Introduction

What is the instruction manual by which Christians are to govern their lives?  The easy answer from most would be the Bible.  But that answer raises many questions.  Let’s consider some of them.

The Bible contains both Old and New Testaments.  Each contains different teachings and commands.  Is the present-day Christian supposed to obey the commands of both Old and New Testaments? 

Are the Ten Commandments (from the Old Testament) supposed to be the rules by which present-day Christians live?  One might think so because the Ten Commandments have been placed on the walls of our courtrooms, school rooms, and churches.  I suspect a huge preponderance of people, Christians and non-Christians believe that the Ten Commandments are basic rules by which all of us are to live.  Is that true for Christians?

If the Ten Commandments are valid for today, most of the Christian church is in violation of the fourth commandment: 

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you[1] (Deuteronomy 5:12). 

The Jews carefully determined the correct day of the Sabbath to be our Saturday.  Most Christian churches meet for worship on Sunday.  Many elaborate arguments state why Sunday worship is appropriate, but IF the Ten Commandments are still in force for New Testament Christians, most of the church is breaking the fourth commandment by not properly observing the Sabbath.  The Sabbath commandments regulate much more than just the day of worship.  They severely limit what is to be done on that day, almost none of which is observed today except by a few denominations that hold to Sabbath observance.

The confusion continues as present-day Christians seek to make distinctions between ceremonial law and moral law.  They often call the Ten Commandments the moral law and laws regarding sacrifices ceremonial laws.  There are no sacrifices being offered these days by either the Jews or Christians.  Universally there seems to have been at least a temporary abandonment of sacrificing animals according to Old Testament law.  Yet, if present-day Christendom is bound by Old Testament law, it could be argued that all Old Testament law should be obeyed. 

The “moral law” of the Old Testament extends beyond the Ten Commandments.  There are commandments that order those who dishonor their parents to be put to death.  God commanded that adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals and others be put to death:

If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head. If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death (Leviticus 20:9-10.  See also 11-16). 

These punishments are not applied in the present-day Judeo-Christian world, either in Judaism or Christendom.  Are Christians being disobedient because they are not applying the Old Testament law and being obedient to it?

In practice it would seem that while there is an implicit agreement not to obey Old Testament law among most Christians, yet many interpret Scripture as if Old Testament law is still to be obeyed.  By doing that, they heap coals of reproach on their own heads.

Denominational differences sometimes hinge on what is to be obeyed and what not.  Some have simplified the issue and claimed there are only two laws, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Some claim only the royal law (James 2:8):  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Such simplification shows gross ignorance of Scripture.

Let’s look at what Scripture says.  As usual, if we approach this with an open mind and seek to place everything in context, the teaching of Scripture regarding this subject will be obvious.  First let’s look at the text that has caused great confusion.

Not a Jot Or Tittle Will Pass Away

In the beginning portion of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the Beatitudes – the way of living that characterizes those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.  But then he changed subjects when he said:

“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. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).

In reading that Scripture, many focus on Christ’s statement “have not come to abolish them.”  They seem to pass over his statement that he came “to fulfill them.”  Then in the next sentence, the focus seems to be on “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law.”  Again, the significance of “until everything is accomplished” seems to be overlooked.

In v. 17 Jesus said he had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.  Beginning with v. 18, Jesus speaks only about the law.  When he said nothing will disappear from the law until everything is accomplished, he was not speaking about the Prophets, but only about the law.  Note how important this distinction is.

Jesus Fulfilled the Law of Moses

Jesus fulfilled many of the prophecies of the Old Testament.  But many of the prophecies of the Old Testament have to do with the second coming of the Lord Jesus and his millennial reign.  They have not yet been fulfilled.  On the other hand, the Old Testament Law had to do with rules for living and punishment for failing to obey those rules.  The Old Testament Law also had the rules for how to seek God’s forgiveness through sacrifices of animals – the shedding of blood. 

