If you were here this past Sunday, and heard Matthew 5:17-20, you would of seen that the Law, that is the first five books of the Bible, is very important to Jesus. Even more, that we would somehow follow it better than the Pharisees. I loved the beautiful picture we saw, that the way we as Christians will follow the law, is because of the amazing work the Holy Spirit, to cause our hearts to love God and love others well.
However that still leaves us with a few questions. I remember when I was going to school at ASU, one day I was walking from class, and I saw a guy holding a sign up that said something like; “God Hates Shrimp! – Leviticus 11:10-11”. I ended up going up to the guy and having a conversation, and he began to tell me that the Bible says don’t eat shrimp essentially, and that I am disobeying the Bible if I do.
This was before we all had smartphones with Bibles on them, and at the time I hadn’t memorized Leviticus for some reason, so I had to go home and look up what this guy was talking about. I went home, and sure enough, there in the Bible, it was telling me to not eat the non-scaled animals of the sea. This alarmed me as I am a huge lobster and shrimp fan. What’s worse, is I also saw that in that same chapter of the BIble, I wasn’t supposed to eat pig either. As we all know bacon comes from pigs, so in one devastating devotion time Bacon-Wrapped-Shrimp was outlawed for me.
As you can tell I got worried. What’s worse is that as I read more of Leviticus, I saw one law that said those that commit adultery should be put to death. I also saw all sorts of laws about people with various physical conditions having to be away from the community for a set amount of time. As I studied all this, I became more and more confused. I knew that as Christians, we were to see the whole Bible as God’s word, but I had no idea why we didn’t follow these particular rules, and yet did follow others.
As I studied more, and heard from pastors and scholars. I was taught some things that helped answer those questions.
One of the first things I needed to realize was that the Law in the Old Testament could be broken up into 3 categories. Those categories are the Moral law, the Civil or Judicial law, and the Ceremonial law. These categories are seen throughout Leviticus. The moral laws are the laws like the ten commandments, that speak to morality, laws like don’t kill or lie, and most of those we’d probably still follow today, and we see a lot of those commands again affirmed in the New Testament.
The Civil Law (or judicial law), are all the rules in the Old Testament that told the people of Israel how to govern themselves. In this part of law, you see a lot of rules on how to punish people for particular crimes, mostly all in the context of their society. These laws in particular can be confusing and alarming for us as Christians, because often the punishment for crimes was death.
And finally there is the Ceremonial Law. These are all the laws the priests enacted as mediators between the people of Israel and God. This is where we find the huge amount of rules about about how the sacrifices of animals should be done. We also find the food laws mentioned above, because some foods made people unclean before God.
Now, it’s easy for us to follow the moral laws in the Old Testament because a lot of them are affirmed in the New Testament, and on top of that, most of humankind doesn’t really disagree on a lot of those laws. However when it comes to the Civil and the Ceremonial law, it can often leave us scratching our head as to why we don’t follow it anymore. So there are two major things to remember when it comes to how we look at the Old Testament law as Christians.
The first is, we have to remember the people of Israel’s place in the story. The Bible is one long story. It’s a story that we are all a part of whether we are Christian or not, and it is the true story of the world. And like any story, the Bible has different parts. The Bible could be broken up into 6 parts or 6 acts. Those acts could be called Creation, Rebellion, Promise, Redemption, Church, and Restoration.
God creates this beautiful earth, with Adam and Eve. Things are good. That’s Act One. In the next act we see Adam and Eve’s Rebellion to God. They essentially want to put themselves in the place of God, by making their own rule about eating a particular fruit. When the rebellion of Act Two happens, we see sin entering the world, Adam and Eve, become broken now instead of good, and so do all of their descendants. So does the Earth. Sin’s reach is so vast and painful that even the earth cries out in pain and brokenness.
But then, God selects for himself a people. The people of Israel. This is Act Three, God’s Promise to redeem. God promises the serpent, the enemy of the world, the devil, that through one of Eve’s offspring he would destroy him. God then promises to this man Abraham that we meet as Abram in Genesis 12, that God is going to make a people from Abraham’s descendants. And so this people is made, and lives, and goes through all sorts of things to eventually become the people of Israel we meet in Leviticus, where we see a lot of this Old Testament law.
