From time-to-time I am challenged to research something and to determine exactly what I believe. We often deal with situations or doctrines that are difficult. My recent challenge was what do we (as Christians) do with the instructions / customs from the Old Testament? What follows are the results of a study that I did to determine the obligatory nature of Christians and the Old Testament. This isn’t meant to determine whether we might observe these customs and/or instructions, but whether we are obligated to do so.
Old Testament, New Testament, God’s Word, God’s breath, Law, Grace. You’ve all heard these words, but what do they mean?
How are we to live the Christian life? In most of our homes, exists a compilation of historic documents commonly referred to as our Bible. The Bible contains 66 books and is divided into two major sections; the Old Testament and the New Testament. What is the difference between them and why do we call them such? Other names exist for sections of the Bible such as the Torah – which are the first five books of the Old Testament. Within the Old Testament and specifically within the Torah are many instructions God spoke to the Israelite people either directly or through people such as prophets. As an example, one specific instruction is requiring people to adhere to the Sabbath; Saturday. Sabbath adherence requires an individual to cease all work beginning at sundown Friday evening through sundown Saturday evening. This is supposed to be a day set apart as a holy day for God. You can read more about this in Exodus 20 and 31.Most Christians, with the exception of a few (e.g. Seventh-Day Adventists) don’t practice adherence to the Sabbath, nor have they en-mass for thousands of years. Many Jewish (especially orthodox Jews) people still follow the Jewish customs including the Sabbath. What happened to create the shift? Are Christians supposed to be following and adhering to the customs presented in the Old Testament books – particular the Torah?
These things can be difficult for us to process. One person says Christians must continue to adhere to the Old Testament law; another says, we ignore the Old Testament entirely and yet another will say that it is a mixture. So what is it? Before we can go down this road, the reader should understand the culture in which we live. We live in a paralyzed culture where individuals divide themselves into binary camps unable to move, or grasp the position of another without being divisive. Our American society is / was built upon tolerance and respect towards one another, and each of us should continue practicing such. Yes, there may be some things upon which we stand, but for things that are difficult, let’s try to have good understanding toward each other giving respect where it is due. I say this because I don’t want this paper to be used as a means to bully someone into a binary position. This paper should be taken as it was designed – to inform the reader as to the conclusion of my study regarding this particular topic.
Paul gave us good instructions on treating each other with respect regarding this very issue.
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. – Romans 14:4-6 (ESV)
All of that said, let’s dive into this fascinating topic. When Jesus died upon the Roman cross, he said three words that would echo down through the ages? “It is finished!” Who would’ve known that the meaning behind these words would confuse so many.
For thousands of years, Christians debated the concept of Christians conforming to and obeying the Old Testament laws and customs. We can trace this debate all the way back to Acts 15 where even Paul and Barnabas struggled with it along with the original Disciples of Jesus. When the Church Age began (following the resurrection of Jesus), the idea of Gentiles becoming converts was foreign. When Paul and others began to realize Gentiles too were receiving the Holy Spirit, an issue arose. Should Gentiles adhere to the Law? Luke (the author of Acts) writes in Acts 15:5, “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.'”. This debate was not exclusively over circumcision but over adherence to the entire Mosaic Law. Within the New Testament writings, circumcision is frequently used as a representative of the whole law. I’m placing some degree of emphasis here on the wording in Acts 15:5 because it is important to understand the extent of the debate.
The apostles and elders gathered together in Jerusalem and debated this matter extensively (vs. 7). Peter speaks first. He says – God chose me first to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. I’ve seen first hand that the Holy Spirit has come upon them just as He did with us. So why are we going to put additional burdens on them – which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (vs. 10). James speaks second and says we should not trouble the Gentiles who turn to God. The only requirements should be to 1) abstain from things polluted by idols. 2) Abstain from sexual immorality. 3) Abstain from eating what has been strangled and 4) Abstain from drinking blood.
Fast forward nearly two thousand years. We have a resurgence of Christians who believe that we are obligated to observe the Mosaic Law.
The typical obligatory arguments are:
- Christians should have their male children circumcised.
- Christians should celebrate the Old Testament holidays / feasts and customs.
- Christians should observe the Sabbath. There is no “order” to change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.
After the death of Christ, we see a time of confusion. That Gentiles would become heirs of God’s promises to Israel was foreign and quite difficult to fathom. Furthermore, we know that Jesus did something huge – something that would echo throughout the ages; but what was it? God specifically called Paul to help the early church sort out what his death and resurrection meant. Paul began to teach that we (Christians) are no longer under the law and no longer required to observe the Old Testament feasts and customs. To the Jews, Paul represented an affront to their religion. Many were angered and wanted Paul put to death – just as Jesus was (he was also an affront to Judaism). If there is any doubt as to what Paul taught, read Acts 21:20-21 – which I will quote from the ESV.
And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law,and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. – Acts 21:20-21 (ESV)
The Prophet Jeremiah
Did God ever tell His people that eventually the Law (as they knew it) would be replaced or come to an end? Yes, He did. He informed the Prophet Jeremiah that a new covenant was coming. A new covenant between God and his people. A new covenant means that the old one becomes null and void. A covenant is a contract between two individuals or two groups. If you create a new contract, the old one is no longer binding.
