Getting the Most from Old Testament Law (Part 2)

Those who first received the Law viewed obeying it a privilege, not a restriction. Can New Testament Christians also see the beauty in these ancient texts? (This is another in a series of articles titled “Reading the Bible for All It’s Worth” that Matt Proctor is writing this year.)


By Matt Proctor

Last week we considered the challenge to look again at the Old Testament Law. We listened to the testimony of Christians whose lives had been changed by reconsidering the purposes behind all the directives God gives in the legal portions of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We considered the first rule for studying Old Testament Law: “Thou shalt remember the original audience.”

Now we’re ready for the second principle:

Thou Shalt Remember the Theological Purpose

While we can understand the Old Testament Law when we think like an ancient Israelite, we must apply the Law as a 21st-century Christian. But first we ought to ask: does it apply? After all, Romans 10:4 says, “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Likewise, Galatians 5:18 says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” So some Christians argue that the Mosaic Law has nothing to say to us. Martin Luther famously said, “Moses was an intermediary solely for the Jewish people, to whom God gave the law . . . Moses does not concern us. If anyone confronts you with Moses and his commandments . . . say ‘Go to the Jews with your Moses; I am no Jew, don’t entangle me with Moses.’”1

But in both Romans 10:4 and Galatians 5:18, Paul is specifically correcting legalism, not discounting Law. He is saying that Law cannot save us, but he is not saying that Law cannot teach us. In fact, as 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 has already made clear, Paul does believe the Old Testament Law is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

In what ways specifically does the Law teach us? I think the Old Testament Law is meant to serve at least three purposes. It teaches us by acting as a window, a mirror, and a picture.

The Law Is a Window

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart explain, “The Old Testament law is still the Word of God for us even though it is not still the command of God to us.”2 In other words, we are not under orders to obey these laws, but we are under obligation to learn from them. Yes, we are New Testament believers, but God left the Old Testament Law in our Bible for a reason. He wanted to communicate something to us.

My wife, Katie, and I have six children—ages 16, 14, 11, 9, 7, and 3. We’re not a family; we’re a small town! As sheriff of this little community, I (with my deputy, Katie) enforce certain rules, one of which we call “double trouble.” The double trouble rule is this: if you hear a parent give a clear command to your sibling and then you proceed to disobey this command yourself, you will get in twice as much trouble.

This, of course, is to short-circuit the kid-strategy of protesting, “But you told Carl not to jump off the roof. You didn’t tell me!” Even when my kids are not directly addressed, they are still held responsible for what they overhear.

It’s something similar with Old Testament Law. As New Testament believers, the Law is not directly addressed to us, but we are still responsible for what we overhear. God left those legal texts in our authoritative Scriptures so we could overhear his heart. When we read the Old Testament Law, we are not responsible to obey the specific commands, but we are responsible for understanding the will of the God who gave those commands—the God we Christians love and follow.

For example, when a man slept with his father’s wife in the Corinthian church, Paul did not demand that the law’s penalty for incest be applied (Leviticus 18:29), but he did demand that the man be disciplined by the church until he repented (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). So while the letter of the Law is not followed, the will of the Lawgiver himself (that incest is wrong) most certainly is. The Old Testament Law was invaluable in discerning God’s thinking in the matter. In fact, one scholar argues that, without this law, Paul would “not have been able to define this activity as sinful.”3

In other words, the Law is a window into the heart of God. If you’ve ever wanted to know what God thinks about a host of topics, the Law provides that opportunity. In these texts, God is allowing us to get inside his head, see the world through his eyes, and hear his thoughts. So as you read an Old Testament legal passage, ask yourself, What does this specific command tell me about the person who gave it? What clues does this command give me about what he believes to be true and important?

This can be seen in the simple legal texts like the command to build a safety parapet around one’s flat roof so that someone walking up there won’t fall (Deuteronomy 22:8). If God desires us as property owners to be concerned for our guests’ safety, then perhaps we should put up a fence around our backyard swimming pool.

