Are Christians responsible to keep the Old Testament Law? Is there a difference between the ceremonial and moral law? These were the pointed questions which arose in the early church. Christians were sent by their congregations to Jerusalem so they could resolve the question of the Christian’s relationship to the OT.
Even though God had promised Gentile inclusion to the New Covenant in the Old Testament (Is 2:2–3; 25:6–8; 56:6–7; 60:2–22; Zech 8:23) and demonstrated his acceptance of the Gentiles (Acts 10), there were many who did not understand how the Gentiles should be allowed into the church without also observing the law of Moses. They began to demand the Gentile converts undergo circumcision, a sign of the Mosaic covenant, before they were allowed into full fellowship of the church. As Larkin said, the Judaizers were “adding a performance condition to salvation: circumcision and, as their Jerusalem compatriots articulate it, obedience to the law of Moses.”
One of the major concepts which needs to be addressed as we move across the covenants is fulfillment. Matthew’s Gospel records about 15 occurrences of Jesus fulfilling the OT in some way. G. K. Beale described this progressive fulfillment when he wrote, “NT writers interpret the OT in the light of the later events of Christ’s coming and work.”He continued to say “part of the creative interpretative development lies merely in the fact that fulfillment always fleshes out prior prophecy in a way that, to some degree, was unforeseen by earlier OT prophets.” Therefore, “the NT storyline will be a transformation of the OT one in the light of how the NT is seen to be an unfolding of the OT, especially through fulfillment of the OT.”
If we can understand what Matthew meant by that, I think we can better understand how Jesus has fulfilled the OT and why Christians are no longer obligated to keep the OT. The concept of fulfillment was continued by other NT writers as well. Some important examples of fulfilment language in Matthew and Paul will be surveyed here so that the principle can be explained and applied to Christ’s relationship to the OT. From there, the Christians’ relationship to the OT will be discussed in light of this principle.
The OT Fulfilled
The first time Matthew said Jesus fulfilled the OT was in Matthew 1:21 when Jesus’ birth fulfilled the promise in Isaiah 7:14 that a “virgin would conceive and bring forth a son.” There was an immediate fulfillment of that promise to Ahaz in the 8th century, but there was still something lacking to make it complete.
In Matthew 2:15, Matthew told us that Jesus had to go down to Egypt and then be brought out because Hosea 1:11 said, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” The prophecy in Hosea does not appear to have anything to do with Jesus on the surface, but Matthew said this was a prophecy. There was a connection between the OT saints and Christ. What the OT saints did or tried to do, Jesus did perfectly and in greater ways than what they could have imagined.
Matthew 2:17 teaches the slaughter of the innocence occurred in fulfillment of what Jeremiah 38:15 said about Rachel weeping for her children. Again, the OT text does not appear to have anything to do with Jesus on the surface, but the Bible teaches us that we should see a link between the OT saints and Jesus. Whatever they did, Jesus did. The difference is that Jesus did it perfectly and in even better ways than what the OT saints could have imagined.
Matthew 2:23 teaches that Jesus lived in Nazareth because it “was spoken by the mouth of the prophets…that he would be called a Nazarene” and this was necessary for the Scriptures to be “fulfilled.” This may be a reference to Samson in Judges 13:5 who took a Nazarite vow or it may be a reference to Christ not appearing notable—the word Nazareth and Nazarene was associated with being average at best. But again, there is no direct prophecy. What we see is an experience in the OT saints which is duplicated with perfection and heightened glory by Christ.
These examples must suffice for now so that we can move on to Matthew 5:17 where Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus didn’t just remove the OT. Jesus completed the OT perfectly and gave us something far greater—the New Testament. The OT or old covenant was an agreement between God and man. God consistently upheld his end of the covenant. Mankind consistently defaulted on their end of the covenant. In order for the agreement to be finished, someone had to complete man’s side of the arrangement. Jesus added humanity to his person in order to live perfectly under the OT and usher in a better covenant relationship.
The NT Enacted
Since Jesus had completed the terms of the OT, the NT became the law for God’s people. This was prophesied in passages like Joel 2, Isaiah 2, and Jeremiah 31. Hebrews 8 also confirmed the shift in the covenants based on the silence of Scripture and genealogy of Jesus. The NT should be regarded as a great blessing for God’s people. The OT proved to mankind that they could not stand before God on their own merits. The NT allowed them to stand before God on the merit of Christ.
Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8
God told the people they had not and could not keep their end of the covenant relationship. He took it upon himself to fulfill their covenant responsibilities himself and to give a new covenant which depended upon his Son as the representative of the people. Jeremiah recorded,
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers o the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:31-33).