Jesus fulfilled the law in at least two ways.  The first is that he became our sacrifice and shed his own sinless blood on our behalf.  He forever did away with the need for sacrificing animals.  He offered himself once for all for the sins of all mankind (Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 26, 28, 10:10, 1 Peter 3:18).  It can be argued that everything was fulfilled just before Jesus’ death on the cross when he uttered his last words, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).  Jesus had fulfilled his redemptive purpose as God’s sacrificial lamb.  He had become God’s sacrifice for sin.

The second way he fulfilled the law is that he taught and commanded what God’s will is under the New Covenant for those who would enter the Kingdom of God.  He gave a new set of rules to us.  Paul called those rules Christ’s law.  Some of those were the same as God gave in the Old Testament law.  Many were changed, but most of Old Testament law was not included at all in Christ’s law.  What then happened to the Old Testament law, at least as pertains to Christians from the time of the Lord Jesus?

Paul told the Romans that “Christ is the end of the law . . .” (Romans 10:4).   The footnote in the NIV Study Bible points out that the word “end” (telos) can mean either (1) “termination,” “cessation,” or (2) “goal,” “culmination,” or “fulfillment” and suggests it is better to understand it in its latter sense, as fulfillment of the law.

The Amplified Bible states:  “For Christ is the end of the Law – the limit at which it ceases to be, for the Law leads up to Him Who is the fulfillment of its types, and in Him the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled. – That is, the purpose of the Law is fulfilled in Him – as the means of righteousness (right relationship to God) for everyone who trusts in and adheres to and relies on him” (Romans 10:4).

 

The Old Testament Law was fulfilled by the Lord Jesus and in Christ it ceases to be.  It does not govern the life of the New Testament believer.  Paul insisted, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Galatians 5:18).  The Lord Jesus Christ is both the cessation and the fulfillment of the Law.

Jesus Abolished the Law

As further corroboration that we – New Testament believers – are not under the law, Paul said that Jesus abolished the law through his sacrifice on the cross:

 

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations (Ephesians 2:14-15).   

 

Paul wrote similarly to the Colossians:  He [God] forgave us all our sins,  having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14). 

We now see the law as fulfilled, abolished, canceled, taken away, and nailed to the cross.  While Jesus came to fulfill the law, when he fulfilled it he also abolished it so that all believers can be one in him, and not under the yoke of the Old Testament Law.

 

Some argue it was only the regulations that were abolished.  Ephesians 2:14-15 clearly says “the commandments and regulations.”

 

Sabbatarians often argue that the Ten Commandments were not abolished, calling them moral law (even though the 4th commandment has no moral context).  Consider what the following scripture describes:

 

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone. . . . (2 Corinthians 2:6-7). 

The Ten Commandmentss were given to Moses on tablets of stone.  No other law was engraved by God on stone.  The above scripture must refer to the Ten Commandments.  Paul is speaking of it as the same Law that has passed away, but this time is referring to is as “the ministry that brought death.”  It seems totally justified, then, to say that the Ten Commandments are part of the “Law” to which Paul repeatedly refers.  But as we have seen, and will see repeatedly, for the follower of Christ the Old Testament Law is gone – he abolished the law in his flesh.  Christians are under Christ’s Law.

What Are “These Commandments”?

Let’s look next at the sentence I believe establishes the truth of the issue – “Moses’ Law or Christ’s Law?” – that we are concerned about in this article.  This sentence seems to be almost universally misunderstood (according to my understanding).  Please read the following verse carefully because we’ll discuss it:

“Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). 

This sentence warns about breaking “these commands” and teaching others to do the same; it promises blessings for those who practice and teach “these commands.”  In this verse, my master, the Lord Jesus, warns that I am in great peril if I wrongfully discourage others to act in a manner in which they break “these commands.”  Please understand that I write this article with trepidation, but believe that I must do this in order to “practice and teach these commands.”

