The Mosaic Law in Modern Life

By Cory Carwile

A perennial topic among Christians is the role of the Mosaic Law in the Christian life. We all know that we are not justified by the Law, and that Christians are no longer expected to keep the complex sacrificial rites of the Law, or its challenging rules on clothing and food. But what about the other parts of the Law? Aside from telling the Israelites how to live, the Law also set in place basic laws for the nation-state of Israel, many of which speak to issues that we still deal with today, like theft and murder. Do those laws still apply? Should Christians seek to establish the Old Testament civil laws in their own nations today?

Though a number of the Old Testament's civil laws might make sense for any given nation, the answer is no, Christians are not obligated to establish Old Testament civil laws in their own countries.

For the reason why, we might first consider what the purpose of the Law is. The Law of Moses, while good and excellent and holy (Romans 7:7, 12), was never meant as a complete and comprehensive template for moral living for everyone who believes in God. Rather, it was a rigid, thorough standard of practices and beliefs that were meant to set Israel apart from their pagan neighbors, illustrate for them their own unrighteousness before God (Romans 7:7-8), and prepare the hearts and minds of Israel, spiritually and intellectually, for the eventual coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Certainly, the Law includes moral edicts, and reflects a number of moral principles that are binding on all believers in all ages, but the central purpose of the Law was to set up Israel as a distinct nation and set the stage for Christ.

As such, Israel was unique among all the nations of the earth, not only in comparison to the other nations of the day, but with every nation that came before or after. It was both literally and figuratively the Kingdom of God on Earth: literally in that it was unconditionally elected by God to be His peculiar people and unique kingdom on Earth, and figuratively in that it prefigured — as a shadow, as a metaphor — the final eschatological Kingdom of God that will be consummated at the return of Christ. At no point anywhere in Scripture is Israel commanded to conquer other nations for the sake of applying the Law to them; rather, the geographic bounds of what constitutes Israel are clearly defined, a literal Promised Land that God set aside for His chosen people. This should give us pause when considering whether we should apply any of the Mosaic Law to our own modern nations: since the Law was given specifically to Israel for a specific purpose, why would it be appropriate to apply it to any other nation? More specifically still, considering that much of the Law's requirements were prefigurements of Christ's atoning sacrifice, why would we still apply them in this age, after Christ has come and brought with Him the very thing those laws represented?

The most direct reason for not looking to the Mosaic Law as a model for other nations is found in the New Testament's discussion of it. Historically, scholars have made distinctions between different parts of the Law, labeling some as moral laws, others as ceremonial laws, and others as civil or judicial laws. While this distinction is helpful for academic purposes, it is not a distinction made in the Bible itself. Rather, the Law is treated as a single monolithic unit: "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it" (James 2:10). Paul never makes any distinction between a moral, ceremonial, and civil Law when discussing how we (Christians) are free from the obligations of the Law (Galatians 2:16; 3:13; Romans 10:4; 2:12, 28-29). To Paul, there aren't some parts of the Law that apply forever, and some that don't. It's a package deal: you have it all or you have none of it. As such, Christians should be leery of reasoning that says, "We don't need the sacrificial/temple/clothing laws anymore, but we can keep the laws about polity/penalties/taxation." It makes an incorrect assumption that the Law is (or at least is partially) meant for all nations in all times.

We even see the Mosaic Law's temporary, place-holding nature in the Gospels when Jesus speaks of the Law. In Matthew 19:3-12, Jesus is questioned about divorce by the Pharisees. Christ tells us divorce is not to be common among His people, and if it is allowable at all it's only in cases of sexual infidelity (Matthew 19:8-9). He says this despite the fact that the Law of Moses permitted divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). When the Pharisees point this out, the reason Jesus gives for the Law's allowance of divorce is interesting: it is due to the "hardness of heart" among the people. In other words, God, in His wisdom, allowed the practice of sub-Christian actions in the Law. Believers oughtn't get divorced, but the Old Testament Law permits them to do so. It was a cultural allowance. Jesus had to clarify, then, that divorce was not a morally neutral act, even though it was allowed in the Law. In other words, the Law's rules for divorce are not a permanent, objective moral standard meant for all people in all times. Rather, it was a rule tailored to fit the people of Israel in the time in which the Law was given. Jesus, teaching on the topic centuries later, points out that even though the Law allowed for divorce, it was not the moral ideal that God wanted for His people.

This doesn't mean that the Law isn't good, or there's nothing good in it for modern governments. The Law is given by God, and therefore holy and good (Romans 7:12). But it's not meant to be a model of governance for the whole world. Nowhere in the Old Testament are the people of Israel expected to spread the Law to neighboring nations, and nowhere in the New Testament are Christians commanded to obey the Law of Moses, or instate it in their own lives; in fact, when the New Testament speaks of the Law, it is almost always to tell us how we are no long under it. With that in mind, Christians should not feel obligated to install the civil ordinances of the Mosaic Law in their own countries. There are good, moral ideas in the Law of Moses, but if we seek to place such laws in our own country, we should do so because we recognize those ideas as morally good, not simply because they were part of the Mosaic Law.

Image Credit: Woody Hibbard; "Law"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | Political-Issues  | Theological-Beliefs

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Published 1-17-17