Home | Our Mission

Decalogue Covenant - Does God Want People Today to Obey the Law of Moses


The short answer is no: God intends for everyone in the world to submit to Christ under the New Covenant, which does not include the Law of Moses, though it shares with Moses fundamental moral values because both are based on the unchanging character of God Himself (compare Leviticus 19:1-2 with Matthew 5:48 and Luke 6:36). To go deeper than the surface, we have to look at what Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, and the author of Hebrews say about the old and new covenants.

Prophecy of the New Covenant

About 600 years before Christ, the prophet Jeremiah predicted the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). He said the new covenant would be different than the old (specified as the one God made with the houses of Israel and Judah when he brought them out of Egypt--definitely referring to the Mosaic Covenant). This time, the laws would be written on the people's hearts, all of them will know the LORD, and He will completely forgive them. The New Testament book of Hebrews says this is the covenant Christ introduced (Hebrews 8:7-13 and 10:15-18, on which more is said below).

Original subjects of the Law of Moses

According to the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), the Law of Moses constituted the covenant God made with the Israelites. Its moral code, priesthood, festivals and other special days, and sacrificial system were all designed for the Hebrew nation. Essential to the covenant the Israelites made with God was their agreement to obey the stipulations of the Law of Moses and to become the objects of its blessings if they obeyed and its curses if they disobeyed. As originally delivered, no other nation was called upon or expected to keep the Law of Moses. According to Jewish tradition, the rest of the nations of the world were still under the covenant God made with Noah.

What change, if any, took place when the New Covenant came along? How did it affect the application of the Old? Did it take what make universal what once applied only to the Israelites? Or did it nullify the Old Covenant so that it no longer applied even for the nation of Israel?

Jesus' teaching about the Law of Moses

According to Galatians 4:4, Jesus was "born under the Law," which apparently means that He was bound to obey the Law's commandments and ordinances. As an Israelite, He was just as obligated to keep the Law as every other Israelite. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-18), He denies that His purpose is to "abolish" the Law and the Prophets. The Greek word translated "abolish" (kataluo) is "destroy" with an intensifying prepositional prefix, meaning "utterly destroy." Rather, He says, His purpose is to fulfill the Law, and He says heaven and earth would sooner disappear than the Law, until everything is fulfilled. He says that the person breaking or teaching others to break the least of the commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, while those who practice and teach its commandments will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:19).

His mission in fulfilling the Law seems to have three parts. First, He calls on His disciples to keep the Law even more strictly than the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the most scrupulous religious observers of His time (Matt. 5:20). In the verses that follow (the rest of the Sermon on the Mount -- Matthew 5:21-7:27), Jesus reveals what He means: giving to God the obedience of one's heart, not just one's actions. Fulfilling the Law then, in this first sense, means explaining it in its fullest meaning. Jesus taught the Law of Moses, but He also kept it perfectly. He fulfilled it, not only by giving its full meaning, but by obeying it fully Himself. In this way qualifying to become our perfect sin offering (see John 8:29, 46; Acts 10:38; Hebrews 3:2,6; 4:15; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22; 1 John 2:2).

This leads us to the third part: when God accepts Christ as our substitute, His righteousness becomes ours (1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21), which includes His perfect obedience of the Law. Because He stands in our place before the throne of God, we who have fully committed ourselves to Him--heart, mind, soul, and strength--are regarded as fully obedient under the Law (Romans 8:3-4; 13:10).

Yet even while upholding the Law, Jesus claims to have an authority above the Law, as when He proclaimed that the Son of Man (an indirect reference to Himself) is Lord of the Sabbath (see Mark 2:23-28; parallels in Matthews 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5). The examples He gives confirm that He sees His mission to seek and save the lost as claiming a higher priority than the keeping of the Sabbath. He points out the irony of those who used the Sabbath to plot His murder while accusing Him of breaking the Sabbath to heal a man (Mark 3:1-6; parallels in Matthew 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11). On another occasion (Mark 7:1-23; parallel in Matthew 15:1-20), He notes that concern for inner purity should claim a higher priority than concern for ritual cleanness, and the gospel writer observes, "In saying this, he proclaimed all foods clean" (Mark 7:19).

At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his apostles that wine represents the blood He is about to shed. In Mark 14:24, He calls it "the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." (Matthew 26:28 adds "for the forgiveness of sins," and Luke's wording is "the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you" (Luke 22:20; compare 1 Corinthians 11:25). This statement of Jesus is an obvious reference back to the moment when Moses said, "This is the blood of the covenant" (Exod. 24:8) during a ceremony confirming the Mosaic Covenant. Jesus says His own blood is what institutes and confirms the New Covenant.