Note the words “these commands.”  Up to the 19th verse, have you read any commands in Matthew 5?  No, Jesus started with the Beatitudes in this Sermon on the Mount.  They are not commands but rather the characteristics of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven.  God’s people have those traits.  Then Jesus switched subjects; he said he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (vs. l7-18).  In those verses he didn’t refer to any commands nor did he command anything.

Then what are “these commands” Jesus is referring to in Matthew 5:19?  I am convinced that Jesus is referring to the many commands he is about to teach the people, the ones we find in the remainder of Matthew 5 and continuing in chapters 6 and 7. 

Old Testament Law or the Teachings and Commands of Jesus?

The question to be resolved in this article is whether the words “these commands” in Matthew 5:19 refer to the commands of Moses’ Law or whether they refer to the teachings and commands of Jesus.

If Jesus is referring to Old Testament Law (Moses’ Law), then doubtless he will emphasize obedience to the Old Testament law many times to make sure we understand the truth of what he is saying.  As we read the New Testament books, we can expect to see the New Testament writers reinforce the need to obey Old Testament law.

On the other hand, if Jesus is referring to his teachings and his commands, we should see an emphasis on obedience to his commands and the importance of obeying him and paying attention to his words. 

Our job is to see which of those is true.  From this we should come to a trustworthy conclusion about which we will have no doubt.  First let’s examine whether Jesus is referring to his own teachings and commands when he speaks of “these commands.”

Teachings and Commands of Jesus?

I was reading Matthew 7:24-27 when I realized it was explaining the phrase  “these commands” in Matthew 5:19.  What is Jesus emphasizing in this passage?

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Twice Jesus spoke of “these words of mine.”  He did not refer to Old Testament law, but rather spoke only of his words.  Even more amazing, he likened hearing and putting into practice his words to building a house with a foundation on the rock.  He gave his words enormous importance.  He even used the opposite approach, likening the person who only hears his words but does not put them into practice, to a person who builds on sand and whose house is destroyed.  These are incredibly strong words to speak to an audience of Jews who knew only obedience to Moses’ Law.

Let’s look at more emphasis Jesus placed on his own words.  Jesus told us what we will do if we love him:   “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).  We know Jesus is the Son, the second person of the Godhead.  Notice that Jesus’ statement confirms what John said is love for God, “This is love for God: to obey his commands” (1 John 5:3).  Jesus’ statement is more demanding; he says those who love him will obey him.

Jesus made the connection between loving him and obeying him twice more.  The next time he said, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21).   Again Jesus stressed that it is his commands that people must have and obey if they love him.  Jesus made the point still again, saying, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).   Nowhere is there any reference to the Old Testament law, just his teaching and his commands. 

How about those who choose not to obey Jesus’ teaching?  Jesus said, “He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:24).  Those who love God show it by obeying him.  Those who love Jesus will obey his teachings and his commands.  What about those who do not obey Jesus?  Jesus says they do not love him.  How about those people who don’t obey Jesus’ teachings and commands because they claim Jesus’ teachings are for the Jews and Paul’s teachings are for the Gentiles? 

Several years ago I had a conversation with a man who taught at a graduate school of theology in Pasadena, California.  He had read some of my articles and asked, “Surely you don’t try to obey the teachings and commands of Jesus.  They’re intended for the Jews only.”  I assured him that I surely did try as best I could to obey all of Jesus commands.  I pointed out to him the great commission at the end of Matthew, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20).  The man had no further retort. 

In his marching orders to his disciples, Jesus did not mention that they should teach or obey the Old Testament law, but rather that they must teach new disciples to obey all that he (Jesus) commanded them.

Jesus told his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit and what the Holy Spirit would do.  Note the emphasis on Jesus and his words:  “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).  Jesus did not say the Holy Spirit would remind them of Old Testament law they were to obey.  No, the Holy Spirit would remind them of everything Jesus said to them.

