The Law of Moses and the Christians

Erkki Koskenniemi
Sari Tuomisto

The Bible, Holy book of the Christians consists of two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some teachers have taught that the Old Testament is not for Christians, but this teaching is absolutely disagreed by the first Christians and the mainstream of the Church. Stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are part of the history of God’s people, and the book of Psalms has been part of the Church Sunday service from the beginning.

But what about the law of Moses and its commandments? Apostle Paul rejected definitely the idea that the pagan Christians should obey the Law of Moses. He taught that the Law was given only to the Jewish people. After a few decades this view had won and there was no opposition. The matter is complicated, though, and deserves to be looked at more closely.

What do we mean with the word "law"?

To begin with, it is good to note that the word "law" means many different things, as well in the Bible and elsewhere. It means law, order or habit. The Jewish people did not separate the written law and the unwritten law from each other as carefully as we do. Thus, the Christians inherited diverse meanings for the word, from different sources. This has caused and still causes some confusion. We can note at least the following alternatives:

1) The law means the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch (which means “five books”), as an entity – this means, for example, including writings about Abraham (Ro 3:31). When talking about the Old Testament, one may separate "the law" (i.e. the Pentateuch), prophets and scriptures or just “the law and the prophets”.

2) The law means the whole law, that the Lord gave through Moses (Gal 3:17) or just one part of it (Gal 5:2-3).

3) The law means the conventional Jewish way of life. In this regard, for example, a historian called Josefos, stated that the law requires that children are taught to read. This is not included in the Law of Moses, but it was a Jewish tradition.

4) The law is a reign of terror that judges and of which, a sinner needs to be freed (Romans 7).

5) “The Law” means God’s demanding will. Especially in Lutheran faith, it means the opposite of the word ”gospel”;
 The law means the things God demands - and that gives us nothing. The gospel means all the things God gives us because of Jesus Christ - and that demands us nothing. These two concepts are one of the most central issues in Lutheran faith.

6) The law means the code of conduct given to Christians (”the law of love” James 1:5).

Thus, we notice that one word may mean many different things. It is no wonder that many are confused with this issue. The study of the matter requires patience.

Jewish People in the Time of Jesus and the Law

In the time of Jesus, the Law was a great source of pride and joy for the Jewish people. Living according to the law, made the difference between Jewish people and others i.e. the pagans. The Law was not considered a burden but a great joy and gift. This attitude shows, for example, in Psalm 119 (verse 92: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction”).

Jewish teachers identified hundreds of commandments in the law. Each of them was followed by a traditional explanation. Jesus referred to these as "the tradition of the elders".

An example: The Law of Moses (Dt 25:3) forbids dishonoring Israelis by giving them more than 40 strikes. According to the traditional teaching the law was protected from miscalculation, so that the maximum penalty was 39 strikes. Apostle Paul refers to this in his letter to the Corinthians (2Co 11:24). They did not have pity on the person who was to be punished, but they were careful not to offend the holy law of God. The law was to be "protected by a fence", so that it would not be broken, not even accidentally. In the same way, the Pharisee that Jesus described, gave tithes of everything he produced and, in addition, of everything he bought, just to be sure (Lk 18:12). It was better to pay the tithes twice, than not to pay them at all.

For every commandment, there is a particular teaching that explains it. These hundreds of commandments, were linked with thousands and thousands of teachings, that only a real expert was able to follow. Thus, it is understandable if the Pharisee felt deep satisfaction about the law and his own expertise. For a Jew, the Law was the foundation of national identity. It included the social law, the moral law and instructions for worshiping the Lord.

Gentiles (Pagan Christians) and the Law

After the death and resurrection of Christ, the baseline was that the Jews would obey the law, even after they started to believe in the Messiah. Many thought that the Gentiles should obey the law also. They thought that pagans would come to Christ through Judaism. This meant that people needed to obey the Law of Moses and first of all, carry out the male circumcision. Only then one could become a Christian.

Apostle Paul and Barnabas taught differently. On their missionary journey (Acts 13-14) they preached the gospel to the Gentiles, but did not ask them to follow the Law of Moses. What God did in Christ was enough and it was owned through baptism. Soon there was a dispute. Luke describes it this way:

"Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question."
(Acts 15: 1-2)

Paul’s point of view can be read in the Epistle to the Galatians:

”For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”  Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 
(Gal 3:10-11)

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace."
(Gal 5:4)

At a meeting of the apostles, Paul’s opinion won. According to the Gospel of Luke, the opinion is formed by Peter and James. Peter says as follows:

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?
(Ac 15:10)

James says:

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God”.
(Ac 15:19)

There are small details given in the meeting of the apostles, advice that enables the Gentiles to live together with the Jews. I understand that, for example, the instructions not to eat or drink blood is valid as soon as I live amongst the Jews. If someone disagrees, let him not eat. This is a detail which does not contradict the main idea: the Gentiles do not need to follow the Law of Moses. The Jews do, but it is not a way to salvation for them either. Only a few people ignore Paul, Peter and James’ words and try to abide as Gentiles under the Law of Moses. In time they will be judged for it, because Paul’s words are not to be taken lightly.

So, is the law abolished?

The baseline is clear: The Law was not given to the Gentiles and thus we do not need to obey it.
 It is necessary to emphasise, that the word “law” here, refers to the Law of Moses. If we consider several other meanings of the word “law”, it still applies. For example, there is God’s demanding will and the Christians have an obligation to follow his will. But this is another matter which will be discussed later.

