Do Christians have to keep the Mosaic Law?

The earliest threat to the unity of the church was teaching about the believer’s obligation to the Old Testament law. As the gospel spread out from Jerusalem, more and more Gentiles began to believe and come into the church. Some Jews taught that the believing Gentiles had to keep the law to truly be saved. The apostle Paul and others began to argue strongly against this teaching. As a result, a council was convened in Jerusalem to discuss this question.

Acts 15 summarizes the discussion. Four men spake. Paul and Barnabas then told of how they had taken the gospel to Gentiles in Asia Minor and how God had blessed their ministry. James spoke of how God had foretold the conversion of the Gentiles. The plan to save Gentiles was God’s plan all along. Peter told of how he had first taken to the gospel to the Gentiles of Cornelius’ household. Those Gentiles were saved by faith while Peter was preaching. They received the Holy Spirit without doing anything instructed in the Mosaic Law. The conclusion of the council was that the law is unnecessary for salvation and that Gentiles are under no obligation to keep the law of Moses.

The question of the believers obligation to the law did not go away. The question is addressed in the book of Galatians. The simple, clear answer given in that book is “no.” If salvation begins by faith and the Holy Spirit is received by faith without the keeping of the law, then how could keeping the law be necessary for the Christian life? Salvation and sanctification are accomplished without the keeping of the law. (Galatians 3:1-3)

The New Testament is clear that the law has been done away with by Jesus. First, the law is a unit. If a person is under obligation to keep one part of the law, then he is obligated to keep all the law. (Galatians 3:10, 12) The separating out of the law into civil and ceremonial portions is not a valid division. If one part of the law is done away with, then all the law is done away with. The book of Hebrews makes a strong argument that the priesthood formed by the law of Moses was changed by Jesus. (Hebrews 7) The sacrifice of Jesus took away the sacrifices under Moses’ law. (Hebrews 10) Since the law is a single unit, the doing away of the priesthood and the sacrifices means the entire Mosaic Law has been done away with. Second, the law has been abolished by Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:7-11) Hebrews 7 says the Mosaic law was put away because it could not save. In Hebrews 8 we are told that the Old Covenant under the law of Moses was replaced with a New Covenant in Christ. The New Testament could not be more clear. The law has been done away with by Jesus. “There is a truly a setting aside of the former commandment.” (Hebrews 7:18) The Old Testament law is abolished by Jesus. No one, not even the Jews, are now required to keep the law of Moses because it’s purposes have been fulfilled in Jesus.

Does this mean Christians are not under any law at all? Of course not. The Christian is under Christ’s law. His commandment is simple, “love one another.” (John 13:34) The command to love one another is explained in Romans 13 and James 2 as a keeping of the last six of the ten commandments. Galatians 5 and 1 John 3 describe loving one another as selfless, Spirit-filled living that ministers to those in need. The Christian is under a law. The law of Christ is not the law of Moses but it does shares some commands in common with the Mosaic law. Though there is similarity between the two laws, the Christian must not imagine he is obligated to keep the Mosaic law. The Christian is under obligation to a great law, the law to love God supremely and to love others sacrificially.

Did the prophets understand what they wrote about Jesus?

The Old Testament prophets foretold many details about of the coming of Jesus, His birth, death, resurrection, forgiveness and earthly kingdom. The prophecies do not come neatly arranged, organized by topic or even given in chronological order. The prophecies are sometimes difficult to understand, are scattered throughout the prophetic messages to Israel and often rely on dramatic imagery to make the point. Bible students struggle to understand what the prophets said about Jesus, which makes many wonder how much the prophets themselves understood about what they were writing.

We know the prophets did not know all the details of Jesus’ life and death. Few, if any, of the prophets would have had been familiar with crucifixions, so even though they prophesied a painful death for the Messiah, they probably did not understand He would be hung on a cross. The words of 1 Peter 1:10-11 show that the prophets did not understand everything about the coming Messiah. “Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” They understood some things and they did not understand everything. How much did they understand?

Two dangerous assumptions need to be avoided. The modern reader cannot assume the Old Testament prophets were not as smart or thoughtful as we are today. The men who wrote the Bible gave a lot of thought and attention to the things of God. Consider Psalm 119. That Psalm reveals an incredible amount of thought was put into its crafting and its subject matter. In 176 verses the Psalmist describes in great detail the wonders of the Word of God and the effect of the Word on the lives of the people of God. David is not alone in giving evidence of much meditation on the Word of God. The prophets writing show they were diligent to search Scripture and able to understand in great depth the declarations and implications of the Word.

The second assumption that must be avoided is that the prophets shared the same attitude towards the Messiah as the people of Jesus’ day. The New Testament indicates many people in Jesus’ day were looking for a Savior from Roman occupation. They were not looking for one to save them from their sins, but from their political bondage. However, the prophets did not share the delusion of a purely political Savior. They recognized the work of the Messiah was a work to make His people righteous. “And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me; and I will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me.” (Jeremiah 33:8)

The prophets understood that the Messiah would live, die and rise again for the forgiveness of sin. Possibly the clearest statement to this effect comes from the mouth of Peter in Acts 2. Peter was speaking of David’s prophecy of the death and resurrection of Jesus in Psalm 16:10. “Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” Peter says that David knew the oath of God. David knew the Messiah would be raised back to life to sit on the throne of God. David understood the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is impossible to know exactly what the Old Testament prophets knew. We can be confident they had a robust understanding of the broad outlines of the work of the Messiah. They knew He was coming to bring forgiveness and to make His people righteous. They knew He would suffer and die. They knew He would rise again. They knew He would reign over a righteous people in a righteous kingdom. The prophets understood the significance of what they wrote. They may not have understood the work of Jesus as fully as we do today, but they understood it enough.

