Harmonizing the Old Testament Law Pt.1: Categorizing the Law

The role of the Old Testament law in the life of a Christian has caused quite a bit of confusion over time. What laws should we obey and what role does it play in our lives today? In this series, we’ll explore just that.

As one who has experienced judgment based on the OT law, I understand this can be a touchy subject for some. While I won’t dive too much into specific laws, an understanding of how the law harmonizes with the NT is vital if we’re to be loyal followers of Christ. Not only will it enhance our walk, a harmonization will also answer common objections raised by the skeptics in regards to the “contradiction” of the life of the believer and the OT law, along with addressing its “outdatedness.”

So let’s look at the contradiction raised. If Christians truly take the Bible seriously, why do we cherry pick which laws we want to follow and ignore? Why do we obey the Ten Commandments yet eat pork and wear polyester suits? To address this we need to understand what exactly sets the OT and NT law apart.

Both the OT and NT laws are what we call covenants (or contracts). How one signed on to the old covenant was to show one’s loyalty to God by being circumcised. When it came to the new covenant, one entered it by accepting it through the covenant broker, Jesus Christ, and displaying that loyalty on the outside through baptism. When it comes to ignoring laws the answer is quite simple, we didn’t sign onto the old covenant. However, this does bring forth a few questions. Firstly, if we’re not signed to the old covenant, why do we use laws like the Ten Commandments as moral guidelines? Isn’t that inconsistent? And secondly, if God is omniscient, why does He change His mind?

When skeptics argue this they often simplify the law into one category. As one skeptic put it, “How do you reconcile that position (that God never changes) with the abolition of the OT law under the NT?” To answer this we need to break the law up in categories.

Some laws are known as Universal Morals. These are laws such as “do not murder,” “do not steal,” etc. As there are no disagreements among both skeptics and believers that these should be followed we need not explore them further.

Other laws are known as Cultural Universals. These are laws specific to Israel’s culture with a universal moral behind them. One of the best examples of this is in Deuteronomy 22:8-9, which says,

“When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence.”

The skeptic here may label this as useless in our modern culture, but they’re failing to see the moral behind it, which is important for us today. Not only that but a lot of Ancient Near Eastern cultures still build houses where the roof is used as an entire room. This room was/is used for things such as entertainment and household chores like laundry. Our modern equivalent is a balcony, so the moral law of providing safety is just as relevant to us today as it was back then. When it comes to the objection of God changing His mind, cultural universals are often brought up as evidence, but as we’ve shown, though circumstances may change, God still holds the values behind such laws.

The final category of law is Ceremonial Laws or Ritual Laws. This is where sacrificial laws and dietary laws are set. I cover the purpose of these laws here. In summary, they were meant to set Israel apart from other nations as God’s holy people. Under the new covenant, the old ritual laws were superseded in Jesus and replaced with baptism and communion.

Overall, when it comes to leaving the OT law, it’s not as straightforward as the critics would have us believe. The universal morals are still binding on us today, although we don’t have to obey their specific cultural relevance. In essence, the old covenant is important as it gives us a comprehensive idea of what God desires for us and what His values are; so naturally, the universal morals established in the old covenant carry onto the new covenant. This is why it’s possible to appeal to some laws while passing others. It’s important we take the time today to study the old covenant’s regulations, and more importantly, which category they fit into.

We’ll take a closer look at some of the objections made concerning the OT law in part 2.

For further reading regarding the OT law I highly recommend this source by Glenn Millar: Does the NT contradict the Hebrew Bible in its discussions of the ‘passing away’ of the Mosaic Law?