The law of the Old Testament — what we call the Torah — may confuse more people in the church today than any other topic. Some see a disparity between a strict adherence to the law in Moses’ day and a more relaxed understanding in some parts in Jesus’ day (Luke 6:1-11). Church members realize that some laws, though good, are not observed as they were, yet they struggle with the fact that Jesus said the law would in no way pass away. Confusion is common. At best, some people often just do not want to look too closely.
It is not hard to understand that the church does not need animal sacrifice. We realize that this law was fulfilled in Christ’s perfect death. But how about those laws that are less clear, in the Old Testament and the New, such as the prohibition of mixing fabrics in clothing, Jubilee, the injunction against short hair for women or long hair for men?
We will have to do the best we can in interpreting the law and its application today. Some areas, such as those above, will end up with sanctified proponents on both sides — all good people. Nevertheless, that should not keep us from confidently applying the law to the new covenant revelations. It does not bother me that others interpret nonessentials differently than I do, but neither does it slow me down from being certain of what I teach. To be uncertain with the law of God is to be disrespectful, or just lazy.
Beauty and holiness
We agree that the law was given as a guide; it was also prophecy. The first prophecy of the Bible predated the law ratified on Mount Sinai. When Adam and Eve fell by ignoring God’s command, God took action. He banished them from the perfect relationship and home. God, who sought them out after their sin, saying, “Where are you?” (when He knew where they were), also gave them the first prophetic promise of the coming Messiah when He said to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15).
The law points to the Messiah. It prepared God’s people to be ready for the coming of Jesus and to understand they needed Jesus. Paul memorably said that it was our tutor to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).
The law is good. If church members are ever uncertain about that, I suggest they spend time in Psalm 119, which extols the beauty of the law in every verse. If we are not careful, we will minimize — at least in our hearts — what God called beautiful.
So, why is the law beautiful?
The law taught us that holiness is our highest calling (Leviticus 20:7, 8). God’s constant provision for those who keep His law, and His righteous indignation toward those who do not, speaks of its value. I might go so far as to say if we do not love righteousness, we may have not read the Old Testament law enough (Psalm 45:7). God’s holiness shines in every word, and His desire for His children to be holy is exceedingly plain.
The law also taught us that sin is deadly and results in bloody death; that we need someone to wipe its stain clean, since we are powerless; that salvation is what all the priests and even the high priest could only represent, but not produce.
The law has disabled all of our arguments, caused us to face a holy God on His terms, and left us bereft of something. We have discovered it was grace.
Revering the law
When I was younger, I watched one of the many movies about Jesus in my church. The facilitator stopped the film and called attention to part of the movie that is still vivid to me. The scene was of Jesus reading the words of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah (Luke 4:18, 19; Isaiah 61:1). In the movie, Jesus carefully handled the scroll when He unrolled it, and when He had finished speaking the prophetic words, He rolled the scroll up gently, raised it to His lips, and kissed it before He set it down.
I believe this is standard protocol for rabbinical use of the Scripture, but the facilitator at my church said, “Did you notice how reverently the Lord treated the Word of God?”
God gives grace to every person who approaches His words with reverence and with the necessary honesty. While we need not kiss the Bible, have we allowed it to kiss our hearts?
What the law definitely says
Looking again at Jesus’ use of the words in Isaiah 61:1, He declared the favorable year of the Lord and clearly said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21, emphasis added). The listeners missed the clear implication that Jesus was the Messiah, because everyone spoke of how gracious His speech was. A few beats later, Jesus said that Elijah appeared to only the widow of Zarepheth and Naaman the Syrian when the Israelites needed the same care, and the listening crowd drove Him out of the city (vv. 23-30).
The law, as shocking as it is sometimes, points to the certainty that Jesus did not come to make us comfortable. He came to save us, and sometimes, this makes us even more uncomfortable. The Israelites did not like this. They wondered how this man did not understand their heritage, their genetic and national goodness (Matthew 5:17-48)!
Here is the answer for the questions like mixture of fabrics, Jubilee, long and short hair. We should lay aside our personal prejudice and ask, “What was the setting? How was it applied? What was it teaching?” God wants purity; we may have cotton and polyester mixed in our clothes, but our hearts should be pure. He wants us to reject imitations of the world. Whether that is shown in hairstyles, clothing, or adopting the language of the world in blogs, we are to eschew in this day what makes us look to others as though we are part of the compromise. God wants us to hold our possessions lightly (1 Corinthians 7:29-31, 35). We apply the law with reverence and honesty, and we approach it seriously.
Since the law was to teach us that we needed to find the Savior in Jesus, then it must assume that we will listen to His words. I remember that tense moment in John 6, when Jesus said He was the bread of life and that people must eat of this bread and drink of His blood in order to see the Father in heaven. Many disciples turned away and stopped following Jesus. He turned to the disciples who remained and asked if they also wanted to go away, to which Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter learned that Jesus did not just teach the law; He was its consummation. He was the embodiment of God’s message from the very beginning.
Our response is to show respect for all of the law, learn to apply and obey it, as it is our service of worship in rightly approaching the promised Messiah.