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Decalogue & Covenant – Does God Want People Today to Obey the Law of Moses?
The short answer is no: God intends for everyone in the world to submit to Christ under the New Covenant, which does not include the Law of Moses, though it shares with Moses fundamental moral values because both are based on the unchanging character of God Himself (compare Leviticus 19:1-2 with Matthew 5:48 and Luke 6:36). To go deeper than the surface, we have to look at what Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, and the author of Hebrews say about the old and new covenants.
Prophecy of the New Covenant
About 600 years before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah predicted the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). He said the new covenant would be different than the old (specified as the one God made with the houses of Israel and Judah when he brought them out of Egypt–definitely referring to the Mosaic Covenant). This time, the laws would be written on the people’s hearts, all of them will know the LORD, and He will completely forgive them. The New Testament book of Hebrews says this is the covenant Christ introduced (Hebrews 8:7-13 and 10:15-18, on which more is said below).
Original subjects of the Law of Moses
According to the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), the Law of Moses constituted the covenant God made with the Israelites. Its moral code, priesthood, festivals and other special days, and sacrificial system were all designed for the Hebrew nation. Essential to the covenant the Israelites made with God was their agreement to obey the stipulations of the Law of Moses and to become the objects of its blessings if they obeyed and its curses if they disobeyed. As originally delivered, no other nation was called upon or expected to keep the Law of Moses. According to Jewish tradition, the rest of the nations of the world were still under the covenant God made with Noah.
What change, if any, took place when the New Covenant came along? How did it affect the application of the Old? Did it take what make universal what once applied only to the Israelites? Or did it nullify the Old Covenant so that it no longer applied even for the nation of Israel?
Jesus’ teaching about the Law of Moses
According to Galatians 4:4, Jesus was “born under the Law,” which apparently means that He was bound to obey the Law’s commandments and ordinances. As an Israelite, He was just as obligated to keep the Law as every other Israelite. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-18), He denies that His purpose is to “abolish” the Law and the Prophets. The Greek word translated “abolish” (kataluo) is “destroy” with an intensifying prepositional prefix, meaning “utterly destroy.” Rather, He says, His purpose is to fulfill the Law, and He says heaven and earth would sooner disappear than the Law, until everything is fulfilled. He says that the person breaking or teaching others to break the least of the commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, while those who practice and teach its commandments will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19).
His mission in fulfilling the Law seems to have three parts. First, He calls on His disciples to keep the Law even more strictly than the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the most scrupulous religious observers of His time (Matt. 5:20). In the verses that follow (the rest of the Sermon on the Mount — Matthew 5:21-7:27), Jesus reveals what He means: giving to God the obedience of one’s heart, not just one’s actions. Fulfilling the Law then, in this first sense, means explaining it in its fullest meaning. Jesus taught the Law of Moses, but He also kept it perfectly. He fulfilled it, not only by giving its full meaning, but by obeying it fully Himself. In this way qualifying to become our perfect sin offering (see John 8:29, 46; Acts 10:38; Hebrews 3:2,6; 4:15; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22; 1 John 2:2).
This leads us to the third part: when God accepts Christ as our substitute, His righteousness becomes ours (1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21), which includes His perfect obedience of the Law. Because He stands in our place before the throne of God, we who have fully committed ourselves to Him–heart, mind, soul, and strength–are regarded as fully obedient under the Law (Romans 8:3-4; 13:10).
Yet even while upholding the Law, Jesus claims to have an authority above the Law, as when He proclaimed that the Son of Man (an indirect reference to Himself) is Lord of the Sabbath (see Mark 2:23-28; parallels in Matthews 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5). The examples He gives confirm that He sees His mission to seek and save the lost as claiming a higher priority than the keeping of the Sabbath. He points out the irony of those who used the Sabbath to plot His murder while accusing Him of breaking the Sabbath to heal a man (Mark 3:1-6; parallels in Matthew 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11). On another occasion (Mark 7:1-23; parallel in Matthew 15:1-20), He notes that concern for inner purity should claim a higher priority than concern for ritual cleanness, and the gospel writer observes, “In saying this, he proclaimed all foods clean” (Mark 7:19).
At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his apostles that wine represents the blood He is about to shed. In Mark 14:24, He calls it “the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Matthew 26:28 adds “for the forgiveness of sins,” and Luke’s wording is “the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20; compare 1 Corinthians 11:25). This statement of Jesus is an obvious reference back to the moment when Moses said, “This is the blood of the covenant” (Exod. 24:8) during a ceremony confirming the Mosaic Covenant. Jesus says His own blood is what institutes and confirms the New Covenant.
