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Biblical principles of continuity and discontinuity in biblical law

Monday, November 14, 2016 6:49
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The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty

Master Table of Contents

If we are going to assert that the Old Testament judicial code contains some laws which are still morally binding upon civil governments today, then we need to be able to say which ones still apply, which ones do not, and why. This chapter will discuss the basic principles by which these needs are answered, and outline the terms of continuity and discontinuity between the law in the Old and New Testaments.

Continuity and discontinuity

In general, Old Testament laws continue into the New Testament unless the New Testament explicitly repeals them. But we must be very careful here. The New Testament does not mention every Old Testament law that it repeals by explicit references to each individual one. Instead, in different ways, we learn that types or classes of laws are annulled or transformed in Christ, and thus many unspecified laws are repealed as well. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that many laws must continue in New Testament times as well.

We can see the principles of continuity and discontinuity clearly in specific passages. Hebrews 7:12 says that “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” From this it may appear that once Jesus came, the entire law was thrown out. But this misunderstanding would not only be absurd (as we have already rehearsed in regard to Galatians 3 in chapter 2 above), it is clearly contradicted in the very next chapter of the same book. Hebrews 8:10 (quoting Jeremiah) clearly declares that God will actually write His law on believers’ hearts in the New Covenant era: “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.” From these two passages alone we must deduce that some of the laws have changed (or have been abrogated altogether) and yet some of it continues.

Thus the New Testament expresses both continuity and discontinuity with Old Testament law in general. The question is, how do we learn which laws are which? Which ones are discontinued, which ones continue, and how do we know?

Biblical principles of interpretation

The basic question to be answered is this: what aspects of Old Testament law pertained only to Old Covenant Israel, and which ones are universal—for the whole world and all times? The answer to this question must be biblical, and the principle we use to answer it must also be biblical.

We already began to address this question in our discussion about non-binding commandments, the “shadows,” and the “weak and beggarly elements of the law” in chapter two. We saw that what the New Testament explicitly repeals are what are commonly called “ceremonial” laws. Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews make clear that Christ has replaced the Old Covenant temple, priesthood, Sabbaths, sacrifices. When Hebrews says that a change in the priesthood necessitates a change in the law, it is speaking specifically about the law of the priesthood—all of the laws that were tied to the old Aaronic priesthood system.

But there is another New Testament change that is equally important: the separation laws. These are rarely discussed under these terms, but they are crucial to understanding discontinuity in the New Testament. This set of laws was just like the Old Testament priesthood in some regards: it imposed temporary, outward, symbolic aspects upon God’s Old Testament people. Also like the priestly laws, there is a clear and obvious end for them with the coming of Jesus Christ, and on this, Scripture is explicit.

So what are these separation laws? They include laws pertaining to bloodlines and the land—both of which are intimately connected. They were all the laws imposed on Israel which were meant to show outwardly that God’s Old Covenant people were separate from the rest of the nations, and also that the tribes were to be separate from each other.

Both of these aspects are equally important, and both begin with the promises made to Abraham. God called Abraham out from among the nations and promised him that through his seed God would bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1–3). God promised that this blessing would come through Abraham’s seed (Gen. 12:7). Paul makes it clear that this promise was not made to all the descedants (plural) or Abraham, but to one particular seed: Christ. He writes,

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ (Gal. 3:16).

Paul follows this by explaining that the Mosaic law was added to the promises specifically to guard this offspring or seed:

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made (Gal. 3:19).

Note a couple things: first, by “the law” here, again, Paul does not mean the whole of the law. He is speaking only of the part that was temporary for the Old Covenant people—for obvious reasons we have already covered. Secondly, therefore, we see that there was a clear terminus for this part of the law: it was to last only until the time that the promised seed, Christ, would come. After that point, the laws of bloodline separation were no longer needed, for they had performed their purpose: to illustrate to the tribes of Israel and to the world that God’s promise to Abraham was to come to pass through the physical bloodline of Abraham.

It also served a second purpose which demanded not only separation of Jews from Gentiles, but of the tribes of Israel from each other as well. This was the “seed” promise made to Judah:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples (Gen. 49:10).

This famous prophecy indicated that the promised seed would come not only through Abraham in general, but through Judah specifically. It had to be kept separate, therefore.

There were yet other reasons to keep the tribes separate. The tribe of Levi were separated for priestly and temple work. They were separated by God Himself for special service in Israel.

There were a tremendous array of laws tied to these principles of separation: Jews were not allowed to marry Gentiles. The tribes were generally not supposed to intermarry with each other. All the laws of ritual separation fall under this category: the prohibitions against mixed breeding of animals, mixed seeds planted in the same field, and of wearing clothing made of a mixture of linen and wool (Lev. 19:19); the laws pertaining to a male ejaculation and those requiring a woman to separate herself during menstruation (Lev. 15); the laws of levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5–10).

Perhaps the ultimate law in this category was that of circumcision: it was a literal bloodline law which symbolized that the seed was to pass through the blood, but also was a mark against the flesh of human generation. This symbolized that the salvation of God’s people would not come by man’s works or through man’s product. It would come only by faith in God’s promise. Once that salvation came in Christ, there was no longer need for this mark, as Galatians argues so clearly.

