In 2007, the journalist AJ Jacobs wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically. It was the story of a year in his life, in which he devoted himself to living out every command in Scripture with complete obedience. Jacobs described himself as a secular Jew (his exact quote is “I’m a Jew in the same sense that Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”) and an agnostic, who wanted to get in touch with his spiritual side. So he let his beard grow out, since Leviticus says men should not trim the edges of their beards. He blew a shofar at the start of every month. He tithed ten percent of his income. He even stoned an adulterer, although the stones he used were only pebbles, and the adulterer, a man in his seventies, almost beat him up for it. The book became a best seller. CBS even made a sitcom about it, which only ran 13 episodes and was apparently terrible. But it raises an important question: Why don’t I look like AJ Jacobs right now, with a long, unkempt beard, fringes on the edges of my garments, and the Law literally tied to my wrist and forehead? Why don’t I sacrifice a bull on God’s altar when I sin or when I want to say thank you to God for His blessings? For that matter, why do I mow my yard on Saturdays, when I’m commanded to rest from all my labors on that day?
This is a serious issue that every Christian must deal with. When I was growing up, I was vaguely aware that there were some laws in the Old Testament that we as Christians didn’t follow. I tried not to think about it. After all, if I’m supposed to give up shrimp and bacon, I’d rather not know that. I reached a crisis point when I began interacting with people online who knew that I was a Christian minister. They would say things like this: “You Christians are inconsistent. You’ll use the Bible to bash people whose sexuality is different than yours, but you ignore when it says you should avoid wearing garments of mixed fibers, or to stone a rebellious son to death. You’re just picking and choosing the parts of the Bible that fit your agenda.” Some would go on to say, “Of course you can’t live by the Bible like you claim to do. The whole thing is ridiculous. So you might as well admit it, instead of playing this charade and trying to force us to live like you want us to.” So you and I, as Christians, have a bit of a double quandary: Are we indeed being inconsistent, as some unbelievers say? And if so, does that mean that God is not pleased with us for failing to following the whole counsel of His Word?
The answer begins by defining the Bible’s true purpose. It is not simply a book of rules, or “an instruction manual for life” as some call it. It is a story, told over thousands of years, through dozens of individual writers, that can only be fully understood when read through the lens of Jesus’s life and redeeming work. Here’s what I mean: A huge part of the first five books of the Bible is taken up with God establishing His Law. That’s where we get the Ten Commandments, but also more bizarre rules like, You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk. In the Law, given to Moses atop Mt Sinai, God also established an intricate system of sacrifices, festivals and fasts. The Law served three purposes: First, it was a constant reminder of God’s holiness and our sinfulness. We can’t approach Him casually, as if we have a right to be in His presence. We have to take care. We have to eat the right foods and avoid the wrong ones. We have to wear the right clothes. We have make sure we haven’t had contact with anything unclean. And we have to do the right sacrifices at the right time in the right way. Second, it helped keep God’s people separate from their pagan neighbors. God knew that if Israel followed the path of the other people in the land, it would lead to their downfall. So He instituted rules that would remind them constantly that they weren’t like other nations.
The third purpose of the Law was to prepare the way for something else, something better. We see hints of that in the Old Testament, such as when Samuel tells Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22 that
God doesn’t want sacrifices, He wants obedience. Or in Hosea 6:6, when the prophet says that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Clearly, just following the rules was not enough in God’s eyes. So what did that leave? Jesus came along, and seemed to have a very strange relationship to the Law of God. In Matthew 5:19, He said, Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. He then went on to say that not only are the Laws of the Old Testament still in force, they are much more comprehensive than we thought. When it says do not murder, for instance, we aren’t even allowed to hate a brother in our heart. When it says we shouldn’t commit adultery, we can’t even look upon a woman lustfully. So Jesus didn’t do away with the commands of the Old Testament; He intensified them.
But He also said in Mark 7:19 that all foods were now clean. Just like that, He did away with a huge chunk of the Old Testament Law and reversed centuries of tradition. He would touch dead bodies, or menstruating women, or lepers, all of which made Him ritually unclean according to the Law. What was He doing? It certainly seemed like He was doing away with the Law; that’s the way His enemies interpreted His actions. But He said in Matthew 5:17 that He had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. What did He mean? How could a human being fulfill the Law of God?
The Book of Hebrews gives us the answer. It says that all of the Law, including the sacrifices, feasts and rules, points ultimately to Jesus. He is our once-and-for-all sacrifice. He is our one and only High Priest. He is the one who lived out the Law so we don’t have to. When He died, the veil in the Temple was torn in two; so from now on, we get to God through Jesus, not through the Law. When I was just out of college, I worked for a man who attended a church which believed the Law of God still applied. They refused to celebrate Christmas, but kept days like Passover and the feast of Tabernacles. They stuck to the Jewish dietary system, and he used to grumble at me about eating “unclean meats.” But based on the New Testament, living by that Law makes about as much sense as lighting my home with whale-oil lamps, ignoring the fact that we’ve had electricity for a hundred years. If an unbeliever asks why you don’t keep the Old Testament Laws, tell them that to do so would be to deny your Lord, who died to fulfill all of that for us.