Jesus also demonstrates an openness to Gentiles virtually unique among the Jews of His time. He praises the faith of a Gentile as being greater than any in all of Israel (Matthew 8:10; parallel in Luke 7:9). He likewise praises the strong faith of a Gentile woman (Mark 7:24-30; parallel in Matt. 15:21-28). He predicts the acceptance of Gentiles into God's kingdom, even at the expense of the Jews (Matthew 8:11-12 and in parabolic form, Luke 14:23-24; 20:16; John 10:16). Although He previously limited His disciples' proclamation to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6), after His resurrection, He commands them to preach to all nations and to all creation (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 1:8). Jesus tells His apostles to require of their converts faith, repentance, baptism, and continuing obedience, but makes no mention of circumcision as a condition of discipleship or salvation.

God led the apostles to a new understanding

In fulfilling Christ's commission, the apostles first proclaim the gospel only to Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism (called "proselytes"). Only by a series of miracles does God convince Peter to share the Good News with a Roman centurion named Cornelius (read Acts 10:1-48). When Peter defends his actions to the other believers back in Jerusalem, they are convinced that "God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life" (Acts 11:18).

After this, Christians start evangelizing the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21), especially Saul of Tarsus (later called Paul) and his coworker Barnabas (Acts 13 - 14) on what is known as the First Missionary Journey. Their success among the pagans causes some Jewish Christians to demand that all of the Gentile converts be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses. Paul and Barnabas deny that this be required, and the debate becomes so heated that a conference is called of the apostles and Jerusalem elders (Acts 15:1-18). The conference confirms the teaching of Paul and Barnabas, requiring only that Gentile converts observe a few rules that will make their fellowship with Jewish believers less contentious (Acts 15:19-31).

Though many Jewish Christians continued to observe the Law even after this (see Acts 21:20), the Gentiles were not required to be circumcised (see Galatians 2:3-5), since Gentiles as well as Jews find acceptance before God by grace through faith, not by works of the Law (Acts 15:9, 11; Galatians 2:16). In other words, they could come to Christ directly, without first becoming converts to Judaism. The apostles recognized that both those whose flesh is circumcised and those whose flesh is not can have a circumcision of heart (Romans 2:25-29; 4:9-17; Colossians 2:11-13). This is what counts to God (Galatians 6:12-16); even the Law and Prophets recognized heart circumcision as more important (see Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25).

Accepting uncircumcised Gentiles into the fellowship of the redeemed, however, was a fundamental departure from the Mosaic Covenant, which required circumcision on pain of excommunication (continuing what had been instituted in the covenant with Abraham, Gen. 17:13-14 -- see Exodus 12:48-49, Leviticus 12:3, and Joshua 5:2-8). During the period reflected in the second half of the Book of Acts, a transition of the covenants was taking place, in which practice was lagging behind teaching. The New Covenant had begun, but many were still clinging to the Old.

The change process likely paralleled what happens today with regard to the adoption of new technology. Some were early adopters who led the way in adopting the change, such as those who already were abandoning physical circumcision and Jewish customs (see Acts 21:21). Into this group we should probably put Stephen and later Paul, who were at the leading ("bleeding"?) edge. Others, such as Peter and John, were middle-of-the-road: they acknowledged the change but did not push it like Paul did. Still others were late adopters, like James the Elder (half-brother of Jesus), though it may be that James remained in this group only to help the others along (Acts 15:12-21 and 21:22-26; yet see Galatians 2:12).

Paul's teaching about the Law of Moses

As one who perhaps saw the change more clearly than others, Paul sought to explain the transition in as forceful a way as the scruples of his Jewish fellow-Christians would allow. If he had not struggled with this concern, his teachings may have been more explicit. Nevertheless, he certainly was plain enough for us to understand a change in the covenants was underway. The following are some of the clearest passages, taken in chronological order.

In Galatians, perhaps the earliest of Paul's letters (c. 50 CE), Paul says the law was our "pedagogue to lead us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24). In Greek culture, the pedagogue was a family slave assigned the task of getting the child to and from school each day. He was also expected to impart practical moral principles that would help the child mature. Paul says the Law had for us a similar function: preparing us for the coming of the Messiah. In the next verse, Paul adds, "Now that faith [i.e., the object of our faith] has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law" (Galatians 3:25). In this metaphor, Paul pictures the relationship between the Law and the Christ as a cooperative one. The Law performs its function, accomplishes its goal, and then steps aside.

In the next chapter of Galatians, Paul turns up the heat. He compares the two covenants, the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, to the relationship between Hagar and Sarah (see Genesis chapter 16 and 21:8-21). He depicts a stormy relationship between the children of the two covenants: "The son born in the ordinary way [representing the unbelieving Jews] persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit [representing the Christians]. It is the same now." Then Paul unleashes a thunderbolt: "But what does the Scripture say? 'Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son.'" Since the slave woman represents the Mosaic covenant, Paul is using the quoted verse, Genesis 21:10, to say, "Get rid of the Mosaic covenant and its adherents [the Jews who have rejected Jesus as Messiah], for the ['children' of the Mosaic covenant] will never share in the inheritance with the [Christians, the 'children' of the New Covenant]."

Paul wrote First Corinthians in about 55 CE. In chapter 9 he describes his willingness to be "all things to all men" for the sake of saving some of them. In particular, he says, "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law" (verses 20 and 21).