Principles of Mosaic Law in the New Testament

A recent bulletin (2/10/19) touched on the idea of new covenant principles being supported by quotations from the old testament. Sometimes we want to draw a hard and fast line between the testaments, rightly observing of the law of Moses that Jesus “has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:14). Other Scriptures support this, namely: “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal 3:24-25). The law, as a legal document, was:

1) Made between God and the Israelite nation only. It would not apply to most of us today even if it were still in force.

2) Of temporary duration. It anticipated its own replacement: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb 8:13, quoting Jer 31:31).

3) Incapable of providing ultimate reconciliation with God, for sin-sacrifices were merely animal and inadequate to atone for human transgression (Heb 10:1-4).

So, if mankind were to have forgiveness of sin and spiritual life the law of Moses had to be removed and replaced by something more substantive. This Christ did by first keeping the law, fulfilling it in every respect, and then dying a redemptive death to both free men from the law and institute His own new universal covenant with all mankind.

Passages like 1 Cor 10:6, 11 and Rom 15:4 are often cited regarding the value of Scriptural history for Christians: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11). Rightly so. But this is not all the new testament says about the application of the law.

When Paul advocates for brotherly love, he tells the Romans: “He who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, all are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does not harm to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 15:8-10). Paul makes the same point in Gal 5:14 as does James in 2:8-11.

When Paul directs children to obey their parents, he doesn’t quote Jesus but the ten commandments: “‘Honor your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with promise …” (Eph 6:2).

Further, both Jesus and His apostles pre-date the law when citing support for marriage: “‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Mt 19:4-5). Paul references the same passage in Eph 5:31 and 1 Cor 6:16.

So, why are inspired writers citing a defunct law to bolster their argumentation? Or even going back to Eden for precedent?

I believe in doing so they are acknowledging that some bedrock principles undergird any covenant or directive of God toward men. Just because a legal document has been abrogated doesn’t mean that it was entirely founded on temporary practices or narrowly applied principles. Here is where some become confused on the law of Moses. They insist it is still in force and will say something like: “The law was given by God.” Well, that’s true, but why did He give it? What was its purpose? And how long did He intend for it to be in force? They confuse legal viability with usefulness and timeless principle.

The same Paul that cited the law to support his argumentation also called it “a ministry of death, written and engraved on stones” (2 Cor 3:7). He called it a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor 3:9). It had a glory because of its origin, but that glory was “passing away” (2 Cor 3:10-11). As a legal document, as a means to ultimate fellowship with God, the law was insufficient. So the law said of itself (cf. Gal 3:10-13; Rom 3:9-21).

One implication of this is that we must be very careful when quoting the law of Moses to support something. Some quote Ex 21:22 to say a fetus isn’t fully human. Some brethren try to use the priest’s trousers to draw hem lines. Others cite the fourth commandment to bind the Sabbath. Still others appeal to David’s introduction of musical instruments to worship with a “praise band.” There’s no end to this willy-nilly scouring of the old testament for a proof text to prop up an argument.

If an inspired writer/speaker makes an application of principle between Moses’ and Christ’s covenants, then we are on solid ground to assert it. If we observe moral or spiritual breakdown among the Israelites, then we must carefully extract the lesson of weakness and yielding to temptation. We must be cautious about creating analogies between elements of the covenants where Scripture doesn’t expressly make them. “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).