One of the things regarding Bible interpretation that I’m most often asked about is how Christians should understand the Old Testament laws. Here’s the perspective I offer in the book:
Excerpt from chapter 4
Do you follow the Old Testament laws? All of them? Do you steer clear of the worship of idols? Are you sure not to steal and not to attempt to seek revenge? Most of us try, and are fairly successful at avoiding those actions. But at your last haircut, did you make sure that the stylist didn’t trim your sideburns? (Lev. 19:27) And did you remember to put on your blue tassels this morning? (Num. 15:38) If not, then how do you decide which laws of the Old Testament you should follow and which, if any, don’t apply to you?
Certainly, it would seem wise to honor our parents as directed in the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, should we have our children stoned to death if they are stubborn and rebellious? (Deut. 21:18-21) Both of these are commandments in the Old Testament. How can we be consistent and follow one and not the other? Can we just say, I like this one, but that’s a little harsh, so that one doesn’t apply? That’s more like treating the text the way many of us treat traffic rules than it is treating it as the Word of God. So just how do we know?
If we asked most Christians why murder is wrong or why we should obey our parents, the majority would probably point to Old Testament laws. Yet, those same Christians likely have clothes in their closet that disregards Leviticus 19:19, which commands that garments made of two different kinds of material should not be worn. That’s right. There’s an Old Testament law which says “you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together” (NASB). If we were required to follow this, I know I’ve got a few of my favorite shirts that would be headed for the local thrift shop, not to mention the problem I’d have with deciding what to do about my Bermuda grass lawn which I just over seeded with Rye for the winter. And what about the laws that prohibit eating pork? How many of us might get up on a Sunday morning and have a conversation like this:
“Dad I don’t want to go to church today.”
“But son, God wants us to go. And the Bible says we need to honor the Sabbath.” 
Then later, we get home and for dinner enjoy a nice rack of barbequed baby back ribs? Either we’re making a huge mistake before God by disregarding His commands or there has to be some way to make a distinction.
Which Laws Are For Today?
A common approach to traditionally answer this question was to begin by dividing the law into three categories: ceremonial, civil and moral. This is followed by the suggestion that whichever of the three the law falls in to, tells us how to apply it today. So, for example, “Do not murder” (Ex. 20:13), a moral law, would be considered to be a timeless truth and binding today, while wearing blue tassels on our clothing would be considered ceremonial, and like civil laws, were only for the Jewish nation at that time.
There are a number of problems with this approach though. For one, the Bible doesn’t divide the laws this way. And if the Bible doesn’t make this distinction, even for New Testament believers, then we should at least be careful before labeling them as such. A related and perhaps more significant problem is that placing laws in these categories is sometimes arbitrary. Who decides what group to place each law in? Sure, some laws, like those above, appear to easily fall into a category, but some are much more difficult. For example, is keeping the Sabbath a moral law or ceremonial law? It’s found among the Ten Commandments, the rest of which certainly seem to be moral laws. So does that mean we shouldn’t be doing any work on Sunday? (Lev. 23:3) We might have a real dilemma if we had to stop and pump gas on the way to church. Alternatively, was observing the Sabbath a ceremonial law just for Israel? Was it just part of their system of religious rituals, with no bearing at all for us today? We had better get it right because the Bible says the penalty for not keeping the Sabbath is death! (Ex. 31:14-15, Num. 15:32-36)
Classifying the Sabbath as a moral law seems to put too much emphasis on doing works to earn our salvation. Yet, if we classify obedience to the Sabbath as purely ceremonial for Israel, then we miss important lessons about setting things apart for God, remembering He is the Creator, and the reminder the Sabbath can serve to us of the rest we enter with Him (Heb. 4:1-11). That’s why the traditional way of approaching the law just doesn’t work.
Who Is the Law Written to?
Knowing some basic principles of Bible interpretation for the genre of law will give anyone a good start to being able to determine how the Old Testament laws apply today. We just critiqued the traditional way of classifying the law into the three categories of ceremonial, civil and moral. While that system doesn’t work, note that that it has at its root two important notions: (1) the Church is not Israel and (2) a distinction in the way the laws apply to the Church versus the way they applied to Israel needs to be made. Part of the interpretive problem is simply that the Old Testament laws were not written to believers today, but we often read select ones that way. We fight for posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings as if they were written for America. Yet, the fact is that these laws were not written to American Christians, or Russian Christians, or Jewish Christians or any Christians for that matter.
If Moses had written a separate book of laws and indicated that they were to be a set of timeless rules for the people of God to follow, that would be different. However, that’s not what we have with the Mosaic Law. Instead, we have a group of laws recorded throughout the historical records of a particular nation. Recall our discussion on the differences between descriptive and prescriptive literature. The laws in the Old Testament are part of the descriptive story of Israel and cannot be accurately understood apart from that narrative.
Much of the law comes in large portions throughout the Scriptures, and it is being directed to Israel as part of their ongoing relationship with God. To put it simply, all of the Old Testament laws were written to Israel, and for Israel. They are part of a narrative that is the record of the relationship between God and His chosen people.
