“Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”-Matthew 5:17
This is our second post in the “rescue your Bible reading” series. It’s no secret that some genres in the Bible are harder to read devotionally than others. We’re looking at genealogies (check out that post here), law, temple building narratives, and tribal location lists. In this post we’ll focus on the law—a massive chunk of biblical literature in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
A Biblical Theology of Law
Christians have a complicated relationship with the OT law. On the one hand, we know that it is inspired by God and in some way spiritually instructive for us. On the other hand, we know that Jesus has fulfilled the law for us and it is not legally binding for the church. So what should we think about the law as we read it?
The Law in the Past
When it comes to a biblical theology of the law, we have to keep in mind that it was given to Israel under specific circumstances for a specific time. The law is the covenant agreement between God and the nation of Israel. It clarifies how God called them to live in distinction from the nations around them. It is this law that Jesus fulfilled for Jews (and Gentiles, more on that below). God never intended the church to observe the 613 commands in the OT law. Even though it is fulfilled, the law still carries spiritual relevance to all Christians. Think of approaching the law in light of two contrasting statements: OT laws do not apply to us; OT law instructs us. How? As a model and a promise.
The Law as a Model
In general, the law can be summarized by the two greatest commands—love God, love people—and by the Ten Commandments. It’s no accident that the Ten Commandments can be divided nicely into the “love God” and “love people” categories. The civil law is largely concerned with how to love your neighbor, while the ritual law is concerned with how to relate to God in light of our sin. The ritual law also includes the lengthy commands for how the sacrificial and priestly system is designed to work. While certain aspects of the OT law are repeated in the NT and therefore binding for the church, most aren’t (primarily the civil and ritual laws). For example the Apostle Paul teaches us we have freedom to observe the Sabbath or not, or to observe a feast or not (Romans 14:5, Colossians 2:16).
Even though most OT laws are not in force for the church, they are still instructive for Christians because they show us examples of what it looks like to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. A specific law often reveals a general principle that helps us love God or love people (for civil laws mostly the latter). Like Deuteronomy 22:8, “If you build a new house, make a railing around your roof, so that you don’t bring bloodguilt on your house if someone falls from it.” The specific here is build a railing around your roof as a protection for your neighbors. This is because in ancient Israelite homes the flat roof area often served as the hangout spot. This law shows us how to love others by ensuring our homes are safe for our neighbors.
One important caveat: as we read the law and see the model for loving God and others, we must not misread it as providing the basis for our justification. The law models faith-driven life; it is not a manual on what to do to earn forgiveness.
The Law as a Promise
When we read the law as a model it doesn’t take long to realize we don’t love God with all that we are and love others as much as ourselves. In a way, when the law exposes our sin it also promises restoration through the Messiah. It reveals God’s holiness and thus will expose ways that we fail to be righteous. In fact, this is the way the law is used by OT prophets. Therefore the law anticipates our need for forgiveness.
The law doesn’t just expose our need, it promises a rescuer specifically in the sacrificial system. The book of Hebrews makes clear that the entire temple system, including priesthood, priestly furnishing, and sacrificial laws all point forward to Jesus as the perfect law keeper on our behalf. Jesus is both our great High Priest and the Lamb of God who takes away our sin. Jesus fulfilling the law means that he perfectly lived as we were created to, satisfying God’s law for both Jews and Gentiles.
Tips for Reading Law
Identify the Category of Law
Ask is this a “love God” law or a “love people” kind of law? Most of the time civic laws are “love people” kinds of laws while ritual laws focus on God’s holiness and are “love God” kinds of laws. As you read you’ll find groups of civic laws and groups of ritual laws. Knowing the kind of law you’re reading will help you make appropriate application. Consider how the section of law you are reading encourages you to love God or love people.
Read the Law at a Brisk Pace
Try not to get bogged down reading the law. Most groups of law are longer sections with a lot of details. If you slow down too much, you risk losing sight of the historical context. The OT law wasn’t given in one massive download, but incrementally throughout the wilderness wanderings. Keep an eye on the narrative framework.
Look for God’s Grace
We don’t often associate God’s law with grace, but in fact you’ll find his grace is a blanket covering the entire law. Consider the food laws and laws regarding sickness. Don’t forget this law was given in pre-modern times; in most cases these laws prevented the spread of disease and encouraged safe consumption of food. Or consider the stipulations for sin offerings in Leviticus 5. In Lev. 5:6 we read if someone is guilty they are to offer a lamb or goat. But in Lev. 5:7 we read, “if he cannot afford an animal from the flock, then he may bring to the Lord two turtledoves or two young pigeons…” God graciously allows for a less expensive guilt offering for those who couldn’t afford the lamb or goat!
Keep the Cross in View
If you are convicted of your owns in as you read, remember that Jesus has fulfilled law. In civic law, remember that Jesus died for our failure to love others and models what faith-driven obedience in this area looks like. In ritual law, remember that it points to Jesus’s function as our great High Priest, our atoning sacrifice, and the better temple.
So far we’ve covered tips on reading genealogies and the OT law. Next time we’ll consider how to read the temple building narratives in the Bible.