Jesus also demonstrates an openness to Gentiles virtually unique among the Jews of His time. He praises the faith of a Gentile as being greater than any in all of Israel (Matthew 8:10; parallel in Luke 7:9). He likewise praises the strong faith of a Gentile woman (Mark 7:24-30; parallel in Matt. 15:21-28). He predicts the acceptance of Gentiles into God’s kingdom, even at the expense of the Jews (Matthew 8:11-12 and in parabolic form, Luke 14:23-24; 20:16; John 10:16). Although He previously limited His disciples’ proclamation to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6), after His resurrection, He commands them to preach to all nations and to all creation (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 1:8). Jesus tells His apostles to require of their converts faith, repentance, baptism, and continuing obedience, but makes no mention of circumcision as a condition of discipleship or salvation.
God led the apostles to a new understanding
In fulfilling Christ’s commission, the apostles first proclaim the gospel only to Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism (called “proselytes”). Only by a series of miracles does God convince Peter to share the Good News with a Roman centurion named Cornelius (read Acts 10:1-48). When Peter defends his actions to the other believers back in Jerusalem, they are convinced that “God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).
After this, Christians start evangelizing the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21), especially Saul of Tarsus (later called Paul) and his coworker Barnabas (Acts 13 – 14) on what is known as the First Missionary Journey. Their success among the pagans causes some Jewish Christians to demand that all of the Gentile converts be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas deny that this be required, and the debate becomes so heated that a conference is called of the apostles and Jerusalem elders (Acts 15:1-18). The conference confirms the teaching of Paul and Barnabas, requiring only that Gentile converts observe a few rules that will make their fellowship with Jewish believers less contentious (Acts 15:19-31).
Though many Jewish Christians continued to observe the Law even after this (see Acts 21:20), the Gentiles were not required to be circumcised (see Galatians 2:3-5), since Gentiles as well as Jews find acceptance before God by grace through faith, not by works of the Law (Acts 15:9, 11; Galatians 2:16). In other words, they could come to Christ directly, without first becoming converts to Judaism. The apostles recognized that both those whose flesh is circumcised and those whose flesh is not can have a circumcision of heart (Romans 2:25-29; 4:9-17; Colossians 2:11-13). This is what counts to God (Galatians 6:12-16); even the Law and Prophets recognized heart circumcision as more important (see Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25).
Accepting uncircumcised Gentiles into the fellowship of the redeemed, however, was a fundamental departure from the Mosaic Covenant, which required circumcision on pain of excommunication (continuing what had been instituted in the covenant with Abraham, Gen. 17:13-14 — see Exodus 12:48-49, Leviticus 12:3, and Joshua 5:2-8). During the period reflected in the second half of the Book of Acts, a transition of the covenants was taking place, in which practice was lagging behind teaching. The New Covenant had begun, but many were still clinging to the Old.
The change process likely paralleled what happens today with regard to the adoption of new technology. Some were early adopters who led the way in adopting the change, such as those who already were abandoning physical circumcision and Jewish customs (see Acts 21:21). Into this group we should probably put Stephen and later Paul, who were at the leading (“bleeding”?) edge. Others, such as Peter and John, were middle-of-the-road: they acknowledged the change but did not push it like Paul did. Still others were late adopters, like James the Elder (half-brother of Jesus), though it may be that James remained in this group only to help the others along (Acts 15:12-21 and 21:22-26; yet see Galatians 2:12).
Paul’s teaching about the Law of Moses
As one who perhaps saw the change more clearly than others, Paul sought to explain the transition in as forceful a way as the scruples of his Jewish fellow-Christians would allow. If he had not struggled with this concern, his teachings may have been more explicit. Nevertheless, he certainly was plain enough for us to understand a change in the covenants was underway. The following are some of the clearest passages, taken in chronological order.
In Galatians, perhaps the earliest of Paul’s letters (c. 50 CE), Paul says the law was our “pedagogue to lead us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24). In Greek culture, the pedagogue was a family slave assigned the task of getting the child to and from school each day. He was also expected to impart practical moral principles that would help the child mature. Paul says the Law had for us a similar function: preparing us for the coming of the Messiah. In the next verse, Paul adds, “Now that faith [i.e., the object of our faith] has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:25). In this metaphor, Paul pictures the relationship between the Law and the Christ as a cooperative one. The Law performs its function, accomplishes its goal, and then steps aside.
In the next chapter of Galatians, Paul turns up the heat. He compares the two covenants, the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, to the relationship between Hagar and Sarah (see Genesis chapter 16 and 21:8-21). He depicts a stormy relationship between the children of the two covenants: “The son born in the ordinary way [representing the unbelieving Jews] persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit [representing the Christians]. It is the same now.” Then Paul unleashes a thunderbolt: “But what does the Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.'” Since the slave woman represents the Mosaic covenant, Paul is using the quoted verse, Genesis 21:10, to say, “Get rid of the Mosaic covenant and its adherents [the Jews who have rejected Jesus as Messiah], for the [‘children’ of the Mosaic covenant] will never share in the inheritance with the [Christians, the ‘children’ of the New Covenant].”
Paul wrote First Corinthians in about 55 CE. In chapter 9 he describes his willingness to be “all things to all men” for the sake of saving some of them. In particular, he says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law” (verses 20 and 21).