The New Testament makes it clear, that a Gentile is not bound by the Law of Moses and this is clearly our starting point. At the same time, the New Testament frequently refers to the commandments that God gave in the Old Testament (e.g. Mt 5: 21,27). So, we can understand that all of the law is not abolished. As we try to understand which parts belong to us and which do not, the starting point is what Paul taught: the law is not for us. If something is said to abide to us, the person claiming this, needs to be able to justify their demand. No-one can choose a part of the law, as it pleases them, for example, the command not to eat mussels, and say that it abides to all. One must be able to justify why this would still abide to us, and even more, the Holy Spirit needs to endorse in the hearts of the listeners, that the teaching is correct. Otherwise the teacher is only a wild spirit and an enslaver of consciences.

We can discern following areas:

1) According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ with his sacrifice, made redundant all other sacrifices, which were only a shadow of the good that was to come. This way, all sacrificial laws have been abolished in regard to all Christians. That is why I did not try to go to the temple to sacrifice two young doves, after my son was born. (Lk 2:24).

2) According to Jesus (Mk 7:15), all food is pure and Paul respects this (Ro 14:14). This is why we can eat pork and mussels, even though the Law of Moses denies them both (Lev 11: 7-12). It is good for Christians to be flexible considering what they eat, in order not to hurt another’s conscience, but the food in itself does not make a Christian dirty, no more than it is useful not to eat.

3) According to the Law of Moses, for example, sexual intercourse (Lev 15:16-18) leads to religious impurity, as well as menstruation and touching a dead person. These have nothing to do with sin – on the contrary, it is wrong if I do not bury my father. But according to the Law of Moses, a person needs to wash him/herself and avoid the company of other people until the following evening because they are impure – this does not apply to pagan Christians.

4) The law of Moses was also the law of the Israeli society. For us it is not; if we fight, we are punished according to our own national laws, which is not a problem for us. Few have demanded the execution of the levirate (Dt 25:5-6).

These separate parts of the Law have clearly been abolished. Yet, we can make a list of other parts of the Law that also apply to the Gentiles.

  1. The moral law, the core of which is the ten commands, applies. For example, I am not to kill anyone, nor to break up my marriage, nor to gossip. The first Christians committed to the moral law. This can be seen in the lists of virtues and vices in the NT, for example, in 1Co 6:9-11 and Gal 5:16-26.

  2. ”Law”, in the meaning of ”God’s demanding will”, has its spiritual usage to which Paul refers to in his letter to Romans 3:19-20: ”Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”

When it comes to isolated questions, every Christian should listen to their own conscience:
 Some thinks that Apostles 15 forbids the use of blood as nutrition, and it is fine to think this way.
 Many denominations ask their members to give tithes: the New Testament never expresses this request, but we are warned not to be greedy and advised to give plenty and out of our free will. However, no-one can be obliged to pay tithes.
 The Old Testament forbids tattoos (Lev 19:28), while the New Testament does not, but in the New Testament people are warned, on several occasions, not to pay too much attention to their appearances.
 Rarely are men asked to wear their hair as required in the Law of Moses (Lev 19:27), even though this demand does not fit into any of the dismissed categories given above.
 In these particular questions, let’s leave it to the well functioning conscience of a Christian to tell what is right and what is wrong.

History of the Church

The Gentile part of the early Church soon grew larger than the Jewish Christian part. Apostle Paul's teaching about the law became soon prevalent. The lack of lively debate led to situation where everybody had forgot what the dispute (described in the Epistle to the Galatians and in the Acts) was about.
 It was hard to understand that the commandments are part of the Holy Book but does not apply to us. An early letter written in the name of Barnabas, struggles to free Christians from obeying the Law of Moses. Unfortunately the letter replaces literal interpretation with a wild spiritual explanation. In the fourth century (e.g. by Clement of Alexandria) parts of the law were picked up rather arbitrarily and the listeners were bound to obey these laws. The situation became even more confusing, and in the fifth century some Gentiles started to demand that the Jewish laws of purity according to the Law of Moses, were to be followed. The demands were refuted (e.g. Didaskalia), but people no longer remembered that the Epistle to the Galatians talked about the matter at hand. Epistle to the Galatians would have helped them a lot.

Luther and the Law

Martin Luther defied strongly attempts to silence sermons and the teaching of the law in the Church. Here, it is very important to understand that for Luther, the “law” mostly means “God’s demanding will” and not the Law of Moses with the laws of purity. The debate described in the Epistle to the Galatians had taken place almost 1500 years ago, and the result of it was understood. Instead, the problem was that some tried to silence God’s demanding will: according to Luther, this was a way to lose the Gospel too.

Later Lutheran theologians defined three uses, or purposes, in the law:

The law has been given to people for three different reasons:
1. it keeps the uncontrollable and the disobedient people externally under discipline,
2. it teaches people to recognize their sin,
3. for the Christians it’s a steady guideline, along which they are to organize and orient their entire life – for they have not gotten rid of the flesh either.

The constant use of the law as the second point describes, combined with teaching of the Gospel, results in the third usage of the law. A Christian has a duty to listen to God’s voice – in this, the Lutheran faith follows, for example, the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans – but the Gentiles or pagan Christians are not bound by the regulations and rules in the Law of Moses.