One of the most misunderstood literary types in the Bible is the law, which includes Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and chapters 20 to 32 of Exodus. Some scholars also include the rest of Exodus as well as Genesis and Numbers.
The law was the written expression of God’s expectation for His chosen people, Israel. It contained their civil, ceremonial, and moral law. It established the ways they were to live in community with one another and provided instructions on how to worship the one true God in their covenant relationship with Him.
The law also gave the Israelites boundaries with regard to the cultures around them. Many things in the law trouble us today because we don’t understand that the Israelites were intended to stand apart from the cultures surrounding them as a testimony to their unique relationship with God. The law was put in place so they would always keep in mind that their holy God dwelled among them and they must separate themselves from unholy things.
While the law was a covenantal gift to God’s people, it is not our covenant law as Christians. We live under the new covenant, so interpreting the old covenant law can be challenging at times.
Here are some general characteristics about the law to help us understand it.
1. It is typically conditional
This is the type of covenant that contains promises made by a sovereign (God) to subordinates (Israel), conditional upon their obedience to Him.
2. The law serves to prepare us for the new covenant in Christ
As we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, we interpret laws in light of Jesus’ teachings and mission. For example, the Old Testament commands us not to murder (Exodus 20:13). But Jesus fulfils this law with His prescription against anger (Matthew 5:22). Proper interpretation requires that we look to the New Testament to give us the fullest intent and application of Old Testament laws for our lives.
3. Old Testament laws are commands to be obeyed when they are renewed in the New Testament
For instance, the New Testament renews specifically each of the Ten Commandments, except the Sabbath command (Exodus 20:8–11). And Jesus renewed the first, second, and third commandments with His prescription that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
4. Old Testament laws are principles to understand when they are not renewed in the New Testament
For example, kosher dietary laws were extremely significant to Hebrew life (Leviticus 11). But these laws are not renewed in the New Testament, and in fact are specifically not enforced for Gentile followers of Jesus (Acts 15:28–29). While they are not required for Christians today, they teach the principle that God cares about our diet and health, and wants us to behave in ways which are distinct from the pagan culture in which we live.
5. Laws given to a specific person or groups retain illustrative principles for life today
An example of this is the command against sacrificing an animal outside the Tent of Meeting (Leviticus 17:3–4). Now that the Tabernacle is no more this clearly cannot be obeyed literally. But this law illustrates that God wants us to bring our offerings to Him in worship today.
What are the steps to interpret and apply the law?
First, identify what the particular law meant to the initial audience using grammatical and historical tools.
Second, determine the difference between the initial audience and believers today. Is the law repeated in the New Testament for believers and if so in what way?
Third, if it is not a binding law for us what are the universal and theological principles from the text?
Fourth, correlate the universal and theological principles with New Testament teaching.
Fifth, apply the modified universal principle today in the context of grace. Obedience does not earn God’s favour. Rather it positions us to receive what God’s grace wants to give (Ephesians 2:8–9).
For example, Leviticus 19:19 commands, “Do not mate two different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two different kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven from two different kinds of thread.” Why? Because mixing animal breeds, seeds, or materials was thought to “marry” them so as magically to produce “offspring,” bounty in the future. God’s people were not to participate in the pagan practices of their day. The principle still holds today.
The law is significant because it sets the framework for the rest of the Old Testament. Obedience to the law brought Israel blessing; disobedience brought curses and exile. So to understand the Old Testament we have to understand the law. And in understanding the law we will understand better the significance of what Jesus did for us.