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Are You a New Testament Christian? – Part 1

A few years ago, someone I was speaking with characterized themselves as a New Testament (NT) Christian - implying that the Old Testament (OT), while God’s Word, was not directly relevant to him as a believer in Christ. This statement was not shocking given it’s a familiar characterization of modern believers. Take for instance the response from on the same issue:

"Do Christians have to obey the Old Testament law?" Answer: The key to understanding the relationship between the Christian and the Law is knowing that the Old Testament law was given to the nation of Israel, not to Christians….None of the Old Testament law is binding on Christians today. When Jesus died on the cross, He put an end to the Old Testament law (Romans 10:4; Galatians 3:23–25; Ephesians 2:15).

Notice that the site emphatically states that Christ put an end to the OT Law and therefore none of the OT Law “is binding on Christians today.” However, is this true? How’s it possible for the OT to proclaim “thou shalt not murder” or “thou shalt not steal” and yet those laws not ethically bind a believer from murder or theft if they don’t apply? If, as the site states, these laws (or the whole of the OT) are for Israel alone, then are NT believers to discard all of the ethical requirements found in the Ten Commandments? What then are the NT correlatives to these ten laws and did Jesus really put an end to the whole of the OT Law?

Thinking it through.

The question I asked this (NT) brother was, who is the source of the OT Law? In other words, where did the Mosaic requirements come from? Well, they come from God obviously because He stated them but more importantly, where does God draw them from? Could these laws be arbitrary? Let’s think about this.

Because God spoke the Law and He alone is perfect, holy, and righteous, the laws, therefore, reflect His character and nature. That is, there is an inherent perfection, holiness, and righteousness in the Mosaic requirements because they flow from God’s perfect, holy, and righteous being. This is aptly noted when God instructs NT believers to be holy as “He is holy” (1Peter1:16). Isn’t it interesting that this NT command stems from the OT Law (Leviticus 11:44, Leviticus 19:2, Leviticus 20:7)? If these laws are not normative to NT believers, why would the Spirit of God compel Peter to draw from the OT to give us this stipulation?

To state that the Law is binding on Israel alone is failing to see the deeply rooted implications and nature of the Law itself that is borne from the author. Furthermore, restricting the Law to Israel alone reduces the magnitude of Law to a single faceted application – namely judgment and yet – as we shall see - it is much more expansive. There is, as Aslan would say, “…a magic deeper still.”

Because the Law reflects God’s holy nature, it cannot be abridged, nullified, or abolished. Moreover, because the whole of the Bible (OT and NT) speaks of Jesus (Luke 24:44), no part of it (OT or NT) can be minimized or neglected, let alone abolished. What Jesus accomplished on the cross was to fulfill the requirements of the Law – stipulated by God Himself – so that His people could be saved, but He cannot set it aside without denying the embedded holy nature that is in the Law (Rom. 7:14).

It is proper to reject the Law as a basis for salvation for by it, no mortal would be able to fulfill its righteous requirements. However, as already stated, the Law was more than just a salvific guide. The Law represents God’s ethical standards for all of life – not just salvation. As such, it will serve as the basis by which the unbelieving world will be judged.

The Transformed Mosaic Law

In the Presbyterian tradition, the Law is commonly looked upon in terms of its uses as tutor, mirror, and restrainer. That is, relative to a person, the Law is a tutor (an instructor or guide) which leads to Christ (Gal. 3:24) or the Law is a mirror that reflects the inner state of the person (James 1:23) or the Law is a restrainer – warning and preventing a person from sinning. The Law can and does effectually impact people - believer and non-believer alike - when followed or rejected. In other words, the welfare of an unbeliever or even a nation (Rom 13) will be better off generally when following God’s Law - even when the Lawgiver is rejected – as the avoidance of sin is curtailed by the inherent light and goodness of His Law. God’s Law serves as the basis for which God will judge people since the standard is holiness and the Law is holy (Rom.7:12) – for those in Christ, He fulfills its requirements on our behalf. For those who reject Christ, they must fulfill its requirements on their own merits – an impossibility given the standard is absolute and comprehensive perfection, holiness, and righteousness. The standard is Christ.

While the above perspective on the uses of the Law is helpful, I like to consider the ‘functions’ of the Law as an alternative framework because it helps to show how the Law is still binding upon NT believers. The functions of the Law can be classified as ceremonial, moral, and civil. This framework reveals Christ’s offices of Priest (ceremonial), Prophet (moral), and King or Potentate (civil).

The Ceremonial Function

The ceremonial function instructs man on how he is to relate to God. This function outlines the ethical requirements to appease God when we’ve offended Him. In the OT, the various sacrifices were simply shadows of the reality found in Christ’s everlasting and propitious sacrifice. However, while Christ’s sacrifice on the cross satisfied the ceremonial requirements for salvation, it did not cause sacrificing to cease for NT believers. Hang with me here because I know what you’re thinking - this is heresy! But is it heresy if Paul says that NT believers are to sacrifice? Before you answer that question, let’s take a look at the Law relative to the NT.

Alfred Edersheim, a 19th-century bible scholar, noted the following concerning sacrifices:

“The sacrifices of the Old Testament were symbolical and typical. An outward observance without any real inward meaning is only a ceremony. But a rite which has a present spiritual meaning is a symbol; and if, besides, it also points to a future reality, conveying at the same time, by anticipation, the blessing that is yet to appear, it is a type.”[i]

What Edersheim is stating is that the ceremonial aspects of the Law were more than just acts of appeasement towards God. Rather, they pointed to a greater future reality in which the true meaning – a deeper spiritual meaning - of the act was to be found. Of course, the obvious sacrifice of Christ – the Lamb of God – was the pinnacle fulfillment, but what of the earlier question? What if Paul instructed NT believers to continue to sacrifice post-resurrection? If we examine Rom 12:1 we find an interesting point made by Paul.

