The Old Testament Law, given to Israel by God during Israel’s escape from Egypt, contains 613 imperatives. Some of them are pretty obvious (Exodus 20:15) and some seem cruel (Leviticus 20:19), while others sound downright bizarre to modern ears (Leviticus 19:19).
Today, Christians all but ignore many of the commandments made in the Old Testament Law books—let’s explore why.
The first five books of Scripture, sometimes called the Pentateuch, were written to serve as the founding documentation for the nation of Israel.
- Genesis and Exodus: Israel’s history, presumably written by Moses, detailing events from the earth’s creation until Moses’ death.
- Leviticus: The details of the Law as God gave it. Reading Leviticus is like reading Ancient Israel’s constitution.
- Numbers: After giving the Law at Mount Sinai, God instructed Moses to conduct a census of Israel. This is the full report.
- Deuteronomy: A collection of addresses given by Moses while leading the people of Israel. It acts as a summary of the previous four books.
Together, these five books form a single unit, and accomplish three very important objectives:
- Teach about God: As God wrote the rules that Israel was to obey, he was also revealing some of his own characteristics. He is a God of holiness, justice, and wisdom. He has special concern for the poor. There are no other gods like him. After four generations of slavery in a country filled with false gods, Israel could know from the Law alone that Jehovah was different.
- Identify God’s people: Adhering to the commandments in Leviticus identified Israel among the world’s nations. God intended for Israel to look a little odd. Some of the most bizarre commandments in the Law made Israel stand out. Outsiders inevitably asked why, and Israelites had a chance to talk about God.
- Point to Jesus: Much of the Law pertains to temple etiquette, and the sacrificial system. These things are prophetic—the Law called for a perfect lamb as payment for sins, and Jesus is often called the Lamb of God (John 1:29). The imagery is unmistakable.
The Law was never intended to separate the righteous from the unrighteous. The Law set such a high standard that everyone inevitably found themselves on the wrong side of it. The Law cannot make people righteous; only Jesus can do that (Galatians 2:21).
When Jesus came to earth, he lived perfectly. He kept the Law perfectly. He fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17). He even taught us quite a bit about what it was intended to do (Luke 4:21, Matthew 5:21). Then, even though he hadn’t broken the Law, he stood in our place—enduring punishment as if he had. And the best news of all, the Gospel shows that because of Jesus’ sacrifice, God invites all people to stand as innocent even though we’re not (Romans 4:7–8).
Here’s the bottom line: Christians don’t keep the Law because we can’t, but Jesus did so we don’t have to.
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