What was the Ark of the Covenant?

The Ark of the Covenant was recently in the news with reports of a claim the Ark is being kept by Ethiopian priests in a church in Africa. This claim has not been proven, but it does cause many to wonder what it would be like if the actual Ark of the Covenant was found. Many people know of the Ark because of the Ark to the Indiana Jones movies. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Indiana discovers the Ark in a long lost Egyptian city and then rescues the Ark from Nazis who were attempting to tap into its power to gain a military advantage during the second World War. The movie climaxes when a German officer opens the Ark and brings destruction upon everyone present (except the hero and heroine). The movie ends with the Ark being encased in a crate and stored away in a massive warehouse somewhere in Washington, D.C. While the movie is obviously fictional, the Ark of the Covenant was a real thing that remained at the center of Jewish worship for nearly one thousand years.

The ark of the covenant was built at the command of God. Through Moses God instructed the Israelites to build a tabernacle where He would be worshiped. His instructions included furniture for the tabernacle: altars, tables, candlesticks and the ark of the covenant. God gave precise instructions about to Israel about the tabernacle and all its furnishings.

The Ark was a simple wooden box about 4 feet long and 2 feet wide. The wood was overlaid inside and out with gold. A gold moulding went around the top of the Ark and a gold ring was set in each corner. Golden staffs were made to fit inside the rings and were to be used by the Levites to carry the Ark. The lid of the Ark of the Covenant was also covered in gold and at each end of the lid was placed a statue of an angel. The angels faced one another and their outstretched wings covered the top of the Ark. This lid was known as the mercy seat, and it was the place where the presence of God dwelled. God instructed Israel to place three things inside the Ark: the copy of the law written on Mt. Sinai, a pot of manna and the staff of Aaron. (Hebrews 9:4) These three items served as reminders of the covenant God had made with Israel and evidences of His fulfillment of that covenant.

The Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat was placed in the Holy of Holies where they remained unseen by any but the High Priest of Israel. When King Solomon built the temple, the Ark of the Covenant was transferred into the temple where it remained for the next several hundred years. When the temple was destroyed by the armies of Babylon all the furniture was taken out and shipped to Babylon. The Bible says nothing about the ark after the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Ark of the Covenant was not a supernatural box and it did not give supernatural power to armies carrying it. In fact, the Israelites came to believe the Ark would save them from defeat in battle. They carried it into conflict with the Philistines, lost the battle and the Philistines captured the Ark. No ghosts flew out of the Ark and soldiers did not melt. After the Philistines captured the Ark many Philistines died and others suffered unpleasant diseases. When the Ark was sent back to Israel, a group of Israelites looked inside it. God killed thousands of men in that town because they opened the Ark of the Covenant. However, the Bible never describes the Ark as having supernatural powers, or as striking down armies of men. God punished those who violated the holiness of the Ark of the Covenant, but most of these punishments were not dramatic or obviously supernatural. The ark of the covenant was never a magic box. It was a constant reminder of the covenant of God with Israel and the seat of God’s presence in the midst of His people.

Why did King David take the Ark of the Covenant away from the Tabernacle?

In the days of the judges the nation of Israel abandoned the worship of God to worship idols. When they did worship God they mixed in many idolatrous practices. Finally, the Israelites decided the ark of the covenant was a talisman that would give them victory over the Philistines. This did not work out very well for the Israelites. The army of Israel was defeated and the ark of the covenant captured. Capturing the ark did not work out well for the Philistines. God began to make a mockery of the Philistine god Dagon and to afflict the Philistines with plagues. After 7 months in the cities of the Philistines the ark was returned to Israel and stayed in Gibeon for over 70 years.

After King David secured his kingdom against the Philistines he determined to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. Under the leadership of David, the Levites brought the ark into the city and placed it in a tent near David’s palace. However, the tabernacle, the altars and all the other furnishings for the tabernacle were left in Gibeon.

The ark of the covenant played an important role in the worship of God. When the tabernacle was completed the visible presence of God came to reside on the mercy seat that covered the ark of the covenant. With the ark separated from the tabernacle the presence of God was obviously removed from the place of sacrifice. Without the ark at the tabernacle the priests could not obey God’s commands regarding the most important sacrifice of the year- the day of atonement. Why would King David keep the ark and the tabernacle separate?

Various practical reasons have been offered to explain the King’s actions. The tabernacle was old. Though portions of it had been rebuilt over the 500 years since it was first built, the long neglect of Divine worship during the time of the judges and the kingship of Saul may have left the tabernacle in such a dilapidated state that it could not be moved without severe damage. Also, it appears that while David was hiding from Saul in the wilderness, the duties of the high priest were divided. When David took the throne two men may have been serving as high priests in Israel. David may have chosen to have two places of worship rather than remove one man from the being the high priest.

Though these reasons may be valid, they do not go far enough. Psalm 78:60-68 teaches that God allowed the ark to be captured by the Philistines and then stored in Jerusalem, distant from the tabernacle and altar of burnt offering, as an act of judgment against Israel. God removed His presence from the tabernacle and the Israelites. Their continued idolatry made it impossible for them to worship in His presence. Just like today, sin will hinder the ability of God’s people to come into His presence.

God also chose to make Jerusalem the center of His worship. He determined the temple would be built in Jerusalem. We do not know when God revealed this to David, but God was at work in David’s actions to accomplish His purposes. God’s judgment of the nation prepared the way for His grace. God was working through King David to restore the true worship of Himself in Israel and to return His glorious presence in the midst of His people. Though God had distanced Himself from Israel for a time, He did not completely rejected them. God in His grace was working to bring His people to repentance and restore them to fellowship with Him.