Letting Jesus Pick And Choose

May 31, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment


One of the joys I have as a pastor is being able to think through theological questions with the great folks here at Concordia. And the great folks here at Concordia aren’t afraid to ask. From questions about Christ’s work on the cross to questions about suffering to questions about heaven to questions about Hebrew and Greek, I’ve received plenty of terrific queries which have been a joy – and many times a challenge – for me to answer.

From time to time, I not only like to answer people’s questions in a meeting at my office, or on the phone, or in an email, but also on my blog, especially if it is a question that I commonly receive. And that is what I thought I’d do with this often asked question: “How does the Old Testament relate to the New Testament?  If both testaments are God’s inspired Word, then why do we insist on following some of the Old Testament’s laws like the Ten Commandments while at the same time disregarding its ceremonial and sacrificial stipulations?”   This is a good, and very complex, question!

It is true that, on the surface, it can almost seem like Christians sometimes pick and choose which Old Testament laws they would like to follow.  The one about honoring your father and mother (cf. Exodus 20:12)?  Yeah, we ought to keep that one around – especially if we have children.  The one about sprinkling a bird’s blood over a house after it has been cleansed from mildew (cf. Leviticus 14:33-57)?  We usually take a pass on that one.

So why do we follow some laws and not others?  Classically, a distinction has been made between those laws which are moral and those which are ceremonial.  Moral laws stand through both testaments.  Thus, honoring fathers and mothers, as a moral mandate, continues to hold sway over our thoughts, words, and deeds, as do all of the Ten Commandments.  Ceremonial laws, however, with all of their sacrifices and rituals, have been abrogated by Christ.  As the preacher of Hebrews writes:  “When [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God…And where [sins] have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:12, 18).  Following Jesus’ sacrifice, no more sacrifices are needed.  Therefore, to insist on following the Old Testament sacrificial stipulations is an affront to and a debasement of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Finally, the reason we do not follow every Old Testament stipulation is because of the way we read our Bible.  We read every page, even the ones with all of the strange rules and regulations, through the lens of what Christ has taught, done, and fulfilled.  As Jesus Himself says, “These are the Scriptures that testify about Me” (John 5:39). Martin Luther echoes this sentiment when he writes:  “I have often said that whoever would study well the Bible, especially the spiritual significance of the histories, should refer everything to the Lord Christ” (What Luther Says 207).  Thus, we interpret and follow the Scriptures of the Old Testament the way that Christ follows and interprets the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  No Old Testament Scripture, then, is to be read apart from God’s revelation in Christ.

Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has perhaps written the finest, most succinct statement as to how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament that I have found:  “Jesus, as God’s Wisdom come in person, acts with sovereign freedom when it comes to the law.  Sometimes He intensifies its demands, sometimes He sets aside its demands, sometimes He affirms its demands, sometimes He offers a new teaching that can in some cases supplement and in others supplant previous teaching” (The Indelible Image, vol.1, 32).  This is precisely right.  As Paul writes, “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4).  The Greek word for “end” is telos, meaning “goal.”  Thus, the Old Testament laws find their goal in how Christ arbitrates, abrogates, interprets, and fulfills them.  You cannot read the Old Testament correctly if you do not read it with Jesus in mind.

So why do we not offer sacrifices to God when our homes are filled with mildew?  Because Christ has offered the perfect and final sacrifice for all time.  Why do we still continue to honor our parents?  Because Christ has taught us to do so (cf. Mark 7:9-13).   We let Jesus pick and choose which laws we continue to follow and which laws have been abrogated by His work on the cross. Reading the Old Testament is as simple as listening to Jesus.

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