THE NATURE AND ROLE OF LAW
CONTINUITY OF MOSAIC LAW
I have saved for last possibly the most controversial aspect of “The Nature and Role of Law,” the place (if any) that the Mosaic Law plays in the believer’s life. The church is divided on this issue. Is the New Testament people of God obligated to keep the Mosaic Law? Those who answer in the affirmative argue that the believer is obligated to keep all Old Testament laws unless they are repealed in the New Testament.
For example, Paul sets aside many of the ceremonial aspects of the Law with his statement, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” From this we can conclude that the dietary laws, along with those pertaining to feast days, are no longer obligatory for the New Testament believer.
Conversely, others argue that the Mosaic Law plays an important role in the life of New Testament believers in the sense that they can observe and be instructed by it, but not obligated to obey it. People embracing this position argue that the New Testament believer is not obligated to keep any of the Old Testament laws unless they are repeated in the New Testament.
For example, all of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament with the exception of the fourth: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.”
Those arguing for the continuity of the Mosaic Covenant face the following problem: no one actually believes that all Old Testament laws should apply in the New Testament unless repealed in the New Testament. For example, Deuteronomy 23:2 says, “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” I know of no church that practices this, and this is merely one of many such examples.
Acts 15 records a dispute that arose in the early church regarding the Law: “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” Although nobody in the early church disputed that God’s grace demonstrated through the propitious death of Jesus Christ was the basis of salvation, Luke records that, according to some, circumcision (something required under the Old Testament Law) was a condition for salvation. Thus Luke continues, “But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
At the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 the Apostles debated the question of whether Gentile converts were obligated to keep the Mosaic Law and thus should be circumcised, not whether circumcision saved a person. None can call themselves believers apart from faith in Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father.
By way of illustration, Paul says, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.” In this passage Paul is not arguing that if you don’t practice these crimes you can go to heaven. Rather, he says that if you do violate these commands you cannot go to heaven. So too at the Jerusalem Council, the question wasn’t whether keeping the Mosaic Law was sufficient to save, but rather whether Gentiles believers were obligated to keep the Law.
The Jerusalem Council concluded: “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.” Gentile converts to Christ need not keep the Law of Moses.
Those arguing against the authority of Old Testament Law over the life of the New Testament believer must overcome Jesus’ apparently contradictory statement from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Here is my analysis:
Jesus uses two different words for the two times “fulfill” appears in this passage. In v. 17 the word can mean “To show it forth in its true meaning,” or “To complete, finish, bring to an end.” The context or your theological bias must decide. The other word for “fulfill,” used in v. 18, takes up five and a half columns of meanings in the Greek – English Lexicon, and can mean “until all has been fulfilled” or “until all has happened.”
Note that Jesus gives a double condition: “Until heaven and earth pass” and “Until all be fulfilled.” So the passage can mean, “Until heaven and earth pass into non-existence, every dot and comma of the law will stand,” or it can mean, “Until all of the law is fulfilled, heaven and earth will not pass away.” The context must decide.
If the meaning is “Until heaven and earth pass into non-existence, every dot and comma of the law will stand,” how do we reconcile Paul’s repeal of specific Old Testament commands? Is Paul the least in the Kingdom, for he taught that the “least” of the commandments were abolished in Christ? Reading the New Testament as a whole encourages interpreting Jesus’ statement as meaning that the authority of the Mosaic Law could now lapse because He had fulfilled it.
Jesus fulfilled the Mosaic Law in at least two senses. First, He completely kept the Law, never violating any part of it. This made Him eligible to be our substitute on the cross. Second, He fulfilled what the Law promised, namely that God would provide a way to pardon our sins while maintaining His standard of justice.
Matthew 5:17-19 means that the entire divine purpose prophesied in the Law must take place; not one aspect will be annulled until all is fulfilled. It was fulfilled in the death of Christ on the cross, and thus Paul is not “least in the Kingdom.”
We could argue all day about how the various passages in the New Testament regarding the Law should be interpreted. All of the Ten Commandments, with the exception of the Fourth, are repeated in the New Testament. No individual or group, of which I am aware, keeps the Old Testament Law in its entirety, not even the Seventh Day Adventists. Who checks the genealogy of his congregation to ensure that no bastard for the past ten generations attends his church?
As best I can understand, the reason people argue for the continuity of the Mosaic Law centers around two objectives. The first is the desire to mandate a Sabbath on which the body of Christ is to gather. Ironically, although the Mosaic Law requires that no work be done on the Sabbath, nowhere in either the Old or New Testament exists a command to gather one day out of seven. Rest, not gathering, is the requirement of the Fourth Commandment.
The second, as discussed in the series on eschatology, is the desire of the institutional church to replace the nation of Israel in the affections of God. If this is your objective, then you need a set of laws to govern the institution of the church, and these are found in the Mosaic Covenant. If this is not your objective, and the church is an organism and not an institution, you have no need for carrying the Mosaic Law into to the New Testament.
As I said, as best I understand, these are the two principle reasons why people feel it important to argue for the continuity of the Old Testament Law of Moses. If you believe that the church replaces Israel or that the Bible commands that believers meet one day out of seven, note the following:
1 – As already noted, the fourth commandment requires rest, not gathering. No commandment in either the Old or New Testament mandates gathering one day a week.
2 – I know of no tradition in the Christian church that seeks to obey all Old Testament law unless repealed in the New Testament. Laws pertaining to bastards, wearing clothes with various threads, and planting more than one crop in a field, are merely illustrative.
3 – As mentioned earlier in this issue, if you interpret Matthew 5:17-19 to mean that the continuity of the Mosaic Covenant exists until “heaven and earth pass away,” Paul must be judged “least in the kingdom of God,” for he violated the “least” of the commandments and taught others to do the same as he himself says in Colossians 2:16-17.
Although it is true that this issue of the continuity of the Mosaic Law is much debated in the church, it seems best to me to assume that this system of Law has been done away with in Christ and that we are only obligated to obey those commands found in the New Testament. This, of course, does not mean that the believer is void of moral restraint. Quite the contrary; we are obligated to keep all the commandments of the New Testament, which reiterate all Ten Commandments with the exception of the one dealing with the Sabbath.
United by our commonality in Christ,
 Colossians 2:16-17
 Cf. Romans 15:5 and I Corinthians 10:11
 Exodus 20:8-11
 Acts 15:1
 Acts 15:5
 Cf. John 14:6
 I Corinthians 6:9
 Acts 15:19-21
 Cf. Colossians 2:16-17