This can be seen in the strange legal texts like commands that the Israelites not trim the edges of their beards, tattoo their bodies, or cook a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Leviticus 19:27, 28; Exodus 23:19). These all were “practices associated with pagan religions . . . customs of the Canaanite nations.”4 Now we see God’s heart: he does not want his people to conform to the idolatrous practices of the surrounding culture. So while we as contemporary believers may presumably engage in beard trimming, tattooing, and goat cooking (as long as it’s not for idol worship), we should ask ourselves in what ways we might be tempted to look like our surrounding idolatrous culture.

You also get glimpses into God’s heart in the substantial legal texts like the slavery laws in Exodus 21:27 and Deuteronomy 15:12-17. You notice, first, that God’s commands regarding slavery are not justification for the harsh slavery practiced in American history. Instead, this slavery was a way for poor Israelites to pay off debts. Otherwise, on their own in the cruel economy of ancient Palestine, these poor might have died of starvation or exposure.

We also learn God does not regard slaves as property, but as people—in contrast to other ancient law codes. In the Babylonian law of Hammurabi, when a man killed another man’s slave, the killer simply made a monetary payment and got off scot-free. In God’s Law, however, the prohibition against murder is unqualified by social status. Killing a slave was just like killing anyone else—punishable by death (Exodus 21:12).

In all these laws safeguarding slaves, we learn that God loves even the least and the lowest. So we ask: In what ways should we consider protecting those in our society who have fallen on hard times? How can we provide them opportunities to work their way out? We could even ask how God might want us to treat our employees.

Or consider the laws regarding the cities of refuge. God commanded Israel to establish cities of refuge to which someone could flee after committing manslaughter (Numbers 35; Deuteronomy 19:4-7). Those guilty of intentional murder (Numbers 35:12, 18, 19) could be killed by the victim’s family avenger. But if someone was guilty of only unintentional manslaughter, he could find protection in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest (Numbers 35:25, 28), at which point he could go free. So as we peer through this window into God’s heart, we learn at least four truths:

• First, God sees murder as horribly wrong, punishable by death.

• Second, he believes unintentional homicide should not be punished as seriously as intentional murder. “Every legal system needs to make that distinction if it is to be just.”5

• Third, God still sees negligent manslaughter as a serious offense that requires some punishment.

• Fourth, God sees a connection between the high priest’s death and the guilty party’s freedom. “The death of the high priest implies the religious doctrine of substitutionary atonement, reminding Christians of the atoning power of the death of Jesus Christ, our high priest.”6

So when you read Old Testament Law, remember that one of its purposes is as a window into God’s heart.

The Law Is a Mirror

The Law was not given to make us righteous, but to show us our unrighteousness (Galatians 2:16). As Romans 3:20 says, “Through the law we become conscious of sin.” In other words, reading the Law is like looking into a mirror and discovering that our face is dirty. Left to our own evaluation, we might not realize our own sinfulness, but when we compare ourselves to God’s moral standards, we become aware of our profound moral failure. As J. B. Phillips translated, “It is the straight-edge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are” (Romans 3:20).

I once heard Bob Russell use the Law in this way very effectively in a sermon. With a smile, he said something like this:

I’m going to demonstrate that the Ten Commandments were given to show us our sin. As I list the Ten Commandments, I want you to count how many you have never broken in your entire life. At the end, I’m going to ask you to raise your hand and tell me your number. We’re going to see who’s really righteous in this group. Here we go:

• “You shall have no other gods before me.” So if you’ve always put God ahead of money, sex, power, family, and self, you count that as one you’ve never broken.

• “You shall not make any graven image.” If you’ve never fashioned an idol and bowed down to worship it, you count that as one you’ve never broken. Aren’t you glad that one’s in there? Now we’ve all got one! [laughter]

• “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.” If you’ve never used the name of Jesus Christ in a profane way or never said “Oh my God,” count that as one you’ve never broken.

• “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” If you’ve always gone to worship and never skipped for a ballgame or vacation, and if you’ve always focused during worship and listened to every word the preacher said [laughter], you count that as one you’ve never broken.