Right now, I imagine some of you are thinking, “Come on Preacher. Quit talking in circles. All I want to know is, which rules do we still have to follow?” And, with respect, that’s our problem. We want to reduce our faith to a list of rules and rituals. That’s so much easier than actually having a real relationship with God, actually following Jesus, actually living by the Spirit. When Jesus spoke out against the scribes and Pharisees, as He often did, people were shocked. After all, those men kept the Law better than anyone. How could Jesus, who claimed to be Israel’s Messiah, attack such wonderful, godly men? Well, think about it this way: Imagine a man is newly married, and he comes to his young bride and says, “Alright, I need to know what is required of me. How much time do I need to spend listening to you talk every day? How often do I need to say ‘I love you?’ Can I save that for birthdays and anniversaries, or is it an every day requirement? And tell me about your affection expectations. How often will you need a nice, soothing hug? I need to factor all of this into my busy schedule, you know. Speaking of which, I have golf, hunting, fishing and football games to attend. How often can I be gone without you throwing a hissy-fit?” Would you say that relationship is off to a good start? Of course not! That’s not how you love someone. Instead, you love them by living with them, learning what their needs are, what their love language is (thank you, Gary Chapman, for that term), and you grow in your ability to love them.
For example, I learned early in my marriage that my wife needs to live in a house that is clean. If clutter starts to build up, it physically hurts her to see it. She’s kind and patient and sweet, so she doesn’t blow up at me or the kids, but I can see the stress in her eyes (her twitching eyes, in fact). On the other hand, I learned that she doesn’t really desire grand public displays of affection. If I stood up in front of an entire restaurant full of people and loudly extolled her beauty, virtue and intelligence, she would be more embarrassed than encouraged. That’s a shame, because I can do that. In fact, I am much better at that than I am at cleaning up around the house. But if I love her, I will put my shoes up when I take them off. I will take the dirty coffee cups, books and magazines off the end table before I go to bed. I will remind the kids to put their stuff where it goes. If I love her, I won’t say, “Tell me how often I need to pick up my stuff?” I will just do it. It took years and a lot of false steps to gain this understanding of my wife. Truth be told, I still miss the mark quite often; thank God she loves me anyway. If we are honest, our desire to simply know which rules in the Bible still apply comes from a yearning to control God. We don’t want to do the hard work of having a real relationship. Our attitude is: “Just tell me what I need to do, so I can do it and be on my way.” So the first step to understanding God’s Word is to repent of this simplistic concept of faith.
But having said that, the question still stands. There are hundreds of commands in the Old Testament; why do we follow some today but not all? The theologian John Calvin said that when you look at the Law, you see three different kinds of rules, civil, ceremonial, and moral. Civil laws were given by God so that the people of Israel could form a nation. They needed a foundation on which to build their society. These laws functioned for Old Testament Israel the way our constitution does for us. But that version of Israel is now gone. The current nation of Israel is a secular nation, not a theocracy like it was in the Old Testament era. So those laws no longer apply. For example, in Leviticus 18, a person who committed incest was to be executed. But in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about a man in the Corinthian church who is sleeping with his own mother-in-law. He tells the Corinthians to expel this man from their church, not to stone him to death. What changed? Why didn’t Paul follow Leviticus? Because it was a civil law intended for a nation that no longer exists. From Paul’s time to now, what matters most is not the laws of nations, but the behavior of God’s people, the church. God wants His people to live in a way distinct from the world, so that’s what Paul emphasized.
Ceremonial laws included the sacrifices, festivals and the cleanliness rules, including the dietary laws. All of these were intended to make the Israelites pure enough to stand in His presence. But now that Jesus has come, He’s fulfilled those requirements. We can boldly approach God’s throne of grace because His righteous standing has been transferred to us through His death on the cross. We don’t need to circumcise our male children anymore, because the change the Holy Spirit makes in our hearts is better than an outward sign. We don’t need to keep the Sabbath holy anymore, which is why Christians began worshipping instead on the first day of the week, the day Christ rose again. Yet those ceremonial laws teach us important principles about God and life. The Sabbath is a good example. It’s a reminder that our lives work better when we take a day of the week off from work and life as usual, to refresh our souls and bodies in the presence of God and His people.
The moral laws are the ones that show us how to live a good life. These still apply. If you want to know which is which, ask, “Is this reaffirmed in the New Testament?” For example, the eighth commandment (Exodus 20:15) says, “You shall not steal.” This is a moral law, having to do with how we treat others. Ephesians 4:28 affirms it: Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Notice that: Paul says it’s not just about not stealing. We should work hard, so we have to opportunity to give to others, instead of taking from them.
So let’s return to the metaphor of marriage. Jesus said the entire Law is summed up in two commands: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. If we want to live a God-pleasing life, we will build our lives around those two commands. They will guide us in every decision, every priority. The commands in Scripture, then become instructions for us to follow as we learn who God is and how best to love Him. It’s like Him saying, “I don’t need for you to shout your love for me from the rooftops. Just pick up your stuff at the end of the day. I don’t need for you to buy me diamonds once a week. Just listen to me when I’m speaking.” In God’s case, He says, “Don’t steal your neighbor’s stuff. Instead, work hard enough to share your stuff with Him. When you do that, it’s like you’ve given it to me personally.” If you center your life around loving God and loving your neighbor, you can’t help but grow in righteousness and joy; you will live the life you were meant to live.