Are Christians bound by the Mosaic Law?

A Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ and most of the information obtained about Jesus and how he wants his followers to live comes from the New Testament. But Jesus himself was a Jew, and he and the apostles often quoted from what we now call the Old Testament (OT). To them, that was their Scripture; the New Testament (NT) was not to be compiled for another 300 years. So, when Paul writes to Timothy and says,

…from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17)

he must be referring to the OT. What role does the OT play, then, in the life of a Christian? How should it be read? To what extent does it apply to the Christian?

Dr. Bruce K. Waltke in his lecture series, “Understanding the Old Testament”, helps to understand the many particulars of the OT by means of grouping them into universals. He suggests that the main universal of the OT is “the Rule of God or the establishment of God’s Kingdom upon the earth”[1]. A sub-universal would be “Salvation History:  in the midst of judgment God provides salvation.”[2] God’s plan to bring salvation to mankind begins anew with a promise and covenant that he makes with one man, Abraham.[3] From Abraham comes a nation that will be God’s people, the Israelites, with whom God establishes the Mosaic Covenant. From this nation comes King David, a man after God’s own heart, with whom he establishes a covenant also that eventually a Messiah would come from his line, and provide salvation for all mankind.

To the Israelites, the people of God, their existence revolved around their covenant with God—the Torah— the Law. It consumes the larger portion of the Pentateuch or the first five books of the OT; it defined them. Christ, when he came, said,

Do not think that I have come abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”[4]

Since that is the case, the Christian is tied to the history of the OT, to Israel and her Mosaic Covenant; but to what degree?

 

In this post I will defend the view that while God’s program of salvation for the world is continuous, it manifests different methods in different eras. Christ is the fulfillment of the Mosaic Law and though it does not apply directly to the Christian today, especially seen in regards to the status of the Sabbath, some aspects of the Law[5] naturally overlap with the Law of Christ.

This is the view held by Douglas J. Moo, which he entitles a “Modified Lutheran View” in Five Views on Law and Gospel.

Salvation-History View

In the salvation-history view, Christ’s death and resurrection are the center point of history. There was an era before him in which the Mosaic Law applied, and there is an era that continues to this day that came after Christ in which his Law applies. Both eras are part of God’s program of salvation actually worked out in clear historical time and space. Moo stresses that unlike other theological frameworks that use the word law in the NT to mean God’s word in an all-encompassing manner, he believes that the NT uses the word law, or nomos in Greek, to refer specifically to the Mosaic Law or Torah.

In the New Testament, therefore, Law and ‘Gospel’ primarily denote, not two constant aspects of God’s word to us, but two successive eras in salvation.”[6]

There is a corporate aspect to this historical view in how it affects the whole world and not just individuals.

Purpose of the Mosaic Law

What, then, was the purpose of the Mosaic Law or covenant in the era before Christ? Moo contends that the Law was never intended for salvation because although it was implied that if you kept all the laws perfectly you could be saved, in reality it was impossible to do.

The Mosaic Law, by its nature, demands works. But since salvation can be achieved only by faith, the Mosaic Law can have nothing to do with securing salvation.[7]

The purpose of the Mosaic Law was a revelation of God’s character and “…a demand for conformity to that character”[8] under threat of punishment. In that manner, it truly provided law. Israel was a nation in its infancy made up of slaves from a pagan land who had been nursed on stories of the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God, in his mercy, redeemed them out of Egypt, and then governed them and continued to reveal himself to them by giving them this Law through Moses, establishing a covenant with them. While it provided law to Israel, it also revealed God’s character to them in various ways. For example, it revealed God’s holy character by insisting that they refrain from eating certain things that were unclean or unholy. The sacrificial system taught the Israelites that there must be shedding of blood to atone for sin before a God who cannot tolerate sin. A recurring theme that Yahweh states throughout the Law is,

You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own (Lev. 20:26).

Dividing the Mosaic Law into three groupings, moral, civil and ceremonial law, is a common approach by many scholars, even thought this is not explicitly done in Scripture itself. Some scholars place greater weight on different groupings. Walter Kaiser, Jr, for example, would say that the moral law is the Decalogue, and it is eternal law for all people in all eras, but that the ceremonial law was abolished by Christ in his death and resurrection. Moo disagrees. He claims that scripture is best interpreted in context, and that the Jews around the time of Christ and before, regarded the Torah as an “essential unity.” He goes on to say,

What I mean is that we have no evidence that first-century Jews divided the tôrâ in so basic a way that some parts could be considered ‘optional’ or ‘temporary.’ Nor do the Old Testament or New Testament suggest this kind of basic division.[9]

