Christian theology has a few thorny issues and the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament is one of them. In order to understand this complicated relationship, it’s essential to begin with Abraham.
The Life of Abraham
About two millennia before Jesus, God called Abraham to leave his country and go to a new land. God then made this promise, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). So a universal blessing was destined to enter the world through Abraham. As the story continues, God promised to give Abraham a son ultimately leading to a nation of descendants. And Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). (If you’re wondering, “What’s the big deal about believing that you’re going to have a son?” The answer is that Abraham was old and his wife, Sarah was infertile.) God then gave Abraham the permanent requirement of circumcision—the physical sign of his covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:11). In due time, Sarah gave birth to Isaac and when Abraham died, his blessing was carried on in the life of Isaac. Isaac then passed on the blessing to his son Jacob, and Jacob passed it on to his twelve sons, who became the twelve tribes of Israel.
The Law of Moses
About eight centuries after Abraham, his descendants found themselves enslaved in Egypt. But God came to Israel’s rescue by calling Moses to lead them out of slavery. After experiencing the power of God’s wrath, Pharaoh released Israel. Three months later, God gave the law to Moses and according to Jewish tradition that law includes 613 commands. While these laws were given as a single package, scholars have categorized the individual laws under three main headings: civil, ceremonial, and moral. There were laws covering Israel’s diet, clothing, worship, and legal affairs. Since the law of Moses was all-encompassing it served as a boundary marker setting Israel apart from other nations.
Jesus’ Worldwide Mission
But what effect did Jesus’ arrival have on the law of Moses? Which of the commands are still in effect today and which have been nullified? And how does the law tie in with God’s promise to Abraham? From the beginning of the Christian movement these questions presented a problem. Jesus and his first followers were Jewish and they lived under the laws of Moses. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his followers spread the good news to their fellow Jews. But before he ascended to heaven, Jesus gave his followers a worldwide mission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Jesus’ Jewish followers were supposed to tell non-Jews or Gentiles about Jesus and welcome them into their community.
The Barrier of the Law
The all-Jewish community didn’t accept Gentiles overnight. The Jews had been defined by the law, which they believed came from God, and that law was like a fence blocking them from associating with Gentiles. In particular, the dietary restrictions and the law of circumcision were prominent obstructions to welcoming Gentiles into the fold.
And then Peter, one of the leaders of the first Christian community, had a vision. In the vision, Peter saw a great sheet descending from heaven with all kinds of animals in it. He then heard a voice saying, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter objected stating he had never eaten anything that was unclean. But the vision returned twice more. As Peter pondered the vision, there was a knock on the door. The visitors had been sent by a Gentile named Cornelius who had a vision of an angel telling him to call for Peter. Peter went with the men into the Gentile’s house where he preached the good news about Jesus. While Peter was speaking, the Gentile audience received the Holy Spirit and spoke in new languages (Acts 10:44-47).
But Peter was criticized by the leaders in Jerusalem for associating with Gentiles so he had to explain the supernatural events which had occurred. After hearing Peter’s explanation, the Jewish leaders responded, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
While Peter took a bold stand in defending his visit to the Gentiles, some time later he caved in to pressure from Jewish believers. Instead of eating with the Gentiles as he had done previously, Peter “drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Gal. 2:12). As a result, Paul publicly rebuked Peter for his hypocrisy (Gal. 2:14).
The Jerusalem Council
About three years later, the church had a meeting known as the Jerusalem Council. In that meeting, the Jewish leaders of the church debated the requirement of circumcision for the Gentiles. This debate was prompted by Paul and Barnabas’s disagreement with a group of hard-liners who stated, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Since this was no easy issue to solve, the matter was brought before the leaders in Jerusalem. Peter stood up and reminded everyone of how the Gentiles believed and received the Holy Spirit during his visit with them. Then Paul and Barnabas narrated the “signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). Finally, James spoke up and linked the movement to the Gentiles with a prophecy from Amos. The group reached the verdict that Gentile converts were not required to be circumcised. The defining mark of the law was not going to be required of Gentile converts because God had been showing his acceptance of them without first requiring them to be circumcised.
The jurisdiction of the law had come to an end and that was a good thing. While the law promised blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, Israel’s history shows a strong propensity toward disobedience. As a result, Israel experienced condemnation and punishment under the law. As stated in Deuteronomy, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (27:26). The law served as a flashlight shining on Israel’s sin. Paul said, “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). And later Paul gives a specific example, “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7). The law makes us aware of our sin, but in so doing it also makes us aware of our condemnation and punishment. And the ultimate punishment for sin is death, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). So the law was good, but Israel wasn’t, and that means Israel’s experienced death under the law.
