As a young believer I remember having the ambitious goal of reading through the entire Bible from beginning to end. I found Genesis and Exodus to be very interesting, but as I read through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy I remember wondering to myself, ‘How much of this do I have to follow? ‘Why don’t Christians follow all these dietary laws? ‘Can Christians eat catfish and shrimp? ‘Should I be keeping the Sabbath? ‘When is the Sabbath, Saturday or Sunday? ‘Are we bound by any part of the Old Testament [OT], and if
so, which parts?’ I also remember only making it as far as the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles before going back to the New Testament [NT] in my daily readings. All those lists of genealogies! However, as I continued from Deuteronomy through the historical books, other questions began to puzzle me. ‘What is the relationship between the OT and the NT, between Jesus and the OT, between the NT Church and OT Israel, between Law and Gospel?’ Christians continue to puzzle over many of these questions today, and in their quest for answers will often come to wrong and extreme solutions. When I was in seminary, I remember reading an academic article where the author makes the argument that NT believers are not bound by any part of the OT, that the OT is useful for historical purposes and for teaching us truths regarding God’s nature and character, but NT believer are bound only by that which is contained in the NT. To illustrate his point he then states: ‘If it were not for the restrictions of U.S. laws, Christians could marry their immediate siblings as this is not forbidden in the NT.’ The implications of that position are enormous. The NT also does not condemn bestiality (Lev 18:23) or transvestitism (Deut 22:5) among other behaviors. Are these things now permissible for the NT believer? However, if the OT is binding upon NT believers to some extent, then to what extent? How much of it do we have to follow and how does one determine what is binding and what is not? This is where the words of Christ in Matthew 5:17-18 are so critically important and helpful.
Jesus says, “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” (v.17). By “the Law and the Prophets” Jesus is referencing the entire OT. This is a phrase that is used often throughout the Bible by both Jesus and the apostles (Matt 11:13; 22:40; Rom 3:21). Hence, the key to understanding what Jesus is saying is in his use of the word fulfill. Whatever differences there are between the Old and New Testament are not there because Jesus simply abolished the OT, but rather because he fulfilled it.
But what is meant by the word fulfill? Some think that when Jesus came, he fulfilled the purpose toward which the OT was pointing. Thus, once the Messiah has come there is no longer a need for the OT. As a result, Christians are no longer under the OT Law, but under the law of Christ, taking their cue from 1 Cor 9:20, 21. In other words, Christians are only bound by that which is contained in the NT. The OT is useful for historical purposes but is not binding upon the NT believer. The problem is that in Romans 7 Paul refers to the Law as being good (v.7) and says he delights in the Law of God (v.22).
Others think Jesus is referencing the ceremonial and civil aspects of the Law, and not the moral aspect of the Law; namely, the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) which are eternal and unchanging. The problem with this three-fold formula is (1) the OT doesn’t make distinctions between laws that are moral, civil, and ceremonial, and the Jews never understood the OT Laws in that way. If God says, ‘Thou shall not eat catfish,’ then God’s people have a moral duty to obey. Thus, all of God’s laws are moral laws; (2) the language of v.18 seems to indicate that Jesus has all the OT in mind when he says, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot [not the smallest aspect of the Law and the Prophets], will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”; and (3) if “Law” in v.18 is a reference to only the moral unchanging Law of God (the Decalogue) then Jesus is speaking in circles for how can the moral unchanging Law of God ever be accomplished—in the sense that it all goes away? This would render v.18 pointless.
Still others think Jesus is referencing the entire OT in that he came in fulfillment of it. Therefore, the reason for the difference between the Old and New Testaments is that the OT was then and is now binding on Jews and the NT is binding on Christians, because Jews and Christians are two separate people of God and never the two shall meet. The problem with this view is that Jesus and the apostles will use clear language to show that being a part of the people of God, being a part of the kingdom of heaven, is not about being Jew or Gentile but about having faith in Christ and being in union with Christ, and that there is one kingdom and one people of God (see Matt 8:10-12; Eph 2:11ff.).
