God Wants More For You. So Do We.

How Do We Know Which Old Testament Laws Apply For Christians Today?

Ask Pastor Alex, Ep. 4

This is the Ask Pastor Alex podcast with your host, Pastor Alex.
All right, welcome back to the Ask Pastor Alex podcast.
We’re here with another episode and another question.
And the question this episode is, given Matthew 5 18, how can we look at the various sets
of laws in the Old Testament and understand which are still to be upheld and which are
no longer applicable?
Good question.
I appreciate that question.
I think it’s one that a lot of people have wondered about themselves as Christ followers.
And the question specifically said in relation to or given Matthew 5 18.
So let’s just remind ourselves.
In Matthew 5 18, Jesus says, for truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
So contrary to popular belief, Jesus did not come to do away with the law and get rid of
He came to fulfill the law.
And so it is appropriate as Christians to say, when I read the Old Testament and specifically
the law sections of the Old Testament, how do I know if the laws that I’m reading apply?
And many people answer this question in many different ways.
And some are more helpful than others.
So an unhelpful way is you hear some Christians today say, well, none of it applies because
now we are under grace and not under law.
And yes, the Bible does say that we are under grace, not under law.
But what does that mean?
Because we know that the law was never given for salvific purposes, right?
God did not give the Israelites the law and say, if you keep this, you will be saved.
That’s not how it worked.
Remember, when God gave the people of Israel the law, He had already saved them.
He had already delivered them from their slavery in Egypt.
And so the law was never given for salvific purposes or for legalistic purposes, as in,
do this in order to be saved.
The law was given as a set of rules for the people of Israel to know how to live as God’s
people in the world.
He was saying, you are a nation that I have saved unto myself, that I’ve called out of
And this is how you are to live and be governed as my people who are going to be living in
the promised land.
And there were, of course, blessings for obedience and there were curses for disobedience.
And that was related specifically to the fact that the Israelites were under the Old Covenant.
It’s important to remember that Christians are part of the New Covenant.
And so that was specifically tailored and related to the Old Covenant.
So I do think that first statement is unhelpful, that, well, none of the law applies.
We can just do away with it because we’re under grace rather than law.
Yes, we’re under grace.
But again, you have to ask that question, what does that mean?
And then you also have to look at the fact that the law was never given for salvific
purposes in the first place.
It’s also helpful to remember Jesus’ own summary of the law was that the entire law
could be summarized in basically two phrases, love God and love other people.
And if you do those two things, then you’re fulfilling the purposes of the law.
But there is another response.
So there’s that first group that says, let’s just get rid of the entire law.
There’s a second group that says, well, we need to think about the law in terms of three
categories primarily.
There are the ceremonial laws, which are related to Israel’s worship.
And so when you read about the feast, the festivals, the sacrifices, those are all ceremonial
type laws.
And they will say the ceremonial laws have all been fulfilled by Christ.
And praise God, that is true, right?
We know that we don’t offer sacrifices today and we don’t have to observe these festivals
and feasts and all that because Jesus is the once for all time sacrifice.
He’s been offered up once for all time.
And the Bible specifically even says in the book of Hebrews that there is therefore now
no more sacrifices that could be made for sins because Jesus has been offered up as
the once for all time sacrifice for our sins.
So they talk about ceremonial laws and then they also talk about the civil laws.
And the civil laws were specifically related to Israel’s government, how to govern themselves
as a nation.
And they will say those no longer apply to us today because the people of God today do
not exist as a nation.
And so these laws are no longer relevant for us today.
And then finally, they speak about the moral laws.
And the moral laws, as you can imagine, have to do with essentially Christian character
or the character of a God follower.
And they would say, of course, these laws still apply today because they are rooted
in the character of God and they are meant to be reflected by God’s people.
And I’ll just say this, that I find those three categories can be both helpful and unhelpful.
So for instance, they are helpful in the sense that they give us categories by which we can
think about the laws when we read them.
So when we’re reading certain laws, we can have a loose guide and see where certain laws
fall into in terms of a category.
And I think that helps us process what we’re reading and think about what we’re reading.
But they can also be unhelpful too, right?
Because for instance, some laws, well, they could fit into multiple categories.
And so you have a hard time determining, is this a civil law or ceremonial law?
Is this ceremonial or moral?
If it seems like it could fit into multiple categories and then you don’t know, well,
does it apply or not?
And then you can think about the fact that there are other laws that don’t seem to fit
into any one of the three categories.
So for instance, what do you do with dietary laws?
