1/. The OT laws (recorded mainly in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy)
In the OT God’s people were governed by a multitude of rules and regulations in every area of life. These were guides for living, not a method of earning salvation, but to live in ways pleasing to God by defining sin explaining holiness. These have been classified into three types:
The breaking of laws have consequences – and have ever since Adam and Eve’s time!
exactly or in principle, along with others, in the NT where the focus is more on the inner character qualities rather than the outer conduct (Mt 5:21-48). They provide guidelines for our behaviour; convict us of sin, presenting an opportunity to reconnect with God by asking His forgiveness; drive us to trust in the sufficiency of Christ because we can never keep the commandments perfectly, and will also be the basis of judgement for our failure to keep them (Gal 2:15,16; Jas 2:10). If a behaviour was prohibited in the OT as not pleasing to God, even if it is not mentioned in the NT, it is reasonable to assume it still displeases Him as He doesn’t change His mind (Num 23:19). Do not think that in this day of grace and freedom in Christ such activity will be acceptable to a holy God (Rom 6:1,2,15).
The civil laws controlled daily living for Israel, giving guidelines in such areas as health, food, divorce and sex (eg. Lev 11-13). In today’s culture, although society may not specifically follow these laws, the principles involved should be a guide for lifestyle and personal conduct. God designed these regulations for our benefit and we tamper with them to our detriment.
The ceremonial laws related specifically to Israel’s worship of God, however, as this OT system was a rigid – ‘by the letter of the law’ – impersonal method of regulation, it resulted in lifeless rituals and harsh legalism (eg. Lev 1:1-13). These laws pointed forward to Jesus Christ and since His death and resurrection are no longer necessary. However the principles of love and worship of a holy God still apply.
For OT Israel, all three types of laws blended together. Breaking a civil or a ceremonial law was a moral problem; conversely, breaking a moral law had a civil (and often ceremonial) consequence. But they only went hand-in-hand because Israel was both a nation and worshipping community, thus 'separation of church and state' wasn't one of their core tenants, as it for the church today.
2/. Jesus and the law
No one has ever been justified by trying to keep the law – it is impossible for humans to be completely sinless. The law was given to ‘bring us to Christ’, to show to us that humanity is biased towards sin and can only seek pardon through Him (Gal 3:24). This was the reason Christ came to earth and gave His life to secure our release from this predicament (to save us). Our salvation is a gift of God. We can only accept it, not earn it.
Jesus did not come abolish the law of God but to fulfill its demands and show us its intended purpose – righteous living (Mt 5:17). Paul deduced its essence saying the whole law is summed as “Love your neighbour as yourself” – meaning be ‘other’ focused (Gal 5:14). This includes reaching out to others to bring restoration and reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18); considering others and serving them (Mt 20:28; Jn 13:14,15; Rom 15:1-3; Phil 2:4-8). These actions come from loving each other with a pure love, just as Christ does us (Jn 13:34, 15:12; 1 Pet 1:22); and because we are vitally connected to Christ as He was to His Father (Jn 5:30, 15:4-10). Our obedience to God is to be motivated by love and reverence, based on a personal relationship, not because of legalistic obligations and conforming to regulations as in the OT times.
Above all, Jesus highlighted ‘the law of love’. He condemned those who legalistically applied ‘the law’ without concern for the needs of people (Mt 23:23,24; Lk 6:1-11). Love is the true means to fulfil the law and Paul devoted a whole chapter to expounding its nature (Rom 13:8,10; 1 Cor 13:1-13)
3/. NT teaching about law
As Christians we are under the Law of Christ which should govern all our decisions and actions (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). Instead of concentrating on what we are not to do, Jesus expressed the truth in a positive way when He summarised the OT laws as: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength…Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk 12:30,31). If we faithfully fulfill these, we will find that we have kept all the others. Understanding and living this way brings glory to God, and results in receiving His blessing and favour, as well as becoming more like Him (Rom 8:29; Jas 1:25). If we wholeheartedly obey these two commands, we are fulfilling everything that God requires of us.
Observing God’s Law, then, is an expression of devotion, using it as a guide for living a life pleasing to Him (Deut 6:4-6; Gal 2:16,17; Eph 2:8,9).
Because of our individual relationship with God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, besides the awareness of His laws written in our hearts and minds, our consciences are quickened and we are enabled to respond to Biblical truth resulting in decisions governed by the Golden Rule – in everything do to others what you wish they would do for you (Mt 7:12; Gal 5:18; Heb 8:10, 10:16). “Through Christ Jesus the law (rule) of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law (rule) of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit working within, bringing us into the place of victory that Christ died to provide.
4/. Law in the contemporary world
Obeying is better than rebelling against laws
obey God rather than man” (Act 5:29). Any consequences for civil disobedience must be accepted, just as when God’s directions are violated there is a penalty. All laws need to be impartial and, if there has been wrongdoing, the consequences must be met.
God has established human governments and the laws they create should be for the benefit of their citizens (Rom 13:1-7). However, they have not been given authority by God to change His laws, such as those relating to marriage (between one man and one woman), nor to sanction same-sex marriages. We must not rewrite God’s laws to realign them with what is politically correct – rather live by them, for this results in blessing.
In areas such as the observance of Holy days and what we eat or drink it is up to our personal conscience, however we are not to cause another to stumble instead being considerate of their weak points (Mt 18:6,7; Rom 14:1-22; 1 Cor 8:1-13, 10:32; 2 Cor 6:3; Col 2:16-23). Ask yourself, do these actions help or hinder our love for God and responsibility to our fellow believers? Jesus said, if we love Him we will obey His teaching. He spoke and did only what His Father instructed Him, and we should treat others as we would like to be treated (Lk 6:31; Jn 14:10,23,24,31).
The older Bible translations use a number of expressions that a not familiar to many people today.
a. The prophets spoke of the book of the law meaning the five books of Moses – Genesis to Deuteronomy.
b. The lawgiver. In the OT Moses, under God’s direction, brought the divine laws to the Israelites (Ex 21:1ff, 34:1ff; Jn 1:17). Ultimately God alone is the one true lawgiver and judge (Jas 4:12)
c. The law of sin refers to the dominating power of sin over the life of a person – a principle or rule of action springing from the old fleshly nature (Rom 7:25, 8:2,21-25).
d. The Lawless one who is the anti-Christ, a powerful agent of Satan. In the last days he will come to prominence exerting great power over people and deceiving them about God’s purposes (2 Thes 2:8).
We may not fully understand the wisdom or purpose behind God’s laws but do know they are given in love for our protection and benefit, restricting us from what would lead to our destruction. If we fail to obey them it is at our peril, as they are designed for healthy and upright living, promoting safety and stability in society (Ps 19:7-11). It is wise not to break them or they will break us! External laws imposed on society to regulate behaviour can’t substitute for the rule of God in our heart. We should willingly obey, coupling our love for Him with self-control and self-discipline.
See also: authority, commandments, government, grace, legalism, obedience, questionable practices, ritual, self-discipline.