A challenge to rethink what the Old Testament laws mean for Christians today

Recently I have started listening to the back catalogue of podcasts from the Messiah Matters (previously, I think, the Rob and Caleb Show), part of Torah Resource. Torah Resource aims to “provide biblically based materials for Torah Communities and leadership training at all levels within the broader Messianic movement.”[1] They define ‘Torah Communities’ as any community of people who believe in Jesus (Yeshua) and who wish to live out their faith in accordance with the first five books of the Old Testament. Messiah Matters have weekly podcasts going back to 2014, so there is plenty to listen to!, and it makes an interesting contrast with and complement to other podcasts and teachings I listen to, including William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith (evangelical Christian) and the Matt Fradd Show (Catholic).


What has been of particular interest to me from Messiah Matters is there understanding of how the Torah applies today.[2] Having been brought up in the evangelical tradition, I am used to the assumption that the law in the Old Testament comes into three categories: civil (laws for Israel as a nation); ceremonial (laws to do with cleanliness, sacrifice and the temple) and moral (laws that apply for all time).


This can raise some interesting questions, such as is keeping the Sabbath a ceremonial law (Paul said some people see every day as equally holy) or a moral law (it’s in the Ten Commandments); and is debt cancellation and the non-application of interest a moral law or a civil law? But I’ve never seriously questioned the idea that the Law can be divided in this way, even if there are disagreements over the categorisation of some laws.


It seems to make sense that, given Jesus says he fulfils the law (Matt 5:17), laws about cleanliness and sacrifice should no longer apply; whilst civil laws naturally cannot apply when God’s people are no longer a discrete nation and theocracy. This is backed up by God’s vision to Peter of clean and unclean food (Acts 10), and Jesus’ teaching that it is not what one eats that makes one unclean, but the state of one’s heart (Matt 15:11; Mark 7:15). Furthermore, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the ultimate sacrifice which truly removes all sin from all people forever, and to which all other sacrifices only pointed (Heb 10:1-4); consequently, now that we have seen Jesus’ sacrifice, we no longer need the old sacrificial system (Heb 10:18). The old things were only a shadow of what was to come in Jesus (Heb 8:5; 10:1).


Tim Hegg, however, points out that, “If the Torah was received as a single, unified entity, then it would constitute special pleading to expect Yeshua and His Apostles to emphasize categorical differences in their teachings.” The laws in the Old Testament are not neatly divided up between the three categories which are applied to them today, but instead are commonly intermingled, possibly in particular the ‘civil’ and the ‘moral’.


Hegg gives us the following example from Ex 22:19-29 -

Moral: 19 “Whoever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death. 20 “He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the LORD alone, shall be utterly destroyed. Civil: 21 “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Moral: 22 “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. 23 “If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; 24 and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. Civil: 25 “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest. 26 “If you ever take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, 27 for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious. Moral: 28 “You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people. Ceremonial: 29 “You shall not delay the offering from your harvest and your vintage. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me.


Yet it seems to me that all of the verses except possibly 29 could be assigned to the moral commandments, and v29 could be considered moral if we interpret the spirit of the law to mean offering to God a percentage of our income as soon as it is earned and an acknowledgement that we owe our lives to God. And yet v29 is also a civil law, in that it only really works in an agrarian community with a temple at which to make offerings; and v28 is a civil law, in forbidding us to curse our rulers.


So as Hegg comments, “In reality, it is impossible to distinguish between ceremonial, civil, and moral in most cases… In the end, the one who fails to abide by these civil/moral laws also fails to act as God would act, which would be classed as ‘ungodly.’”


This is a conclusion that I have been coming to as I studied the Old Testament prophets. God’s complaint against his people was repeatedly that they continued with the sacrifices and rituals whilst oppressing the poor, engaging in pagan rituals and worship, and currying favour with other nations. And his complaint against the pagan nations was that they failed to follow him and they oppressed the poor.


The overall impression I got was that God cares about all parts of all peoples lives, and in particular he cares about the oppressed and the needy. And when I then turned to Leviticus to consider the laws given about caring for the poor and preventing oppression, it became even clearer how much these issues lie in the centre of God’s heart. These laws reveal to us what God’s heart is; what he is like and how he acts. The answer to ‘what would Jesus do… when lending to the poor’ is that he would not charge interest, and every seventh year any remaining debt would be cancelled. The answer to ‘what would Jesus do… when hiring servants’ is that he would pay wages promptly (daily!) and at a liveable amount; he would guarantee good working conditions. So why is the Roman Catholic Church and Church of England only ‘encouraging’ their constituent churches to pay the Living Wage, not requiring it? Why isn’t every single church and every single Christian-owned and Christian-led business paying the Living Wage and guaranteeing good working conditions?


I have much more study to do on this topic of how the Old Testament law applies to Gentile and Jewish Christians today, so this blog post is only a brief introductory thought and not the result of in-depth study. Hopefully I will have time over the next few weeks and months to read and study this question more, and come to a clearer answer for myself as to what the Torah means for Christians today.

[1] https://torahresource.com/about/ [2] https://torahresource.com/ceremonial-civil-parts-law/

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