This OT promise was cited in Hebrews 8 to demonstrate that the NT was in effect since Jesus completed the OT. Hebrews 8:13 then said, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul used this same concept of fulfillment to show that he was freed from the OT because it had been fulfilled and he had been joined to Christ in the New Covenant. He wrote, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:19-21).
The OT had been completed by Christ and Paul could not go back to it or else he would be rebuilding what he tore down (Gal. 2:18). Furthermore, if Paul were to go back to the OT, he would be required to achieve precision obedience under that law (Gal. 3:10). That has been demonstrated to be an impossibility for everyone but Christ, so “The righteous shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:11).
Paul went on to argue that the OT had been fulfilled and replaced with something better by showing that the covenant received by faith was the original, and thus superior, arrangement. Abraham received the covenant blessings by faith (Gen. 12, 15; Gal. 3:18). The law held everyone captive (Gal. 3:23-24). The covenant of faith came after Jesus fulfilled the OT–“now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all son sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:25-27). Christ fulfilled the law and since Christians have been put on Christ, they are not responsible to keep the OT because Christ has already finished that work with perfection.
Paul illustrated this again in Romans 7. There Paul compared those who were in Christ, and therefore in the NT, to a woman who tried to leave her current husband and go to another man—her dead husband! Paul wrote, “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.” Since Christ fulfilled the OT and Christians are in Christ, there is no need to keep the OT any longer. “ Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4).
The Decision from the Acts 15 Council
Gentiles are Welcome
Peter demonstrated God’s decision to include the Gentiles by God’s choice to use Peter to preach to Gentiles in Acts 10 (Acts 15:7) and God’s demonstration of their acceptance in Acts 15:8-9. Barnabas and Paul also listed the works of God in their own ministries which confirmed God’s inclusion of the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). James finally spoke up and cited Amos 9:11-12 as proof the Gentiles should be accepted because God said, “the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from old.” The Gentiles were to be full members of the church. God had demonstrated this miraculously and he had prophesied their inclusion in the OT itself.
Gentiles are not Jews
The Christians recognized Gentiles were not under the OT because Christ had completed or fulfilled the OT. James said, “”Therefore my judgment Is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20). The Gentile converts were not responsible for keeping the OT because Christ had kept the OT perfectly on their behalf as their representative (Acts 15:21). They said, “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements” (Acts 15:28).
Rituals are hard to avoid. Rituals give us a sense of comfort. When we are able to do something “spiritual” with physical things, we use our senses to give concreteness to our beliefs. We may feel as though we are actively involved in the spiritual side of religion through the physical things we are doing.
Since we are comforted and empowered by physical rituals, many of us turn back to OT practices. Those practices can help us feel connected with God’s people in the past and make us feel more spiritual through praxis. However, we need to remember what Christ did. He fulfilled the Law. He did everything for us. This doesn’t mean we are free from responsibilities. Christians are in Christ and therefore must actively imitate Christ. We are activated by and live by faith so that we “bear the fruit of the Spirit.”
What we must not do is work the works of law so that we can come into God’s presence or be acceptable to him. Jesus has already done that. If we suppose we can add anything to the finished work of Christ, we exalt ourselves and debase Christ. Christians do not turn to ritual for spirituality. Christians turn to their Redeemer to find life in the Spirit. There is no need for old rituals. Christians have new life in Christ.
Acts 15 demonstrates how God’s people can assemble to resolve personal and doctrinal issues. The answers to these questions, and all our questions, are found in Christ. Neither Jews nor Gentiles need to follow the Law of Moses. Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. We are free in Christ as we live by faith. We cannot return again to the works of the Law. To do go back to what Christ had finished for us would be an embarrassment. We can add nothing to what Jesus has done and if we tried, we would only diminish his perfection.
 William J. Larkin Jr., Acts, vol. 5, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 1995), Ac 15:1.
 G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 4.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 6.
 Thiessen explored the historical background of those who would abolish the OT law. He confirmed the likelihood of Jesus’ enemies accusing him of being one of the Hellenizers who were trying to abolish the OT. Thiessen wrote, “I have argued that the threefold occurrence of the verbs καταλυω and λυω in Matt 5, 17-20 is evidence of an accusation leveled at Jesus and the Jewish community that followed him….in these verse, Matthew answers the dangerous accusation that his community members are law abolishers and consequently a threat to all Jews” (Thiessen, Matthew. “Abolishers of the Law in Early Judaism and Matthew 5,17-20.” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 554).