Dating back to the early church, believers have questioned their relationship to the Mosaic Law (Acts 15:1-31, Gal. 2:1-21). While Bible believing Christians would agree that the Law cannot save them, some still believe that we must follow the Ten Commandments as our rule of life for sanctification. To fully grasp our relationship to the Law, we must first understand the Law’s origin, characteristics, and purpose.
The Law’s Origin and Scope
Scripture refers to the Jewish people “as those who are of the law” (Rom. 4:16). In showing that all are sinners, the Bible includes Gentiles who have sinned without the law and Jews who have sinned in the law (Rom. 2:12-16). Speaking of Christ the Holy One, it states that He was born a Son of Abraham, born under the law (Matt. 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38, Gal. 4:4).
This tells us that the written Law was given to one nation and did not exist in the time period between Adam and Moses, though sin and death certainly did (Rom. 5:13-14). But shortly after their redemption from Egypt, God gave it exclusively to Israel on Mount Sinai, its stipulations encompassing every aspect of their lives.
First, revealing God’s holiness and distance from them, its terms provided a way for a sinful people to approach Him both as individuals and as a nation. The offerings and feasts provided a temporary covering for sin, opportunities to worship, and a time to remember His goodness to them.
Second, it instituted their judicial law, transitioning them from slaves to a nation about to inherit its own land. It instructed them how to govern themselves, on their relationships with each other, its precepts also providing remedies for any wrongs committed.
Third, the Law was one of Israel’s many privileges (Rom. 9:4-5), that uniquely set them apart as a special nation. A separate people, they were to distinguish themselves as the nation that worshipped one God and obeyed His law (Deut. 4:8). Being God’s revelation, the Law set a higher standard for them then the Gentile nations who governed themselves by their own consciences and laws.
The Law, a Greater Revelation
In Scripture we find that with each revelation God builds on what was known before. This progressive revelation culminates in God’s complete and final revelation, the coming of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the express image of God (Heb. 1:1-3).
At Sinai the Law revealed God’s holiness and righteousness in written form (Psa. 12:6, Rom. 7:12), a greater revelation than what was known up to that time. It gave Israel a clearer picture of right and wrong, a knowledge that the nations being guided only by their conscience did not have (Rom. 2:12-14, 3:20). Though all have sinned by missing the mark falling short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), Israel’s sin took on the nature of transgression because they stepped over recognized boundaries, breaking known precepts and commands. Every year they faced a continual reminder of sins (Heb. 10:3) because the Law revealed sin as a transgression (Rom. 4:15; Gal. 3:19).
The Law’s Conditional Terms
Visibly demonstrating His distance, God gave the Law through the agency of angels (Acts 7:53; Heb. 2:2) with Moses mediating upon behalf of the people. A conditional agreement between two parties—God and Israel—it required a mediator (Gal. 3:19-20, Deut. 5:5). God promised Israel that if they would follow Him with all their heart He would bless their nation with many earthly blessings. If they failed to do so, many curses would fall upon them (Deut. 28). The Law could never bring personal salvation to the Israelite. Even in the Old Testament personal salvation was always by grace through faith (Gal. 2:16, 3:1-9), both to the Jew and to individual Gentiles such as Rahab and Ruth.
Contrast this with how God appeared and spoke directly to Abraham. The Abrahamic Covenant required no mediator, being an unconditional promise (Gal. 3:20). It was common in Abraham’s day to ratify a contract by having both parties walk hand in hand between divided offerings, each party promising to fulfill their end of the agreement. But in the Promise a smoking oven and burning torch went through the offering signifying God alone was responsible to fulfill it (Gen. 15:5-6, 17; Gal. 3:6-9).
The Law’s Timing
Though added 430 years after the Promise (Gal. 3:17) the Law did not retract God’s earlier guarantees to Abraham (Gal. 3:17-18, 21). Neither did it add to or enhance the Promise but instead was supplementary, a separate covenant, a parenthesis within the eternal Promise.
A clause within the Abrahamic covenant promised that through Abraham’s Seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3, 22:18; Gal. 3:16, 17, 19). Here God swore that it was through Christ, Abraham’s Seed, the whole world could be saved. The Bible says that the Law functioned only until Christ came, using the phrase “till the Seed should come” (Gal. 3:19), affirming a new standard for the Jew when faith in Christ was revealed (Gal. 3:23, 25; John 1:17).
Paul, a Jew includes himself by using the pronoun “we” when he says “we (Israel) were kept under guard by the law,” (Gal. 3:23) and then again in verse 24 “Therefore the law was our (Israel) tutor to Christ, that we (Israel) might be justified by faith.” Staying true to both the passage and the letter’s context Paul is expressing the thought that the Law was Israel’s custodian or guardian until Christ came (Gal. 3:19, 23-25, 4:4). Later when referring to both Gentile and Jewish believers and their oneness in Christ he uses the pronoun “you” (Gal. 3:26, 28-29).
The Law’s Purpose
In Paul’s day, a tutor (custodian, guardian, child-conductor), normally a slave, looked after a child’s moral and physical well-being, providing a restraining influence on the minor. He helped train the children both in their behavior and in their studies. He did so until the child came of age becoming an adult son (Gal. 4:2). Until then the child was expected to obey his guardian, having no more rights than a servant (Gal. 4:1).
Similarly, the Law functioned as a guardian of the Jewish nation. When obeyed, it had a preserving influence on them, protecting them from the immoral practices, idolatry, and unrestrained behavior of the nations around them. It helped them in their studies—their knowledge of God’s righteousness and their own sin. Preserving them was necessary because it was through them the Old Testament was revealed and kept, and it was through them the Messiah would come (Gal. 3:23). Therefore, even though Israel was apostate throughout most of their history God always preserved a remnant. The coming of Christ, elsewhere referred to as the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) is Israel’s coming of age.