When the Bible says, don’t eat these particular kind of foods, well, that’s not ceremonial.
That’s not really civil and it’s probably not moral.
The end of the day is probably not a moral issue.
So that doesn’t really fit into any one of those three categories.
So what do you do with the dietary laws?
And so that’s one of the reasons I think these categories can be both helpful and unhelpful.
And so we’re going to get into some particulars here and just kind of give us some ways to
think through the laws as we read them.
So number one, I think when we’re reading the law section of the Bible, we need to always
be trying to get at the heart or at the spirit of the law.
We need to be asking the question, why did God give this law in the first place?
What’s its purpose?
What’s the intent behind it?
The reason we think like this is because that’s how Jesus thought about the law and that’s
how he told us to think about the law.
So think back to Jesus’s sermon on the Mount.
He was constantly trying to correct the Pharisees from just thinking about the letter of the
law and try to get them thinking about the heart or the spirit of the law.
So the law says, you shall not murder.
And the Pharisee said, okay, we won’t go and commit the physical act of murder and that
means we are good.
We are righteous law keepers.
And Jesus says, actually, the heart behind this law, the spirit of the law is if you
have anger in your heart towards your brother, you’re going to suffer the same punishment
as the one who goes through with the physical act of murder because every murder begins
in the heart.
And the law says, you shall not commit adultery.
The Pharisee said, okay, we’re not going to have a sexual interaction with anyone who
is not our spouse.
We are righteous law keepers.
And then Jesus says, actually, the spirit behind that law, the heart of it is even if
you look at another person with lustful intent in your heart, you’ve already committed adultery
because every adulterous act starts in the heart.
Jesus was constantly pointing people to the heart and the importance of the heart.
And so when we’re reading the law, we need to be trying to get at the spirit or the heart
behind that law.
So for instance, just think about a couple of these.
There’s a famous law that talks about not wearing clothing that is made up of mixed
Don’t wear mixed clothing.
Clothing made up of more than one material.
And people like to point that out today and they’ll say, well, why do we not hold to this
law, but we do hold to other aspects of the law?
And they think it’s hypocritical.
They think we’re picking and choosing.
So let’s think about this.
What is the purpose or the spirit of that law?
Why did God give that law in the first place?
And if you read the context and kind of see what’s going on, it becomes pretty clear that
the primary reason God gave that law to the Israelites was so that his people would be
distinct from the surrounding culture.
The other cultures, apparently they wore mixed materials quite often and you could see that
their clothing was made up of more than one material.
And so he tells his people, don’t do that.
Not because it’s morally wrong, not because it’s ceremonial or civil or anything like
His desire was for his people to be distinct from the surrounding cultures.
That’s the spirit of the law.
God’s people are to be distinct from the surrounding cultures.
So then we ask as Christians, how does that apply to us today?
Well, we would say that still applies, that Jesus even said that we’re to be in the world,
but not of the world, that his people are to be different from those around them.
And so when we read a law about the mixed clothing, we would say, as a Christian, how
can I be distinct from those around me?
How can I be distinct as a Christian, as a person of God?
And there are tons of applications for that, about what you watch and don’t watch, about
where you go and don’t go, what you do and don’t do, how you speak, how you treat people,
what you love, what you disregard.
There are all sorts of applications of that, but it all stems from the principle and the
spirit of that law, God’s people are supposed to be distinct.
I mean, you read another one in Leviticus 19, where it says in Leviticus 19, 9 through
10, when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to
its edge, neither shall you gather the gleaning after your harvest.
You shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your
vineyard, you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.
I am the Lord your God.
So there is another one where we would probably, a lot of Christians say, well, I don’t really
farm, maybe you live in a city and you’re like, how does this have anything to do with
me today?
I can’t even apply this if I wanted to.
But what’s the spirit behind this law?
What’s the purpose?
Why did God give it?
And I think it’s pretty clear when you begin to read it, the principle is something along
the lines of, Christians should care for the less fortunate.
Christians should care for the poor and for the needy, or get more specific.
Christians should provide opportunities for the less fortunate to take care of their own
And that opens up a wide range of application, right?
It even calls into question a lot of our charitable giving because notice that the people of Israel
here, they weren’t harvesting everything and then taking a portion to the poor.
They were leaving a portion of their field unreaped so that the poor could come along
and do the work and actually provide for their own needs.
And so rather than just giving the people a handout, they gave them an opportunity.
And so as Christians, we would begin to think, well, how can I do that in my own life?
