To what extent should Christians follow the Old Testament law? I submit that the proper question should not be “Which laws are relevant?” but rather “How are all these laws relevant?” Instead of dismissing priests, holy places and sacrifices as unrelated to Christian living, one would do better, in my opinion, to explore how God is revealed through all of these and how God specifically relates to the ritual categories of space, status and time in the contemporary Christian experience.
I recently wrote a book review in which I attempted to highlight some interpretive problems concerning how some Christians have approached the Old Testament in general and the law in particular. The book I reviewed is Tremper Longman III, Old Testament Essentials (InterVarsity Press, 2014), which is actually a fine workbook that I would recommend for accessibly presenting the Old Testament in a Christian small group setting. For whatever reason, however, some of my comments about the law were omitted in the final published version of the review. So I want to offer the full quotation of that section here:
Longman’s comments about law and ritual (in chapters 8-9) need some clarification in my view. He works with the commonly-used categories of “moral,” “ceremonial” and “civil” as a heuristic for interpreting the law (see pp. 97, 99, 101), even though it would make little sense to an ancient Israelite (in which moral matters can be ritual matters and vice versa) and it is not explicitly employed in the New Testament.
Furthermore, Longman may give readers the mistaken impression that the Old Testament sacrifices have no significance by themselves: “Their only significance is that they anticipate the sacrifice that would really matter, namely Jesus” (p. 113; see also p. 11). But it is also important to explain that in ancient Israel, the ritual system primarily served to purify sacred space/objects so that God would remain present in the midst of his people (see J. H. Walton, "Equilibrium and the Sacred Compass: The Structure of Leviticus" Bulletin for Biblical Research 11/2, 2001: 295-299).
Also, Longman’s remarks on pp. 99-101 may give readers the mistaken impression that Jesus’ fulfillment of the law means that ritual laws are “no longer observed,” while the moral laws “continue to be relevant” (p. 99). He states: “there are some laws whose ‘purpose is achieved’…laws that theologians today call ‘ceremonial’… The same is true of a group of laws known as civil laws… A third category of laws, called moral laws, are still relevant” (p. 101). But such parsing of the law may actually conflict with Jesus’ statement that “until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of [the Torah] will disappear until its purpose is achieved” (Matt 5:18; NLT, emphasis added). That’s because a major (if not the primary) purpose of Torah—including the so-called ceremonial and civil laws!—is to reveal God (see D. A. Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34/3, 1991: 331-334). Jesus fulfills Torah because his character is congruent with YHWH’s character as revealed in Scripture.
The question then for Christians should not be “Which of these laws are relevant?” but rather “How are all these laws relevant?” Instead of stating that “Priests, holy places and sacrifices…are not part of the Christian experience” (p. 111), one would do better, in my opinion, to show how God is revealed through these and how God specifically relates to the ritual categories of space, status and time in contemporary Christian experience (cf., Rom. 12:1; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 5:6-13; 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 2:14-17; 6:14-18; Eph. 2:11-22; Heb. 10; 1 Pet. 1-2; etc.).
In addition to the helpful resources I cited above on this topic (Walton’s “Equilibrium” and Dorsey’s “The Law of Moses”) I would also recommend D. I. Block, "Preaching Old Testament Law to New Testament Christians” Hiphil 3 (2006): 1-24; J. D. Hays, “Applying the Old Testament Law Today” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (Jan-Mar 2001): 21-35 and J. H. Walton and A. E. Hill, Old Testament Today (Zondervan, 2013).
In a future post I hope to show how these principles apply to specific examples such as how a Christian approaches the dietary laws.