Then in what way does Jesus fulfill the Law and the Prophets? First, Jesus fulfilled all of the OT in that it all pointed to him. For example, in Luke 24:44 Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection and says to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Thus the entire OT pointed toward the coming Messiah. Jesus came in fulfillment of the entire OT.
Second, Jesus came to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law. (Romans 8:3-4) “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us”. And then in Romans 10:3-4 in speaking about the Jews who rejected Christ, Paul writes: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The OT demanded perfect obedience to the Law which no one could ever live up to. Yet perfect obedience is God’s standard. Romans 3:23, “For all of sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard and requirement for perfection. For this reason, Christ came and lived a perfect life of obedience to the Law for 33 years so that those who place faith in Christ (Romans 5) are imputed or credited with his perfect righteousness. In this sense Christ fulfilled the Law. The Law said the standard is perfection in order to be justified before God, but we can’t do that, so Christ did it for us.
Third, Jesus came to fulfill the penalty which the Law requires for sinners. Yes, Jesus fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law for us, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are all still sinners who deserve to die and perish eternally. Recall that Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death.” In order for us to have eternal life and be justified by God, someone had to pay the penalty which the Law demands for sin. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). Christ bore the penalty for our sin and fulfilled the Law’s demands for us. “For God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
Fourth, Christ fulfilled the pedagogic nature of the Law. In Galatians chapter 3 we find Paul forcefully arguing that salvation is by faith alone in the promises of God, even in the OT (see 3:6). Thus, the logical question Paul has to deal with is ‘what then was the purpose of the Law?’ If salvation has always been by faith then why did God give all those laws upon laws upon laws upon laws? Was it to make the life of Jews miserable? Notice Paul’s answer: (vv.21-24) “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” If God could have given a law that would have brought salvation he would have done so. “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came…” (v.22, 23a). Faith is Paul’s abbreviated form of saying v.22, “the promise by faith in Jesus Christ…to those who believe.” Thus, when we read “faith” in this section we need to read the last clause of v.22 into it. “Now before faith came (before “the promise by faith in Jesus Christ…to those who believe”), we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (vv.23, 24). The OT law hemmed in the people of Israel in order to maintain the Abrahamic lineage so as to bring about the promised Messiah who is the seed of Abraham (mentioned in v.16). In other words, if one reads from v.15 to the end of the chapter, what Paul is saying is that God made a promise to Abraham that his descendant would be the Messiah. In order to bring about that promise God sets in place the OT Law to bring about the promised seed of Abraham. Thus, the Law was our guardian (set in place) until Christ came. Jesus fulfilled the purpose for which the OT Law was set in place.
Does this then mean that the OT no longer applies in any sense? Not at all. We know that Jesus did not fulfill every aspect of the OT. We know that some things he fulfilled, which are therefore no longer binding. For example, Jesus is our once and for all time sacrificial Lamb which is why we no longer sacrifice animals in the Temple. Some things are being fulfilled. For example, Jeremiah 31 which prophesies that in the New Covenant God will place his laws within the hearts of his people. As people get saved this continues to happen. And some things from the OT are yet to be fulfilled, such as all the prophecies in Isaiah about the new earth when the lion will lie with lamb. This is what Jesus means in Matthew 5:18, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away [which heaven and earth will never fully pass away], not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” In other words, only as parts of the OT are fulfilled will they then pass away or become obsolete. Thus, Jesus does not abolish the Law, he fulfills it.
So in answer to the question: ‘Which OT laws are binding upon NT believers and which ones are not,’ the only way to answer that question is to interpret the OT through the lens of Christ—that is, through the person and work of Christ—and ask ourselves ‘which OT laws has Christ fulfilled, which laws are being fulfilled, and which laws are yet to be fulfilled?’