The Law, the OT, and Christians

Over the past couple of weeks we have been poking around various issues of the relationship of Christians with the scriptures of Israel.

It all started with some musings on why Christians don’t keep Sabbath, and that expanded into the question of Law more generally: [in what sense] do Christians keep the Law? But each of these is, in turn, a smaller portion of the larger question of the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament.

In all of its profundity, here is the thesis I have been implicitly arguing over the past couple of weeks (stolen, no doubt, from Steve Taylor):

Cross Image: luigi diamanti /

This image means a few things:

  1. Everything that comes to us, on this side of the cross, from the OT comes to us only and always through Christ.
  2. This means we do not do anything or adopt anything simply because it is in the Bible, but always as the people whose OT Bible story has found a surprising climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
  3. We depend on the NT to set the trajectories for understanding where this unexpected, “apocalyptic” action of Christ cements OT ideas, where it transforms them, and where it insists that we leave them behind.

The question for us is never simply, “What does the OT say?” But always, “How must we read the OT in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ?”

For the Law this means a few things.

First, the Decalogue is insufficient to guide us in the way of godliness.

We have already been talking about the implications connected with Sabbath keeping. Paul repeatedly avers that keeping a day holy is not required now that Christ has come. In Colossians this is put in terms of “shadow” versus the “body” that casts the shadow. No longer must we submit to commandments about festivals (annual holy days), new moons (monthly holy days), or sabbaths (weekly holy days) (Col 2:16).

Similar specifications are drawn out in Galatians–Paul fears for the churches because they are observing days, months, seasons, and years (Gal 4:10).

Christ transforms the idea of “holy time.” We are no longer bound by calendars of holy days. That includes weekly Sabbath observance.

But what about the “second table” of the Law, the commandments concerning loving neighbor?

These, too, have not been untouched by the advent of Christ, but there is more continuity here than in the commandments concerning God.

In Matthew, the commandments are transformed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. No, keeping them is not bad or left behind in the same way that the Sabbath commandment is elsewhere. However, they are shown to be insufficient. From “you shall not commit adultery” to “you shall not look at a woman lustfully.”

This is not “what the commandment intended all along,” it is what Jesus says (“But I say to you”) that stands in deepening contrast to what was already there.

Of course, then there’s “eye for an eye,” which Jesus overturns. No, eye for an eye was not cruel, but a reining in of revenge. But Jesus says even this is insufficient.

Greater righteousness is now required–a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees: because the righteousness they had on offer is merely the righteousness of the Law.

The stuff Paul had (Phil 3) but realized, in the face of the crucified Christ, to be insufficient.

Similarly, in Mark 10, there is the rich man. He asks about which commandments he must keep to inherit eternal life. The second table of the Decalogue is rattled off to him. He does these. What more is needed?

“Follow me.”

Jesus places himself–as, in fact, he is en route to Jerusalem to die–in the middle of the equation about eternal life in the Kingdom of God. There is a way to love God, and neighbor, that cannot be known our lived into by keeping the Ten Words. This episode shows they are requisite, but insufficient.

If we want to know what we should do, we can do no better than the rich man and ask Jesus what we must do. Jesus, specifically the Jesus stories in the NT, tell us: we must heed the commands of Jesus, follow Jesus along the way of the cross, and accept this transformed vision of what it means to love our neighbor as ourself.

The Second Table will not be broken or violated, but it will be kept in a manner befitting a specifically Christian story.

15 thoughts on “The Law, the OT, and Christians”

    1. Alvin, New Covenant Theology has been mentioned a few times over the past couple of weeks. I confess to not being familiar with this movement. So, alas, I can’t answer your question well! Having said that, who are its proponents?

      1. The only popular ‘proponent’ would be Douglas J. Moo (there are other, less well-known proponents), but here’s the tricky part: In “The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views” (also republished as “Five Views on Law and Gospel”) under Zondervan, Moo writes a “modified Lutheran position” which basically ends up agreeing with New Covenant Theology. In its hermeneutic of the OT Law and its relation to Christians, it comes to the conclusion that the “Mosaic law in itself is no longer binding on the Christian” but “New Testament authors explicitly ‘reapply’ several Mosaic commandments to the Christian”. Its authority is not, in the era of the new covenant, the authority of ‘law’ but the authority of a prophetic witness”. I don’t like self-advertisement, especially on someone else’s blog, but I wrote about NCT here:

  1. A thought on “eye for an eye”: The original law says that whatever someone does must be done to them. But in Jesus’ new take on it, the Jesus follower takes both of them. So justice is still done, just in a different way.

    Does that make sense?

    I think Jesus is calling us to be like him and do what he does, as in take guilt, shame, revenge upon himself and offer love instead.

  2. Hi Kirk,

    I’ve been following your trilogy (if that’s what it is :)) on the place of the OT and the Law in the lives of Christians, and I’ve found it most beneficial.

