The Role of the Old Testament for Christians
Is the Old Testament still relevant to Christians, or has Jesus’ sacrifice obsoleted some or all of it?
We know that Jesus “rewrote the rules” for what it takes to go to heaven. He “fulfilled the law” as set out in the Old Testament – the complicated series of procedures and requirements that allowed Jews so comply and qualify for being saved. Some sources suggest there are as many as 613 different commandments in the Old Testament, but the exact number is a bit hard to tie down (some requirements might be restatements of others rather than entire new commandments).
The verses in Matthew 5:17-18 are often used to illustrate how Jesus “fulfilled the law”, with those two verses sometimes expanded through to verse 20. We’re all in favor of seeing verses in context, so let’s look at all four verses (MEV)
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.
18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one dot or one mark will pass from the law until all be fulfilled.
19 Whoever, therefore, breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I say to you that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will in no way enter the kingdom of heaven.
The key concept Jesus tells us here is that he is fulfilling the Law. It has generally been understood that subsequent to his resurrection, the Law has been fulfilled, allowing us a new path – by accepting his sacrifice on our behalf – to Heaven.
The second two verses (19 and 20) might seem somewhat contradictory and talking against the law being fulfilled, but they can be understood as first (in verse 19) Jesus referring to the consequences of getting to Heaven or not, via observing the entirety of the Law, and second (in verse 20), Jesus points out how very difficult this is.
Unstated but implied and further amplified elsewhere is that Jesus is making it really easy for us to get to Heaven, because he is sacrificing himself on our behalf. That is his gift, should we choose to accept it – an easier path to Heaven.
Our freedom from the law is confirmed by Paul when he writes in Galatians 3:23-26 (MEV)
23 But before faith came, we were imprisoned under the law, kept for the faith which was later to be revealed.
24 So the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
26 You are all sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
It is also confirmed in a passage in Romans that is perhaps a bit cryptic (Romans 10:4) so this page of alternate translations helps make it clear what it actually means, with the NIV giving a clear version
Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
Jesus marked the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.
So does that mean we can now throw away our Old Testaments and focus exclusively on the New Testament? We think not. Obviously, the history sections of the Old Testament are still helpful. The structure of God’s World is still in place. The “wisdom” as set out in books such as Proverbs and Psalms still remains wise, and worthy of being accepted by us as guidance.
Just because the laws have now been fulfilled doesn’t mean the underlying concepts of good and bad have disappeared. And, indeed, just because the laws have now been fulfilled does not mean they should all be now ignored. We’ll agree that some of the previous ceremonial type laws no longer apply. There’s no need now for animal sacrifices, because Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – sacrificed himself for us.
We are even specifically told that in addition to fulfilling the law, in case there is any remaining doubt, behaviors such as observing the Sabbath no longer need to be continued (Mark 2:27-28, Colossians 2:16). But can we go out now and, for example, commit murder whenever we wish? Not if we have Christ in our heart, because such actions are not reconcilable with being a sincere Christian, indeed, nine out of the ten Commandments were expressly or implicitly repeated in the New Testament (all but the requirement to keep the Sabbath).
An Analogy – Cars
Can we offer an analogy to explain how we see this. Let’s say you own a regular gasoline-powered car, and it comes of course with a manual on how to operate and maintain the car. Now, let’s say you swap the car for a new battery-electric powered vehicle.
So, does the section in the earlier car’s manual about what type of gasoline to buy still apply? No, of course it doesn’t. You’re now using a different means of power to get to your destination. Does the section about needing to check your engine oil levels, and what grade of oil to use, apply? No, for the same reason. Oil is still beneficial for internal combustion engines, but you’ve replaced your ICE engine with a BEV engine. The same for other sections of the book about radiators and coolant, spark plugs, and so on.
You now have a new manual that tells you how to keep your batteries charged. That is now of great importance to you, as a replacement for the need to buy gasoline and maintain your petrol-powered engine.
What about other parts of the first manual, though? The section on tires – that is still the same, isn’t it. The same for headlights, wipers, suspension, and many other issues.
If your new manual doesn’t talk about keeping washer fluid in its reservoir for your windshield washers, you can probably turn to the section in the older manual and rely on its guidance. And the section in the older manual which says “Warning, do not operate your vehicle while under the influence of alcohol” – that still fully applies, too, doesn’t it (even if the new vehicle has some limited self-driving capabilities!).
Can you see how this analogy ties in to the Bible? The Old Testament can be thought of as the older manual for your previous gasoline-powered car. The New Testament can be thought of as the manual for your new electric car. Indeed, look at the sizes of the two volumes – as we explain in our article about how many words in the Bible, the Old Testament has about 610k words and the New Testament has about 179k words. The Old Testament is more than three times the length of the New Testament – something that is obvious to you any time you turn to the opening verses of Matthew and note how far through the Bible it starts.
It is entirely possible that sometimes you’ll come across questions or issues that aren’t expressly covered in the New Testament, but which are mentioned in the Old Testament – either in the form of customs, or as part of the history of what happened to people, and how God interacted with them and their lives. Should you ignore the Old Testament references? We suggest not – we suggest that if the New Testament doesn’t give us any clear direct or indirect guidance on a point, then if the Old Testament does discuss the matter, it is probably helpful for us to consider the Old Testament commentary and, assuming it is not something clearly made irrelevant by the fulfilling of the law by Jesus, we should consider adopting it as part of our Christian values.
Another Analogy – Computers
Here is a second analogy to keep in mind as well, particularly when noting laws in the Old Testament. You could also think of the coexistence of the two testaments as being like the difference between Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system, and the software that worked within that environment, and now Microsoft’s Windows operating system and the software that works within that environment.
Some things are very different for a Windows based computer, but sometimes you’ll still need to go to a Command window and find yourself back sitting at a DOS prompt and entering DOS type commands. In both cases, no matter how different the Windows interface, achieving a certain task still involves the same computer elements – a processing unit, memory, storage, display, and so on.
So while Windows has changed how we interact with our computers and complete our tasks, the underlying constants of how computers work remain the same. They are just presented to us in a different way, and if we reach a point where Windows can’t do what we need, sometimes we can still return to the DOS environment.
Our Policy About the Old Testament
As you’ll see on our page “What We Believe” we state
The Bible is the Word of God, with the New Testament in primacy and supplemented by the Old Testament. While men may choose to explain and share their knowledge of the Bible, the Bible’s plain language is the key and ultimate source of all Christian understanding. See Proverbs 30:5-6.
The next page, “Our Guiding Principles” amplifies and restates that by saying
Christian people live according to the teachings in the New Testament and more generally those of the Old Testament, and in particular the Ten Commandments. Being Christian is positive, enjoyable, and life enhancing. A Christian faith is incomplete without Christian “works” that flow from that faith.
Of course, these are merely our interpretations and beliefs. They could be wrong. But we offer them to you for consideration and guidance and hope you may find them helpful.
If you find yourself truly vexed on something to do with the application of the Old and New Testaments to a matter, do what we do. Research the issue thoroughly, ask other good Christians their opinions and advice, and then prayerfully seek guidance on what best to do.
We find generally the answer is clear, even if it isn’t always what we wish it to be. And if the outcome is unclear, then you can relax – God isn’t playing tricks on us or setting traps for us. Do what you think is best, rejoice in having free will to choose, and relax in the knowledge that God will never penalize us for sincerely doing the best we can.