By Spencer D Gear
Thoughtful Christians often ask questions like this:
How does one determine what parts of the Old Testament are directly applicable to life now? For example, does Leviticus 15 still hold true? If not, how does one explain Matthew 5:17-20? Thanks for your serious consideration of these questions.
My initial response was:
Why don’t you read this brief article, ‘Why do Christians not obey the OT commands to kill homosexuals and disobedient children?‘ (CARM)
Here is explained why most of the OT is not applicable to Christians living under the New Covenant. I try to read through the entire Bible, OT and NT, every 2 years. As a NT believer, it is important for me not to demote the OT, but the rules and regulations of the Old Covenant for Israel are not applicable to me as a NT believer. As this article demonstrates, the Old Covenant is obsolete – not for NT believers (this should read: ‘the Old Covenant and its punitive punishments have been done away with; they are not for NT believers). However, the death penalty of Genesis 9:6 is affirmed by the use of the ‘sword’ for punishment by governing authorities (Rom 13:4).
However, the creation of the world, God’s revelation of his nature, the Psalms, and examples of how God acted in Covenant with his people, are important for me to understand. The Old Covenant sacrificial system was fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice.
The original poster made this observation:
This is a good question.
How do we interpret Matt 5:17-19?
These verses read:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (ESV).
There seem to be three issues in this passage to help us gain a biblical understanding of how the OT relates to NT believers. Was the Law or the Prophets abolished when Jesus fulfilled them? Note that it states ‘Law OR the Prophets’ and not ‘Law AND the Prophets’.
1. There’s a time factor here that we need to consider. These words are dealing with issues prior to Jesus’ death. While Jesus was on earth he kept the Law (of Moses). Remember what happened according to Matt. 8:4? He told the people to offer the sacrifice that Moses commanded. Jesus Himself went to Jewish festivals privately as we are told in John 7:10. What about the Passover lamb? According to Matt. 26:19, Jesus and the disciples kept the Passover.
BUT, we need to understand that prior to his death, Jesus violated the false traditions of the Pharisees. The Pharisees had developed these extra traditions around the Law (see Matt. 5:43-44). What did Jesus say to them according to Matt 15:6?
So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God (ESV).
So, there is a time factor involved in Jesus’ keeping the Law and fulfilling the Law or the Prophets. It was BECAUSE OF the cross that Jesus FULFILLED the Law. We know this from verses such as Gal. 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek … for we are all one in Christ Jesus (ESV)
2. We know from some (not all) references in the NT that the aspect of the Law that was done away with, dealt with OT ceremonies and types. These types from the Law of Moses were fulfilled through Jesus, our Passover lamb (see 1 Cor. 5:7). Jesus fulfilled the laws that predicted his first coming (see Hebrews, chapters 7-10). So, I think we can safely conclude that Jesus did away with the ceremonial and typological aspects of the Law of Moses. This Law was not destroyed by Jesus but it was fulfilled in Him.
3. In our discussion here, there can be confusion over the morality taught in the Law or the Prophets in the OT and its application to Christians. Which of the OT moral laws still applies to the NT believer? We need to understand that:
According to Rom. 8:2-3, Jesus fulfilled the moral demands of the Law on our behalf and those OT moral requirements were for the national and theocratic nation of Israel. Therefore, God’s moral principles from the OT for Israel no longer apply to us because Jesus has fulfilled them for us.
To be specific (and this may alarm some), NT believers are NOT under the commands as expressed in the Ten Commandments. Why? Because they were for the Jews as is clear from the context of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:12 which states,
Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (ESV).
So this command (as well as the rest) of the Ten Commandments were for the people in the land of Israel, a theocratic kingdom. It is not for NT believers.
- This should not alarm us as all but one of these ten commandments is expressed in the NT in a different context. The one commandment not to be obeyed in the NT is the keeping of the Sabbath. The moral principles of the NT are no longer for a theocratic Israelite nation. What does Paul state about those who honour their parents? ‘It may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’ (Eph. 6:3 NIV). I find the NIV to be a more accurate translation of the Greek here than the ESV.
- We also know that Christians are not under the commandment to worship on the Jewish Sabbath (as in Ex. 20:8-11, which was for the theocratic Israel). We know that after Jesus’ resurrection, the resurrection appearances and His ascension (all of which happened on what we call Sunday), Christians worship on Sunday instead. We know this from Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2. What was Sabbath worship according to Paul’s NT teaching in Col. 2:16-17? It was one example of an OT ‘shadow’ of the ‘substance’ which belongs to Christ.
- There is an interesting NT comparison of the OT ten commandments and what we have in Christ in 2 Cor. 3:7, 13-14. What the OT offered was ‘carved in letters on stone’ but NOW ‘only through Christ is it taken away’ (ESV).
- It would be an error to reject the moral principles that are in the Ten Commandments that are based on the unchanging nature of God. All of these principles, except the Sabbath (which has been changed to worship on the first day of the week), are restated in the NT. We must be careful to emphasise that NT believers are no more under the Israelite’s 10 commandments than they are under such Mosaic laws as circumcision (cf Acts 15; Gal 3) or to sacrifice a lamb in the temple.
- However, we are bound by similar moral laws to the 9 commandments such as laws against adultery, lying, stealing, murder. Because there are similar laws in the NT does not mean we live under those OT laws. I live in the state of Queensland. The adjoining state is New South Wales. However, while many of the laws are the same in both States that does not mean that I’m living under the law of NSW. I’m a Queenslander. The comparison is to show that while there are OT and NT laws that are in agreement, often the penalties are different. Take adultery as an example. The OT law required capital punishment for this sin (Lev 20:10). In the NT, the punishment for adultery is excommunication from the church with the possibility of restoration if there is repentance (see 1 Cor 5:1-13; 2 Cor 2:6-8).
Therefore, as for the requirement of NT believers and what is in the OT, Jesus fulfilled the OT and we do not follow the OT moral, ceremonial or theocratic national laws. We follow what is fulfilled in Christ and what is affirmed as NT morality.
Verses 18 and 19 are covered with the above explanation.
We need to remember that even though Jesus didn’t come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, he said it was acceptable for the disciples when they broke the Jewish Law by working on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus showed how he did away with the ceremonial law when he said that all meats were clean (Mark 7:18-19). We know that Jesus’ disciples rejected a considerable portion of the OT law including circumcision (Acts 15; Gal 5:6; 6:15). What did Paul state? ‘You are not under law but under grace’ (Rom 6:14 ESV). And as mentioned above, the Ten Commandments were engraved in stone but the stone has been ‘taken away in Christ’ (2 Cor 3:14).
 Christian Forums, Baptists, ‘Old Testament applicability’, myles2chem #1, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7690807/ (Accessed 2 October 2012).
 In this explanation of Matt 5:17-18, I rely heavily on the exposition by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe 1992. When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, pp. 329-331.
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 29 October 2015.