The Bible is one book, but it has two parts: The Old Testament and the New Testament. Reading the Bible can be confusing if we do not understand how to read this book with two parts. As Christians, we tend to focus on the teachings of the New Testament because it contains the written revelation of Jesus––the one whom we follow.
However, like all books, one must read the beginning to understand the end. We cannot understand the significance of the New Testament if we do not know the Old. The Old Testament creates the expectation and context for the what happens in the New.
This means the Old Testament “applies” just as much to our lives as the New Testament. It can be more difficult to recognize its application, though, because it must be interpreted in light of how Jesus’ fulfilled it. The New Testament is usually easier to apply because it explains who Jesus is and tells us what following him entails.
The Old Testament actually does the same, but it looks forward to Jesus, not back like the New Testament. When Jesus appears, he carries God’s work in the Old Testament to completion. To separate the Old and New Testaments would be to undermine the Mission that Jesus came to fulfill: reconciling us to God. Jesus is the promised heir to David’s throne, Abraham’s descendant that blesses all nations, and the seed of Eve that crushes the serpent’s head.
What About the Law?
Although most Christians agree the Old Testament still applies to us today, we often argue over which parts of the OT still apply. This is especially true when it comes to the Law.
The Law is commonly divided into three categories: the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. The Law is divided into these three subcategories based on which realm the particular activity took place. For instance, a command that prohibits murder is put into the “moral law” category, while a command that prohibits a person from wearing clothing made up of more than one type of fabric is put into the “civil law” category.
This is a nice and easy way to show that some laws no longer apply while other laws still do. We clearly believe murder is wrong, but we also wear clothes made up of multiple types of fabric. This seems like a simple way to deal with the Law, but it has one big problem.
Ancient Israel did not distinguish between these different categories. Breaking any part of the Law was a heinous offense against God. This is why, in Acts 10, we see Peter struggling with even the idea of eating pork. It was prohibited by the Law!
But we also know that “all Scripture,” speaking of the Old Testament, is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). This means we can’t simply throw the Law away. It had an important role to play in the salvific plan of God, and just as Jesus fulfilled the other salvific covenants, he does so with the Law.
This means we must look at the Law through the lens of Christ to discover how its fulfillment yields righteousness.
How Does Paul Deal With the Law?
Paul, in his letter to the church at Rome, shows us the true application of the OT Law. Here he does extensive work to explain the role of the Law in the life of the believer and how Jesus fulfills it. He also explains how the Holy Spirit works in our lives so that we can become doers of the Law.
12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous (Romans 2:12-13).
Here Paul recognizes that obeying the Law is what counts towards righteousness. However, a few verses later, Paul points out that it is not, as the Jews thought, just strict adherence to the activity (the “letter”) of the Law that fulfills the Law, but the heart of the person doing it.
28 A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God (Romans 2:28-29).
Paul, here, is saying that for a person to truly obey and do the Law, a person’s heart must first be changed. Simply becoming circumcised does not make one right with God if a person does not have faith. The outward expression of the Law is supposed to demonstrate one’s faith and allegiance to God.
In order for a person to be fully committed to God, one must first align their heart and mind with the heart and mind of God. Only then can a person do the Law in a way that the righteousness of God can be attributed to them.
In Romans 3 Paul goes on to tell the Roman church how no one is righteous, neither Jew nor Gentile. Why? Because we all have sinned (Rom. 3:10-18)! However, right after Paul gives this devastatingly bad news, he then states how people can become righteous.
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
This is an important verse! Paul says, that God’s righteousness has been shown to us through something else besides the Law. He then goes one step further and says that the Law and the Prophets, which make up a good majority of the OT, were telling the story and pointing (testifying) to this thing which has been made known.
This “thing” Paul is speaking about is of course the person, Jesus Christ. In fact, what Paul says in Romans sounds very similar to what Jesus says in Matthew: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).
So what Jesus and Paul are saying is that both the Law (which guided Israel in living a holy and righteous life before God) and the Prophets (whose message was to call Israel back to living according to the Law) find their fulfillment through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because the OT points to Jesus and because the Law finds its fulfillment through Him, strictly obeying the Law is no longer effective for righteousness (right standing before God).
Living Old Testament Righteousness
Our salvation is not earned. There is nothing we can do that will earn God’s forgiveness. Being a “good person” does not address the deeper sin problem––in our hearts––that separates us from God. Salvation is only offered to us by the grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus’ death on the cross. We are saved by grace through faith.
However, we as Christians can struggle with setting up the law in our lives even though we have been freed from its yoke. One reason is because we know that God still expects us to live holy lives. It is ironic, but by striving for holiness, we often miss its point and instead create laws for ourselves and others to live by even though we have been set free.
Living by the law, in this way, only glorifies ourselves. Of course, this is often not our intention, but it is the way our sinful nature twists the good things of God. Instead of focusing on individual laws and rules, focus on the one who fulfills those laws. Focus on the man who was God, who humbled himself beyond measure, and became sin for us and died. We can now have both life and the righteousness God demanded through the Law. It is attributed to us when we die, with Christ, to the Law and are raised in his righteousness (Rom. 7:4).
Join the Conversation: How is the Law fulfilled by loving God and our neighbors? How should we change the way we talk about righteous living so we don’t impose the law on ourselves and each other?