In Second Corinthians, written around 55 CE, in chapter 3, Paul compares the old and new covenants by recalling the shining face of Moses (see Exodus 34:29-35). The Old Covenant he calls letters written on tablets of stone and “the letter” and the ministry of death and of condemnation. By contrast, he describes the New Covenant as written on tablets of human hearts and “the Spirit” and the ministry of righteousness” (verses 3, 6-9). Paul compares the Old Covenant to the radiance on the face of Moses, which was glorious at first and then faded away. In contrast, under the New Covenant, we experience an ever-increasing glory, which comes from our God (verses 9-18). At the time Paul wrote Second Corinthians, then, the Law, represented by the radiance, was fading away.
Paul wrote Romans around the year 57 CE. In chapter 7, verses 1-6, Paul pictures the Christian as a woman and the Law as her husband. The couple fails to have any children, and after the husband’s death, the widow marries a new husband, who symbolizes Christ. With her new husband, the woman has a baby, which apparently represents a righteous heart and life (the “fruit to God” of verse 4). Paul does not directly say that the Law has died, only that she is bound to her husband as long as he is alive and is released from her ties to him when he dies. He then speaks of her release but carefully avoids saying that the Law has died, only that she died to the Law.
This reflects the situation at the time Romans was written. Even though the New Covenant had already been in force for 25 years (ever since the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit on that first post-resurrection Day of Pentecost), people, even Christian Jews, were still clinging to the Law–offering sacrifices, paying tithes, keeping festivals, obeying the kosher laws, circumcising their sons. Yet the Law was dead. Not only was it dead, but it had failed to produce “fruit to God” in the body of the believer. To remain married to a corpse is a grotesque situation Paul does not linger to contemplate. He merely says, “We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6).
Paul wrote Ephesians in about the year 63 CE, some six years after Romans. In chapter 2, Paul just comes out and says that Christ united Jew and Gentile by destroying the “barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (2:14-15). As a result, Jews and Gentiles connected to Christ are “fellow citizens” and “co-members of God’s household,” built together as a new temple for God “in which God lives by His Spirit” (2:19-22). The verb translated “abolishing” (katergeo) means “to do away with, use up, render ineffective.”
In Colossians, written at about the same time as Ephesians, Paul says that Christ “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” (2:14). Christ’s death on the cross is what canceled (exaleipho–wiped out, removed, destroyed) and took away (airo–removed, set aside) the “written code, with its regulations.” We know this “written code” is referring to the Law because of the verses that follow, which refer to the observances required by the Law: “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). Because Christ’s death canceled the Law and took it away, these regulations no longer apply.
Hebrews on the Change of Covenants
No book of the Bible more clearly teaches that the Law of Moses is no longer binding on God’s followers today. In fact, that is the basic message of the Book of Hebrews, probably written shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Its original readers were tempted because of persecution (see Hebrews 10:32-34) to forsake Christ and return to Judaism. The message of Hebrews is that Christ is better than Moses, better than the angels who mediated the Mosaic Covenant, better than Aaron the high priest under Moses, and offers a sacrifice infinitely better that those offered under Moses. Hebrews 8 calls up the prophecy of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), concluding in verse 13: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.”
This prediction of the disappearance of the covenant of Moses found fulfillment when the Jewish nation rebelled against Rome in the war of 67-73 CE. (You can read about this war in the detailed, eye-witness account. The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus.) The Jewish nation lost its temple and its priesthood in that war. Afterwards, it was impossible to keep the Law of Moses. The covenant curses for the nation’s disobedience, as recorded in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26, came true.
Conclusion about the Law of Moses
Some scholars argue that the Law of Moses continues to be valid as far as its moral code is concerned even though its temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system has ceased to exist. But there is no biblical basis for cutting up the Mosaic Covenant, throwing part of it away while trying to keep the rest of it on life support. In fact, James 2:10-11 argues for the integrity of the whole law and against attempts to keep only part of it (see also Galatians 5:3).
The New Covenant has reaffirmed the morality of the Law of Moses in almost every detail, including all of the Ten Commandments except the Sabbath and the general principles of loving God wholeheartedly and one’s fellow human as oneself. A few moral precepts found in the Law are not explicitly repeated in the New Covenant, such as the command against sacrificing one’s children (Leviticus 18:21) or having sex with an animal (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:23; 20:15-16; Deuteronomy 27:21), but these are covered in the more general imperatives against idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality (e.g., 1 John 5:21; 3:12-15; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
Yet the New Covenant is not a law in the same sense in which the Mosaic Covenant was. Paul says, “we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). We have freedom in Christ to walk in His footsteps, to follow His example, to imitate His priorities, His perspectives, His heart. His love inspires us, His power humbles us, and His sacrifice makes us pure. We strive to be obedient to Him, not just to a rule-book. Our obedience is the measure of our loyalty and love to Him (John 14:15).
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