Q: From the early era on, the church has not observed the feasts, festivals, and dietary laws that God commanded in the Old Testament. Why not?
A: This question relates to the bigger question of what Christians should do with the laws in the Old Testament. Rabbis tell us there are 613 different laws dealing with everything from worship to sex to eating. Do these still apply to Christians? Or have they been set aside or replaced?
Christians have struggled with these questions from the beginning days of the faith. Since most early believers came from the Jewish faith, this was a particularly important issue. Judaism taught that proper relationship to God depended on obedience to the laws. Further, early Christians believed that what is now the Old Testament functioned as authoritative Scripture for them. It instructed them in what to believe and how to live. Thus, the New Testament contains considerable discussion on how Christians should relate to Old Testament laws.
One way to describe the primary teaching of the New Testament on this issue is to say that while Christians hold to the moral teaching of Old Testament laws they do not observe its ritual laws.
Ritual laws mean those commandments that have to do with how we relate to God, such as those dealing with sacrifices, festivals, circumcision, and diet.
Moral laws mean those commandments that have to do with how we relate to people.
These are the two categories of Old Testament laws. As Jesus summarized, all laws are about either loving God or loving people (Mark 12:29-31).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). So Jesus did not do away with Hebrew (or Old Testament) laws. Through His death and resurrection He fulfilled the purpose of them. That purpose was to guide people in how to live in a committed relationship with God.
They were never a means of entering into that relationship, as if a person must obey a certain number of laws in order to be accepted by God. They were guidelines for maintaining and developing ongoing fellowship with God.
Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the ritual laws by dying on the cross. In this way He provided for forgiveness of sin, removing the primary obstacle to a healthy relationship with God. People can live in fellowship with God because of what Christ did on the cross. As Hebrews puts it, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 11:10). Christians no longer need to sacrifice, observe the festivals, be circumcised, or follow dietary laws because “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 11:14).
Jesus also fulfilled the purpose of the moral laws. God designed these laws to help people live in loving relationship with one another. Jesus showed us how that could be done and urged His disciples to follow His example. So Christians continue to observe the moral laws, but they have additional help in doing so.
According to Paul, the Holy Spirit gives direction and empowers us to live as God intended. He explained to believers, if you “walk by the Spirit . . . you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Paul knew that the Spirit produced the kind of fruit in us that would fulfill the moral law of the Old Testament. “For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Paul’s letters contain several other discussions on the relationship of Old Testament laws for Christians. Much of this has to do with misunderstandings about these laws. Some early Christians thought that they could gain a relationship with God by obeying the ritual laws of the Old Testament.
They encouraged believers to keep the Jewish festivals, follow their dietary laws and become circumcised in addition to trusting Christ for salvation. Paul called this teaching “a different gospel” or “no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6-7). He maintained “a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:15). Dependence upon the work of Christ on the cross and at the tomb is the only reason believers can live in loving relationship with God and other people.
Jim Edlin is professor of biblical literature and languages at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas.
Holiness Today, March/April 2017