Jeremiah 31:31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
What was this “New Covenant”? Jesus said (as recorded by Luke in Luke 22:20), ‘”And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (ESV). Jesus represents the New Covenant. He is as he declared of Himself the fulfillment of the Law and the start of the new contract.
What else do we know about this New Covenant? Let’s read on.
who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter [law] but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. – 2Corinthians 3:6 (ESV)
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. – Hebrews 8:13 (ESV)
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. – Hebrews 9:15 (ESV)
From this we know that Jesus represents or ushered in the new covenant. The New covenant is not of the “letter” (which is the Old Testament), but of the Holy Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:6 is a powerful verse not to be taken lightly.
“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. – Matthew 5:17 (ESV) An alternate translation for the word “fulfill” is complete. Jesus is the completion of the Law. Thus the phrase we often hear, “it is finished.” What is finished? Jesus finished everything – everything that is required for us to stand right before God.
God’s Word / Our Bible (Old Testament, New Testament)
Before I can continue, we have to establish something very important and that is declaring precisely what God’s word is? Is it only the word He spoke? Is it only Jesus words (as in the red print in your Bible)? What about the Apostle Paul, the Apostle John – are their words equivalent? Most of what I’m writing hinges on the concept that the Old Testament = God’s Word AND the New Testament = God’s Word. There are some who appear to regard Jesus’ words as authoritative, but words from people – such as the Apostle Paul and others not so much. I hold all of the Bible – the Old Testament to the end of the New Testament as God’s complete and perfect Holy Word. God created this world and established laws, but these laws sometimes change according to the specified and for-ordained “ages”. The “covenants” or perhaps a better word, the contracts dictate the terms.
Paul to the Churches
Paul had some strong words for those who would use the Law in an attempt to obtain justification. I encourage the reader to carefully read the book of Galatians. Follow that up with reading through Hebrews. You’ll find that the debate of whether Christians should observe the old Jewish customs isn’t new at all.
1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
We need to ensure that we are not slipping into and under the yoke of the Law. Once you start down that path – that path of trying to ensure that you are doing everything according to the Law’s details, you are missing the entire point of what Christ did for you.
Read Paul’s words to the Church at Colossae:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. – Colossians 2:16 (ESV)
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” – Colossians 2:20-21 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. – Galatians 5:1-2 (ESV).
Verse-by-verse Galatians 3:19-29.
I will highlight several key words from Paul.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Notice the critical nature of the text in Galatians 3:19 – the key word is “until”. The law was added because of people’s sin. The law would be binding UNTIL the offspring (Jesus) came into the world.
What Became of the Law? It is Obsolete!
The Old Testament, Mosaic Law is completed / finished under Christ. There is no going back. Just as Israel left Egypt (and often longed for it), there was to be no going back That time, that age was/is finished. In the Church Age, we (Christians) are not required to follow the Mosaic Law nor the Jewish Customs. We are instead to adhere to the New Covenant. More about this later.
The clearest scriptures saying we are no longer under the law is found in a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the churches of Galatia.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. – Galatians 2:19 (ESV)
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. – Galatians 3:23-26 (ESV)
- Law = Guardian
- Guardian = no longer required. We are no longer under it.
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! – Romans 6:14-15 (ESV)
We also have Paul saying this in Romans 7:4, “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.”
Jesus Christ came to fulfill the law. He came to complete it, to put a period at the end of the contract. Jesus is the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy.
Imagine for a moment a large chasm. We are looking down at the chasm from a birds eye perspective. On the left is the Old Testament time / age. The age of the Law of God. The great chasm represents the birth of Christ, His work here on earth; culminating in his death and resurrection. On the right side of the great chasm is the Church Age — the Great Mystery as depicted by Paul so many times throughout the New Testament writings. Bridging the great divide is a cross. This cross spans the entire chasm and allows those who came out from under the law to emerge into a brand-new age — the Church Age.
The question that many wrestle with is whether Christians are supposed to observe the Old Testament laws. If God spoke and commanded certain things, why don’t we obey them? Indeed God did speak. He spoke quite loudly and that was through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; which changed everything! Our entire focus is to be that of Christ and not of the Old Testament law. If you are putting your focus on being subject to the Law, you are (in effect) trampling on the cross of Christ. Why do I say that? Let’s read from Hebrews 10:26-29.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? – Hebrews 10:26-29 (ESV)
To get to the other side (Old Covenant) of the chasm you have to walk backwards over the cross, over to the other side. Jesus invited you to take His yoke upon you – for it is much easier than the yoke of the law.
Let’s pause again just for a moment. My point is not that it is wrong to celebrate Jewish feasts or to attend a Passover meal or even for a Christian to choose to observe the Sabbath. What I am, however, stating is that you should properly understand why you are doing so? Are you obligated to obey the Law? Are you obligated to observe certain feasts? Are you obligated to keep the Sabbath?