Since Christ has come, the Jew is no longer under their “law guardian.” Instead upon trusting Christ they become adult sons, fully entering into the rights and privileges of sonship that God has bestowed on all believers. They have died to the Law (Rom. 7:1-6), their past relationship to the law having ended. Though they were never under the Law, Gentiles also faced the same condemnation for their sins, but upon believing Christ they too become adult sons. Both Gentile and Jewish believers are one in Christ.
Christ, The Law’s Theme
Yet the Law and Israel’s experiences still have spiritual value today. For it is God’s Word and all scripture is God breathed and profitable (2 Tim. 3:16). The Holy Spirit can use any portion of scripture to lead a lost soul to salvation because Christ is the theme of God’s Word. Responding to the Jews the Lord confronted His accusers by telling them that the scriptures testified of Him (John 5:39). After His resurrection, while travelling on the Emmaus road, He expounded from the Old Testament beginning with Moses, the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27).
Knowing this we can meditate upon Christ in the Pentateuch, seeing Him foreshadowed in the feasts, offerings and different personalities of the Law. The examples of Israel’s failures in the wilderness were written for our admonition and instruction. Appealing to our conscience, mind, and will they exhort us to learn from their example (1 Cor. 10:11). The entire Old Testament can instill patience, comforting us with hope, fortifying us with an unshakeable trust in a faithful God (Rom. 15:4).
Christ, God’s Definitive Revelation
After Calvary, some significant changes occurred demonstrating that we are not under law but grace (Rom. 6:14). First the church, a separate entity from Israel, was born at Pentecost. The Mosaic Law was given to an earthly people, a national identity whom God promised earthly blessings upon their obedience to the law. Christians are a heavenly people comprised of Jews and Gentiles, citizens of heaven, spiritually blessed by God because of our union with Christ Who both fulfilled the law and bore its curse (Eph. 1:3, 19-23).
Second, there was a change in the law of priesthood. The Old Testament priesthood functioned according to the order of Aaron while Christ is now Priest according to the greater order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek (King of Righteousness) is an Old Testament type of the eternal Christ in that his genealogy is unknown. He was the Priest King of Salem (peace) who met Abraham upon his return from rescuing his nephew Lot. The fact that he blessed Abraham and received a tithe from him gave evidence that his priesthood was greater than the Levitical priesthood that would begin with Abraham’s great-grandson, Levi (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb. 7:1-17).
In the Mosaic Law one became a priest by genealogy because the priesthood was restricted to the tribe of Levi. In the church, all believers are priests with the opportunity to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God (1 Pet. 2:5). In addition to being from the tribe of Levi, the Old Testament High Priest also had to descend from Aaron. On the other hand God appointed Christ, born of the tribe of Judah, to be our great High Priest.
The Aaronic priesthood had a continual succession of priests because eventually each one died. Christ has an eternal priesthood, living forever to make intercession for us. The Law prohibited combining the offices of priest and king. But Christ is the Priest who is now appointed to someday rule the entire earth.
Third, Christ is God’s consummate and final revelation. In the past God spoke at numerous times and in many diverse ways through prophets like Moses, bringing greater understanding to Israel. Giving the Law, God visibly demonstrated His transcendence over all creation, including His distance from separated sinners. But the law not only demonstrated God’s distance but also pictured the better things to come (Heb. 10:1).
With the coming of the eternal Son, God Himself came to earth and spoke (Heb. 1:1-3). Equal to the Father Christ is the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person. God’s grace has brought us near to Him through Christ (John 1:17-18, 14:21-23) without diminishing His unchanging transcendence. Seeing Christ exalted above all, brings greater clarity and understanding of the High and lofty One who invites us to come boldly to His throne of grace.
While one may separate the Mosaic Law into three parts: civil, ceremonial, and moral, and because nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament, some may be tempted to believe that while the ceremonial and civil have passed the Ten Commandments are now the believer’s standard. But we must remember that when it comes to its adherence the law is an integrated seamless whole that must be fully followed (Gal. 3:10, Jam. 2:10).
Instead Christ must be our rule of life. He brings greater light for guidance, superior strength for service, and abundant power for practical holiness. We must foster our relationship with Him, abiding in Him, seeking His direction, wisdom, and power. Measuring our spiritual health by the Law may lead some to legalism, self-reliance, and a sense of self-righteousness that hinders the Spirit’s work in their lives.
In others, it may lead to despair as the Law awakens their sinful flesh, accusing and condemning them. This was Paul’s experience. He had a sense of self-righteousness before he met Christ (Phil. 3:4-6). Yet trying to fulfill the Law after his conversion, he experienced something new—its condemnation. Now the law accused him, awakening in him evil desires which conflicted with his new life in Christ (Rom. 7:7-25). In this he recognized his utter helplessness to please God in his own strength. God subsequently revealed to him the liberating truth that there is no condemnation for the believer and that by living a Spirit-filled life, God’s righteous moral law could be fulfilled not by him but in him (Rom. 8:1-4).
The Bible states unequivocally that one does not achieve spiritual growth by following the Law (Gal. 3:1-3). Instead it exhorts the believer to live by a new law, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:2). This law exhorts us to live by the Spirit, walking with our eyes solely fixed on Christ (Gal. 5:16; Heb. 12:1-2).
The Lord promised His disciples that after His ascension the Holy Spirit would remind them of truths He taught them, introducing also new doctrine specifically for the church (1 Cor. 11:23, 1 Thess. 4:15), bringing greater clarity to the Old Testament. Christ has removed the old and brought in the new (Heb. 10:9). With Him all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17).
Republished from Counsel Magazine
by George Ferrier