Why Read the Old Law?
Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. We do not read the Old Law with the frequency or seriousness that we do the New Testament. This is understandable (as we are under a new, better covenant), and yet a little disappointing. We claim to be people who like the Bereans of old “searched the scriptures daily” (Acts 17.11) and yet large sections of our Bibles lie unexplored, pages devoid of markings or underlines, perhaps even stuck together. If we will spend a little time examining the Old Law, with all of its unfamiliar regulations and specifications, several things will become apparent that will teach us some valuable lessons about being God’s people today.
God’s Law permeated everyday life.
One cannot spend much time in the Old Law without coming away with a sense of just how many things in the life of an ordinary Jew were mandated by God. What they could and could not eat, how they were to treat each other and foreigners, who they could marry, business and financial practices, judicial procedures, property rights, and on and on it goes. One would be hard-pressed to find an area of everyday Jewish life that was not in some way regulated by the Old Law. It would seem that every area of Jewish life was an indication of their commitment to their covenant with God. Perhaps this would give more insight into what was called the greatest commandment by Jesus in Matthew 22.36-38: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”
If one truly loved God with every ounce of their being, then every aspect of their life would be in submission to God. Indeed, we have this same idea mirrored in our New Testament, in Colossians 3.17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Let this sink in: God cares about each and every aspect of our lives. Yes, we have freedoms that the Jewish people did not (we can now eat pork, for example), but our freedoms do not indicate that God cares about our everyday lives and actions any less than He did then.
God wanted His people to Remember
The best definition of “covenant” I have heard is “an agreement established by promises, and sustained by memory.” In the Old Law one need only look at the feast days the Jews were commanded to keep, and more importantly why they were commanded to keep them. There were seven official feasts to be observed by the Jews: Sabbath, Passover, First Fruits, Weeks (Pentecost), Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles (Booths). Many of these observances were given to the Israelites for the purpose of remembrance. Take Sabbath for example: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex. 20.11) The Jews were to remember weekly that God created all things, as well as they were rescued from Egyptian bondage! “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut. 5.15)
Most Bible students remember the significance of the Passover feast, but how about a less well-known feast, such as the Feast of Booths? “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God." (Lev. 23.42-43) We as Christians are also called to remember the reason for the hope that is within us, which is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Luke 22.19-20; 1 Cor. 11.23-26) We do not celebrate the Jewish Feasts today, but we are still a people in need of constant remembrance of who God is and what He did for us through Jesus Christ.
God required constant Sacrifice
According to the Jewish reckoning of the Old Law, 100 of the 613 individual commands given in the Law of Moses had to do with sacrifice. The Israelites were commanded to give five types of sacrifices, which are enumerated in the first 5 chapters of Leviticus: Burnt offerings, Grain offerings, Peace offerings, Sin offerings, and Guilt offerings. Each of these offering was done for a specific purpose, yet all of them linked in three key ways.
The first is the idea of giving. Each of the sacrifices called for the individual to give up something that belongs to them. Wild animals could not be offered upon the altar, as those were not possessed by the individual. True sacrifice was done at a loss to the individual. We as Christians must understand that if we are present our bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12.1), it must be done at a loss to ourselves. We give up ourselves to God, as we dedicate our lives, our thoughts, our possessions, everything we have in the service of God.
Secondly, sacrifice highlighted the idea of Substitution. In each case of sacrifice for sin in Leviticus 4, the one guilty of the sin had to lay his hand(s) upon the head of the bull or goat being sacrificed. That animal was being slain in substitution for the individual, who would instead have to die for his or her sin. We only understand Jesus’ death as a redemption for us, a propitiation (an appeasement) given for us through the lens of sacrifice. “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9.12)
Lastly, sacrifice was given to draw men and women closer to God. Sacrifice was often engaged in for purposes of thankfulness, praise to God, or to celebrate great events in Israelite history. We as children of God today are called to offer up “a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name.” (Heb. 13.15) Furthermore, our actions also count as sacrifice to God today! “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Heb. 13.16) We are not required to offer bulls, goats, flour, etc. upon physical altars today, and yet we realize that as Christians we are called to offer ourselves, and everything we have, in the service of God.
Hopefully this has given you just a brief glimpse into some of what can be found in examination of the Old Law. This is by no means a call to return to the Old Law, as Jesus Christ came and died so that we may have forgiveness and salvation by means of His sacrifice for us, enacting a better covenant for us. However, if we profess that all of scripture is profitable for us, as is declared in 2 Tim. 3.16-17, then we must be diligent in our efforts to examine all of the scriptures, including those from the Old Law.