Also part of the separation laws were all the laws tied to the land of Israel. This was yet one more set of boundaries to keep Israel separate from the nations and to keep the tribes separate from each other until Christ would come. The allotment of the land was by tribe and family, and it was to stay in the particular tribe and family to which it was assigned (Num. 33:54; 36:5–9). This allotment was performed faithfully by Joshua (Josh. 15–21). The laws of inheritance kept the land within the family. The laws for levirate marriage were designed to ensure that the family name would continue in the land. The laws of redemption and especially of Jubilee (Lev. 25) ensured that allotments would always eventually return to the original families.

In some cases, these laws were also intimately connected with the priestly laws. For example, the laws of separation for quarantine (Lev. 14) and of ritual impurity (Lev. 15) required ritual cleansings or sacrifices attended or performed by a priest. Likewise we can see composites of land law, bloodguilt, and priesthood tied together in the law of the corpse in open country (Deut. 21:1–9) and the laws for the cities of refuge (Num. 35:6–34). Likewise, the laws of indentured servitude and lifetime slavery of Gentiles were tied to the separation laws, Sabbath laws, and laws of inheritance.

Repealed and replaced in Christ

All of these and many more like them were to last only until the coming of Christ. They served their purpose of illustrating principles of holiness in outward, earthly forms. These forms were the schoolmaster, or guardian, imposed for a time until the promised seed should come.

Christ replaced the Old Testament priesthood. The entire temple, sacrificial, and sabbatical system is superseded by Christ. This is the message of the book of Hebrews, as we have already seen. Christ has fulfilled these in such a way as to bring about their terminus, which God had always planned. Therefore, all of those laws, and all of the laws and aspects of laws tied to them, are fulfilled and their use discontinued. These shadows have vanished and passed away (Heb. 8:13). The body of Christ is now the temple (1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Pet. 2:4–10). Christ is now our Sabbath rest (Heb. 3–4).

Christ likewise so fulfilled the separation laws tied to seeds and bloodlines. These have reached their terminus in Christ also. Inheritance of the promise is now no longer symbolized by circumcision and by the various laws pertaining to it in Moses, but by baptism. This is what Paul teaches:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal. 3:27–29).

Thus you can see also that all the “seed laws” of bloodlines and physical separations are gone, as well as the types of inheritances and slavery tied to them. Christ broke down the wall of partition between Jews and gentiles and made the two into one new man (Eph. 2:11–22). The separation now is between Christians and non-Christians, and thus they are forbidden to intermarry or otherwise be unequally yoked (2 Cor. 6:14–18).

We no longer enter covenant with God through bloodline but by adoption. The sons of God are not physical sons, but adopted sons, and Christ has been given the authority to make them sons:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12–13).

Likewise, Christ is the terminus of the land laws. He is the fulfillment of Jubilee (Luke 4:16–21). God’s indwelling presence is now in the hearts and bodies of Christians (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19–20; Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Pet. 2:5), not the building or the land. The old boundaries of the land of Israel are no longer special boundaries of God’s judging presence. In the Old Covenant, the land acted as an agent of God’s wrath. The people’s sins were counted also to have made the land sin (Deut. 24:4). It would vomit out the inhabitants for their disobedience (Lev. 18:25, 28; 20:22). The function of judging in history and of “vomiting out” is now transferred to the enthroned Christ Himself (Rev. 3:16).

The focus of the people of God is no longer physical Jerusalem, but heavenly (Gal. 4:21–31; Rev. 21:1–8). The land promise of inheritance is also universalized. It now includes gentiles and it now covers the whole earth. Christ received all power in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). The Psalms prophesied that the believers would “inherit the earth” (Psa. 25:13; 37:9, 11, 22). Jesus affirmed this by repeating it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:5). Consequently, He taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come and His will be done on earth (Matt. 6:10). Hebrews then tells us that as believers, we have arrived at the inheritance: Mount Zion, heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22–24). When Paul repeats the land promise made to Abraham, he universalizes it:

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world [kosmos] did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:13).

The inheritance of God’s people is no longer just a symbolic strip between Egypt and the Euphrates River. It is now the earth, the world.

Thus, even the aspects of the Ten Commandments which were originally tied directly to the land then given to Israel are universalized and generalized in the New Testament. Consider the command to obey one’s parents:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you (Ex. 20:12).

When Paul restates this in Ephesians, he leaves off the last part of the promise which pertained specifically to the Jews:

“Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (Eph. 6:2–3).

Keep in mind also that this commandment is here being applied to that “one new man” Paul had just described earlier in the same letter (Eph. 2:15)—made of both Jews and Gentiles.

In short, the New Testament teaches that all laws pertaining to the Old Covenant priesthood, bloodline separations, and land laws reached their terminus in Jesus Christ. They no longer continue in the New Testament.

Purchase The Bounds of Love.

Next section: The Cherem Principle

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