How do we read the Old Testament law

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Keepoff grass by callmetin on
Some recent preaching has provoked a lot of questions about we handle the law. John Groves, A respected teacher within Newfrontiers, noted that “There is a common tendency to mix up our Covenants! The mixing up of Old and New Covenants leads to many errors, some of which are widely held. It is so important that we understand the New Covenant that Jesus introduced and how it works. We must live under the New Covenant and view Scripture from that perspective.”
So to answer the question of how Christians read and apply the Old Testament law we need to understand the Old and New Covenants and which one we are in, before working out how to read, study and benefit from the Law in God’s Word!

A covenant is a relationship between people where promises are given and confirmed by the taking of an oath. There are different types of covenenant in the Old Testament times. The covenants between God and Noah & Abraham were covenants of generosity. There was a mutual covenant between Abraham and Ahimelech and so on. The major covenant in the Old testament is a covenant of imposed obligation or law. God swears to convey blessings on His chosen people if they obey the obligations or law. Even though it is law there was a lot of grace and love in it (in one way to point forward to the New covenant!) – because God had chosen them, brought them out of Egypt and was showing them his “steadfast love” – the Old Testament word for grace. There was a major condition attached though: “Now therefore if you will listen to my voice, and if you will keep my commandment, then you will be my own special treasure among all the poeple, for all the earth is mine” Ex 19:5. Deuteronomy 11 then outlines the many curses for not following the law.

Throughout the Old Testament, there is a pointing forward to Christ – in fact you could say that everything in the Bible either shows us our need of Jesus, is about Jesus or shows us the results of what Jesus did and how to apply it!

When Jesus comes he brings the new covenant – He fulfilled the law – He is the only one who ever fully obeyed the law. And He brings the new covenant of grace; a better covenant based on better promises Hebrews 7:22;8:6 and 12:24.

When we come to Christ, every thing that happened to Him is applied to us. So Galatians 2:20 can say “I am have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And 2 Cor 5:17 shows us “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come”. Arthur Wallis called that the Death Blow!

So in the book of Romans, Paul shows that by being baptised (or identified) into Christ, we have been baptised into death and are now raised in newness of life (Rom 6:4). So we have died to the law – it was only binding on us in our old life – it was as Paul says in Romans 7 our old husband, and a rather fault finding and overbearing one at that. Jesus said that the law would never pass away (Matt 5:27-30) – it would always be a fault-finding, over-bearing, meticulously correct husband who cannot actually help us and who also prevents us from marrying a new better husband. Praise God that in coming to Christ we die to the law so that we are joined to Him! (Romans 7:4)

We are not under the law as Christians – Romans 6:14. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace”. Now this begs the big question of Romans 6:15 “What then, are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” If we have understood grace right – the question arises and along with it – “Isn’t it dangerous to not teach the law to Christians so they behave?”. What does Paul say? “By no means” – we have died to the law and to sin, so you are no longer slaves to it. The fruit of that Paul says “leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

The apostle Paul’s biggest battles in his letters to the churches he planted and under his care was over Christians being persuaded to return to the law, having been saved by grace. The particular battle lines were over the externals of the law that marked out the people of God under the Old Covenant – food laws, circumcision and Sabbath observance.

In Philippians, Paul calls those trying to put them back under the law ‘dogs’ and ‘evildoers’ – who ‘mutilate the flesh’ – using a Greek play on words (mutilate and circumcise are pretty similar – and Deut 23:1 disallows the mutilated from entering the Temple, the place of God’s dwelling on earth. The irony being that the Temple is now Spirit filled Christians!)

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul asks “Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish, having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:1-3). Paul argues that to go back to the law puts you under the curse of the law, because firstly it is the whole of the law (some 2000 verses of legislation covering rituals, ethics and civic life), quoting Deut 27:26 to prove it “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them”. And that it is impossible to obey the whole law – only Christ did it and “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” Gal 3:13

What is the purpose of the law?

  • It was added because of sin, until Jesus came (Gal 3:19)
  • It brings condemnation
  • It held people captive until faith was revealed (Gal 3:23)
  • It was a guardian (schoolmaster) until Christ came, in order that we might be justified.(Gal 3:24)

Whne Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy he urged him to stop people teaching different Gospels – which included one or more of the following: myths, genalogies and going back to the law. In v8 Paul says “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners…” 1 Tim 1:8-9. The law is not for the just – those who have been justified, it is for non-Christians to drive them to Christ.

When I get to the point with a not-yet believer where they say something like “Look, I’m a good person, God will let me in” – I then use the law lawfully – I’ll test how good they really are with some of the ten commandments. Then when they realise they are not as good as they thought and that God will judge them, I introduce them to Jesus who can save them!

If I’m dealing with a believer who is contemplating sin, I wouldn’t use the law to show them their error – because believers are not under it and I don’t want to put them under the curse of it! I’d point to passages in the New testament about them being dead to sin, so don’t let it master you… and the ethical command in the New Testament which come with the power of the Spirit to resist!

So how do we read the Old Testament Law

In your daily reading and study, when you get to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, how do you read it? How, as God’s word, is it profitable? (2 Tim 3:16)

In Romans 1:17-18 we are told that a righteousness from God has been revealed “apart from the law” which the law bears “witness t”o. So when I’m reading the law, I’m looking for how it points to Christ. On the one hand salvation is without the law, and on the other the law witnesses to it. It’s a compare and contrast deal. We look for the way in which salvation contrasts with the law and how it points to and witnesses to the salvation that would come through Jesus.

So for example God saved Israel from Egypt through lamb’s blood at the Passover. They were redeemed so they could worship at Sinai and blessings came through obeying the law. Thats a shadow of the New covanant. The Christian’s position is different and better! We were saved by the blood of Jesus, not a lamb. We were saved from sin, not Egypt. We were not brought to a mountain but Jesus. The message of Sinai is that you can come close, but not too close. The message of the blood of Jesus is come as close as you can – draw near with confidence (Heb 4:6). Blessings are from obeying the Spirit not the law. But there are parallels – we are saved by God’s mercy, for obedience to God. The new covenant is parallel but different.

That’s how to read the law – look for comparisons and contrast, always seeing that the New covenant is a better covenant with better promises.

Make sure you don’t mix the two covenants. We are not under the law, we have died to it and it has no authority over us. Suppose you have served in the army and had got used to being shouted at on the parade ground. Now you are discharged and as you wander of base, the sergeant major comes round the corner. He’s about to shout at you to get your haircut, but you just say “Cheerio Sarge!” – you are free!

The law kills, but the Spirit brings life (2 Cor 3:6) and we have grace to teach us righteousness Titus 2:11-14, so whatever you do as a believer don’t go back to the law to become more holy.

Some helpful books

God’s Lavish Grace by Terry Virgo

Applying God’s Law by Michael Eaton

The Spirit-filled Church: Finding Your Place in God’s Purpose by Terry Virgo

Some helpful mp3’s

God’s lavish grace – reigning in life
God’s lavish grace – free indeed
God’s lavish grace – free to serve



Andy planted the Gateway Church in Sept 2007. He and Janet love to gather different nations together to grow in Christ while eating good food! He also helps to shape and serve a couple of Relational Mission's church plants in mainland Europe. Andy and Janet run regularly, largely to offset the hospitality eating! He also runs a popular WordPress plugin Church Admin