About a millennium after Moses, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those who were under law” (Gal. 4:4). Jesus was born as a Jew and he lived under the law of Moses, but his purpose was to save those who were under that law. Specifically, it was Christ’s death that brought redemption or freedom from the law. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13). After explaining how believers have been united with Christ in his death (Rom. 6:1-11), Paul asserts that believers have “died to the law through the body of Christ,” so that we “may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead” (Rom. 7:4). By joining with Jesus, believers enter into his death. And death is the end of the old era of the law because the authority of the law does not extend into the realm of the dead. But believers also join Jesus in his resurrection, which means believers enter a new state of affairs. Paul concisely summarizes the transfer in the statement, “you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).
The first Christians were living through this transition period from law to grace and that’s what made it a controversial time. They didn’t immediately grasp the impact that Jesus’ death and resurrection had on the law. But after further reflection and revelation from God, they realized that their experience of relating to God through the law had ended. Since Jesus died, rose again, and sat down at God’s right hand, believers were now living under Christ’s gracious rule. Instead of looking to the law as the standard, believers look to Christ because “There is one God, and there is one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Or as Jesus put it: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). We now relate to God through Jesus and not through the law.
And relating to God through Jesus is a much better way than relating to God through law. Because when we look to Jesus, we not only see God’s perfect standard, we see the one who kept that standard perfectly, we see the one who sacrificed his life to save us, and we see the one who through his resurrection gives us the hope of eternal life. In the words of Paul, God made Jesus “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
But the application of all of this is not as simple as stating, “Ignore every law in the Old Testament.” There are certainly laws which we are no longer required to obey such as the dietary restrictions and the sacrificial system. But nine out of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament showing their continuing validity. The commands, however, don’t have the same force over God’s people that they used to. The law used to keep people in check. “We were held captive under the law” and “The law was our guardian” (Gal. 3:23-24). But now we no longer serve “under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6).
A Training Wheel Analogy
Think of the law as training wheels on a bike. The training wheels serve a good purpose by teaching us to balance while riding. But they were only intended to serve a temporary purpose—a training purpose. Once the lesson has been learned, the training wheels can be removed. Likewise, God gave the law to serve as a temporary trainer. The law trained God’s people to be set apart, to understand God’s holiness, and to become conscious of their sin. But with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the arrival of God’s Spirit, the training wheels must come off. We now have the power to ride freely on two wheels without falling.
As we look back on our training period, we should be grateful for the training wheels, but we should also be grateful that we don’t need them any longer. The distinguishing mark of God’s people used to be the law and particular aspects of the law such as circumcision, but now the distinguishing mark of God’s people is faith in Jesus.
The Continuity of Faith
But that doesn’t mean that there’s only discontinuity between God’s relationship with people in the Old Testament and his relationship with people today. On the contrary, there are huge similarities. First, Abraham was justified or made right with God by faith (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3). Abraham was not saved by being circumcised because the requirement of circumcision was only given after Abraham had been justified (Rom. 4:10-11). And that’s why Paul was so upset with believers in Galatia who were beginning to cave in to the pressure to be circumcised. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). The life of Abraham is a pattern for Jesus’ followers even four thousand years later (Rom. 4:11-12). This same thought of justification by faith was picked up by the prophet Habakkuk, who lived about six centuries before Jesus. Habakkuk wrote “the just shall live by faith” (2:4). And that statement is quoted with approval three times in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38). Second, salvation has always been based on God’s mercy and not human performance. The prophet Joel said, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (2:32). And that affirmation is supported by the myriad of answered prayers in the Old Testament, including Israel’s salvation from slavery. Israel didn’t earn freedom from slavery by keeping the law, because the law was only given after Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Ex. 20:1-17). Finally, the blessing given to Abraham, is passed down to those who are in Christ (Gal. 3:14) because those who are in Christ are the true offspring of Abraham (Gal. 3:29).
Conclusion: Discontinuity and Continuity
In conclusion, there are major strands of discontinuity between the law of Moses and the gospel of Jesus and that’s because the law was only intended to serve a temporary purpose. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). But there are also major strands of continuity between God’s relationship with Abraham and God’s relationship with people today.
[This post is part of a series on Paul.]