The Authority of the Old Testament Law in the New Testament Church

One word that we can use to describe the culture around us, including much of the visible church, is the word antinomian. This $5 theological word describes the idea that we are freed from the demands of God’s moral law. As people read the law of God found in the Old Testament, many see it simply as the ancient ideas from a barbaric middle eastern tribe that by no means should be a guide for the modern man. Many Christians will at least have a slightly more generous take, but to think that the words of Moses written to Israel over 3,000 years ago have direct instructions on how they are to live may leave them skeptical. This sentiment is expressed in a number of sermons given by popular preacher Andy Stanley, in which, while he affirms that it is “divinely inspired,” the Old Testament shouldn’t be “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.”

Is this really the case? Are three-fourths of the Christian Scriptures “for thee (ancient Israel) but not for me (the Christian church),”? As we read the New Testament, is it some kind of replacement or amendment to the oracles of God given to the people of Israel? Are the laws and precepts given to Israel null-and-void in light of the work of Christ, only good for history and the occasional Messianic prophecy? In the remainder of this post, I would like to look at a few texts from the New Testaments that will help us determine the nature of the law in relation to those outside of the nation of Israel, and the attitude that the New Testament authors had towards the precepts found within it.

Jesus and the Law

Of all the places we can start, a good place is the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:17-19:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (NASB).

The words of Jesus here reflect the high view of the Law in the mind of Jesus. We also see the lasting authority of the Law, that “the smallest jot or tittle,” as some translations say, will not pass away “until heaven and earth pass away… until all is accomplished.”  As Jesus is describing the Old Testament, he is not describing an authority that has served its purpose and passed away with the advent of the church age.
Matthew was written to Christians, and the commands within are for those Christians in the audience of Matthew. Jesus then upholds the importance of teaching and obeying this law, saying that those who annul it “will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” We can recognize the differences between the audience present on the mount when Jesus spoke these words and the audience of Matthew, but there is no indication that this principle passes away.

The Law in Defining Love

Perhaps the most well-known command of Jesus is found in John 15:12 “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” Similar to this, we find what is called the “golden rule” in Matthew 22:39 “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

All Christians, and most people for that matter, would say that this “golden rule” is important. In our “all you need is love” society, this is everyone’s favorite bible verse. The issue comes when we ask the question “How am I to love?”

If there is anything that humanity is good at, it is making its own definition of love. We hear “love is love” given as a defense for rampant homosexuality, we are told we are not loving our neighbor when we speak out against the evils of society. We attach political opinions to what it means to love our neighbors.

We all agree we should love. The problem is we don’t really know what that means if we are not looking to a common source. When Jesus gave this command, His source was the Law and the Prophets. In fact, this command to love your neighbor comes directly from Leviticus 19:18, right in the middle of those commands that so much of our world sees as irrelevant. How do we know how to love one another? We are taught by Jesus, and we are taught to look to the Old Testament law. How do I know I am loving my neighbor? When I am doing it in accordance with the authoritative Law given by God to his people.

The Law in the Great Commission

We again look at the words of Jesus given at the end of Matthew's gospel as he commissions his disciples:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20, NASB).

This is our Lord's Great Commission, and all Christians can look back at these verses as our marching orders for our time here on this earth. Christ commands that we are to evangelize the world, bringing the gospel to all nations and teaching them obedience to the word of God, “all that I commanded you.” I will assert that while many Christians are concerned about people hearing and believing the gospel, the final part of this command about observing the commands of Christ has lost much of its “oomf.” These commands are often limited to what is found in the New Testament. However, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus draws specifically on those Old Testament laws and applies them to those of his day and, through the writing of Matthew, to New Covenant believers as well.

The Law in 1 Corinthians

Looking to the epistles, Paul also instructs the churches in how to regard the Law of God. In 1 Corinthians 5, he rebukes the Corinthian church for putting up with immorality among them, a man having sexual relations with his father’s wife. Paul pronounces judgment on this man and scorns the rest of the church for not mourning over this and removing the man from their midst.

The question is: how were the Corinthians supposed to know that this kind of behavior is unacceptable? Jesus never says anything about polygamy. We don’t have any letters of Paul before this that condemn it, nor do we have any record of any apostolic preaching against it, so how can Paul write to the Corinthians in such a scornful way? How were they to know? The answer is that the Old Testament clearly speaks against it.

Leviticus 18:8 is plain: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.” Deuteronomy 27:20 likewise states “Cursed is he who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s skirt.” Paul then draws application directly from the pattern of judgement found in Deuteronomy at the end of this chapter, saying “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves!” Paul has no issue holding the Corinthian church to the standard of the Old Testament and then following its instructions directly. Paul likewise appeals to the Law in drawing principles and making application later in 1 Corinthians 9:6-11:

Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock? I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?

The Profitable, God-Breathed Law

Finally, let us look to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” As Paul wrote this to Timothy, portions of the New Testament had not even been written yet. How could Timothy be expected to lead a church? How could churches filled with new converts know how they are supposed to now live? God had given them an entire library of God-breathed instructions in the oracles of God given to the people of Israel. These, along with what he has revealed to us through the apostles in these last days, make up a complete canon of Scripture that is sufficient to make the man of God complete.

The church today is facing many great challenges. We are more divided than ever on issues of morality, justice, politics, and how to respond to the challenges being thrown at us by the world. Many feel as if the word of God does not give sufficient answers when it comes to these divisive issues.

However, the great Shepherd has not left us without a guide. Many of these questions have already been answered in the Law of God given to his people through Moses and the prophets. The real question is, are we willing to recognize its authority and apply it?

"Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers." (Psalm 1:1-3, ESV)

Alex Kremer

Alex graduated from Emmaus Bible College in 2020 and is currently studying through Liberty University Online. Alex and his wife Caroline live in Atlantic, IA where he is the full time minister at the Atlantic Gospel Chapel. Alex and Caroline have two children, James and Evelyn.
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