The Covenant Context
God introduces the law in a covenant context, saying, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5). The people agree to keep the terms of the covenant (24:3), and Moses seals the agreement in blood: “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (24:8).
Part of this covenant was God’s promise to dwell in Israel’s midst. This is stressed several times in the latter half of Exodus (Ex. 25:8; 29:45; 34:14–17; 40:34–38). Associated with God’s presence are the instructions for constructing the ark and the tabernacle, the place where God will dwell (chs. 25–31; 35–40). Leviticus is thus the natural sequence to the latter half of Exodus, for it addresses how Israel is to live with God in their midst. How do they approach him? How do they deal with personal and national sin before a holy God living among them? How do they worship and fellowship with this holy, awesome God in their midst? Leviticus provides the answers to these questions, giving practical guidelines for living with God in their midst under the terms of the Mosaic covenant.
After Israel’s refusal to obey God and enter the Promised Land (Num. 13–14), God sends them into the desert for thirty-eight more years to allow that disobedient generation to die out. God then leads the people back toward Canaan. Before they enter, however, he calls them to a covenant renewal. With this new, younger generation, the Lord reinstates the Mosaic covenant that he originally made with their parents in the book of Exodus. Deuteronomy describes this renewed call to covenant that God is making with Israel just prior to their entering the Promised Land. Indeed, in Deuteronomy God elaborates and gives even more details about the covenant than he did in Exodus. Deuteronomy describes in detail the terms by which Israel will be able to live in the Promised Land successfully and be blessed by God.
Since the Old Testament law is tightly intertwined into the Mosaic covenant, it is important to make several observations about the nature of this covenant. (1) The Mosaic covenant is closely associated with Israel’s conquest and occupation of the land. The covenant provides the framework by which Israel can occupy and live prosperously with God in the Promised Land. The close connection between the covenant and the land is stressed over and over in Deuteronomy. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “land” occurs 197 times in Deuteronomy. A selection of passages that directly connect the terms of the covenant with life in the land includes 4:1, 5, 14, 40; 5:16; 6:1, 18, 20–25; 8:1; 11:8; 12:1; 15:4–5; 26:1–2; 27:1–3; 30:5, 17–18; and 31:13.
(2) The blessings from the Mosaic covenant are conditional. A constant warning runs throughout Deuteronomy, explaining to Israel that obedience to the covenant will bring blessing but that disobedience to the covenant will bring punishment and curses. Deuteronomy 28 is particularly explicit in this regard: verses 1–14 list the blessings for Israel if they obey the terms of the covenant (the law) while verses 15–68 spell out the terrible consequences if they do not obey those terms. The association of the covenant with the land and the conditional aspect of the covenant blessings are likewise linked tightly together, as illustrated in Deuteronomy 30:15–18:
15See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
(3) The Mosaic covenant is no longer a functional covenant. New Testament believers are no longer under the old, Mosaic covenant. Hebrews 8–9 makes it clear that Jesus came as the mediator of a new covenant that replaced the old covenant. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). The Old Testament law presented the terms by which Israel could receive blessings in the land under the old (Mosaic) covenant. If the old covenant is no longer valid, how can the laws that made up that covenant still be valid? If the old covenant is obsolete, should we not also view the system of laws that comprise the old covenant as obsolete?
(4) The Old Testament law as part of the Mosaic covenant is no longer applicable over us as law. Paul makes it clear that Christians are not under the Old Testament law. For example, in Galatians 2:15–16 he writes, “We . . . know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” In Romans 7:4 Paul states that “you also died to the law through the body of Christ.” Likewise, in Galatians 3:24–25 he declares, “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Paul argues forcefully against Christians returning to the Old Testament law. In our interpretation and application of the law, we must be cautious to heed Paul’s admonition. Now that we are freed from the law through Christ, we do not want to put people back under the law through our interpretive method.
But what about Matthew 5:17, where Jesus states, “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”? Is Jesus contradicting Paul? We do not think so. First of all, note that the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” is a reference to the entire Old Testament. So Jesus is not just speaking about the Mosaic law. Also note that the antithesis is not between abolissh and observe, but between abolish and fulfill. Jesus does not claim that he has come to observe the law or to keep the law; rather, he has come to fulfill it.
Matthew uses the Greek word translated as “fulfill” numerous times; it normally means “to bring to its intended meaning.” Jesus is not stating that the law is eternally binding on New Testament believers. If that were the case, we would be required to keep the sacrificial and ceremonial laws as well as the moral ones. This is clearly against New Testament teaching. What Jesus is saying is that he did not come to sweep away the righteous demands of the law, but that he came to fulfill these righteous demands. Furthermore, the law as well as the Old Testament prophets had prophetic elements, particularly in pointing to the ultimate demands of holiness because of the presence of God. Jesus is the climax of this aspect of salvation history. He fulfills all of the righteous demands and the prophetic foreshadowing of “the Law and the Prophets.”
In addition, Jesus has become the final interpreter of the law—indeed, the authority over the meaning of the law, as other passages in Matthew indicate (many of which follow immediately on the heels of Matt. 5:17). Some Old Testament laws Jesus restates (19:18–19) but some he modifies (5:31–32). Some laws he intensifies (5:21–22, 27–28) and some he changes significantly (5:33–37, 38–42, 43–47). Furthermore, some laws he appears to abrogate entirely (Mark 7:15–19). Jesus is not advocating the continuation of the traditional Jewish approach of adherence to the law. Nor is he advocating that we dismiss the law altogether. He is proclaiming that we must reinterpret the meaning of the law in light of his coming and in light of the profound changes that the new covenant has brought. This leads us to our last principle.
(5) We must interpret the law through the grid of New Testament teaching. Second Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Paul certainly is including the law in his phrase “all Scripture.” As part of God’s Word, the value of the Old Testament law is eternal. We should study and seek to apply all of it. However, the law no longer functions as the terms of the covenant for us, and thus it no longer applies as direct literal law for us.The coming of Christ as the fulfillment of the law has changed that forever. However, the Old Testament legal material contains rich principles and lessons for living that are still relevant when interpreted through New Testament teaching.
How do we discover these lessons and principles? What method should we use to interpret the Old Testament law for New Testament believers, who are no longer under the law? The best approach is to use the Interpretive Journey.