The law of God is often equated with Old Testament law. The Old Testament does give us the basic laws, although Biblical law and its applications are found in both Testaments. Most of us know the Ten Commandments, but what about the other laws? Are they just dry, dusty, ancient laws or does God expect us to keep them even today?
There are three possible answers.
1. No, Old Testament law is done away with in Christ. They have no binding power on us today. This view tends to lead to confusion because people are encouraged to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, and yet, they cannot use the majority of the Bible [Old Testament] to test to see if the Holy Spirit is really leading them. They tend to drift into doing what is right in their own eyes.
2. Yes, all the Old Testament law is literally binding on us today. These people tend to become legalistic. They must be careful in what they eat, how they dress, where they go, etc. This tends to bring bondage. Also fear can come in for, if I break the law, have I lost my salvation?
3. Some of the Old Testament law is binding and some is not. The danger with this view is we tend to pick and choose which laws we want to be binding. If we are not careful we end up manipulating the Word of God for our own purposes.
Not everyone takes these views of the law of God to the extremes mentioned above, but all views have to be built on one of these three foundations. Which one is the right one? What does the Bible have to say?
"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" [Matt. 5:17-19, NAS].
Jesus seems plain enough. He did not come to do away with the law of God. In fact, He sternly warned His followers not to annul it. Such a warning would have been unnecessary if the law of God was no longer in effect after His death. According to Jesus Himself, God's law will last as long as heaven and earth last.
Jesus came to fulfill or complete Old Testament law. It was not complete until He Who was the Complete Revelation of God had come. When is all accomplished? All is accomplished or completed when Jesus physically returns to the earth. When this heaven and earth are ready to pass away then all has been accomplished, but not until then.
Then what did Jesus mean in Luke 16:16? "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it" [NAS]. The Amplified Bible sheds light on this passage when it says:
"Until John came, there were the Law and the Prophets..." Until John came, followed closely by Jesus, all anyone knew of the coming Redemption and the Kingdom of God was found in God's Law and the Prophets. This interpretation is confirmed by the context because Jesus goes on to emphasize in the next verse: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail."
Then what about Paul's famous statement in Rom. 6:14? "...for you are not under law, but under grace" [NAS]. A study of the context will confirm Paul is talking about the law of sin and death not the law of God in general. In fact, he states in Rom. 8:2: "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death." Basically the law of sin and death means that if we sin, we will die. Because of the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, genuine Christians are free from the death penalty of the broken law. That doesn't mean the law of God is done away with or that we aren't expected to keep it.
Is the entire range of Biblical law still in effect? Am I compelled to keep the dietary laws? Do I have to keep the Sabbath? Paul plainly states: "He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God...I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean" [Rom. 14:6,14 NAS].
Paul is saying in the New Testament era it doesn't matter what we eat or if we consider one day special or not. Yet these things are in God's law which Jesus said would not pass away until heaven and earth pass away. How do we reconcile this?
It appears we are only left with option #3 above. But if some Biblical laws are binding in their literal sense and some are not, how do we know which are which? How do we avoid the danger of our own picking and choosing? Certainly we cannot decide for ourselves which laws are currently binding and which ones are not. That would put us as a judge of Scripture instead of allowing Scripture to judge us. The Scripture must be our guide and standard.
We can divide the Biblical law into two major sections "ceremonial and
non-ceremonial." The ceremonial laws deal with the sacrifices, the
temple, the priesthood, the feast days, etc. We are no longer expected to offer animal sacrifices on an altar nor do we have a High Priest who must enter the physical Holy of Holies on our behalf.
The non-ceremonial laws deal with rules for living according to God's design.
Into which group do the dietary laws fall? Although it may sound as if they belong in the non-ceremonial category, Paul - in the above quote - places them with the ceremonial laws.
Does this mean the ceremonial laws are unimportant for us today? Not at all! It only means we do not keep them in a literal, physical sense. The ceremonial laws were symbols or shadows of Jesus and His work. In a very real, spiritual way, by living in Christ, we are keeping them. And, of course, they are a wealth of insight into Who Jesus is, what He accomplished, how God expects to be worshiped, etc. They are very important and we do keep them in their true sense, which is not in the literal way they were kept in the Old Testament. In the New Testament they have come into their full meaning in Jesus Christ.
What about the non-ceremonial laws? They are in full force. Jesus even expanded on some of them showing it is not just the acts, but the intents of the heart that God judges. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery': but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" [Matt. 5:27-28 NAS].
Sometimes God's laws may seem to contradict each other. For example, Old Testament law taught the "life for life" principle [Ex. 21:22-25], while Jesus taught unlimited forgiveness [Matt. 18:21-22]. To understand this we need to see the different areas of Biblical law. The non-ceremonial law is sub-divided into four categories. They cover:
1. God's rules for individuals
2. God's rules for the family
3. God's rules for the church
4. God's rules for the civil government.
God has delegated His authority to these four positions. All spheres of human life will be under one or more of these God-given groups. In some areas their responsibilities overlap, but no one group has total authority or is to interfere with the other groups in their God-given duties. Without the law of God we would not know how each of these positions of authority are to function. We would be ignorant of their God-given powers and limitations.
If we keep this in mind, the above example contradiction solves itself. The "life for life" principle is specifically given for the administration of civil justice. It is primarily intended for the civil government whose job it is to administer justice for the victim. In some cases, this will also apply to the church as well. The law of forgiveness given by Jesus applied, not to the rending [or requiring] of justice, but to the personal responses of the first three groups. We have to study the context to discover which Biblical laws apply to which groups. We also need to understand their underlying principles so as to know how they apply to the complicated situations of today.
We must be careful to remember the law of God is NOT a way of salvation. It was never intended to be although the natural desire of man is to use it as a means of getting or keeping salvation. Paul violently attacked God's law as a means of salvation in his writings. "I will ask you one simple question: did you receive the Spirit by trying to keep the Law or by believing the message of the Gospel? Surely you can't be so stupid as to think that you begin your spiritual life in the Spirit and then complete it by reverting to physical observances? Has all your painful experience brought you nowhere? I simply cannot believe it! Does God, who gave you his Spirit and works miracles among you, do these things because you have obeyed the Laws or because you have believed the gospel?" [Gal. 3:2-5 Phillips]. Some have mistaken this as an attack on the law of God instead of an attack on the misuse of God's law.
Not only is the law of God not a means of gaining or keeping salvation, but also it is NOT a means of earning the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In ourselves we are tempted to think we need to do something to earn these blessings of God. We have to come to the realization there is nothing we can do. We are helplessly dependent on the grace and love of God - but what a wonderful place to be in!
We are saved and we are kept in our relationship to God solely by the grace of God. There is NOTHING we can do to earn it or keep it. It is the free gift of God. Until we fully realize this we will always be tempted to pervert God's law into a way of earning what we want from God.
The law of God is the instruction manual on how God expects life to be lived. He has specific instructions for each of the four positions of authority. He expects to be obeyed! When each of the four positions of authority operate completely within the laws of God there will be peace, joy, and freedom on the earth. The prosperity of God will overflow into every area of life. The fact there are so many problems in the world today is the result of abandoning the law of God in every sphere of life.
Unfortunately, it is not just the non-Christians who are guilty of this. Christians, by denying the validity of the law of God in their lives, their churches, and their countries, have unwittingly aided the world in its downward spiral instead of lifting it up. When the world asks tough questions on world problems, Christians quite often don't have the right answers, because they use their own wisdom instead of referring to Biblical Law.
"Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'. For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him?" [Deut. 4:5-7, NKJV].
The world doesn't very often call the church a wise and understanding people. We have the answers to all the world's problems in the Word of God and yet we deny the power thereof by banishing God's law to some bygone era as ancient laws which mean nothing today. God is the same and He does not change. His law is as valid today as the day it was given.
Interestingly, the Ten Commandments are a summary of all the laws of the Bible. All the rest of the laws are an explanation or practical application of one or more of the Ten Commandments. Jesus, of course, further summarized the law of God into two commandments: love God and love your neighbour. The law really is just an explanation of how to practically obey those two commands!
For a much more detailed look at Biblical Law and how it works today take the free e-mail course: Master Life.