Some relationships are conditioned upon obedience to Jesus’ commands.  He said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:10).  Jesus also said, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14).  We can only be Jesus’ friends if we obey what he commands.  Likewise, if we are to remain in Jesus we must obey his commands, not Old Testament law.  Jesus made no mention of obeying Old Testament law.  All the emphasis is upon his words, his teaching, his commands.

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).   If we claim to be Jesus’ disciples we must hold to his teaching – Jesus makes no reference to Old Testament law.  If we hold to Jesus’ teaching we will know the truth and the truth will set us free.

Jesus equated his words with eternal life when he said, “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51).  This is also stated by the writer to the Hebrews who said, “He [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). 

What about those who do not obey Jesus?  We’ve seen they do not love him.  But Paul said even more:  “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (1 Thessalonians 1:8-9).  There is nothing but the prospect of damnation for those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 

Jesus’ Words Are God’s Words

Jesus said an astonishing thing:  “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me” (John 8:28).  That means that everything Jesus spoke is the same as if God the Father himself had spoken it to us.  John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, said: “The one whom God has sent speaks the words of God” (John 3:34).  Jesus again emphasized this:  “I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.  I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say” (John 12:49-50).   The Father not only told Jesus what to say but how to say it.  When Jesus showed anger toward the Pharisees and teachers of the law, it was because the Father told him to show anger. 

Perhaps because the issue is so important, Jesus told us again:  “The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:10).  And again, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:24).  And yet again, “the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14:31).  When Jesus made a whip and drove out the moneychangers from the temple, he was doing what his Father told him to do.

Now we gain more understanding about Jesus’ strong statements about “my words” that we’ve just read.  His words are the words of God the Father.  Jesus was not commending himself but rather emphasizing he spoke only his Father’s words.  All his Father’s words are the words of God and the will of God.  We now can see the strong connection between what Jesus taught and the will of God when Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).  It is only those who have and obey the teachings and commands of Jesus who will enter the kingdom of heaven.  Those teachings and commands are the will of God.

We see now even more forcefully why Jesus commanded new disciples to be taught to obey all that he commanded them (Matthew 28:20).  The new disciples are to be taught the will of God because their salvation depends on their obedience to it (Matthew 7:21). 

The Law of Christ

Paul called the teachings and commands of Jesus the Gospel of Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:8).  But he also said I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law (1 Corinthians 9:21.  See also Galatians 6:2).  Paul did two things in this statement.  He affirmed his understanding that God’s law is Christ’s law and that Jesus’ teachings and commands comprise Christ’s law. 

The question we’re studying in this article is whether the Old Testament law was changed for New Testament believers.  Is it now called Christ’s law, as Paul states?  Was there a change of the law, and if so, why?  The writer to the Hebrews answers our questions:  “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law” (Hebrews 7:12). 

Has there been a change of the priesthood?  Yes, indeed!  The writer to the Hebrews reviews for us the prophecies about the Messiah, showing that God swore that the coming Messiah would be a priest forever (Hebrews 7:21, quoting Psalm 110:4).  Because Jesus lives forever he has a permanent priesthood (Hebrews 7:24).  Before the priests had all been from the tribe of Levi.  Jesus was from the tribe of Judah.  There has been a change of the priesthood.  There has also been a change of the law.  The new law is “Christ’s law.”

Jesus’ Words Are Special

We started this inquiry by looking at the oft-misunderstood verse, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).

We noted that people seem to concentrate on the underlined portion, “until heaven and earth disappear,” rather than “until everything is accomplished.”

Jesus’ words will last far longer than the Old Testament law.  Three times the Gospels recite Jesus’ promise about his words:

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33). 

How interesting that Jesus uses the term “heaven and earth” from Matthew 5:18, only to say they will pass away, but his words will never pass away.  It should be clear that Jesus’ words far surpass the words of the Old Testament law.

Jesus also links our attitude toward him and his words with salvation.  He said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26.  See also Mark 8:38).  No one will be saved if the Son of Man – the Lord Jesus – is ashamed of him.

