Jesus always asserted the absolute authority of the Old Testament (OT) Law. He drew principles from it for his own life and ministry. It was the OT that Jesus read and meditated upon from a young age and this helped shape his character, convictions and worldview. He frequently used the OT scriptures in formulating his own teaching. He sharpened the OT teaching on the law by focussing on the spirit of the law and emphasising its importance for a citizen of the Kingdom of God. N T Wright, in his book Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, suggests that Jesus turned to the OT scriptures to remind himself of his task and use the OT to face and defeat the tempter in the wilderness. Considering all three of his replies to the tempter were drawn from the OT book of Deuteronomy, it shows how important the OT scriptures were in Jesus’ life overall but more so for strength in his ministry to overcome trials and temptations.
Jesus took Old Testament laws and constantly pointed to the spirit of the law behind the letter of the law and taught his original hearers and even us today that the spirit of the law is pivotal and that should always be borne in mind.
Jesus depended on the OT and used them for his spiritual growth and nourishment as well. From there he derived his inner strength, wisdom and direction in life and ministry. Even when Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, he did not disregard OT law and principles, rather he elaborated upon and sharpened them further. He took OT laws and constantly pointed to the spirit of the law behind the letter of the law and taught his original hearers and even us today that the spirit of the law is pivotal and that should always be borne in mind. The spirit behind the letter of the law should be the reason for inculcating right attitudes in our hearts which in turn shape our behaviours on the outside. The ‘You have heard…but I tell you’ formulaic passage in Matthew 5 are clear indications that Jesus continued to draw from the OT law to present the message and the ethics of the Kingdom of God that he was ushering in as part of the New Covenant. In many cases the specific laws of the Old Testament were made more generic and in other cases the generic laws were made more specific. In the Old Testament where ‘adultery of action’ was prohibited, Jesus in his teaching prohibited ‘adultery of thoughts’. When revenge towards enemies was encouraged, Jesus encouraged love towards enemies. When confronted with the question about the greatest commandment of all, Jesus responded with two commandments both drawn from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4–5 which says ‘Hear O Israel the Lord our God, The Lord is one. You shall Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your might’.
All through the Gospels we see that Jesus strengthened the law. He occasionally seems to have set aside portions of the law (Mark 7:14–23) but other times he seems to have interpreted the law in his present context. Still other times he seems to have been very flexible with regards to the regulations of the law. Richard Bending, in Jesus, The Law And Moral Issues Today in Modern Believing, says that Jesus didn’t take a hostile stand against the law although many times he was at conflict with his contemporaries, possibly because he was dissatisfied over matters of interpretation and application of the law and also because their hearts were still corrupted and unchanged. Jesus’ Sabbath day observance showed a level of flexibility because he allowed himself to be moved by compassion rather than follow the letter of the law. He didn’t negate Moses’ law but appealed to the broader principles of the law and kept its spirit.
Selective usage of moral laws stands in contrast to Apostle Paul who said that all of the laws are for our instruction and useful for us.
Different schools of thoughts exist on whether the OT law is relevant to Christians today. Some scholars such as Clyde T Francisco say that the letter of the law is still fully authoritative and binding upon Christians except some difficult laws that cannot be carried forward verbatim to our present time rather, they should be understood and applied differently to us. Walter Kaiser and others say that the moral aspects of the Old Testament law are foundational across generations. Although Christ has fulfilled the law, that doesn’t mean that the law’s claim over the church and its members is over. The Lord’s emphasis on the law himself ought to spur us on to act and live accordingly. Kaiser says that the Gospel of God’s grace and biblical law are twin mercies given by God for his people so they can live life to the fullest. A further viewpoint propounded by Elmer Martens says that the law served to demarcate an ethnic Israel and they are therefore not directly incumbent on the people of the New Covenant. Certain laws (food laws, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping) were explicitly given for the purpose of marking off Israel as God’s chosen people and it is not normative for today’s believer.
Christopher Wright as well as David Hays present another perspective when they say that dividing laws into ceremonial, civil and moral laws are arbitrary and unbiblical and can give the impression that only the moral laws need to be kept now disregarding the others. Such a selective usage of moral laws stands in contrast to Apostle Paul who said that all of the laws are for our instruction and useful for us (2 Tim 3:16). They suggest that from the laws we need to learn about God and how God wants his people and society at large to live.
From all what has been explained already let’s look at five simple reminders to understand the relevance of the Old Testament Law to Christians today.
1) Old Testament laws reflect God’s nature and character. They portray the sovereignty and holiness of God. The laws therefore show mankind the standards of God which are unattainable if it were only for our human efforts.
2) We who are part of the New Covenant don’t receive salvation from the adherence to the law, rather the law points and leads us to Christ. Christ is our role model who has fulfilled the Law and lived the perfect life and it is only through Christ that we are saved.
3) Looking back at the law through the lens of the New Covenant also helps us see how unworthy we are of this gift of salvation. It helps us better appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice, and prompts us to live out our lives in accordance to his will and purposes for us, eternally thankful to God for his benevolence.
4)Whilst the literal letter of the law may not be relevant to us anymore since we are vastly separated from the milieu of when God gave those laws to Israel, the spirit of the law remains for our application today. The love, justice, compassion, holiness and concern of Jehovah God ought to be clearly seen in all the law and emulated by his people today.
5) At a personal level, the OT laws call for personal purity and a wholehearted devotion to God. The laws are clear evidence of the holiness of God and how his ‘called out’ people ought to live in this world.