As a practicing Christian, I decided to read the Bible in its entirety. If you have done this and even if you have not, one of the challenges is developing a working mental paradigm to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. This was one of the challenges for the apostles as well (circumcision or no circumcision in the Book of Acts for example). This challenge even led to some splits within the early church when the Gnostics refused to reconcile the God of the Old Testament and Christ as one and the same. With this post I am focusing just on the concept of the law as it exists in the Old and New Testaments not the nature/actions of God in the Old and New Testament which is a much bigger undertaking. In order to better illuminate the relationship between the Old Testament and the New in regards to the law, I looked to the teachings of the early church, the words of Jesus, and my Protestant faith.
Old Testament law can be a bit overwhelming, when you begin to read the Bible. There are many laws that are clearly not binding on our lives as Christians. I looked to St. Thomas Aquinas for clarification on all the different types of rules/regulations (a.ka. Old Testament law). Aquinas dividend the Old Testament law into three categories; moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Moral law is dictated by natural law, while ceremonial law is affiliated with divine worship and the judicial precepts are determinations of the justice maintained among men. St. Thomas Aquinas then determined the only law applicable to Christians was the moral law. The ten commandments would be an example of moral law, while the book of Leviticus contains many other examples of ceremonial and judicial law. As a Christian the law has been sharply reduced in light of Aquinas and the early church, so now we can look to the New Testament and specifically the words of Jesus to further develop our understanding about the law and its relationship to the New Testament.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus directly addressed his relationship to the Old Testament law when he said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”. Clearly the moral law is applicable but Jesus has fulfilled the law perfectly on our behalf.
Further in the book of Matthew (22:34) the Pharisees were attempting to trap Jesus with his answers when they asked him, “Which is the greatest commandment”? Jesus then replied…..”You shall love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
This is a very powerful quote from Jesus and it relates directly to the relationship between Old Testament law and Christianity. These words also serve as a practical guide for Christians on how they should approach their daily lives as well as their relationships with others. Jesus has made the law even easier to understand by providing a further simplification of what the law really means. First, love the Lord God with all your heart, soul and mind. Clearly a daunting task! We should seek the Lord daily through his word and prayer. With all of the distractions around us today this is always a challenge, but if we seek the Lord daily we are off to a great start. Secondly, to Love your neighbor as yourself seems to be much more approachable in many ways. This should guide all of our interactions with other people. This can also be challenging when that certain someone is very difficult to love. In relationships such as those, we must also remember that all of humanity is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). I also believe that these two commandments from Jesus clearly direct us to genuine Christian service to those who may be in more difficult or less fortunate circumstances.
My Protestant faith has also developed an understanding of the law (and when I refer to law I am referring to the moral law only). The law serves as a mirror to show us our sin (Romans 3:20). The law makes sin recognizable to us and it is easy to recognize because the law is written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:15). Now it does all come together, because when we love the Lord God with all our heart, soul and mind, we are made aware of our sin, and through prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit we hope to avoid sin with an understanding that we will never be sinless.
As Christians we can hold onto the actions of Jesus as having fulfilled the law but realize the law serves to show us our sin. When we are aware of our sin, we are then moved to repent.
In closing, I have to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer at length to provide even further clarification for the daily grind of the Christian life…. “Everyday Christ’s followers must acknowledge and bewail their guilt. Living as they do in fellowship with Him, they ought to be sinless, but in practice their life is marred daily with all manner of unbelief, sloth in prayer, lack of body discipline, self-indulgence of every kind, envy, hatred and ambition” (Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship).
As Christians we will continue to fight the daily battle. But we live in hope because in the end we know Christ has won that battle for us and that all the law and prophets come down to seeking Him with all our heart, soul and mind while loving our neighbor as our self.