Jesus told us the character of his words:  “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).

When many of Jesus’ disciples left him after some very hard teaching, Jesus asked the disciples, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). 

Jesus spoke also about those who will reject him and his words:  “There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day” (John 12:48). 

Old Testament Law?

God gave the Old Testament law to the children of Israel through Moses.  Our question is to determine if that law was given only to the Jews or was it given to all the Gentiles as well, even after the new covenant brought by the Lord Jesus through his blood, after the new priesthood of Jesus, and after the new law. 

Though you may be convinced of the answer already, let’s look at what the Scriptures say.  I think you’ll find them convincing.

To Whom Did the Old Testament Law Apply?

Moses told us who the Old Testament law applied to when he addressed the children of Israel:

 

 “Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you.  Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.  Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you” (Deuteronomy 4:1-2). 

 

“These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life” (Deuteronomy 6:1-2). 

 

Who was Moses talking to?  It was Israel.  Over and over he repeated that this was for “you” – Israel.  Then he added children, grandchildren and the future generations of Israel who would benefit from this personal relationship with God and who would enjoy his blessings by keeping his law.

Did God tell Israel to convert their Gentile neighbors and teach them the law he was giving them? No.  He commanded Israel to kill the Gentiles in the land of Canaan, leaving none alive so that they would not contaminate the people with their idolatry (Deuteronomy 7:16).   

The commands were for the Israel of that day and included future generations of Israel.  God commanded:

 

“These commandments I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, and when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).

 

These commands were personal to Israel and its progeny.  Each generation was to teach these commands to its children.  With the commands, God set before them both blessings and curses:

 

“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse – the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). 

 

The law, the commands, the relationship with God, the blessings and the curses were all directed to the people of Israel and their succeeding generations.

The aliens living in the land were given special attention by God, who commanded Israel to love the aliens because they themselves were aliens in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:19).   But the alien was not subject to the laws God gave Israel.  When God commanded the children of Israel not to eat anything they find already dead he said, “You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner.  But you are a people holy to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:21). 

We may justly conclude that the Law was given to Israel; they were to obey the law.  They were not commanded to go and teach the Gentiles to obey the Law.  The Old Testament law was intended for the nation of Israel.

Example of Circumcision

The example of circumcision is particularly apt because the command by God for the males to be circumcised preceded the nation of Israel.  This was a command given to Abraham by God as part of his covenant with Abraham and his descendants.  Let’s look at the text:

 

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.  This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep:  Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.  For the generations to come . . . Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:9-12, 14).

 

Now combine that with Paul’s teaching to the Galatians:  “Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.  The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham:  ‘All nations will be blessed through you'” (Galatians 3:7-9).    

Casually reading that passage could lead a person to believe that any male who is a descendant of Abraham should be circumcised, even to this day.  Even Gentile believers are considered “children of Abraham” as Paul told the Galatians.  Does it follow then that even Gentile believers must be circumcised?  No!

 

Paul taught the Corinthians, “Was a man uncircumcised when he was called?  He should not be circumcised.  Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing.  Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (1 Corinthians 7:18-19). 

Paul was harsh when he rebuked the Galatians:  “I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all . . . For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:2-6). 

Did Paul get off track?  God specifically told Abraham that both he and all his descendants were to be circumcised.  We read too casually.  The sign of circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and Abraham’s  descendants.  It was not a sign of a covenant between God and those who would believe in Christ Jesus as their Lord.  Paul was right!

Example of the Sabbath

We saw that circumcision was the sign of a covenant between God and Abraham and his descendents.  What will we find if we examine the origins of the Sabbath in the same way?  It is obviously important to determine who are the parties to the contract (or covenant).

God gave the command to observe the Sabbath to the children of Israel shortly after he delivered them from Egypt.  Note who God spoke to: 

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.  For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-11). 

