Does God want people to obey the Law of Moses even today?
The short answer is no: God intends for everyone in the world to submit to Christ under the New Covenant, which does not include the Law of Moses, though it shares with the Law of Moses fundamental moral values because both are based on the unchanging character of God Himself (compare Leviticus 19:1-2 with Matthew 5:48 and Luke 6:36). To go deeper than the surface, we have to look at what Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, and the author of Hebrews say about the old and new covenants.
Predicted change of covenants
About 600 years before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah predicted the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). He said the new covenant would be different than the old (specified as the one God made with the houses of Israel and Judah when he brought them out of Egypt–definitely referring to the Mosaic Covenant). This time, the laws would be written on the people’s hearts, all of them would know the LORD, and He would completely forgive them. The New Testament book of Hebrews says this is the covenant that Christ introduced (Hebrews 8:7-13 and 10:15-18, on which more is said below).
According to the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), the Law of Moses constituted the covenant God made with the Israelites. Its moral code, priesthood, festivals and other special days, and sacrificial system were all designed for the Hebrew nation. Essential to the covenant the Israelites made with God was their agreement to obey the stipulations of the Law of Moses and to become the objects of its blessings if they obeyed and its curses if they disobeyed. As originally delivered, no other nation was called upon or expected to keep the Law of Moses. According to Jewish tradition, the rest of the nations of the world were still under the covenant God made with Noah.
Jesus’ teaching about the Law of Moses
His mission in fulfilling the Law seems to have three parts. First, He calls on His disciples to keep the Law even more strictly than the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the most scrupulous religious observers of His time (Matthew 5:20). In the verses that follow (the rest of the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:21-7:27), Jesus reveals what He means: giving to God the obedience of one’s heart, not just one’s actions. Fulfilling the Law then, in this first sense, means explaining it in its fullest meaning. Jesus taught the Law of Moses, but He also kept it perfectly. He fulfilled it, not only by giving its full meaning, but by obeying it fully Himself. In this way qualifying to become our perfect sin offering (see John 8:29, 46; Acts 10:38; Hebrews 3:2,6; 4:15; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22; 1 John 2:2). This leads us to the third part: when God accepts Christ as our substitute, His righteousness becomes ours (1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21), which includes His perfect obedience of the Law. Because He stands in our place before the throne of God, we who have fully committed ourselves to Him–heart, mind, soul, and strength–are regarded as fully obedient under the Law (Romans 8:3-4; 13:10).
At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his apostles that wine represents the blood He is about to shed. In Mark 14:24, He calls it “the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Matthew 26:28 adds “for the forgiveness of sins,” and Luke’s wording is “the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20; compare 1 Corinthians 11:25). This statement of Jesus is an obvious reference back to the moment when Moses said, “This is the blood of the covenant” (Exodus. 24:8) during a ceremony confirming the Mosaic Covenant. Jesus says His own blood is what institutes and confirms the New Covenant.
God led the apostles to a new understanding
After this, Christians start evangelizing the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21), especially Saul of Tarsus (later called Paul) and his coworker Barnabas (Acts 13 – 14) on what is known as the First Missionary Journey. Their success among the pagans causes some Jewish Christians to demand that all of the Gentile converts be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas deny that this be required, and the debate becomes so heated that a conference is called of the apostles and Jerusalem elders (Acts 15:1-18). The conference confirms the teaching of Paul and Barnabas, requiring only that Gentile converts observe a few rules that will make their fellowship with Jewish believers less contentious (Acts 15:19-31).
Accepting uncircumcised Gentiles into the fellowship of the redeemed, however, was a fundamental departure from the Mosaic Covenant, which required circumcision on pain of excommunication (continuing what had been instituted in the covenant with Abraham, Genesis 17:13-14; see Exodus 12:48-49, Leviticus 12:3, and Joshua 5:2-8). During the period reflected in the second half of the Book of Acts, a transition of the covenants was taking place, in which practice was lagging behind teaching. The New Covenant had begun, but many were still clinging to the Old.
Paul’s teaching about the Law of Moses
In Galatians, perhaps the earliest of Paul’s letters (c. 50Â CE), Paul says the law was our “pedagogue to lead us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24). In Greek culture, the pedagogue was a family slave assigned the task of getting the child to and from school each day. He was also expected to impart practical moral principles that would help the child mature. Paul says the Law had for us a similar function: preparing us for the coming of the Messiah. In the next verse, Paul adds, “Now that faith [this is, the object of our faith] has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:25). In this metaphor, Paul pictures the relationship between the Law and the Christ as a cooperative one. The Law performs its function, accomplishes its goal, and then steps aside.
