Open Matthew 5:17-20.
Jesus did not abolish or even adjust the divine commands God gave to Israel in the Law and the Prophets. Like other Jews of his time, he lived under Torah. He was circumcised. He ate only kosher foods. He observed the Sabbath and the annual festivals. He disputed with his contemporaries regarding how to keep the Sabbath, but not about whether to keep it. So if the founder of our faith lived by the Law and taught its significance, should we, his followers, follow in his steps?
Jesus was Jew. That point was significant enough for Matthew to spend his first chapter establishing it. The Torah and the Prophets were the revelation God gave to Israel. We call it the Old Testament; Jews call it the Tanakh. The Torah begins with the claim that Israel’s God is the sovereign ruler of the whole earth, even though the nations that rebelled against his rulership (Genesis 1–11). The divine ruler therefore revealed a plan to establish a nation of his own, through Abraham’s descendants. Through them, he planned to restore the blessing of his reign to all nations (Genesis 12–50).
So, that’s how Israel came into existence. They were slaves of another nation when the divine sovereign freed them to become his representative nation to the nations (Exodus 1–19). At Sinai, God established his legal covenant with Israel: they committed themselves to be his nation, and he committed himself to be their ruler. As their king, he gave them the laws for their nation — the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20–24). The Torah spells out what their sovereign required of them. When they disobeyed, their ruler sent prophets to warn them and call them back to obedience.
In other words, the Torah was given to Israel, not to the nations. God gave it all — the Ten Commandments, the Book of the Covenant, the Levitical sacrifice laws, the wilderness instructions (Numbers) and the honed restatement of it all in Deuteronomy — to the Jewish nation. God never issued these commands to the nations. That’s important: any attempt to enforce Torah requirements on non-Jews is a serious misunderstanding of the Biblical narrative.
So, no: the Ten Commandments do not apply to Christians.
That’s the approach the New Testament takes. Paul strongly denounced those who tried to make his Galatian converts comply with Jewish laws about circumcision and food. The Judaizers had failed to understand how Israel’s God was now bringing all nations back under his sovereignty in the Messiah, not in the Sinai covenant. Jesus fulfilled the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses, but Jesus was not leading the nations to Sinai. He was leading the nations into the promise God gave Abraham — the restoration of God’s blest reign over all nations. The requirements God set for Israel before the Messiah are not the requirements God has set for all nations under the Messiah.
So, the Ten Commandments are irrelevant? Certainly not. They have no legal force in the covenant God established with all nations through his Son, Jesus. But that doesn’t make them irrelevant.
God is not random. God did not give laws to Israel in order to make their lives difficult. The commands he gave Israel we meaningful, for Israel’s calling was to reflect their sovereign’s character to the nations. So, although Christians do not live in a covenant defined by these commands, there is still a revelation of God’s character in the commands he gave to Israel. When God said, “Don’t murder,” the command reflects God’s value of human life. When God said, “Don’t commit adultery,” he was calling Israel to a way of life that reflected his own faithfulness. The character of the sovereign is revealed in his commands since the commands were designed so his people would reflect his character.
Christians are not bound by the commands God gave to his representative nation before the Messiah came and restored God’s government over all nations. But as we read the Old Testament story of God’s covenant with Israel and his faithfulness to them, we can and should read them as the revelation of his character.
We are not under Torah. Circumcision, Sabbath, kosher food laws, and ethnicity no longer define the people of God. Nevertheless, the Torah stands as a wonderful revelation of God’s character and his persistence when people resist his reign. He never gave up on his people, even when they disobeyed.
Now he has gone so much further, revealing his faithfulness not only to Israel but to the nations. He is bringing the whole creation back under his governance in the Messiah. If there’s anything the Bible’s story reveals about our sovereign, it’s his faithfulness to his people. We do not live under the requirements of the Sinai covenant, but we are called to faithfulness to our astounding king.
What others are saying
Craig L. Blomberg, “Chapter 7 — The Sabbath as Fulfilled in Christ” in Perspectives on the Sabbath edited by Christopher John Donato et al, (Nashville: B&H, 2011) (emphasis original):
Because Jesus fulfilled the Law, and thus fulfilled the Sabbath commands, He, not some day of the week, is what offers the believers rest. We obey the Sabbath commandment of the Decalogue as we spiritually rest in Christ, letting Him bear our heavy burdens, trusting Him for salvation, and committing our lives to Him in service, then remaining faithful in lifelong loyalty to Him rather than committing apostasy. No special day each week for rest or worship could ever come close to fulfilling this grander and far more enriching and exciting vision of life to the full!
A. Layman, “Article IV: Review of Perpetuity of the Sabbath” in The Presbyterian Quarterly and Princeton Review, New Series V, no. 17–20 (1876): 119–120:
It is sometimes said the ten commandments were given to Israel as the type of the church, and so are binding on the church now, the local circumstances being allegorized. We disclaim any such argument, as unscriptural, unsound, unwarranted, and dangerous. …
We can see no more warrant for allegorizing the preface to the ten commandments, than for allegorizing the commandments themselves, or the account of the birth of Christ, or of his resurrection. We cannot, by any such means, get rid of the national direction of these statutes. …
Commands given to Israel, and, therefore, prima facie, to it only, may, nevertheless, have been in many cases intended for, and so binding on, not only the species Israel, but the whole genus God’s people, or the whole genus all nations. But this cannot be assumed; it must, in each class of cases, be affirmatively proved.
Paula Gooder, The Pentateuch: A Story of Beginnings, (London: T&T Clark International, 2005), 91:
J. Barton (1998) represents a common Christian approach to the use of the Hebrew Bible in ethics when he says that the purpose of the Hebrew Bible
is not primarily to give information about morality … but to provide materials that, when pondered and absorbed into the mind, will suggest the pattern or shape of a way of life lived in the presence of God. (p. 128)
An exception to this view of the Hebrew Bible in general and the law codes in particular is the Decalogue. The Ten Commandments have, traditionally, been given a place within Christian ethics denied to the other law codes of the Pentateuch.
[previous: Why wasn’t Jesus demanding obedience?]