Instead,

…there was a strong insistence that the law was a unity and could not be obeyed in parts.[10]

Another purpose of the Mosaic Law is put forward by the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:23-25 which says,

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

In other words, the Law preserved the nation of Israel until the coming of Christ by keeping order as well as binding them together as a people. It also, by revealing God’s holy character and moral will, showed to a greater degree what sin was and that Israel (and the world) were imprisoned by it. Moo says: “The Mosaic law was given to supervise Israel as a people and to reveal their sinfulness, and those who sought their ‘life’ in its terms were doomed to condemnation and death (Gal 3:10, 12-13). The promissory arrangement with Abraham, fulfilled in Christ, on the other hand, functions to save people from the imprisonment under sin produced by the Mosaic Law.”[11]

 Mosaic Law and the Christian

What is the relationship between the Mosaic covenant and Christ, and after Christ, Christians? Jesus, himself says,

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 (Matt. 5:17).

But what does “fulfill them” mean? Moo comments that Jesus

is claiming that his teaching brings the eschatological fullness of God’s will to which the Mosaic Law looked forward. Jesus ‘fulfills’ the law not by explaining it or by extending it, but by proclaiming the standards of kingdom righteousness that were anticipated in the law.[12]

It is interesting to survey the Sermon on the Mount and see that Jesus does not review only the Decalogue – since so many scholars contend that the Ten Commandments were a summary of the eternal moral will of God in written form. Jesus takes examples from throughout the Law and builds on them with new kingdom principles. In this manner, he too seems to treat the Law as a whole.

It is only as we look at the way that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament treat the commandments of the Mosaic law that we can know which ones continue to apply directly to us and which ones no longer do. The Mosaic commandments, then, are not directly applicable to us, but only as they are passed on to us by Christ. He is the ‘filter’ throughout which the whole law must go, and it is he who determines which of those laws must still be followed and which ones need not be.[13]

One of the results of looking through the “filter” of Jesus in regards to the Law is that love is at the foundation. In fact, Jesus claims that all the Law and Prophets hang on two commandments:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matt. 22: 37-39).

It is also interesting to note that in the last words of Christ, the Great Commission, he does not say to remember to keep the Ten Commandments or Mosaic Law, but in making disciples of all nations, we are to baptize and teach everything he commanded.[14] Granted, many of the Ten Commandments as well as the rest of the Mosaic Law were a part of his teaching – Jesus did not abolish them. Rather he took what they knew and expanded these things into Kingdom principles, the foundation of which is love.

Paul later passes on Jesus’ teaching regarding the law in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 13:9-11, Paul says,

The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other commands there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

The Sabbath Day

To contend that the Mosaic Law itself is not in place for the Christian today, one of the best examples would be the Sabbath. This was established as commandment four in the Decalogue. Exodus 20:8 says:

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, not 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.

When set in context, the Mosaic Covenant has similarities to other Ancient Near East (ANE) treaties, as well as components that set it apart. According to Dr. Waltke, the last six commandments in the Decalogue are comparable to other ANE law codes. Unique to Israel, however, are the first four commandments that relate specifically to their relationship with Yahweh; thus they each come with an explanation, unlike the last six. Also, it was common for ANE treaties to have an outward symbol or sign put in place that acknowledged the contract. With Noah, we see the rainbow as a sign of God’s promise to never destroy all mankind with another flood. With Abraham, the symbol of circumcision was put in place. For the NT believer in covenant relationship with Jesus, there is an outward symbol of baptism. With the Mosaic Covenant, the Sabbath was an outward symbol of their Covenant with Yahweh, the true God of creation, which set them apart from the rest of the ANE. Exodus 31:13 records God telling Moses to 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.’

Yahweh continues in verse 17 with,

It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.’

Though one might take the word “forever” here as a sign that the Mosaic Covenant should still be observed, scholars have pointed out that this language is typical of the genre and was subject to revision over time as required.[15]

According to Waltke, the seventh day of the week was seen as evil in the ancient near east. Thus, God set apart his people from the surrounding culture by making that a holy day for them and gifting them with a day of rest. This was also significant in that Israel had previously been a nation of slaves.

The command not to work on one day out of seven taught a nation of slaves that they had been liberated and that in entering into covenant relationship with Yahweh they were free men and women who could rest in their deliverer. In this way the Sabbath was to be a weekly liberation day.[16]

Now redeemed by the blood of the Passover Lamb and bought out of slavery by God, they were a “free” people, a ransomed people. Yahweh acknowledges this significance by making the symbol of the covenant with his people a day of rest. Observance of this day by the Israelites was their outward way of keeping up their end of the covenant. In this way,

the people were acting out their allegiance and confessing that the covenant Lord was specifically Lord of their time…Israel was acknowledging her complete dependence on her suzerain.[17]

Yahweh was their suzerain, their Lord.

