Old Testament Laws and Ceremonies -
Their value and application for us today
Since the early 1900's the term “Judeo-Christian” has been used in America to describe the commonalities between Christianity and Judaism. Similarities would include belief in one true God (monotheism), belief in the Old Testament as given by God, the teaching of atonement, and the 10 Commandments. There is no doubt that Christianity is rooted in the history recorded in the Old Testament, but that history was not the end of the story. The New Testament further describes the culmination of those Jewish concepts as fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ!
While the Old Testament is a valuable source of history and doctrine, we also need to realize that with the coming of Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Savior, many things have changed. When Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples and instituted the Lord’s Supper He said: “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many” (Mark 14:24). Through His death a new covenant would be established between God and man, and this new covenant would replace the old. The writer to the Hebrews, speaking about the LORD’s reference to this new covenant in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31-34), writes: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13).
Out with the Old
The New Testament book of Hebrews provides the most thorough description of the replacement of the Old Testament covenant. Written to Jewish Christians who were contemplating a return to Judaism, the holy writer demonstrates how Christ is a greater prophet than Moses (chapter 3); He offers a greater promised land (chapters 3-4); He is a greater priest than Aaron because He is eternal (chapters 5,7); He is the guarantee of a better covenant because He is the fulfillment of the ceremonies and promises of the Old Testament (chapters 8-9); He is the perfect sacrifice for our sin, which He accomplished for us through His death on the cross.
For this reason the writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus in this way: “He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). Jesus has brought about the conclusion of the old covenant, and the beginning of a new one – a better one!
What does this Mean?
Throughout history Christians have struggled with the relationship between the old covenant and the new. When the early Christian church began to spread and Gentiles were received into its ranks, many questions arose which needed to be answered (see Acts 15). What would be required of Gentile Christians? What parts of the Jewish law were still applicable? Before we answer this question, we will first consider some of the various parts of God’s Old Testament covenant.
The Old Covenant
There are many parts of God’s covenant in the Old Testament. Here we will consider the main parts, and those which have been required by some in New Testament times.
Civil Laws - Laws governing the nation of Israel. These laws included:
• The 10 commandments (Exodus 20);
• Specific laws and punishments related to the 10 commandments (Exodus 21-23).
Ceremonial Laws - Laws for the worship of the people of Israel. These laws include:
• Regulations for sacrifices and offerings (burnt, grain, peace, sin and guilt offerings - Leviticus 1-9);
• Regulations for diet (Leviticus 11) and purification (Leviticus 12-15);
• Regulations for religious festivals (Passover, Unleavened Bread, First-fruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, The Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles) and sabbaths (Leviticus 16, 23);
• Regulations for vows and the tithe (Leviticus 27); as well as other religious rituals and customs.
• Though not mentioned in the Levitical law, one could also include circumcision as part of the old covenant.
The New Covenant
The New Testament is quite clear about the role of these regulations in the New Testament. Paul writing to congregations made up of both Jews and Gentiles made it clear that the regulations of the old covenant are not binding on those under the new covenant. “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). (Take note of Paul’s specific mention of dietary laws, festivals, and sabbaths in this verse.)
Again: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Ephesians 2:14-16). Here Paul is speaking about the unification of Jew and Gentile through faith in Christ. This unification is brought about through the abolishment of “the law of commandments contained in ordinances”, referring to the Old Testament Jewish laws and regulations which had throughout their history separated the Jewish people from the nations of the world.
Finally, we return again to the writer to the Hebrews: “The Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience–– concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation. But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come” (Hebrews 9:8-11). In these verses the writer points out the symbolic nature of regulations of the old covenant and tells that the offerings, sacrifices, diets, purifications and other regulations would be done away with through Christ (see Romans 14:1-6 for another description of the liberty which is ours in Jesus Christ).
Some Questions for Today
So if the old covenant has vanished away, why do many Christian churches still impose Old Testament regulations upon New Testament believers? Are Old Testament dietary laws still required of Christians today? Do Christians need to tithe? Is circumcision still a necessary part of God’s covenant? Should Christians keep the Sabbath laws? What day is the Sabbath? These are some of the questions Christians have struggled with since the beginning of the Christian church, and continue to misunderstand today.
As we continue this study we will consider these questions in more depth and look to Scripture for the answers. May we continually search the Scriptures so that we may grow in our knowledge of God’s plan of salvation and in our understanding of His will for us as His people.
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, Georgia by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew