The Old Testament was written to the children of Israel (the Jewish people). So some people say that most of it doesn’t apply to Christians today. And so while we may get some good stories from the Old Testament, is it really binding on Christians?
First, it is important to realize that neither the Old nor the New Testament was written to people living in the twenty-first century. The Old Testament audience was the children of Israel, and the New Testament was written to a Jewish and Gentile audience in the first century. But that doesn’t mean the truth of Scripture isn’t relevant to or binding on us today.
The Bible was written within certain historical contexts, all quite different from ours today. But even though the words of Scripture may not have been written specifically to us, that doesn’t mean they weren’t written for us. Scripture is God’s universal and relevant truth that is applicable to all people, in all places, for all times. Both the Old and the New Testament messages transcend history, cultures, customs, languages, and time lines. So to interpret what God is saying to us in the twenty-first century we must first identify the universal truths of Scripture that were applied in ancient times in order to understand how they apply to us today.
The Old Testament in Context of the New
But to understand how the truth of the Old Testament applies universally and to Christians today we must interpret it within the context of the New Testament. The apostle Paul said,
Why then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sin. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised [Jesus]… The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian (Galatians 3:19, 24-25).
What Paul was saying is that the law was our guardian or tutor. It was like a teacher guiding and instructing a child until the student had come of age. The law fulfilled its purpose by guiding God’s people to the one who would write his laws and ways on their hearts. God didn’t want people focusing on all the laws and rules in the first place. He wanted them to focus on him in a relationship. Following his ways would then be a natural by-product of that relationship. And all that came into perfect view when Jesus showed up on the stage of human history.
Jesus made it clear that he was the context for interpreting the Old Testament. He said, “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose” (Matthew 5:17). He actually fulfilled the ceremonial laws of Moses and satisfied God’s justice in dealing with our sin.
The ceremonial laws that God had given the children of Israel dealt with animal sacrifices, a priesthood, a temple, and numerous festivals to observe. These laws were a means or system to deal with sin, and to satisfy God’s holy and just nature. He wanted his people to enjoy a relationship with him. The sacrificial system of the Old Testament was the means of receiving forgiveness and obtaining a relationship with him for the children of Israel. But that system and his forgiveness was actually based on the future coming of Christ, who would be the perfect sacrifice.
The reason we no longer need to follow the Old Testament ceremonial laws is that God’s Son became our perfect sacrificial Lamb for all time (see Hebrews 3–10). That is what Jesus meant when he said he fulfilled the law. The law required a substitute, a perfect sacrifice to gain our redemption. Simply being obedient to a set of rules and following a system of sacrificing animals was not the solution. Faith in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus was the solution, and of course Christ provided that. So now following the ceremonial laws given to Israel is not needed or necessary. Accepting Christ as our sacrifice is what is needed—and that is what is necessary.
The civil laws. The same can be said about what is known as Israel’s civil laws. Throughout the first five books of the Old Testament the children of Israel were not only given the Ten Commandments (the moral law), but specifics on how God’s law was to be enforced within their nation. There were very specific things that God commanded his people to do, as well as how to do them, when to do them, and the consequences and remedies for disobedience. While those laws were specifically for Israel and were not intended to translate to our modern civil laws, it doesn’t mean we are not to learn from them. We can certainly see that God desires a system of justice. He wants us as followers of him to come to the defense of the weak or to those who are mistreated (see the book of James). Civil laws are needed and necessary for a civil society to operate.
The moral law. And certainly the moral law of the Old Testament, often referred to as the Ten Commandments, reflects God’s universal truth to all of us. Each of the Ten Commandments is repeated in the New Testament, except observance of the Sabbath day. And that one is in effect repeated in the truth that as Christ’s body, the church, we are to love each other and worship together. The writer of the book of Hebrews said, “Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25). So certainly the moral law of the Old Testament is binding on and applicable to us today.
When we read the Old Testament we must understand God’s truth within the historical context of the children of Israel. And when we do, it becomes clear how God wants his eternal truth to be applied in our personal lives and the life of the twenty-first-century world.
This chapter originally appeared in 77 FAQs About God and the Bible by Sean McDowell and Josh McDowell (2012). Used by permission from Harvest House Publishers.