Episode 15: Must Christians Obey the OLD Testament? Reading: Genesis 16, Nehemiah 5, Matthew 15 and Acts 15.
There are so many interesting themes in today’s four chapters in our daily Bible reading! The way this podcast works, for those that are new, is that I try and choose one big Bible question to discuss for each daily episode, and then one spiritually encouraging passage from a spiritual giant. My own personal goal is to try and make MOST of the shows under 30 minutes, though on deep topics that doesn’t always happen. We are 15 episodes into the podcast, and I can tell you honestly that there has never been a day where I have had to really dig deep to find a topic worth talking about. In fact, almost every day, the opposite is true. There are a dozen great things to talk about in each day’s reading, and I can only choose one.
Today, more so than almost any day prior to this, we have many great topics and themes to choose from. Should we talk about the rich and powerful abusing the families and poor people in Nehemiah? Should we talk about how honorable Nehemiah was, in that he did not take advantage of all of the luxuries offered to him because he was mindful of the plight of his people? Should we talk about Sarai’s shameful mistreatment of her servant Hagar, and how the Angel of the Lord intervened and saved the life of Ishmael, the ancestral father of the Islamic people? (Could this early mistreatment explain some of the enmity between the Jewish and Arabic peoples?!) Should we instead talk about how the Pharisees amplified their own human traditions, and presented them as of more importance than the actual commands of God? (I almost went with this one, because the church today still has this problem in a large measure.)
All of the above would be excellent topics to consider; ultimately, however, I believe the big question we should discuss today is the same one the early church met about during the first churchwide council in Acts 15 – How much of the Old Testament are Gentiles like me and most of you bound to follow?
Before we dive into our main question today, let me say this one MASSIVE caveat: My view on this question could be very wrong. I have been in ministry for well over 25 years. I have been a student of the Bible for a long time. I have wrestled with this particular question for over a decade, and it makes me tremble. I believe that the answer I’m going to give is the proper answer biblically, but there are many, many mighty men of God whom I respect and admire tremendously that do not agree with me. Do NOT take my word on this issue as authoritative. The majority of you listeners don’t know me personally, and even if you do – this is a question that you should be wrestling with in the Scripture and in prayer. All that said – and I hope it wasn’t virtue signalling, but rather a warning to do your own scriptural due diligence – I believe that Christians are NOT under the Old Testament/Old Covenant commands, but are rather under the New Testament/New Covenant commands. By this I mean that I believe that the council of the apostles in Acts 15 decided this very issue and concluded that all Gentile Christians (followers of Jesus not born into ethnic Israeli families) are under New Testament commands AND the following four commands:
- Do not consume food that you know was offered to idols before or during its preparation.
- Do not consume blood.
- Do not eat anything that was strangled to death
- Do not engage in sexual immorality as defined in the Bible.
Items 1-3 all seem to be quite connected to separating Christians from the pagan practices of food preparation throughout the Roman empire. Commenting on those passages, Ben Witherington says:
“Also relevant to our discussion is the evidence that the choking of the sacrifice, strangling it, and drinking or tasting of blood transpired in pagan temples. In regard to the former, we have evidence from the magical papyri of the attempt to choke the sacrifice and in essence transfer its life breath or spiritual vitality into the idol, and in regard to the latter R. M. Oglivie points to the practice, mentioned occasionally in the literature, of the priest tasting the blood of the sacrifice. The singular reference to blood at the end of the decree would be superfluous after the reference to abstaining from things strangled or choked if the meaning was to avoid meat with the blood still in it. It is more likely that each item in the decree should be taken separately and all be seen as referring to four different activities that were known or believed to transpire in pagan temples.”Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 464.
So – I believe these commands are still binding on Christians today. We must not knowingly eat food that was prepared according to pagan practices (though see Paul’s discussions of this in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians) and we must abstain from sexual immorality. Beyond that, we are no longer under the commands of the Old Testament, but the commands of the New Testament. Does that mean we are free from Ten Commandments? It does not, because 9 of the Ten Commandments are still commanded in the New Testament/Covenant.
I need to stress here that I am not at all what is known as an antinomian. I do believe that Christians are still under God’s (New Testament) commands, and we must follow them. I believe that the Old Testament is still the Word of God, and we must NOT seek to be unhitched from it – but New Testament Christians are no longer under law, but under the grace of the New Covenant. Thomas Schreiner captures this quite well in his Gospel Coalition article:
“Saying that the old covenant has passed away doesn’t mean the Old Testament is no longer (or somehow less) the Word of God. All of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, are the final authority as God’s infallible and inerrant word. All of the Old Testament has a revelatory and pedagogical authority for believers in Jesus Christ. We must interpret the Old Testament in terms of God’s progressive revelation in his covenants in order to discern how to apply it today. New Testament writers don’t decide how to apply the Old Testament based on the moral, ceremonial, and civil divisions, where the moral law continues to function as a moral norm. Such categories are actually quite useful, and there is significant truth in such divisions, but the New Testament itself doesn’t apply the Old Testament law to believers based on these categories. Doing so can introduce distortions when applying the Old Testament to our lives.”https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/old-covenant-response-andy-stanley/
Here are some Scriptures to consider in asking the question: Are we under the Old Testament? Consider these Scriptures, and then go read them in their wider context!
Romans 6:14-15 14 For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace….15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not!
Romans 7:6 6 But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law.
Ephesians 2:15 15 He made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations
Galatians 3: 24 The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. 25 But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 5: 5 Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all. 3 Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace…vs 18 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
And finally, and perhaps MOST importantly:
Hebrews 7 11 If then, perfection came through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there for another priest to appear, said to be in the order of Melchizedek and not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must be a change of law as well….18 So the previous command is annulled because it was weak and unprofitable 19 (for the law perfected nothing), but a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.
We will discuss some other more specific issues – like the Sabbath – at a later date.