    When I was at RTS (Reformed Theological Seminary), though I’m not longer there anymore, my professor asked us to write a paper on one particular area of the Westminster Confession that we found problematic. I chose to write on Section XXI.VII, which discusses the Lord’s Day as being continuous with the Sabbath. I found this extremely problematic and actually traced the origin of the establishment of the Lord’s Day as a law to Puritans, who were horrified at the debauchery of England at the time and demanded that such a law be enshrined. A bear baiting incident in England, 23 Jan 1582, led to a demand that the Lord’s Day be made the law of the land as well as regarded as a Sabbath for Christians. I made an argument for why I found this particular section in the Westminster Confession problematic and handed in my paper.

    To my surprise, the professor criticized it very much saying that it was not in the spirit of the Reformed tradition, but nevertheless he liked that I thought critically about the meaning of the Lord’s Day with its relationship to the Sabbath, which quite frankly is none. I felt he was talking out of two sides of his mouth. Very frustrating!

    But thank you Kirk for expressing, far better that I did, the reality of our relationship to the Law.


  3. I’m a little behind here, but I was going to say the same thing as Geoffw in the previous thread, that Jesus said he came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law. I take that to mean that as a strict literal code of behavior the Mosaic Law had reached the limit of its usefulness, but that the purposes previous to the Law are still valid … that is for example, the necessity to love God and your neighbor. So the Decalog was not overthrown but opened to a radical (root-based) interpretation, a higher obedience. So Egypt is an anachronism, but the house of slavery is still very much with us, and I personally wish to thank God for leading me out of it.

    The root meaning of sabbath (Strong’s 7673) has to do with stopping. We are still commanded to stop the worldly business of our lives, even our Kingdom work, and make a holy space where we can address God and He us. So I believe the sense of the commandment (the 4th and the others) is still valid although the given details should be considered illustrative rather than literally binding. And I’m sure that you, Daniel, do keep the commandment in this sense.

  4. “In Matthew, the commandments are transformed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. No, keeping them is not bad or left behind in the same way that the Sabbath commandment is elsewhere. However, they are shown to be insufficient. From “you shall not commit adultery” to “you shall not look at a woman lustfully.”

    This is not “what the commandment intended all along,” it is what Jesus says (“But I say to you”) that stands in deepening contrast to what was already there.

    … the Ten Words … are requisite, but insufficient.”

    I’m inclined to think that Torah as such only applied to ethnic Israel, but certain things in it expressed some of what a Christian life would be (and expressed some of what true Israel within ethnic Israel would be, even in the Old Testament). So, Torah is completely, lock, stock and barrel, not applicable anymore.

  5. The following thoughts come to mind in this important discussion:
    1) The law was given to the Jew, not the Gentile.
    2) The law – as a covenant – is passed away, more so than the law as torah (teaching)…which is why the Apostles could use it freely for even ethical teaching moments.
    3) Most (all?) elements that are completely done away, the OT already spoke to.
    4) The OT anticipated what the NT would later explain.
    5) Generally, the NT “commentary” on the OT is not ‘correction’, but explanation.

  6. >>>”This is not “what the commandment intended all along,” it is what Jesus says (“But I say to you”) that stands in deepening contrast to what was already there.”

    Of course, it is one thing to claim this and yet another to prove it. I missed where you actually grounded your claim here with any real support.

    Contrary to your claim, the commandment regarding adultery, for example, finds support in the Old Testament for the view of Jesus which is much more restrictive than what we merely have in the Decalogue even from the oldest of books (Job 31:1). Adultery in the prophets is seen not merely as the basic command but is most certainly about love and fidelity to God himself and others indicating that the commandment is much more broad and comprehensive than a cursory read of the Decalogue might allow (cf. Jeremiah 3:9; Ezekiel 16).

    We find David too using the law in surprising ways and treating his enemy Saul with seemingly undue respect, loving his enemy (1 Samuel 24, 26) and sparing his life not once but twice. There’s no hint in the narrative that this is somehow out of spirit with the actual intent of the law regarding an eye for an eye. In fact, Saul realizes that David in his action to do so is “more righteous (1 Samuel 24:17) because David had dealt well with him. It would not be too far from the truth to suggest that this was “more righteous than the Pharisees” simply because David understood the nature and intent of the law far better than later Pharisees would. In each case you mention from the Sermon on the Mount or elsewhere regarding “a deepening contrast” of Jesus’ interpretation of the law, a similar contrast can be seen in the Old Testament on a close read.

    I’m just not so sure we’re reading the Old Testament as closely as we should. Are these commandments really new from the lips of our Lord on the Sermon on the Mount or is it possible that they were merely new to the hearers of that day simply because like the two walking at Emmaus, the crowd finds itself properly rebuked “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luk 24:25)? If we can find similar strict readings of the law in the Old Testament equivalent to our Lord’s words, isn’t it a bit much to suggest this means anything other than this is what was intended in the commandments all along?

