Aren’t We Just Picking Which Bits of the Old Testament Law Apply Today?

Sam Allberry
Articles 3 mins
Found in: Bible

There is a well-known scene 1 in the White House drama The West Wing where a talk show host defends calling homosexuality ‘an abomination’ by appealing to Leviticus.  This is how the President responds:

‘I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleaned the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?

My Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?

Here's one that's really important ‘cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. (Leviticus 11:7) If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?

Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?’

Versions of this argument are common today. Are Christians being consistent in opposing homosexuality, while ignoring many other rules in Leviticus? On the surface, it looks like a very strong argument. Should Christians avoid eating pork and wearing clothing made from mixed fibres?

The problem with this objection is that it assumes Christians must have exactly the same approach to every part of the Old Testament Law. In fact, the Christian view of the Old Testament is a little more nuanced than that. 

First, we must understand that the Old Testament as a whole is a preparation for the coming of Jesus (Luke 24:24-27). Secondly, we need to see that the Old Testament is not a flat, uniform landscape. It is not just a line-up of instructions and regulations, each with the same intent and each equally binding. It has a particular shape to it, a shape whose contours, emphases, and priorities are outlined and filled in by Jesus himself:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’
Matthew 5:17

Jesus did not come to discard the Law as nonsense from a bygone age, nor did he come to enforce it and police it. He did not come to fulfil just bits of it, sifting through the whole lot with a pair of tweezers and picking out the occasional commandment that might still work for us. What Jesus came to do with the Law, he came to do with all of it. 

But as we follow Jesus’ life and ministry it becomes apparent that he fulfils the various elements of the Law in more than one way. These various parts anticipate his coming in different ways, and he fulfils their intended significance in different ways.

  • Jesus ended the cleanliness and food laws. He declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19, reiterated in Acts 10:9-16). He touched lepers and dead bodies, and was not made unclean by doing so. Real spiritual cleanness is no longer going to be a matter of which externals we come into contact with, but being renewed inwardly through the Holy Spirit.
  • Jesus spoke of his body as the true temple and his death as the ultimate sacrifice for sin (John 2:21, Mark 14:36). His death opened the way for us to approach God, making Old Testament regulations concerning the temple and its sacrificial system obsolete. (Hebrews 10:11–14)
  • Jesus reconstituted the people of God. In the Old Testament they were a nation-state, in the New Testament they are a universal Church embodied in numerous local gatherings around the world and subject to the laws of governments. Therefore, Old Testament laws relating to the civic life of God’s people (such as requiring the death penalty for grave sins) no longer apply to believers today in the same way.
  • Through his sinless life Jesus fully embodied all the moral requirements of the Law. Through union with him, the ‘righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us’ as we live by the power of his Spirit (Romans 8:4). It is in this way that we’re able to live lives of love, which is precisely what the moral laws were pointing to (Romans 13:8 and Matthew 22:34-40). In order to unpack what it means for us to live in love, many of the moral commandments of the Old Testament are restated in the New, including those relating to sexual ethics.

Tim Keller sums it up neatly:

‘In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live. The moral law outlines God's own character---his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so everything the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament (Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20; 1 Timothy 1:8-11). If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.’ 2 

We do not honour all the Old Testament texts in the same way. We take our cue from Jesus. Because of what he claimed his death would achieve, we do not follow all Old Testament laws. To do so would be to undermine his work on the cross. But the Old Testament teaching on sexual ethics, through its restatement in the New Testament, is still binding on Christians today.

  1. The Midterms’ The West Wing: Season Two (NBC, 2000).
  2. Tim Keller, ‘Old Testament Law and The Charge of Inconsistency,’ Timothy Keller.  Accessed 15 December 2020.