Monday, August 31, 2020

Anonymous Asks (108)

“Why do we follow some Levitical laws and not others?”

Whenever we associate living the Christian life with following the Law of Moses, we run the risk of becoming very confused. Surprisingly, the relationship between Christianity and Old Testament Judaism is still much misunderstood today, even though the matter was conclusively sorted out very early in church history. It’s a situation made worse today by systems of theology that conflate the church with Israel.

But if we have our theology right, we will find Christians do not “follow Levitical laws” at all.

Not Following Levitical Laws

In Acts 15, leading lights in the early church, the apostles and a number of local elders, met in Jerusalem to discuss the relationship of Christians to the Law of Moses. The issue had become a major controversy in need of an unambiguous resolution. Gentiles were being saved by the thousands, and needed to understand their obligations to God under the Law. Essentially, the consensus of the early believers was that they didn’t have any; the Law of Moses did not apply to them.

There were several reasons for this. Peter pointed out two things: (1) that salvation is not by law-keeping, but by “the grace of the Lord Jesus” for Jew and Gentile alike; and (2) that since the Jews of past and present had utterly failed to keep the Law, it hardly seemed reasonable to impose the same failed system on brand new converts who could only be expected to perform the same way. James highlighted the seriousness of the issue by pointing out that the inclusion of the Gentiles among the people of God was the subject of Old Testament prophecy. Perhaps he was suggesting that if the church of the first century wanted to get in line with God’s present program, they must seek a solution to the question of applying the Law of Moses to the Gentiles that would maximize Gentile inclusion rather than serving to drive non-Jews away from the growing church.

Rules vs. Recommendations

In any case, the judgment of the council in Jerusalem under the authority of the Holy Spirit of God was that Gentiles who turned to God should be advised only to abstain from: (1) things polluted by idols, (2) sexual immorality, (3) eating meat from animals that had been killed by strangling, and (4) eating meat with the blood still in it. To Gentiles, this would have come as a major relief: there were something like 613 different commands in the Law of Moses, and even keeping them all straight would be quite a burden, let alone managing not to violate any. Most likely these four things were chosen because Gentiles who observed them would be less likely to cause offense to believing Jews in their churches. They were “hot-button issues” for Jews.

The wording of the letter from the believers in Jerusalem to the believers in Antioch (“If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well”) strongly suggests that even these four were not some severely-truncated set of new Commandments, or some new way to salvation, but simply wise advice to others on the same path about how to live consistently with a saving faith already possessed.

So then, the Holy Spirit has established that Christians today are not obliged to follow any Levitical laws at all. We do not have the same relationship to that Law that Jews had up until the middle of the first century. It is not our Law, it is theirs. There is no salvation to be found in keeping it, and no special blessings from God to the unsaved who observe selective elements of the Law ritualistically and legalistically today.

A New Testament Take on the 10 Commandments

That said, we should not be surprised to find that many of the principles found in the Law are restated for Christians in the New Testament. Not all, by any means, but certainly the ones which are most relevant to holy living.

Here, for example, is one of many possible New Testament takes on the 10 Commandments:
The only clause in the Decalogue we cannot explicitly find restated and applied even more broadly in the New Testament is the fourth, the keeping of the Sabbath. This may be because not just a single day of the week, but the believer’s entire life and body, are to be presented to Christ as an offering. If devotion to God has become our lifestyle, there is no need to single out one day as special. If Christians are living rightly, we are essentially in a sort of Sabbath at every moment.

The Real Authority

Despite these great similarities in intended practice, it is very important to recognize that when Christians abide by these principles in our daily lives, we are not observing the Levitical law; rather, we are following the teaching of Christ and his apostles. They are our authority, not Moses. The fact that God wants similar conduct from us as he wanted from Israel under the Law should not come as a surprise: he is the same God, with the same character and the same likes and dislikes.

Furthermore, we do not follow these principles in order to earn God’s favor, but because Christ has already earned God’s favor eternally on our behalf. They are not “laws” to us in the same way as they were to Jews; rather, they are acts of love inspired and enabled by God himself.

Restated vs. Fulfilled

One question remains, though: If the Law of Moses was so good, why aren’t all 613 of its requirements restated in the New Testament for Christians for us to perform out of love rather than legalistic fear? Peter’s answer (“We couldn’t keep them”) is a good one, though incomplete.

Here is a partial attempt to address that:
  1. Many of the Levitical laws related to sacrifice, all of which pointed in different ways to the need for Christ. Since Christ has come and fulfilled these, re-enacting them over and over serves no purpose (“By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified”).
  2. Other laws related to feasts, holidays and civic institutions which God designed to speak of historical and spiritual events that have since come to pass, or will come to pass shortly. For example, the Christian understands levels of meaning to things like the Passover, Pentecost, Firstfruits, the Day of Atonement, Jubilee and cities of refuge which none but the most devout Jew seeing with the eye of faith could have ever contemplated. But the New Testament spells these truths out explicitly. So, for the Christian, the Old Testament picture may be interesting illustratively and theologically, but once again, re-enacting these events and institutions is quite superfluous.
  3. Still other Israelite laws taught moral lessons in picture form, lessons which are now made explicit in New Testament teaching. For example, if for some reason a modern Christian farmer still used oxen to tread out his grain (which seems unlikely enough already), by now he surely knows the greater lesson to which the command in the Law of Moses about muzzling working oxen was designed to point (that the servants of Christ should not characteristically serve at their own expense), and he takes good care of his elders. He may also avoid muzzling his ox, but not because of some concern about following Leviticus. He is merely being Christian and kind.

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