• “Honor your mother and your father.” If you never disobeyed your parents, never sassed or complained, and never made fun of the clothes they were wearing, you count that as one you’ve never broken.

• “You shall not kill.” The New Testament says if you hate somebody, you’re guilty of murder in your heart. But we won’t even count it that way. If you’ve never actually killed someone, you count that as one you’ve never broken.

• “You shall not commit adultery.” The New Testament says that if you lust after somebody, you’re guilty of adultery in your heart. But we won’t even count it that way. If you’ve simply never been unfaithful in your marriage, you count that as one you’ve never broken.

• “You shall not steal.” If you’ve never taken anything that didn’t belong to you, never took a dollar out of your mother’s purse, have no Holiday Inn towels in your house [laughter], you count that as one you’ve never broken.

• “You shall not bear false witness.” So if you’ve never lied, never told your parents something that wasn’t true, never deceived the IRS, never told someone they looked nice when you knew they looked terrible [laughter], then you count that as one you’ve never broken.

• “You shall not covet.” If you’ve never been jealous or craved something that belonged to someone else, then you count that as one you’ve never broken.

OK, do you have your number? Now raise your hand. How many of you have kept all 10 commandments all your life? Of course, nobody. We’ve just proven what the Bible says: “There’s no one righteous, not even one.”

After counting down from 10 to 5 commandments, with still no one raising a hand to claim sinlessness in those areas, Russell refused to go any further “lest I embarrass everybody.” He finished with a smile. “We’re glad we’re quitting, because the Law exposes how truly sinful we are.”

I can tell you, as one sitting in the congregation that day, we all realized we had fallen short of the glory of God. The old evangelists used to say, “You’ve got to get a person lost before you can get him saved,” and the Law reveals our lostness in painfully stark terms. When we read the Old Testament Law, we read it as a mirror, showing us our sinfulness.

Finally, however, the Law becomes a picture—showing us the one who will perfectly fulfill God’s purposes.

The Law Is a Picture

Hebrews 10:1 explains, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the reality themselves.” So what reality was the Law pointing to? Colossians 2:17 makes it clear, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Throughout the many ceremonial regulations God gave to ancient Israel were clues to the person and ministry of Christ. These “shadows” form an outline or a pattern—a picture of what the Messiah would someday look like. If we read Old Testament Law carefully with our New Testament glasses, we can begin to see the discernible image of Christ.

Example: In Leviticus 16 we read that, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to stand before the great congregation of the Israelites with a “scapegoat.” The Hebrew word azazel comes from a word meaning “to take away,” so the scapegoat was the “taking-away goat.” The high priest was to lay hands on the head of the azazel as he confessed the sins of the people. Then a man appointed for the task would lead the goat outside the camp, where it was released into the desert, symbolically carrying with it the sins of the people.

Now turn to John 19. Jesus stands before a great congregation of Israelites, about to be led away to the cross. Soon the crowd will shout “Crucify him!” But first they shout, “Take him away!” Rob Bell suggests that their shouts may even have sounded like, “Azazel! Azazel!” This we know is true: Jesus is then led outside the city of Jerusalem—outside the camp—with the sins of the people upon his head.

So anyone who reads about the scapegoat in Leviticus 16 with their New Testament glasses on will say, “Hey, that reminds me of Jesus!” In fact, as they read the Old Testament Law, they’ll find themselves saying that again and again—as they read about the high priest or the sacrifices or the tabernacle. All of these provide images of the person of Christ.

Of course, we must be careful not to “over-exegete” the details. The tent pegs of the tabernacle may not necessarily be symbols of Christ’s nails; they may just be there to hold the tabernacle up! But when we read these legal texts, we can legitimately look for the picture of Jesus.

“Rocked to the Core!”