What did Jesus say as recorded by John — John 19:30…
When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
What is/was finished? The Law was finished. Everything that was promised, everything everyone was looking for was done. Jesus is speaking of precisely what he prophesied and that was that he did not come to destroy the Law, he came to finish it. To complete it. The moment he died – he declared, “IT IS FINISHED”; and finished it is. When something is finished, then something new begins. Jesus completed / finished the Old Testament and declared / introduced a new one. That is why we refer to a section of the Bible as the New Testament. The New Testament tells us about the New Covenant between God and His people.
What About Saturday vs. Sunday Observance
Why did Christians move God’s holy day from the Sabbath to Sunday? That is actually the wrong question. The true question is “what became of the Sabbath?” Simply put, the Sabbath is no more because it falls under the Old Testament law. We no longer live under the yoke of the law (slavery), we live in an age of Grace of the Holy Spirit which is the New Covenant.
What does all of this then mean? This means that Sunday worship is not the Christian’s arbitrarily moving of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. Christians are no longer required to observe the Sabbath. Instead, we have a New Testament, a New Dispensation. You may then be wondering, where does this leave us? Can we simply do whatever we want and grace covers everything? Quite certainly and quite emphatically NO!
One of the teachers of the Law asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Jesus answered with two:
- Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
- Love your neighbor as yourself.
Paul outlines these requirements when in Galatians 6:2 Paul refers to the Law of Christ? What is the Law of Christ? This is; that is (the two commandments above).
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. – Matthew 22:37-39 (ESV)
After speaking this, Jesus said something profound, “All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” If you follow these two key things, that indicates that minus the Sabbath, even the Ten Commandments remain relevant. Furthermore, we have much instruction on what we are to do in the New Testament Church Age.
- Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together. Technically this could be Saturday or Sunday.
- Belonging to the body of Christ.
- Observing Christian communion.
- Receiving of and partaking of believers baptism.
God Warns Us About Going Back?
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. – Galatians 5:1 (ESV)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. – Galatians 2:20-21 (ESV)
I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. – Galatians 5:3-4 (ESV)
These warnings hold great weight and should / must be taken seriously.
Much of this debate over adherence to Old Testament customs comes down to Christian liberty. If one person chooses to celebrate certain feasts, then don’t judge them. You may, however, need to admonish them if they are forsaking the sacraments of the New Testament church – including church attendance, Baptism and participating in communion. What truly matters is what is in a person’s heart. If you are observing Old Testament laws or customs to gain favor with God; or to avoid Him being angry with you, then you should take some time to re-review God’s grace as found in the New Covenant.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. — Romans 14:5-6 (ESV). I think it is also important to quote this same verse from the NLT – which is as follows:
In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God. — Romans 14:5-6 (NLT).
You do not gain any favor from God in observing the Law.
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. – Galatians 4:8-10 (ESV).
Why the Return to the Law?
For thousands of years, the Church accepted the change from Old Testament times to the New Covenant, but in the last century we’ve observed a growing body of people moving back to the Old Testament customs even putting less emphasis on the Church and its function. I think, perhaps, the issue is Christians not understanding Dispensations. Dispensationalism is simply reading, understanding and interpreting the Bible according to the time and era in which it is placed. For example, the Old Testament makes it quite clear that animal sacrifices were required to cover sin. We don’t do that anymore because Jesus was the last sacrifice. He was the last Passover lamb. That is why we don’t practice the Passover in the same way that the Old Testament does. Instead we celebrate Resurrection Day. Why? Because to go back and celebrate the old way (sacrificing animals for the redemption of sin) is to trample upon the finished work of Christ. Now to be clear, I am not saying that celebrating Passover is wrong. We can learn much from it and anyone who desires to – may do so with full support of scripture. You simply need to understand why you are doing it in the first place.
Here are a few questions one can ask themselves to determine their own motives.
- If you are celebrating the feasts of the Old Testament, are you forsaking the sacraments of the New Testament? For example, are you breaking bread, and partaking in communion as outlined by Jesus and the Apostles? If you are practicing the Jewish customs over this, you may be diminishing the incredible worth of Christ’s death and resurrection.
- Are you attending a New Testament Church? This means more than just a couple of people within a house getting together. A church is a body of believers with a Pastor, Elders and Deacons. This is the structure given to us by God for the New Testament times. See 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus.
- If you are celebrating the feasts of the Old Testament, why are you doing so? If you don’t celebrate them are you concerned that you might be disobeying God? Are you trying to earn favor with Him by celebrating such feasts?
To celebrate or observe one of the Old Testament feasts is not wrong for a believer. I would, however, caution you to consider that if you find yourself observing more-and-more of the Old Testament customs and less of the New Covenant, you may be going down a slippery slope of obligatory adherence that Paul cautioned believers about in Galatians and Hebrews. Any observation of these things should be done simply with the intent to understand and learn about them, not to do so as an act of obedience. Our job is to carry out the instructions and to carry out the intent of the New Covenant as ushered in by Christ’s resurrection.
As Jeremiah the prophet predicted, a new covenant with Israel would come. Jesus ended the Old Covenant and brought in a new one. Every day of the Christian”s life is spent adhering to and following Jesus Law which hangs off of two commandments. 1. Love the Lord Your God with all of you heart, soul and mind. 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. If you can follow these two commands you will do well.