Are Christians Obligated to Obey the Old Testament Law?

Several months ago, I read a post by someone whose argument went something like this: In Leviticus 19:19, the Lord commanded the Israelites: “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” The writer asked whether Christians follow this command; since most Christians are not even aware of this command (or even if they are, they don’t see a need to obey it), he accused them of disobeying God’s law. He went on to say that Christians should either be obligated to obey all of the Old Testament (OT) law or none of it. However, if we obey none of it, then we are free to kill or commit adultery. His conclusion was that Christianity was either not possible to live by or that we Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites.

Let me begin my response by saying that the law this blogger cites, like all OT laws, had spiritual significance to the Israelites. It was an example of the Lord’s saying that they should not be defiled by “mixing with” the pagan nations around them; the one-material clothing served to remind the Israelites of this spiritual principle.

Another example of this is the complex system of sacrifices that the Israelites were required to perform; it’s no wonder there was a tribe (the Levites) that was set aside by the Lord to, among other things, perform these sacrifices as well as many other tabernacle (and then later temple) duties. The purpose of the sacrificial system was to point the way to a Savior who would one day sacrifice Himself for all people who believe in Him for all time. Why don’t Christians still kill and sacrifice animals today? Because Jesus is the only sacrifice we need.

Now let’s look at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:

  • “You shall have no other gods before me.”
  • “You shall not make for yourself an idol.”
  • “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”
  • “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.”
  • “Honor your father and your mother.”
  • “You shall not murder.”
  • “You shall not commit adultery.”
  • “You shall not steal.”
  • “You shall not give false testimony.”
  • “You shall not covet.”

The first four are focused specifically on loving the Lord; the last six are focused on loving people. When you think about it, you can probably see the difference between the Ten Commandments and the laws regarding clothing and sacrifices; the latter kinds of laws are ceremonial, while the Ten Commandments and others like it are moral laws. Christians are obligated to obey OT moral laws, but not ceremonial ones. That is the fundamental flaw in the reasoning of the person who argued that Christians should either obey all of the OT law or none of it. Some laws are more obvious than others, but as you read the first five books of the Bible, it’s good to keep this ceremonial/moral distinction in mind. (There are also OT civil laws; the theocratic state of Israel carried out the punishments for breaking these laws.)

I want to comment on the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” For the Israelites, that day was Saturday; in the early church, that day became Sunday because that was the day Jesus rose from the dead. I grew up in small towns where stores were closed on Sundays; not working was a way of keeping the fourth commandment. Now, however, it’s difficult to find stores and other businesses in the U.S. that are not open on Sundays. I know believers, for example, who before COVID-19 would usually eat out after Sunday morning church. What are we to make of this? I’ll keep this brief: the Lord wants us to rest, not work, one day of the week. Your doctor will tell you that doing this is good for both your physical and mental health. Historically in the U.S., that day of rest has been Sunday; however, some people–pastors and medical personnel, for example–have to work on Sundays. My father was a pastor; his day of rest was Monday. My wife and I don’t work, shop, or eat out on Sunday because that is our day of rest, and we don’t want to “make” other people work on that day, either. Here’s what Romans 14:5 says: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”

Sometimes there is a gray area when it comes to obeying OT laws or not; tithing comes to mind. That kind of law requires study of the whole Bible, discernment, and a God-informed conscience. However, there are plenty of laws which are very clear; we who are 21st-century Christians should be obeying all of the OT laws that are moral, but we are not bound by the ceremonial ones.

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