As we study this, we see how specific this covenant relationship is with a specific people at a specific time in history.

Just as the Mosaic covenant as a whole is to be seen as a particular expression of the will of God for His people for a certain period of their history, so is the Decalogue to be viewed in the same light. It is not a timeless list of ethical principles that has somehow become embedded in a historically conditioned covenant.[18]

We must treat the Law as an “essential unity”, which, as mentioned above, is how the Jews saw it. God’s attributes do not change, nor does his holiness change. Thus, many of the methods for holy living espoused by Christ (and afterwards, his apostles) will overlap or be the same as those found in the Law.

So even though the Decalogue is the central instruction of Yahweh for Israel, it does not include all the absolute moral truths found in the Law, and neither are all its commands unchanging moral rules. [19]

And even though nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament in regards to holy living, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is conspicuously absent.

The Mosaic Covenant was a contract between God and his people, the Israelites. It came with stipulations and warnings and curses in regards to what would happen if they broke their end of the covenant. And they broke it again and again. Generally, when contracts are completed or broken, the outward symbol of that contract is no longer kept. Take marriage for example. An outward symbol of a marriage contract between husband and wife is a gold ring worn on the left ring finger. If the marriage ends in divorce or death, that ring can and should eventually be removed. Even if the former spouse leaves it on (for sentimental reasons or what have you), the demise of the marriage contract is still a reality, and the ring itself has no power to change that. If it is the case that the Mosaic Covenant is no longer in place, broken by the people of God, the Sabbath rest as a symbol acknowledging that contract, is no longer in play, even if well-meaning people observe it.

Paul addresses this in his letter to the Colossians:

God made you alive with Christ. He 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…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” (Col. 2:13).

Jesus, himself, pointed to the Sabbath being made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27) in trying to explain to the Jews that mercy was more important than keeping rules. More importantly, Jesus claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath.

While he does not clearly teach the abrogation of the Sabbath command, he redirects attention from the law to himself, the Lord of the Sabbath, and thereby sets in place the principle on which the later church would justify its departure from Sabbath observances.[20]

Also of note is that when the early gentile Church was trying to figure out what the salvation of Christ looked like in their daily lives, the Jerusalem council (made up of apostles who happened to all be Jewish) did not try to impose the written code upon them. They recognized, even at this early stage that the Mosaic Covenant was no longer valid. Christ had fulfilled it. Thus in the letter back to them in Acts 15 the council writes,

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 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”(vs. 19, 20).

Absent is any mention of a Sabbath day observance as a requirement. Nor was this a list of requirements for salvation. That covenant, established between Christ and the members of this budding NT Church had already been confirmed with outward symbols of baptism and manifestations of the Holy Spirit. These regulations were, instead, to serve as a guide for how to live holy lives and, again, the Sabbath was not among them.

In summary, then, God is eternal and unchanging, and he has a continuing program of salvation for mankind. He gave the Mosaic Law to his chosen people at a specific time and for a specific purpose. He revealed himself to his people and made a covenant with them. The symbol of that covenant with Israel was the Sabbath Day. While the Mosaic Law taught of God’s holiness it also revealed sin and the need for atonement through the sacrificial system. Christ came and fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and revealed to us the true basis of the Law:  Love. He atoned once for all and brought salvation and freedom from the Law. He is not just Lord of the Sabbath; he is now Lord of our entire lives.

 


[1] Dr. Bruce K. Waltke, Understanding the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Outreach Incorporated, 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Genesis 12:2,3 & Genesis 15

[4] Matthew 5:17

[5] Mosaic covenant, Mosaic Law, Law, and Torah will be used interchangeably throughout.

[6] Stanley N. Gundry, ed. Five Views on Law and Gospel. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 322.

[7]Stanley N. Gundry, ed. Five Views on Law and Gospel. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 333.

[8]Ibid., 335.

[9]Stanley N. Gundry, ed. Five Views on Law and Gospel. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 224.

[10]Ibid., 337.

[11]Ibid., 342.

[12]Stanley N. Gundry, ed. Five Views on Law and Gospel. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 352.

[13]Ibid., 88.

[14]Matt. 28: 19 & 20

[15]Carson, D.A., ed. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day:  A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 352,353.

[16]Carson, D.A., ed. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day:  A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 353.

[17] Ibid., 354.

[18] Ibid., 356.

[19] Albert H. Baylis, From Creation to the Cross (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), 127.

[20] Stanley N. Gundry, ed. Five Views on Law and Gospel. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 356.