How can I provide opportunities to the less fortunate in my life and give them an opportunity
to even work to provide for their own needs and meet their needs?
And so there’s lots of different ways that you can make applications of that.
But when you’re reading the law, the most important thing I think you can do is try
to get at the spirit of the law and the reason why God gave it in the first place.
And when you can get at that principle, then you can begin to make application for the
Christian life.
And you’ll be surprised when you read the law, how much of it actually applies as opposed
to how much of it probably doesn’t apply.
I think you’d be shocked to find how much of it is still relevant and applies for Christians
And so just a couple of things.
I think it’s helpful to think through that, the intent, the purpose, the spirit of the
law, the heart of the law.
A lot of times when you’re having this conversation with people, it is because they’re wanting
to do a bit of a gotcha like, oh, hey, people get tattoos today, but they don’t want homosexual
relationships or people eat this type of food today, but they don’t want homosexual relationships
and things like that.
And they think, again, that Christians are picking and choosing and that we’re being
And that’s just not the case because I mean, even think about the dietary laws, right?
You think about the dietary laws where God says, don’t eat this type of food.
Well, in the New Testament, Jesus actually fulfills that and does away with it.
It just requires a little bit of reading, right?
You go to Acts chapter 10 and Peter is hungry.
He’s wanting to eat some food.
God tells him to eat.
And Peter’s like, no, I’m not going to eat anything unclean and common.
I’ve never done that.
And God says, don’t call something unclean and common that God has declared to be clean.
And so God was announcing his approval of all the foods that were previously banned.
And if you want to more specific of this, Mark chapter 7 verse 19, Jesus specifically
declares all food clean.
So there are oftentimes when you’re reading the law in the Old Testament where something
in the New Testament supersedes what was previously given.
So previously God restricted foods, but in the New Testament, Jesus announces all food
is clean.
And so we aren’t trying to be hypocritical.
We’re trying to be consistent with the message of the Bible.
And so at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the law cannot save you.
No amount of keeping the law can save you.
Even if you were to try to keep all of it, you would fail.
We are dependent upon Jesus and his grace alone for our salvation.
Number two, I would say at the end of the day, we need to remember that Jesus fulfilled
the entire law and praise God for that.
So we don’t have to meticulously uphold every law.
And if we fail, then all of a sudden we’re doomed.
We are reliant on the fact that Jesus has already fulfilled the law on our behalf.
He has kept the law on our behalf.
And now when we repent of our sins and we put our trust in him, his righteous obedience
is counted to us through faith.
And so we are declared right in the eyes of God, not because of our works, but because
of what Jesus has done for us and the fact that we’ve trusted in him.
The other thing to remember is that it’s not helpful to dismiss the entire law because
there are still parts of it that are incredibly relevant and applicable to the Christian life
And so the laws require a careful reading and a discerning spirit that gets after the
spirit of the law and the heart of the law and tries to make appropriate application
of the various laws.
It’s also important to remember that there’s a bad attitude towards the law today where
a lot of Christians look down on the law and want to be dismissive of it and deal away
with it.
And you don’t find that in the Bible at all.
I mean, some of the longest Psalms in the entire Bible are written about how great the
law is.
The Israelites loved the law.
They rejoiced in the law because it was rooted in the character of God.
And though it was impossible for them to keep and though it showed them their need of someone
to come and keep it for them on their behalf, at the end of the day, they still loved the
law of God.
And so we should love the law of God while understanding that Jesus has fulfilled it
on our behalf.
And it makes us even more worshipful because we’re praising God for this great work that
he has done in Christ for us.
And so the last thing I’ll say is we aren’t trying to pick and choose which laws to uphold
and which laws to dismiss.
We’re trying to be discerning and ask, is this something that was specifically tailored
to the government of Israel or something related to the Old Covenant?
Or is this something that is applicable for all time because it is revealing the moral
character either of God himself or the moral character he desires his people to have in
the world?
So to the person who asked the question, thank you for the question.
I know this episode has been a little bit longer than usual.
And I wish I had time to go through every single law in the Old Testament and tell you,
yes, this one, no, this one.
But I don’t have time to do that.
And I’d probably mess it up anyways.
So that’s why I just want to say the most helpful thing I can tell you is to understand
Jesus fulfilled the law.
Jesus told us the summary of the law was to love God and to love others.
And Jesus told us to read the law by looking for the spirit of the law, trying to discern
the purpose and intent of the law and then make appropriate applications based on that.
So thank you for the question.
I hope that this answer has been somewhat helpful and I look forward to answering more
in the future.