In February 1999, Rob Bell planted a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and for the first year, he preached through Leviticus—verse by verse. Why would he do this? He said a primary reason was because “unchurched people often perceive the Bible as obsolete. If that crowd could discover God speaking to them through Old Testament Law, it would radically change their perception that Christianity is archaic.” But another reason he preached Leviticus was because:

It’s so visual. We see biblical theology with flesh and blood (literally) in Leviticus . . . Instead of trying to describe an abstract concept like substitutionary atonement, Leviticus gives instructions on when, where, and how to slit the throat of a lamb. The picture of blood spattering on your cloak as the lamb is placed on the fire lends vivid imagery to the penalty for sin. The entire sacrificial system becomes one giant prop, a visual aid to explain what it means to be in relationship with the one true God . . . Every detail of every sacrifice ultimately reflects some detail of Jesus’ life. Leviticus is all about Jesus.

So Bell acted out Leviticus in his sermons. He built altars on the stage, had “priests” wear linen ephods, and brought in a live goat for the Day of Atonement. During their first year, as the church studied through Leviticus, it grew to more than 2,000. Story after story of changed lives began to emerge.

What did the unchurched think about it? I found out at a high school football game. It was late Friday night. The cheers had subsided, and I was walking home when I heard a man call out: “Hey, pastor! Leviticus is turning our world upside down. We’re getting rocked to the core.” The family had just started attending, weren’t Christians, and had never been interested in church. But somehow, Leviticus got their attention.

Then two high school kids caught up with me. They too came from pagan backgrounds. “We’ve been talking about what you said. That was awesome! Can’t wait for Sunday. See ya!” These people were excited—by Old Testament law.

Mike was a police officer who came the Sunday I preached Leviticus 23. The chapter summarizes the feast calendar and gives Israelites a concrete preview of the first and second comings of Christ. Every verse speaks of Jesus. Mike later told the congregation, “I was a skeptic. I didn’t believe in any kind of god. But that Sunday everything changed. I realized the whole story, the whole Bible, wasn’t just a bunch of old books. It all fit together through the whole history. I knew I needed to learn more, and I learned I needed Jesus.”7

What a powerful testimony! So here’s my challenge: if you need your world turned upside down, if you need “rocked to the core,” if you need to see that the whole story of the Bible fits together, if you need Jesus, then read the Old Testament Law.


1Quoted by Joe Sprinkle, Biblical Law and Its Relevance (Lanham: University Press of America, 2006), 11, 12.

2Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).

3Sprinkle, 19. Paul certainly could have called any sexual immorality sinful, but apart from Old Testament law, he could not have defined incestuous marriage as sinful.

4Steven Bridge, Getting the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009), 71.

5Sprinkle, 21.

6Ibid, 22.

7Rob Bell, “Life in Leviticus,” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 281, 282.

Matt Proctor is president of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and a Christian Standard contributing editor.

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  1. Jerran Jackson
    March 29, 2011 at 9:09 am

    These are very good articles. Thank you for writing them, Matt. An elder in another congregation asked me for a resource on exegesis. In addition to Stuart & Fee, I pointed him to these articles. Amidst all you have to do, thanks for taking time to write.

  2. March 31, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    If not Sunday school, then, uneducated Christians operating off of their instincts rather than according to the Word of God! If not Sunday school, I see deacons being ineffective in the body of Christ! If not Sunday school, I see Christians that cannot witness effectively to draw others to Christ. If not Sunday school, I see generations of children growing without knowing how to glorify the Father with their very lives, and grown folk too. If not Sunday school, I see leaders following after their own hearts rather than the will of God. If not Sunday school, I see sin running wild in the churh of God. If not Sunday school, I see the doctrines of men proceeding the word of God. I actually see all of this and more right now, in the church because no one wants to do Sunday school. If not Sunday school, I see people living defeated lives rather than living victoriously through Christ Jesus! if not Sunday school, I see people walking around, living after their fleshly desires rather than possessing the fruit of the Spirit of God! if not Sunday school, I see men and women elevating themselves rather than taking the low seat that God may exalt them in due season. If not Sunday school, I see dead men walking rather than men being made alive in Christ because of the blood of Jesus! If not Sunday school, I see “the doors of the church being opened for new members rather than spiritual growth. If not Sunday school?

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