Could “you” be referring to you and me, those of us who are New Testament Christians, mostly Gentiles?  In Deuteronomy 5:12-14 the Sabbath command is repeated.  But following, in vs. 15, Moses makes clear to whom the command is given and why: 

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.  Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:15). 

This verse makes clear that it cannot refer to New Testament Christians, at least not to those who are Gentiles.  Neither we nor our ancestors were slaves in Egypt.  Neither we nor our ancestors were brought out of Egypt by God’s mighty hand and his outstretched arm.  Moses recited that God delivered the Jews (Israelites) from Egypt.  Then Moses continued with “Therefore” – because of that – God has commanded the Israelites to observe the Sabbath Day. 

Perhaps the most persuasive scriptures to me are those where God says to the Israelites that the Sabbath is a sign between Israel and himself [God].  Both Moses and Ezekiel repeated God’s reason for giving them the Sabbath – that Israel may know that God is the Lord, who makes Israel holy. 

 

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy'” (Exodus 31:12-13). 

Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the LORD made them holy (Ezekiel 20:12).  

Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God (Ezekiel 20:20).  

God did not suggest nor command that the Sabbath be observed by all the world.  The texts all specifically say who the command applies to:  “Neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.”  Aliens outside the gates are not affected.  Gentiles are not commanded to obey.  No, only Israel, its people, and those under its control and within its gates.  The Sabbath is a specific sign for Israel!

We’ve looked at the Sabbath command at some length because it remains a problem with many people, churches and denominations.  The Seventh Day Adventists misunderstand and believe they must still keep the Sabbath, even though we have demonstrated that it is a sign only between God and Israel.  To overcome that problem, they call themselves Israel.  Some other Christian groups also misunderstand, believing they must observe the Sabbath. 

Jesus did not command observance of the Sabbath.  In fact, Jesus did many things on the Sabbath that caused the Jewish leaders to want to kill him.  According to them, Jesus was doing things that were violating the rules and regulations governing the Sabbath.

So what is the rule for the New Testament believer?  Paul said,

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). 

Is Paul saying we should not observe the Sabbath?  It appears so.  He wrote the Romans about the same subject and made it more clear:  “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.  He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord” (Romans 14:5-6). 

Christians are Released From the Law

In Romans 7, Paul used the example of being bound in marriage so long as the spouse is alive.  But when the spouse dies, the person is released from the law of marriage.  Using the example of a woman who marries again while the spouse is alive, he says such a woman is called an adulteress.  However, if the husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress even if she marries another man. 

Paul says that is the example that applies to those who have died to the law through the body of Christ.  He says, “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6).

Paul also said that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13).  Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law (Galatians 3:25). 

What Was the Purpose of the Law?

Paul was the writer who most discussed the question of the Old Testament law and its applicability to the New Testament Christian.  He was in a unique position to do so, having been a Pharisee who had been taught by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), an esteemed teacher of the law. 

Paul recited many reasons for the law.  He said “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20).  He wrote the Romans, “The law was added so that the trespass might increase” (Romans 5:20).   Paul asked, “What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed [the Lord Jesus Christ] to whom the promise referred had come” (Galatians 3:19).   Paul summarized the purpose of the law:  “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).  Paul continued, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:25).  

The law was added until Jesus came.  Jesus has come.  The law is no longer applicable to the Christian as something to obey.  We are no longer under its supervision.

Old Testament Has Value to New Testament Believers in Christ

Just because the Christian is not under Old Testament law does not mean the Old Testament has no value to the Christian believer.  There are many reasons the Old Testament is worthy of study.

There are literally hundreds of prophecies of the Christ in the Old Testament.  It is the fulfillment by Jesus of the law and the prophets that provide the most compelling reasons for following Jesus.  Only one person, ever, has fulfilled the prophecies of the coming Jewish Messiah.  Jesus fulfilled all of them, except those yet to be fulfilled.