    But, there is more. The same discontinuity that you present regarding the law and Christ is just constantly rebutted over and over again in the pages of Scripture. We have already mentioned Romans 13:8-10 which seems consistently ignored here in this discussion in terms of a passage that continues to mention and apply the dictates of the Decalogue well after Christ’s resurrection. 1 John 5 of course deals not with this one commandment of love which you outline but many commandments echoing the rest of our Lord’s words and what we have elsewhere in the New Testament. Even Luke 1:6 tells us of the faithfulness of Elizabeth and Zacharias “both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.” In 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 provides us with moral argumentation from the ceremonial dictates of the law suggesting that the Old Testament was never clearly put to the side in order to embrace some ‘we love like Jesus did’ ethic. Rather, the person and work of Christ adds to the law what was missing before–clarity. What was in shadow is now here in substance. But, such an effect does not negate the underlying truth and validity of God’s law. Rather, it establishes it with proper intent and force and allows Christians to obey it as our Lord commanded, through him, and by his Spirit.

  7. Hi, Daniel,

    I really appreciate your three implications of the cross of Christ for understanding the Old Testament’s abiding witness.

    The storied theology of Jesus’ incarnation-birth-life-crucifixion-resurrection-ascension embraces a “salvation singularity” that retrospectively fulfills the meaning of OT texts beyond the mindset of the first audience/readers (Luke 24:25-27).

    Ted Bell, in his recent novel, *Phantom*, describes technological singularity: ” . . .’[A] unique event with singular implications.’ Life-changing implications. A rip in the fabric of current civilization” (p. 482).

    Salvation singularity of Jesus Christ has penetrated ordinary affairs of humankind and transforms the cosmos–especially those who are already in union with the Lord Jesus through the Spirit and learning to love neighbor as He has loved us.

    The singularity of the Christ event transforms perspective on what the Decalogue means today as compared with its import for the original hearers. The laws that Moses mediated to Israel were insufficient and incapable of providing life and sonship as well as permanent deliverance and cleansing from sin (Gal 3:21-22; 4:4-7).

    In becoming co-crucified with Christ and sharing his resurrection life, believers find authentic fulfillment and sufficiency that the law was unable to enable (Gal 2:20; John 1:16; 2 Cor 12:9; Col 2:9).

    The “once-for all” cross of Christ–implying the good news of realized resurrection as firstborn of the dead–is the visible icon of salvation singularity.

    The cross of Jesus is our essential interpretive key for rightly understanding the Old Testament’s abiding witness to the faithfulness and impartiality of God in respect to his promises to humanity–for Jew and Gentile alike.


    1. No. It is not the cross that is our interpretive key but rather Christ himself and the entirety of his contribution as the Incarnate Son. He is the “yes” and the “amen” to all of God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20). It is only a dispensational-like hermeneutic that restricts the impact of Christ to what we find on the cross. Clearly, the resurrection has dramatic import on becoming a new creature in Christ and the law helps us understand how we’re to live in him (Eph. 4:17-32).

      This becomes especially notable when we realize that the cross of Christ and his resurrection didn’t just work for sins going forward but took care of all sin for all time and was the very thing that gave Elizabeth and Zacharias (and many others before them) the ability to “both [be] righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.”

      The unity between Old and New Testament is found in the work of the covenant God of Israel seen first by that great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us with the divine escort of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, then demonstrated in substance by the coming of Christ himself, and available to us through the work of Christ and by his Holy Spirit. Now, we work out our own salvation in fear and trembling, putting on Christ, and walking in his way, doing what the Lord requires–loving justice, doing kindness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). In short, living out the moral principles defined principally in the law and the prophets.

      1. Hello, Kevin,

        Yes, it would be much clearer to say that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the authentic interpretative key to unlocking the Old Testament witness.

        I referenced the cross of Christ as a visible icon and attempted to include the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as well.

        Contextually speaking, the cross can narrowly refer to the violent death of Jesus in the hands of Roman authorities or more broadly symbolize the the plan of God in bringing many sons to glory.

        All that God has purposed in sending his Son for our salvation–even including the perfecting agency of the Holy Spirit–is the encompassing scope of the once-for-all Christ event, or “salvation singularity” as I adopted the term.

        Thanks for helping me improve.


  8. By the way, if Christ is the yes and the amen to all of God’s promises, we have to see the moral principles of the Old Covenant as still relevant and in force because they are inherently wrapped up and even amplified in his person and work.

  9. Nice exchange on an important topic. I don’t feel that the OT is something that needs “unlocking”, nor am I totally comfortable with “moral” designation as to what stays and what goes, it’s a start.

    There were those in Jesus day “who got it” and Peter says the OT prophets searched their writings for the time and person – not the plan and the purpose or intent (at least in general).

    I take that the OT moral principles, if you will, received their authority – especially initially – not because they related to Messiah, point by point, directly, but because they were given by God himself – especially those “written by his finger”. Jesus, by coming, teaching and living these “principles”, underscores the authority they already have. But, more to the point, the “moral/civil/ceremonial” division is really tough to discern in the OT; I think they saw thing much more cohesively.

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