The reason it helps to know Israel’s place in the story is because the law, was for the people of Israel in that particular time and place in history. Redemption through Christ had not come yet. God was still bringing about, and carrying the people of Israel through history, to one day bring Jesus through that people, so that he could save the world through his life. So God gave laws to live out, as Israel lived in the time of the awaited Promise of Act 3,
You may wonder, why even make the law then? I did, and as I studied, I saw that the laws had two major functions.
The laws were created to show the people of Israel how sinful they were. We see this in Romans 3:20, and 7:7 in particular. While God’s people awaited the promise, they must have wondered why God did not just send them the Messiah right then? We can’t be sure of this mystery, but we can know that the law helps us, through watching Israel and ourselves to see we are far more sinful than we realize. We can’t be simply given a set of rules, and follow them to get to God. Because as we see the people await God’s promise in Act 3, they could not follow God’s law on their own for longer than five minutes (exaggeration).
We also see in Galatians 3:24, that the law acted as a guardian or protector of the people of Israel. They probably would have destroyed each other or themselves if it had not been for enacting this law. And God wanted to keep the people of Israel around so that he could bring about the Messiah one day.
So all of that is the first thing we need to remember, when we wonder why we don’t follow the law of the Old Testament. The second thing we need to remember is our place in the story of the Bible. The next act is Act Four, Redemption. This is where Jesus the Messiah comes and saves us. And as we all learned this past Sunday, Jesus doesn’t abolish the law, he fulfills it!
So when Jesus came he fulfilled the Civil law better than we could ever imagine. Not only did he live it out himself, but as he died on the cross, all the punishments, that the Civil law required was poured out on Jesus by his father. You and I, because of the love, grace, and mercy God extended to us on the cross, don’t need to follow the Civil law anymore. We did the crime, and Jesus fulfilled the law’s required punishment of death.
Also, in his life, Jesus fulfilled the Ceremonial Law. The ceremonial law was all about sacrifices, and being clean before God. Jesus in his death, became a far greater sacrifice. Those lambs, and birds, and bulls, could never be good enough. They were just there as a picture of a sacrifice that was to come. A sacrifice that would be good once and for all. Not only that, Jesus, in his death, made all those unclean things of the earth, in particular the animals like shrimp and pigs, clean again.
Jesus’ redemption in Act Four is so powerful that it even influences the food we eat. It makes it so that even how we eat before God, cannot be considered unclean anymore. So knowing this, it helps us live in Act Five of the Bible, as the Church. We are a people chosen by God. We know that Jesus has fulfilled his promise to the people of Israel. And now all things get to experience Redemption because of him, even the unclean animals of the Old Testament.
So we are left wondering, how should we read the Old Testament law, found in those first five books of the Bible? And I think that as we read the law we need to do two things. The first is look for the heart of God in it. See that God is a holy God, who takes sin very seriously. Sin is not just some misdemeanor in his eyes. Sin is the cause of death, and separation between us and God, and God hates that. Secondly, see that Jesus himself fulfilled the law. The law demanded so much from the people of Israel. But all the laws couldn’t deliver salvation. All of the laws, could only point out our sin, and even better, point to Jesus who would defeat our sin, once, and for all, on the cross. So as you read the laws in the Old Testament, look to see where Jesus in Act Four, fulfilled that law in a much better way. It may not be easy to see that, but we should look for it, because doing that will help us understand the very nature of who God is.
Finally, we await Act 6: Restoration. One day, God is going to restore us so completely, that it will be part of our very nature to follow his law, which ultimately is to love him, and to love others. I eagerly await that day, because on that day we will get to be with the creator, Jesus, as he fully redeems his creation, and lives with us. We need complete restoration, the law shows it, and Jesus himself will one day bring it. In the meantime God continues to make us, the Church, clean by the power of the Holy Spirit, and gives us glimpses of that restoration, by showing us that bacon-wrapped-shrimp is now clean, rather than unclean.