Second, the Old Testament tells us a great deal about God.  It recites his attributes, his power, authority, and tells us his names.  We learn his awesome power, his creation of the universe, his concern for the details of his creation and how he honors, protects, and provides for those who reverence his name, fear him, trust him, worship, love and obey him.  Because God does not change, these truths are as applicable to us as when they were written. 

Third, the Old Testament shows us examples of how God deals with his people, how he will punish and discipline them when they desert him to follow other gods, how he will bless, protect, and fight for them when they remain true to him and trust him as their God.  In Hebrews the author described the unbelief and disobedience of the children of Israel after leaving Egypt; God prevented them from entering his rest – the promised land of Canaan.  The author exhorted, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11). 

Peter explained why we were told the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah:   “He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6).

Fourth, the Old Testament gives personal testimonies about men to inspire us in our walk with the Lord.  We learn of such people as Enoch who had an intimate relationship with God.  One day he went to be with the Lord; he did not taste death.  We are given the model of perseverance in Noah who built the ark as commanded by God over a period of 120 years.  Though likely ridiculed by the evil generation in which he lived, he persevered and saved his family from the flood.  Joseph remained true to God and became second in authority in Egypt; God used him to save his family and all Egypt from famine.  Daniel revered and obeyed God all his life; he was delivered from the lion’s den and used mightily by God in successive kingdoms.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego show us how to stand for God in the face of the highest earthly authority.  God demonstrated his mighty power to deliver his faithful from a fiery furnace.  Many other testimonies of both faithful and unfaithful men and women help teach us how to live in obedience to the teachings and commands of our Lord Jesus.

 Galatians – A New Testament Example Not to Follow

The questions raised in this article could all be resolved by Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  God’s word often anticipates controversies and questions that will arise.  That is certainly true here.

The Galatians had been converted by Paul.  The Holy Spirit worked signs and wonders among them (Galatians 3:5).  They started out believing the true gospel.  But Judaizers came among them – likely from Jerusalem – who taught the Galatians they also had to observe Jewish customs and regulations from the Old Testament law.

The Judaizers were Jews who claimed to be Christians but they demanded that Gentile Christians observe the Old Testament law, including circumcision.  Was this a mild difference in doctrine?  Was it just a difference of opinion, neither right or wrong?  No.

Paul could hardly have condemned it more forcefully.  He called it “a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:7).  He condemned those who brought that false gospel saying, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:9). 

We should feel great concern for those who seek to require obedience to Old Testament law that is not contained in Christ’s law.  Paul said they should be eternally condemned.

Conclusion 

“These commands,” from Matthew 5:19, refer to the commands Jesus was about to teach the crowd in the greatest sermon ever preached – the Sermon on the Mount. 

We have seen great emphasis by Jesus upon obedience to his words, his teachings, and his commands.  He emphasized that it is not enough to hear his teachings and commands.  They must be practiced (obeyed).  Jesus freely revealed to his followers that the words he spoke were not his own; they were from his Father in heaven.  All Jesus’ teachings and commands came from God and are God’s will. 

Those who obey the teachings and commands of Jesus are doing the will of God.  They are the ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven.  They are the ones that will receive the Holy Spirit.  They will remain in Jesus and are his friends.  But those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.

We see from Galatians that we must not attempt to mix obedience to Old Testament law with obedience to the teachings and commands of Jesus – Christ’s law.  Paul said that a mix of the two was no gospel at all. 

Jesus fulfilled the law in at least two ways.  He himself became the sacrifice of the perfect, unblemished lamb of God once for all.  He also gave us the new law called “Christ’s law” when he provided the new covenant and became our high priest.

Christians have been released from the Old Testament law.  As far as Christians are concerned, the Old Testament law has ceased to exist– it has been abolished.  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law.”  We are no longer under the supervision of the law.  Just the opposite is true with the teachings and commands of Jesus.  Jesus assured us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.


Footnotes:
 

[1]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Dt 5:12). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.