The Bible is a thoroughly Jewish document. Sixty-four of its 66 books were written by Jews. God chose the Jews as his special people. God sent Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish man, to be the Jewish Messiah.
Christianity didn’t spring up out of nowhere, in other words. Its root system extends deep into the soil of Israel’s history. The continuity between Judaism and Christianity is thick and profound.
So why don’t Christians keep the whole Jewish law today? After all, God’s people kept it for centuries in the Old Testament. What happened?
Mission to Fulfill
The New Testament begins with these words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). From the outset Matthew wants to make crystal clear that Jesus has arrived in history to fulfill God’s ancient promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3) and to David (2 Sam. 7:12–16)—to the nation’s first father and to her greatest king. As founder of a new Israel, he’s the true and better Abraham; as heir to an eternal throne, he’s the true and better David.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus announces in the Sermon on the Mount. “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). In other words, he’s saying, “I’ve come to keep the law myself and to show you its true intent. Reinterpret accordingly.” John Piper explains it well:
Abolition is not Jesus’s purpose. Fulfillment is. And when the law is fulfilled in Jesus, its original use changes dramatically. A new era has dawned, and Jesus’s followers will relate to the law differently than Israel did.
The Son of God’s entire earthly life was calculated to keep—and complete—the law of God in his people’s place. Jesus embodied in himself everything the law demanded. No wonder John, in the span of just six chapters, presents him as the fulfillment of every Jewish festival: Sabbath feast (John 5), Passover (John 6), Tabernacles (John 7–9), and Feast of Dedication (John 10). And no wonder Paul declares him to be “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4).
It is crucial to realize that the problem was never with the law itself. The law reflects God’s character and is therefore “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). The problem has always been with sinful humans. We cannot keep the law. So rather than standing for us in vindication, the law stands against us in condemnation.
Finally, a Lawkeeper
The good news Christians believe and proclaim is that the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, was “born under the law” (Gal. 4:4) in order to obey its demands—and to bear its curse—as a substitute in our place (Gal. 3:13–14). The lawmaker became the lawkeeper and then died for lawbreakers.
The lawmaker became the lawkeeper and then died for lawbreakers.
Hence Paul’s declaration to the Jews gathered at Pisidian Antioch:
Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38–39, emphasis mine)
God designed the law both to instruct and guide his people and also to expose their sin and need for a Savior.
Take Down the Signs
When you’re driving to a city, it’s common to see road signs pointing you in the right direction and indicating how far is left to go. Once you’ve arrived, though, the signs are no longer needed. How strange and confusing would it be if downtown Chicago were filled with signs pointing the way to . . . Chicago? In a similar way, the Old Testament is a long, winding road with signs pointing the way to a new covenant and new age ushered in by a new king (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:26–27; Isa. 56–66).
Two thousand years ago, in the person of Jesus, it finally happened—the new king arrived, and the new era dawned. As one theologian put it, “The Old Testament reaches out in longing for Christ who brings an end to its frustrations and brings to accomplishment its promises.”
The signage of the law, therefore, can be taken down. It served its purpose.
The New Testament repeatedly declares that God’s people are no longer “under law” (Rom. 6:14–15; 1 Cor. 9:20; Gal. 3:23; 4:4–5, 21; 5:18). That era of salvation history ended when, in the person of Jesus, God himself came to earth, obeyed his own law, and inaugurated his own kingdom. As those forgiven by God and indwelt by his Spirit, then, believers in Christ are no longer mastered by sin and subjected to the law’s damning demands. As Paul exclaims:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1–4)
Further, as the apostle explains elsewhere, God has forever “[canceled] the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–14). The demands of the Mosaic law code—which cried out for our condemnation—died with King Jesus at Calvary.
Since Christ kept the law and died for our failure to do so, those united to him through faith are now “under grace”—secure in the realm of God’s unmerited favor. Any attempt to revert to old-covenant living is therefore a vain effort to turn back the redemptive-historical clock. And the New Testament writers will have none of this.
Now, writing from a baptistic, new-covenant-theology perspective, am I saying that Christians have no moral obligations whatsoever? Not at all. Though we aren’t bound to the law of Moses, we are subject to what the New Testament calls “the law of Christ”—a moral norm encapsulated by sacrificial love (Gal. 6:2; see also 1 Cor. 9:21). And the moral norms of the law are not irrelevant to the law of Christ; they are included in it. If anything, they’re just intensified. As Jesus told his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
Any attempt to revert to old-covenant living is a vain effort to turn back the redemptive-historical clock.
The Old Testament prophets longed for the day when God would write his law on his people’s hearts. That day is here. “If you are led by the Spirit,” Paul writes, “you are not under the law” but under grace (Gal. 5:18). In other words, those who trust in Jesus aren’t under the law; the law is “under” them—engraved on their hearts. The Holy Spirit empowers those saved by grace to both desire and obey what was formerly impossible.
From the Mirror to the Shower
Imagine you had some dirt on your face but didn’t know it. “Go look in the mirror,” a friend says. Now, is the mirror’s job to clean your face? Of course not. It’s to expose your face and send you to the shower. Likewise, the law is a mirror that reveals sin. Its purpose isn’t to clean us, but to send us to the only One who can. The mirror of the law was designed to drive us to the shower of the gospel (Rom. 3:20; 5:20; Gal. 3:23).
Those who trust in Jesus aren’t under the law; the law is ‘under’ them—engraved on their hearts.
This is the central message of the New Testament: God gives in the gospel what he demands in the law. At bottom, Christians aren’t bound by the Jewish law because our Lord Jesus kept it for us. He fulfilled its ceremonies, its festivals, its sacrifices, its moral demands. The law’s ultimate purpose was always to point to our need for a Savior—one who would forgive us and change us from the inside out, rather than leaving us to reform and redeem ourselves.
This, friend, is spectacular news. As Martin Luther put it so many years ago, “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is done already.”