When it comes to the issue of the Old Testament (OT), Christians are at somewhat of a disadvantage over their Jewish and even Muslim counterparts. While the Jews adhere to the OT literally, and Muslims pay it lip-service, Christians are called to something radically different. What are we as Christians called to in regards to the OT? Let’s find out.
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. Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18 TNIV)
In this very loaded passage, I believe that Jesus lays out for us how He viewed the OT and how His followers are to treat it. What I am going to discuss here may be a bit controversial to some, but I think, if we are honest, we already behave this way toward it in practice, if not in how we speak. And if we don’t, I believe that this is how we ought.
Jesus begins this passage by saying that He has not come to “abolish” the Law or the Prophets. In the original Greek, this is the word καταλύω (kataluō), which, in relation to the OT Law would mean something like to deprive of force or annul. As we see, this is not what Jesus came to do. He did not come to weaken the Law or make them void. Rather, He came to “fulfill” them.
The word rendered here “fulfill” comes from the Greek word πληρόω (plēroō), which means, basically, to fill something all the way to the top, to finish. It would almost seem to indicate leaving no question unanswered. But it also carries the idea of causing God’s will to be obeyed as it should be, in relation to the Law, and to finish God’s promises, in relation to the Prophets.
Interestingly enough, when we read on in the passage, we find ourselves immersed in the Sermon On the Mount. In this collection of teachings, we find Jesus clarifying how the Law is to be properly carried out. We find Jesus telling people how to truly live by the Law. So, while Jesus doesn’t say, “This whole OT thing is retarded! Throw it out. Here’s a new Law,” He does say, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” Jesus is not throwing the Law out, rather, He is saying, “The Law literally says one thing, but you’re not doing it right. Here is how to do it.”
And when the Gospels are all taken together, we find the entire Law made perfectly clear in Jesus’ actions. While frivolous laws are ignored (such as the proper combination of threads for clothing), we find how men are to treat women, who is qualified to exact God’s judgment, and what it really means to love your enemies. In Jesus, the entire Law is fulfilled, including the sacrificial requirements.
The same is true with the promises made by the Prophets regarding the coming Messiah. Those are all fulfilled in Jesus the Christ.
But then what happens?
When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished!” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30 TNIV)
And what did Jesus say in the Matthew 5 passage?
Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:18b TNIV)
So what happened to the Law? Well, Jesus completely fulfilled it and then, at His death, said, “It is finished.” Jesus’ work of fulfilling the Law was finished at the cross.
In light of this, we must make a differentiation between Old and New Testament Christianity. Many, many Christians are Old Testament Christians. What I mean by that is that, while they have faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they are living as if the Law is still in effect, at least in part. They take very seriously what Jesus said about not abolishing the Law, but neglect to consider His fulfillment of it.
This is seen most clearly in people’s approaches to homosexuality. According to one website,
It is acceptable for the righteous to heap words of filth upon the obscene dyke/fag and when seen in public ridicule and rebuke them; this will please the LORD GOD ALMIGHTY.
And this is directly in line with the OT teaching that homosexuals are to be stoned.
Oftentimes, people’s approach to things like homosexuality and the treatment of women and murderers is mostly influenced by the OT rather than by the actions and teachings of Jesus. These are Old Testament Christians.
A New Testament Christian looks much different than this. The Goal of the New Testament Christian is to embody the teachings and actions of Jesus as perfectly as possible. While calling sin what it is, they will also seek to show people a better way to live. They will seek to truly point people to the freedom gained through service to Jesus and Him alone.
The New Testament Christian is no longer bound by the Law, but rather by grace and love. If we speak and act as Jesus spoke and acted, the Law will be fulfilled in us. If we love God and love others as ourselves, we will properly embody the whole Law.
Of course, this opens a whole new can of worms.