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (Rom. 12:1)

Did you stop to consider that Paul is asking NT Christians to “sacrifice”? But notice that these sacrifices aren’t animal sacrifices nor are they sacrifices for the atonement of sin, but rather an act of worship – an act of devotion to God! In the above verse, Paul instructs us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice – an interesting choice of words given that sacrifices are generally killed before they’re offered. Yet, in his use of the word “living”, Paul is implying that the sacrifice is to occur daily (because our lives are lived out daily) and in so doing, we offer pleasing (acceptable) worship to God leading us to learn God’s will for our lives (found in verse 2). Of our bodies, Calvin noted the following:

“By bodies he means not only our skin and bones, but the totality of which we are composed.” [ii]

The implication is clear, we’re to daily sacrifice the totality of ourselves to God and this includes our minds, thoughts, emotions, plans, desires, and even our fleshly - sinful ways. Perhaps, this is what the Lord meant when He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me." (Matt 16:24)

Paul also notes that the sacrifice isn't just living, but must be holy. I believe that the holiness of the sacrifice of which Paul speaks of is the "denial" which Jesus refers to in the above verse (Matt. 16:24). For instance, in the past, Christians deliberately engaged in acts of sanctification referred to as the mortification of the flesh – the process whereby believers would “mortify” the flesh through fasting, abstinence, and prayer (1Cor 7:5) in the pursuit of holiness. These were acts of contrition to cleanse the believer from the impurities of the world or of the indulgences in the flesh (John13:5-10).

In the daily sacrificing of ourselves before God we get to exercise our priestly duties to God – duties evident throughout the NT.

“…do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God… For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.” (Rom. 6:13,19)

…you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1Peter 2:5)

But sacrificing is not just offering up our sins to God in daily confession. Sacrifices take the form of praises offered to God (Heb. 13:15) or in prayers to God - the NT counterpart to burning incense in the OT Tabernacle/Temples (Rev. 8:4) or in studying the Bible. Studying the Bible? Yes, that’s right, studying the Bible is a form of sacrifice or worship to God. Let me elaborate.

Hermeneutics is the “Theological term for the process of discovering the meaning and message of the Bible. To interpret is to bring out the true meaning of something written or spoken, particularly by restating it in other words…To evangelical Christians, biblical interpretation is a fundamentally important task because the Bible is considered to be God’s spoken and written Word. The Creator’s own revelation of himself and of his purpose for his creatures is the most significant communication human beings could possibly receive.”[iii]

Studying the Bible is an effort to understand the Bible’s meaning. In the professional circles of ministry, the term is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is not reading the Bible – like one reads a novel – it is a concentrated effort where one engages God (prayer before study) and diligently applies a method (for laypeople - Inductive Bible Study programs like Navigators, Precept, Bible Study Fellowship, etc.) to help the believer “extract” or exegete the meaning of the text – all the while communing with God in the process as His Spirit illumines the text (1John 2:27).

Incidentally, forgive this deviation, but if John 1:1-4 states that Jesus is the “Word” and Bible study is studying the “Word”, then doesn’t it follow that when we study the Bible we’re spending time learning about Jesus? Do you think this act of studying (or rather, worship) wouldn’t please the Father? Absolutely it would! Bible study is meant to be quality time spent with our heavenly Father as He discloses His beloved Son to us. And, as He illumines His Son to our understanding, we grow in greater love with Jesus. But I digress.

Studying the Bible is a sacred act that requires effort from the believer. As such, great care should be taken in preparation for study as well as in conducting the study for when we do, we’re endeavoring to know and to understand the mind of God. Interestingly, Edersheim makes this observation concerning the care with which the OT priest would flay the sacrifice:

“On the shedding of blood, which was of the greatest importance—since, according to the Talmud, ‘whenever the blood touches the altar the offerer is atoned for’—followed the ‘flaying’ of the sacrifice and the ‘cutting up into his pieces.’ All this had to be done in an orderly manner, and according to certain rules, the apostle adopting the sacrificial term when he speaks of ‘rightly dividing the word of truth.’…”[iv]

Edersheim observes that Paul’s use of “rightly dividing” in 2Tim 2:15 is a reference to the priestly act of flaying the sacrifice. In other words, Paul’s counsel to his young protege – Timothy – was to ensure that Timothy was able to rightly “flay” or exegete the Word of God. The ceremonial aspect of this process is further strengthened by Paul’s exhortation to Be diligent to present yourself approved to God”. The use of the word “presenting” coupled with the imagery of “flaying the Word”, strengthens the notion that for Paul handling God’s Word was a sacred and priestly act of worship requiring the inherent reverence necessary whenever we come before the presence of God.

Next time, we’ll discuss the moral and civil functions.


[i] Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple, Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ. London: James Clarke & Co., 1959. Print. [ii] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, trans. Ross MacKenzie (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), p. 264. [iii] Mickelsen, A. Berkeley. “Bible, Interpretation of The.” Baker encyclopedia of the Bible 1988 : 308. Print. [iv] Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple, Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ. London: James Clarke & Co., 1959. Print.


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