Paul wrote First Corinthians in about 55 CE. In chapter 9 he describes his willingness to be “all things to all men” for the sake of saving some of them. In particular, he says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law” (verses 20 and 21).
Paul wrote Romans around the year 57 CE. In chapter 7, verses 1-6, Paul pictures the Christian as a woman and the Law as her husband. The couple fails to have any children, and after the husband’s death, the widow marries a new husband, who symbolizes Christ. With her new husband, the woman has a baby, which apparently represents a righteous heart and life (the “fruit to God” of verse 4). Paul does not directly say that the Law has died, only that she is bound to her husband as long as he is alive and is released from her ties to him when he dies. He then speaks of her release but carefully avoids saying that the Law has died, only that she died to the Law.
Paul wrote Ephesians in about the year 63 CE, some six years after Romans. In chapter 2, Paul just comes out and says that Christ united Jew and Gentile by destroying the “barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (2:14-15). As a result, Jews and Gentiles connected to Christ are “fellow citizens” and “co-members of God’s household,” built together as a new temple for God “in which God lives by His Spirit” (2:19-22). The verb translated “abolishing” (katerge ) means “to do away with, use up, render ineffective.”
Hebrews on the Change of Covenants
This prediction of the disappearance of the covenant of Moses found fulfillment when the Jewish nation rebelled against Rome in the war of 67-73 CE. (You can read about this war in the detailed, eye-witness account, The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus.) The Jewish nation lost its temple and its priesthood in that war. Afterwards, it was impossible to keep the Law of Moses. The covenant curses for the nation’s disobedience, as recorded in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26, came true.
Some scholars argue that the Law of Moses continues to be valid as far as its moral code is concerned even though its temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system has ceased to exist. But there is no biblical basis for cutting up the Mosaic Covenant, throwing part of it away while trying to keep the rest of it on life support. In fact, James 2:10-11 argues for the integrity of the whole law and against attempts to keep only part of it (see also Galatians 5:3).
Yet the New Covenant is not a law in the same sense in which the Mosaic Covenant was. Paul says, “we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). We have freedom in Christ to walk in His footsteps, to follow His example, to imitate His priorities, His perspectives, His heart. His love inspires us, His power humbles us, and His sacrifice makes us pure. We strive to be obedient to Him, not just to a rule-book. Our obedience is the measure of our loyalty and love to Him (John 14:15).
Want to go deeper?
Recommended for purchase:
Paul F. M. Zahl. Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. (2007). — Applies the principles of the gospel to every facet of life, from the individual’s relationship to society at large.
Daniel Fuller. Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? (1990). — Seeks to demonstrate the continuity between the Law and the gospel on the valid assumption that God has always dealt with human beings on the basis of His grace inspiring their faith, and faithfulness. This assumption, however, does not deny that the Law is finished as something binding on the believer.
Steve C. Singleton. Multi-Index to the Law of Moses (2007). — Did you ever want to study what the Law of Moses says on a topic, but you weren’t sure where to find it? Now you can with this multi-index of the Torah. Index 1 features major topics including Preamble, Worship, Physical Purity, Business Dealings & Politics, and Morality, with numerous sub-topics. Index 2 is an alphabetical listing of each command, according to keywords. Index 3 lists all of the commands in the order they occur in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Index 4 lists the 613 commandments, first compiled by RAMBAM (Maimonides): 248 positive commands and 365 negative commands. This final list ends with a glossary of technical terms. This multi-index provides the resources for a thorough study of the Law of Moses, or the basis for a quick check on any topic.
Roger D. Campbell. “Should Christians follow the Law of Moses, the New Testament, or BOTH?” — This is a very helpful essay, though I would change references to “the Old Law” to read simply, “The Law.” Calling the Law of Moses “the Old Law” implies the gospel is “the New Law.” At best, we are comparing apples with oranges. The gospel is not a code of regulations like the Mosaic Law was.
Martin Luther & Others. The Law and the Gospel: A Reformation Sampler – It is good to study what great thinkers of the past had to say about the Law, even though we don’t feel obligated because of their greatness to accept whatever they say without thinking it through for ourselves.