Before we jump to an extreme and say the Old Testament laws have nothing to offer us, we must realize that God put them in our Holy Scriptures for a purpose. It’s not included just so we can have a bigger book to hit people with when we go Bible thumping. The history of Israel is important for us to gain insight from and the laws were part of that history. Without the recording of the laws, the history (and more specifically, a major part of the grand story) would be incomplete and more difficult to understand. The laws give us perspective with which to better appreciate God’s plan for Israel and Israel’s response to God, as well as the fulfillment of God’s plan in Jesus Christ. When we see how these relationships work, we discover more about Him, and our purpose. That is the significance for us.
Application of the Law
In Galatians 3:23-25 Paul says,
“Before this faith [in Jesus as Savior] came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (NIV)
So based on what Paul says here, do we even need the laws anymore? When looking for application, can we now skip over them? Of course not! In fact, just before Paul made this statement, he indicates that the law is not opposed to the promises of God (Galatians 3:21), that it has a purpose. And remember, Paul also said that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). So then, how do we apply the laws today?
Biblical interpretation scholars have offered a possible answer that is sometimes referred to as “principlism.” One scholar, who has written on this approach, is J. Daniel Hays. He suggests five steps for interpreting and finding significance from Old Testament law.
- Identify what the particular law meant to the initial audience
- Determine the difference between the initial audience and believers today
- Develop universal principles from the text
- Correlate the principle with New Testament teaching
- Apply the modified universal principle today
Here are a couple of examples to help see how this process works.
Let’s start with an easy one. “Thou shalt not steal.” (Exodus 20:15)
Step 1 – To Israel, the original audience, it simply meant “don’t steal”.
Step 2 – Believers today are under the New Covenant and this is a Mosaic law, but this law doesn’t appear to be anything that would be related to Israel specifically. It’s not like God told the Israelites not to steal because if they did the Canaanites would come kill them just because Canaanites don’t like thieves.
Step 3 – The universal principle is just that we should not take something that doesn’t belong to us.
Step 4 – It is reinforced in the New Testament (Romans 13:9, Ephesians 4:28).
Step 5 – So, applied today it means just what is says, don’t steal.
Years ago, while studying the book of Joshua, a friend of mine went through a temporary “crisis of faith.” When we hit chapter 5, we saw how the Israelites who had been born during the nation’s wandering in the desert were uncircumcised. God told Joshua to have all the people circumcised in order to enter back into the covenant relationship with Him. My uncircumcised friend was briefly freaked out about the possibility of having to go through the procedure as an adult. He was quite relieved at the answer we found after we dove into the question. (With this example, I’ve included questions in the steps that may make the process easier.)
Step 1 – What did it mean to the initial audience? Circumcision was required in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 12:2-3). This requirement was based on the covenant God had made with Abraham back in Genesis chapter 17. The Israelites could not enter the Promised Land if they were not faithful to the covenant (Genesis 17:14). This was between Israel and God.
Step 2 – What are the differences between the initial audience and believers today? Believers today are under a new covenant. Jesus came and fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17) and established a new covenant for us (Luke 22:20).
Step 3 – What is the universal principle? The Israelites were ending their wandering in the desert and now wanting to fulfill their end of the covenant with God. At certain times in our walk with the Lord, we may drift away or become complacent. When we get refocused, if there was something we should have done for God that we have not yet done, we should do it. The principle is to get right with God.
Step 4 – How does the New Testament modify, or qualify, this principle? The New Testament teaches that real circumcision is of the heart (Romans 2:25-29, Galatians 5:2-6, Colossians 2:11-14). It’s about an inward transformation (getting right with God) and in the physical sense is not necessary for the believer (Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 7:17-20).
Step 5 – How should Christians today apply this principle? Joshua chapter 5 doesn’t mean that we need to physically circumcise ourselves and our children today. Instead, we need to make sure that we have circumcised hearts. We need to get right with God. In that sense, the law applies to us and we are compelled to act.
I hope that helps you as you read through the OT law.
Want to know more about how to interpret & apply other genres? Check out the book.
 Few realize that this is actually a different day too. For Jews it was Saturday.
 So much of what is labeled “contradictions” in the Bible by skeptics would be easily dismissed if people just understood the importance of genre.
 J. Daniel Hays, “Applying the Old Testament Law Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (2001): 21-35. Available here.
 This is not meant to suggest that this is the only application for modern believers. On the contrary, it could also be shown that to Israel circumcision served as a practice, or ritual, that reminded them of their relationship with God. In a similar way, baptism serves a similar function to the modern believer.
 Of course, I’m not advocating works theology, as we are saved by grace alone, but if we desire to be followers of Christ, then we ought to certainly attempt to act in a manner consistent with His moral character (John 15:4) and the principles taught in Scripture.
If you’re still feeling like the reading Old Testament law is boring to you, check out this blog post: The Mistake of Leviticus. The author offers a wonderful example of how the law can provide application to the modern believer. It’s fantastic.