Why the Old Testament promises and laws don’t apply to us

(This post is Part 2 in a series on “Understanding Weird Parts of the Bible”, read Part 1 “Old vs. New Covenant” here)  The foundational understanding we need when approaching any part of the Bible is to figure out “What part of this text is the divinely inspired, authoritative message that can be applied in all cultures at all times?” (i.e. how do I apply this today?), which is separate from the question of, “How was this text applied in the time and context in which it was written?”  For some texts, this is easy to do because the text itself spells it out very easily for us.  For other texts, it is much more difficult to discern which part is the ancient application and which part is ours, which is where many denominational disagreements appear.  The good news for this particular blog post is that the Bible is very clear about the promises of the old covenant, and it’s very clear that the way they applied these texts when they were written is not the way we are to apply them today.  The reason there is confusion today is because people approach the text uninformed, which is the result of lazy scholarship by their teachers and leaders, or even the purposeful ignoring/hiding of the texts that point this distinction out so that a more convenient interpretation can be had.

Where does the old covenant come from and why doesn’t it apply to us?

  • God promises Abraham that a nation (specifically, land and offspring) will come from Abe’s bloodline (Abe is 75 years old with no children).  See Genesis 15:4-7 (also Genesis 12:1-7) for this specific promise.
  • Genesis 15:8-21 demonstrate a Royal Grant Covenant being made between God and Abraham.  (The smoking firepot is God’s presence)  This type of covenant was common in ancient culture.  The passing between a cut up animal meant “may what happened to this animal happen to me if I break this covenant.”  This was God’s unconditional promise to Abraham that he would give him descendents and land.
  • Genesis 17 shows a Suzerain-vassal Covenant made between God and Abraham.  This was a conditional promise made between God and Abraham’s descendents that if they obey and follow God (and specifically, use the outward sign of circumcision to show this inward identity reality), he will be their God and will continue to bless them.  Suzerain-vassal Covenants were common in the ancient world, made between a big king (the Suzerain) and a small king (the vassal).

Key question you need to ask at this point:  Did God make these promises to ME or to ABRAHAM?

  • Next we see God re-establish with Moses (~650 years later) the covenant he made with Abraham, but this time the Law (Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, & Deuteronomy) is added, showing what it looks like to follow God within this covenant, see Exodus 19-24, specifically 24:3 & 7-8 where the people agree to this covenant/contract.

Key question you need to ask at this point:  Did God make these agreement with ME or with MOSES and the ancient Israelites?  

It is crystal clear in Scripture that God made these promises with Abraham and Moses and the people, and they with him.  It is lazy scholarship to read the laws within the old covenant and teach that they apply to us today.  Here’s why: the Bible tells us not to!  The Bible tells us with crystal clarity that we are not under the old covenant, but have a new covenant in Jesus.  See Hebrews 8:6-9, 13.  See also: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 9:1, 9-15; & Luke 22:19-20house for rent for rent sign.  A great example is the book of Galatians, where the Galatian church was trying to impose the Law on new covenant Christians and Paul heavily chastises them for doing so.

In 2013 terms, it’s like this:  God and Bob sign a landlord/renter contract together.  Bob agrees to pay God $500/month in rent and God agrees to bless Bob with keeping the house safe and well-maintained.  Within this rent contract, Bob also agrees he will mow the lawn, not have any pets, and not smoke in the house.

I find a copy of this contract.  I begin teaching everyone that they all owe God $500/month, they all need to mow their lawns, they all need to get rid of their pets, and they all have to stop smoking in their houses.  What’s wrong with this picture?

This is why the old covenant doesn’t apply to us.  It’s not our contract.  We never signed it, and God never signed it with us.  Abraham did.  Moses did.  Bob did.  We didn’t.

We cannot use lazy scholarship (really just lazy reading) to misinterpret these texts.  It says at the beginning of the Old Testament loud and clear, “These laws are for Moses’ people only!” and it says at the end of the New Testament (Hebrews and also Galatians, etc.), “These laws were for Moses’ people, not for you!”  But then when we decide to simply open up our Bible in the middle randomly and start reading these laws, we pick some out and tell people they need to start doing them.  No.  No.  No.

Other posts in this series:

Still to come:

  • How misunderstanding the old covenant versus the new creates an unbiblical health-and-wealth / prosperity message today.


Related Posts by Noah:

11 responses to Why the Old Testament promises and laws don’t apply to us

  1. Nice job Noah! I was just explaining this (or trying) to a friend a couple weeks back so… perfect timing!

    • Thanks a lot Heather. Ya I’ve noticed it’s a pretty significant misunderstanding both in the church, and outside the church, and it results in massive confusion about the Bible as a whole. It’s something I didn’t really have a good handle on until recent years and then realized it’s much more simple (and more important!) than I had ever realized.

  2. Hey Noah, I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts lately and seeing how you’ve been working out some of these sticky issues of biblical interpretation. This post reminds me of a book I really enjoyed with a rather catchy title: Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by William Webb. The book was intriguing to me not so much because of these three issues, but because, as the summary on Amazon says:

    Webb attempts to “work out the hermeneutics involved in distinguishing
    that which is merely cultural in Scripture from that which is timeless”
    (Craig A. Evans). By the conclusion, Webb has introduced and developed a
    “redemptive hermeneutic” that can be applied to many issues that cause
    similar dilemmas.

    Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic is always in the back of my mind in the midst of conversations like this. This book might be helpful to you too.



    • Tom, I am halfway through that book and it has been super helpful to me! I got it after reading Scot McKnight’s Blue Parakeet book (listed in my top 10 on the sidebar). Blue Parakeet goes off of Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic and it looks at different ways we read the Bible, most of them incorrectly. Super challenging stuff to think about. I really need to finish Webb’s book. I will eventually be blogging on it once I get it finished, specifically on his stance on women in leadership, which I think is really eye-opening. Will also blog on the other side of that issue, after reading a book I have on the traditional side of women in leadership. I think both are compelling cases biblically, and I think Webb’s book is a must read.

  3. Noah, great blog. The problem I have with some fundamental agruments against the Law (keeping the Sabbath for example) is that it seems as if there is a deep level of hypocricy in our viewpoints today. Its as if we’ve abolished a $20 tire tax just to take on a new $20 rim tax. If we aren’t obligated to honor the Sabbath, what makes us obligated to honor Sunday worship (which is man-created rather than Biblical)? It just seems like when the O.C. law is weeded out, it gets replaced with man-created substitutions. Isn’t this just as legalistic as trying to follow the Old Covenant law?

    • I think the hypocrisy you mention is the exact thing Jesus came to abolish. The OT Law was never intended to create legalism, it was meant to show us the heart of God (our design for living), as well as to show us how far from perfection/holiness we are, which shows us how much we need a Savior. The people turned it into a spiritual scoreboard though, even adding in their own rules on top of it. One thing that drives me nuts about the conservative Christian church today is we have done similar things. In fear of “causing anyone to stumble”, we have added lots of rules that aren’t in the Bible at all and/or not in the New Covenant at all. Heck, most conservative Christians weren’t allowed to even dance until a few years ago, and many still aren’t. When I attended Cornerstone University, graduating in 2004, dancing was still against the rules!!! When the changed this rule in 2005, it made the cover of the Grand Rapids Press as well as CNN national news. Which I think shows even more how silly / unbiblical of a rule that was, as are the many others we like to add to the Bible. It is completely okay and completely biblical to have convictions about our lives that help us walk with Christ, keep us from addictions, keep us from slippery slopes (i.e. a person can choose to not drink, to not gamble, to dress up for church, etc.) but as soon as you start making that a law for others to follow, you are doing something unbiblical. You can teach others how to use discernment and how to know their weakness and areas of temptations and how to avoid those, but that is very different than teaching absolute laws in areas the Bible simply didn’t. Sometimes the self-titled “biblical fundamentalists” are the ones that need to be preached at the strongest to use the BIBLE only as their fundamentals, and to not add or subtract anything from it.

      Back on point to your question LCE, “what makes us obligated to honor Sunday worship (which is man-created rather than Biblical)?” –If going to church feels like a legalistic obligation, then I’d say you need to find a different church and/or talk to your church leaders about this. People should be going to church because it is essential to their abundant life as a growing Christian, not because it’s a law given to them that if they don’t do it, they are going to hell / a bad Christian / etc. A mature Christian understands they cannot live for Jesus (in the path of life God designed for us) on their own strength. They understand they need other believers around them to encourage them, support them, and strengthen them. But this is a discipline that we choose to adopt, because we know it is for our best interest, rather than a legalistic chore or some way of lighting up the “spiritual scoreboard”.

      Let me know if that’s hitting on your question, or if you were referring to something else.

      • Those are really good points! Thank you. I guess when I look at the New Testament I do see some of the law carried through…like tithing. I think Jesus carried that through by saying you should have done the former without neglecting the latter….when speaking to the Pharisees. I also wonder about the 10 commandments. It seems we should still follow those today out of love for Christ, not because we are saved by obedience. It also seems like EVERY major commandment falls under the ‘love your neighbor’ or ‘love God’ umbrellas. Do you have thoughts on that?

  4. Noah,
    I would be curious to hear your thoughts on the NPP

  5. “Paul wrote “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” in Romans 7:7. The word for “law” is nomos, which is the same word used throughout the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew “torah”.

    John wrote, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness.” in 1 John 3:4. His word for “lawlessness” is anomia, which literally means “non-law” or “a condition of being unlawful”. It’s the same word used by Matthew to describe people who break Torah. The KJV renders that phrase “for sin is transgression of the law.”

    Based on Galatians 3:15-29 and 2 Corinthians 1:20. The promises to Israel were made to Abraham’s offspring. Paul ultimately identifies Jesus as that offspring. Because on our faith, we are united to him, and therefore all the promises are ours in him. If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14) , For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us (Corinthians 1:20) Who saves the phrase ‘we’? You and me! Without a doubt, this verse for all the children of God. All the promises of God to all of us who in Jesus Christ came to him … “his”! It says ‘were’ not (past tense) and not “will” (future tense). They are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’.

    So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.Romans 7:12
    Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? 2 Corinthians 13:5 There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. The Law and the promises are for those who are in Christ! Holy Spirit have your way.

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