How does the Old Covenant law (Exodus 19 – Deuteronomy 34) function in the life of a Christian today? Let me get real practical, real fast – why should a Christian even care about the Book of Leviticus? Why should you care about the laws regarding Hebrew slavery? The year of Jubilee? The Day of Atonement? Jesus quoted from it. the apostles were raised with it. James seemed to think it still had some kind of a role in a believer’s life. In short, what role does the Old Testament law play in your life as a Christian?
I haven’t quite answered this question yet. Just like the Grinch, I’ve puzzled and puzzled ’till my puzzler was sore. But, I have jotted down some overarching principles. I am not presenting this as a definitive answer to the question. It is simply where I am at right now, in October 2016, when it comes to the question of the Law and the Christian. It will probably change!
My Nifty Chart
This very short chart is here so you (the reader) can understand my presuppositions coming into this discussion:
As an entire, indivisible code, the Old Covenant has become obsolete and has passed away. Certain laws within the Old Covenant code transcend covenantal arrangements because they reflect a timeless truth or principle rooted in who God is and how He expects His adopted children to behave. For example, it is always sinful to kill somebody you don’t like or to have sexual relations with your sister.
There is a clear parallel to this in our society today between, for example, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the laws of the State of Washington:
Laws Which Transcend Codes:
It is against the UCMJ to commit sexual assault, involuntary manslaughter, burglary, and many other crimes. It is also against the laws of the State of Washington to commit these acts. These actions are morally wrong, intrinsically sinful, and their prohibition transcends the “code” of the UCMJ or the “code” of the State of Washington. They’re always wrong. And they always will be wrong.
Laws Which Have Applicable Principles:
Under military law, it is a criminal offense to arrive for duty while intoxicated (Article 112). You may be apprehended by Security Forces, advised of your rights in accordance with Article 31(b), questioned as a criminal suspect, charged as a criminal suspect by legal and receive non-judicial punishment or, if circumstances warrant it, a summary courts-martial.
However, under the laws of the State of Washington it is not a criminal offense to show up for work drunk. To be sure, it is a very bad idea, but there are no criminal penalties or consequences for this action. There will probably be penalties, but they will not be criminal and the government has no interest in your drunkenness at all.
Can laws which have absolutely no parallel to civilian life be used as general principles for life today? Again, we turn to the UCMJ for an example. True, it is not a criminal offense to show up to your job at Safeway drunk. But, it certainly isn’t a good idea! Just because the statute isn’t binding doesn’t mean it isn’t a holy and wise principle to follow. Context will determine whether an appropriate principle can be drawn.
For instance, the law for the purification of sins for the common Israelite reads:
If an ordinary individual sins by straying unintentionally when he violates one of the Lord’s commandments which must not be violated, and he pleads guilty, or his sin that he committed is made known to him, he must bring a flawless female goat as his offering for the sin that he committed (Lev 4:27-28).
This regulation is for sinful actions which were not premediated. It tells an Old Covenant believer how to restore fellowship with God after this sinful act is committed, and how atonement is made to satisfy God’s righteous anger and “set things right” between the sinner and his holy God. What is the prerequisite for the sinner? He acknowledges it. He “pleads guilty.” He does not try to minimize or hide his sin. In other words, the man is repentant.
This is a universal principle. This is why God did not accept sacrificial offerings which were not accompanied by sincere repentance (cf. Isa 1)!
Why should New Covenant believers care about this passage? After all, I hope nobody loads up a female goat in their minivan on Sunday morning on their way to church! Well, you should care because of the basic principle which can be extracted from this ceremonial law – repentance is the prerequisite to the forgiveness, reconciliation and atonement of a believer. This is about sanctification.
To extract this principle, this is why you cannot cheat on your wife and then utter a quick and insincere “prayer for forgiveness” to “square things away” while your mistress freshens up in the motel bathroom. God hears your “prayer,” but He is not happy about it. It isn’t efficacious. Discipline is coming.
However, some UCMJ offenses are so clearly irrelevant that there is little use trying to find a parallel; for example, “improper hazarding of a vessel” (Article 110). No parallel. Irrelevant. This leads to another category.
Laws Which Are Completely Irrelevant:
There are other punitive offenses under the UCMJ which have absolutely no parallel to civilian life. They are irrelevant. For example, you may be charged with “misbehavior of a sentinel” (Article 113). This is clearly not applicable to civilian life in the State of Washington. It is completely useless and meaningless. The context of life as a civilian makes this clear to everybody.
The Old Covenant laws governing Hebrew slavery are a good example of this.
What to Do!?
In other words, as you read your Bible and come across a particular passage in the Old Covenant Scriptures, you may wonder, “What does this have to do with me, today!?” The answer is, well . . . it depends!
- Where is the law?
- What is the context?
- How would the original audience have understood it?
- What kind of law was this under the Old Covenant; e.g. moral, ceremonial, civil?
- Why did this law exist? That is, why do you believe God instituted this law for the Old Covenant believer?
- Did this law, or a form of it, exist before the Covenant at Sinai (Ex 19)? What about in the New Covenant?
- Understanding the New Covenant, how does this particular law function for the believer today?
These are difficult questions, and let me be blunt – if you rarely ever read your Bible and only attend church twice per month, you will never be able to answer these questions. Never. Give up now. Better yet, repent of your sloth and submit yourself to the accountability and authority of the Pastor(s) of a Bible-believing local church.
You need to know God to answer these questions.
You need to know the Bible in a deep, systematic and comprehensive way to answer these questions.
You need to know the Pentateuch thoroughly. This means you have to read, study and understand Exodus 20 – Deuteronomy 24. Many Christians do not know this portion of Scripture, and therefore the Law is a closed book to them, a vast morass of confusion and tedium. It shouldn’t be.
If you’re a dispensationalist, you need to decide what you believe about the New Covenant. You also need to decide how the law functioned in the life of an Old Covenant believer. You need to decide what the impetus for sanctification and obedience to God’s Word was for the Old Covenant believer. Let me be frank – dispensationalists struggle with this question. A lot. A. Lot.
Basically, you must analyze each passage on a case-by-case basis. This isn’t an easy answer. But, I believe it is the best answer.
Notes (from chart):
 The Old Covenant, as a complete code encompassing moral, ceremonial and civil laws, functioned as a governing rule of life for Old Covenant members from Exodus 19 – Acts 1. This code is preserved in Exodus 19 – Deuteronomy.
 The New Covenant, as a complete code governing moral, ceremonial and civil laws, became operative as a rule of life for New Covenant members from the date of Pentecost (50 days after Jesus’ execution) until the present. This code is preserved in the relevant passages in the Gospels – Acts 1, and explicitly in the New Testament from Acts 2 – Revelation 22.
 It is very possible certain Old Covenant saints explicitly understood everything about Messiah’s future work in the incarnation, to include His perfect life, sacrificial death, burial and resurrection. See the Apostle Peter’s commentary on King David’s prophesy about the Messiah in Psalm 16 (cf. Acts 2:22-33).