We are currently going over steps to form a better understanding of the Bible, the central text of the Christian faith. Last week I wanted us to learn some tips for reading The Psalms and this week we’ll focus on some tips for reading the the Laws of the Old Testament.
There is a psychological phenomenon called “Stockholm Syndrome” in which the captives become mentally and emotionally bonded to their captor. They express empathy, sympathy and even a fondness for the one who held them in slavery and abused them. This is the setting that we find the Old Testament law being given to God’s community, the nation of Israel. Imagine what it would be like for them to camp as free people and hear their new King’s (God) laws, rules and regulations. What God was doing for them was rebuilding them, reconstructing and re-purposing a people for his Glory, His name and image. This undertaking involved learning new rules and a new way of life.
If you are going to read the Old Testament and New Testament and hope for any understanding you cannot ignore the Laws that God gave to his Covenant people, Israel. God made many conditional promises to his covenant people, Israel. Covenant is a huge word that basically means promise. The closest thing today that we can relate covenant to is the institution of marriage with vows and promises between two people in this case God and Israel. The Old Testament is the account, proof or “testament” of this covenant promise. In this article I want to help you understand how to read the Laws of the Old Testament. The three primary stories in the Old Testament for gaining understanding are Exodus 1-18; Exodus 33; 40 and Exodus 19-Numbers 10:10. These passages mark three very important aspects concerning the purpose of the Old Testament law First, the Redemption of Israel; Second, the return of his presence to earth for Israel and Third, the legal/moral reconstitution of the people of Israel out from under king Pharaoh to their new God-King Yahweh . Here are some things to remember when trying to understand the role of the Old Testament law in all of Scripture.
First: Many folks think that there are only Ten Commandments or laws this is simply not true. It’s important to remember when the scripture refers to “laws” there are over 600 law commands for the people of Israel to faithfully keep as a way of life in response to God’s faithfulness and redemption of them (Exodus 18:20).
Second: The 600 plus laws are often spoken of in a singular or all-encompassing way as “The Law”. Some examples would include: Matthew 5:18; Joshua 1:8 is using “this book of the law” in a singular way to refer to everything from Genesis to Deuteronomy; The New Testament refers to “the law” as a way to refer to the entire Old Testament religious structure in 1 Corinthians 9:20.
Third: Read the old covenant law in light of the New Covenant, Jesus. Remember today Christians are under a new covenant with Jesus. Go ahead and try practicing Leviticus 1-5 in your Church today and see what happens. Even though the covenant in the Old Testament wasn’t to us it is still for us today. It still has a purpose in our lives in the following ways. First, if we are to learn from and understand the story of Israel and how it relates to our story we must understand the nature and characteristics of the promise/covenant God made with them. Second, both the Old and New Testaments are affirmed on the foundation of love. God loves therefore we should love him and love others like he loves us. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19-18, Mark 12:28-31)
Fourth: The Civil Laws and Ritualistic Sacrificial Laws for Israel are no longer in effect for us today under the New Covenant/Testament. So if you would like to keep one of the civil laws from the Old Testament today Jesus made it very complicated when in John 8:7 he said “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Regarding the Ritualistic Sacrificial laws Jesus’ sacrifice was the end of all the animal sacrifices (Hebrews 9:15-28).
New Testament theologian Gordon Fee makes a very helpful analogy for us here when he says:
“There are many modern analogies to this sort of change of stipulations from covenant to covenant. In the case of labor contracts, for example, a new contract may specify changes in working conditions, different staffing structures, different pay scales, etc. Yet it may also retain certain features of the old contract—seniority, work breaks, provisions against arbitrary firing, etc. Now a labor contract is hardly on the level of the covenant between God and Israel, but it is a type of covenant and therefore helps illustrate in a familiar way the fact that a new covenant can be quite different from an old covenant, yet not necessarily totally different. This is just the case with the biblical covenants”
Fifth: We ought to observe the “law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) as that which is a renewal/recreation of the Old Testament law. Jesus uses the Ten Commandments explicitly (Exodus 20:1-17, Deuteronomy 5:4-21) and the two great Commands (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18) because they still bear weight on us today as his followers. It is so important for us to remember as Christians that in both the Old and New Testament the believer was never called to some kind of religious moralism. In other words, what I mean by religious moralism is the Biblical story is not one of “good boys and girls” going to heaven because their behavior was improved in such a way that it saved them. Scripture as a whole and in context has never painted a picture of salvation like this: “do more, try harder and you will receive the redeeming grace of God!” Instead all of scripture follows this very simple rule regarding the Old Testament law and the New Testament “law of Christ”: “Because of God’s grace and redemption toward you do more and try harder as an act of gratitude” In other words in the Old testament and in the New Testament the appropriate response to grace has always been gratitude. God has changed what that looks like as a way of life for us today as Christians but He has always made it clear that what he deems to be a morally essential law should always grow out of a grace filled and redeemed encounter with God. Good morals growing out of grace and redemption rather than good morals growing into grace and redemption have always been a beautiful characteristic of the God of the Bible. We can do what pleases God and what he asks of us in Scripture but only through the power of the cross and the resurrection of Christ because “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21