament commands are subsequently transformed in monstrous behemoths of legal hurdles for believers to navigate. Passages like Deuteronomy 22:5 are transformed into rules about women wearing dresses in worship. Essentially, the Bible is “life’s instruction manual,” and God will be pleased if you can just follow the rules. Of course, the Gospel informs us that people simply can’t “follow the rules,” so legalism winds up being complete non-sense (see Galatians in its entirety).
  2. Moralism: As a close second cousin to legalism, moralism communicates that the grand message of the Bible is one of self-improvement and good moral behavior. Moralism is rampant in Christian children literature, where the Old Testament narratives are routinely mashed up and remixed into Grimms’ fairy tales: Ruth is about family sticking together … Ester is about a proto-Disney princess … David vs. Goliath is about overcoming “giants” in your life. The grand Biblical narrative of God’s saving activity through Christ is ignored altogether. Of course, moralism faces the same fatal flaw of legalism: No one is moral or righteous apart from Christ (see Romans 3).
  3. Prooftexting: An agenda-driven interpretation where a snippet of obscure text is hijacked to make what you want it to say. Any shred of context must be ignored at all costs. Think Jeremiah 29:11 printed on all those coffee mugs and doormats at Family Christian bookstore.
  4. Bad Devotional Reading: Because randomly flipping to any given page of the Old Testament is a surefire recipe for confusion.
  5. Oddball Prophecy: Similar to Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, many Christians string together out-of-context Old Testament passages to justify their paranoia that (insert name of current president) is the anti-Christ and we should all build Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt bunkers. From Joseph Smith to Ellen G. White to Harold Camping, the history of Christianity is littered with charismatic leaders predicting the exact date of the end times based on obscure Old Testament passages, which – ironically – Jesus said is a pretty terrible idea.
  6. Patriotically: Many Christians cannot remove their cultural blinders, and apply the promises of the Abrahamic covenant to America. Tell me you haven’t seen 2 Chronicles 7:14 slapped on a bumper sticker surrounded by an American flag and a bald eagle in flight. Many believe that if only America could be more like ancient Israel, God would bring his covenant blessings upon America. Never mind that God never made a covenant with America. Or that God sent ancient Israel into exile. Certainly American exceptionalism can prevail where the Israelites failed, right?!?
  7. Complete Ignorance: When you don’t understand it … Just ignore it. Unfortunately, this ignorance can come from a very honest place. I have met many new Christians burning with desire to understand the Bible, so they start at Genesis 1 … Get confused by Leviticus … And give up by Deuteronomy. Like the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8, the church needs more mature believers to come alongside those yearning to learn.

Christians would do well to remember that Jesus revered the Old Testament. And – accordingly – so did Peter, Paul and the rest of the early Christian church. To reiterate the title of Philip Yancey’s popular book, the Old Testament was the Bible that Jesus (and the apostles) read. Christ never minimizes or apologizes for the Old Testament like that odd uncle that you have to invite over for Christmas. Christ never shies away from authoritatively quoting the Old Testament to disciples, Pharisees, rulers and even the Devil. Jesus publicly preaches that He came to fulfill every aspect of the Law – down to the smallest character – and not to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). And when Paul states that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he’s referring to the Old Testament and not making a self-referential comment (2 Timothy 3:16). Similarly, both Jesus and Paul defended the message and the integrity of the Old Testament against Pharisees, Judaizers and anyone else who would defame its methods or message.

Moreover, there IS a proper methodology for Christians to read and interpret the Old Testament: Christ. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, Jesus is principally unveiled as the same Word of God that spoke creation and command into existence … now taken human flesh and tabernacling amongst mankind (John 1:1-14). In the beginning of Luke, Jesus reads a scroll containing Isaiah 61:1-2 and then tells a shellshocked crowd: “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:17-21). In the midst of John’s Gospel, Jesus brings the smack down to a bunch of legalistic Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” Similarly, Jesus taught the Emmaus Road disciples and the apostles that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms were about Him and found fulfillment in Him (Luke 24:27, 44-49). Every sermon given by the apostles in Acts is a masterful exposition of how Christ fulfilled the Old Testament.

To get theologically nerdy for a moment, the proper hermeneutic (or interpretation) of the Old Testament is the lens of Christ and apostles. Of course, this Christocentric approach does not mean that expositors must wax allegorically about Song of Solomon or traverse a scavenger hunt for Christ in every minute detail of the Old Testament. But there is an overall Gospel narrative that frames the entirety of the Bible, and that grand story of man’s depravity and God’s gracious salvation cannot be ignored or minimized. Christ is the apex of God’s rescue. From start to finish, the New Testament is awash with the beauty and color of the Old Testament.

It’s time for Christians to stop treating the Old Testament like an awkward first date. Or a distant relative that we never go visit. We cannot understand what we don’t engage. And much of our failure to properly comprehend or interpret the Old Testament is simply an abject failure of engagement. The Psalmists’ passion for the Old Testament is described as a “deer panting for water” (Psalm 42:1) and as honey on the lips (Psalm 119:103). It’s essential for life as well as addictively sweet. In sharp contrast, our lack of passion for the Old Testament is like a child turning up his nose at broccoli … We know it’s good for us but we can’t bear digesting it. We’d rather stare at it sit on the plate, nibble around the edges and surreptitiously throw the majority out to the dogs under the table.

Is it any wonder why we treat the Old Testament as an embarrassment?

* Yes, that was a Full House joke. #sorrynotsorry