Many well-meaning Christians today still believe that we need to follow the OT (Mosaic) law to be Christians. From the rise of the Hebrew Roots movement we are seeing a host people trying to convince Christians to run back to the OT law. However, the witness of the New Testament and also of Jesus puts that idea away soundly.
Jesus and the Law
Jesus brought a new view to what it meant to follow the law. Even though He was a Jew and followed the law Himself, He never once judged another person based on how they were following the law. In fact, he was more likely to place people’s well-being above the law or emphasize the greater purpose of the law. For example, when the woman who was caught in adultery was presented to Jesus, He should have allowed her to be stoned.
‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)
But Jesus, being filled with mercy and foresight about the pharisees’ plot to trip Jesus up, decided that she should be forgiven. Moreover, the new covenant is clearly being put in action and the OT law seems to be pushed aside. The Old Covenant was passing away and Jesus’ actions confirm this. The new covenant emphasizes forgiveness. The old was one of purity and discipline.
Jesus also emphasized other features of the new covenant. In Mark 7 Jesus is confronted by religious leaders upset about His disciples not washing their hands before a meal. Jesus’ response would have shocked any Jew of that day.
Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them. (Mark 7:15)
Jesus seems to invalidate all of the Mosaic laws concerning external purity, in favor of what it means to be pure under the new covenant. If Jesus meant what He said to be taken literally then we can assume that all of the dietary laws are of little to no value in the new covenant kingdom. Once again, Jesus is moving towards a new covenant perspective that emphasizes the condition of man’s heart, not his ability to follow the law.
To clarify Jesus’ behavior it is important to understand that the old covenant is replaced with the new covenant. The new covenant is not added to the old, it replaces it. The author of Hebrews make this point clear. The author recounts the words of the prophet Jeremiah about the new covenant and then comments on the word given to Jeremiah by the Lord.
“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
9 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
13 By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.
Disciples decide on the use of the Mosaic Law
Before the church council meeting in Acts 15 was held, to discuss the role of the Mosaic law in the gentile church, the Jewish and the Gentile Christians had been clashing heads. Since Paul was preaching freedom from the Law it was important to meet with the disciples of Jesus and hash the issue out. What we read in Acts 15 is a meeting between Paul and the Apostles, to decide how the gentile church should treat the law of Moses.
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15:1-2)
Many in the Jewish church thought that Gentiles should follow the Laws of Moses.
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses. (Acts 15:5)
However, the testimony of Peter persuaded some of them in the opposite direction.
The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:6-11)
Then James stood up and further persuaded the group that the Gentiles are saved through faith and should not have the burden of the Mosaic Law.
16 “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— 18 things known from long ago. 19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. (Acts 15:16-19)
Then they all reached agreement and sent a letter to the Gentile church in Antioch stating that ….
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. (Acts 15-28-29)
The meeting between Paul and the disciples was the deciding force in NT theology when it comes to dealing with who Paul called the Judaizers. Paul spent much of Galatians, Romans, and (if he wrote Hebrews) Hebrews explaining the role of the law within the new covenant. We will now examine some of these explanations given by Paul.
Paul VS the Judaizers
Paul and the other NT writers clearly state that the law given to the Jews was temporary and subordinate to the new covenant. Paul especially, was determined to bring clarity to the issue concerning the laws of Moses. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul spent 3 entire chapters correcting the church for following the wayward teaching of the Judaizers (those who preached observance of the law).
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7)
Paul then goes on to explain that what he is teaching is directly from God and that it was verified first by James and then later by the rest of the disciples (as shown in Acts 15).
Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James,the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:18-19)
Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 2 I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. 3 Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. 4 This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. 5 We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. (Galatians 2:1-5)
they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. 8 For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9 James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along. (Galatians 2:7-10)
As Paul continues in Galatians he says that even Peter was afraid to practice the new found freedom in Christ. For Peter was meeting and fellowshipping with the Gentiles but when certain people showed who preached circumcision, he refused to eat in the presence of the same Gentiles. This was a great hypocrisy.
For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Galatians 2:12-13)
Eventually Paul turns his attention back to the Galatian church and charges them to continue in the grace that was provided by Jesus and not try being justified by the flesh.
I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? (Galatians 3:2-3)
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 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.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will 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 hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:7-14)
So why would God give the Law to His people to begin with if it does not produce salvation? Paul answers that natural question in verse 19 & 21-24.
“Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.” (Galatians 3:19)
But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the Law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the Law was our tutor to bring us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:21-24)
Paul is making a case for the OT laws passing away. In light of the new covenant, the old no longer has a use or function and it was not capable of bringing salvation.
But didn’t Paul have Timothy circumcised?
Some have endeavored to show that Paul changed his mind about the law and had Timothy circumcised. While it’s true that he did eventually have him circumcised, it had nothing to with with him changing his mind about the Law.
Paul had Timothy circumcised because he did not want to hinder the gospel and the pair of them were going to witness to Jews. He did not want the Jews to reject Timothy from fellowship because he was not circumcised yet.
Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:1-3)
And what did he tell the Jews when he got there? Naturally he told them the decision that the disciples and the Jerusalem church came to in Acts 15.
As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers. (Acts 16:4-5)
Long after he had Timothy circumcised (because the Judaizers, not because he needed to [Acts 16:1-5]) he wrote the letter to the Romans. In that letter he reiterates that circumcision of the flesh is meaningless and that true circumcision comes from within.
“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” (Romans 2:28-29)
“But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6)
For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14)
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)
While there are still many among the Christian community who wish to follow the law of Moses, it is quite clear that this is not a requirement in the new covenant. There is no NT witness that suggests Christians should follow the law. Moreover, we see quite the opposite. From Jesus to the apostles to Paul, the law is deemed as passed away and replaced by a new law. A law written on the hearts of men, not on stone.