Many Christians and non-Christians, alike, routinely have confusion over how to frame, communicate and comprehend the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, often times questioning how to reconcile some of the controversial contents of the Old with the overarching message of the New.
This is typically the case when it comes to the sometimes controversial laws that are presented in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as a key question emerges as a result of these texts: which of these laws still stand today?
And considering verses like Deuteronomy 21:18-21 — which talks about stoning defiant children — among other similar verses, it’s a viable curiosity worth exploring.
“We know for a fact that stealing, lying and coveting — as spelled out in the Ten Commandments — are still as wrong today as they were during Moses’ time,” Patrick Mabilog recently wrote for Christian Today. “But stoning, excommunicating children and staying away from certain foods are no longer commanded.”
Mabilog said God didn’t simply give humanity the initial laws without purpose, explaining that dietary laws, for example, were intended to protect individuals’ health among a “nomadic Israel with no hospitals,” while civil laws were intended to assist in governing the people. And he’s not alone in his perspective.
Pastor Mark Driscoll of The Trinity Church in Phoenix, Arizona, tackled these same issues earlier this year in a video he released on his website — a clip that focused specifically on whether the Bible bans tattoos.
“When it comes to tattoos, there’s only one place in the Bible that seems to say you can’t get a tattoo — that’s way back in Leviticus chapter 19 verses 26 through 30,” Driscoll said. “What we’re in there is the Old Testament, not the New Testament, and we’re into a section called ‘the law.'”
He went on to say that the first five books of the Bible deal with three different types of law: civil, ceremonial and moral. Driscoll said the first two — civil and ceremonial — were fulfilled during Jesus’ first coming, with moral laws having a presence in both the Old and the New Testaments. Tattoos, he said, don’t fall under moral law.
“What’s the bottom line?” Driscoll continued. “When we come to all of the Old Testament law, we have to figure out what category was it in? Is it binding upon us today?”
Pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has also spoken out in-depth about this issue, penning an explainer in 2012 that offered “a short course on the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament.”
The article also offered a response to critics who claim Christians are guilty of “inconsistency” for purportedly picking and choosing which Bible commands they will embrace in the modern era. Keller wrote, in part:
The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices that were to be offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshippers could approach a holy God. As part of that sacrificial system there was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can’t go into God’s presence without purification.
But even in the Old Testament, many writers hinted that the sacrifices and the temple worship regulations pointed forward to something beyond them. (cf. 1 Samuel 15:21-22; Psalm 50:12-15; 51:17; Hosea 6:6). When Christ appeared he declared all foods ‘clean’ (Mark 7:19) and he ignored the Old Testament clean laws in other ways, touching lepers and dead bodies.
But the reason is made clear. When he died on the cross the veil in the temple was ripped through, showing that the need for the entire sacrificial system with all its clean laws had been done away with. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and now Jesus makes us “clean.”
According to Keller, Jesus’ life and death essentially fulfilled the ceremonial laws, making their practice unneeded afterward. Civil law, too, changed after Christ. While sins were previously punished with civil penalties such as execution due to the fact that God’s people lived in a nation-state, things are now different today.
“In the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments,” he wrote, explaining that Jesus’ coming meant the gospel was no longer contained to one, single country. “The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership.”
Keller agreed that moral law is still in place, and that Paul makes this clear in Romans 13:8, which reads, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” It is the moral law that he believes offers a lens into God’s character.
“The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament,” he wrote.
Of course, there are other ideas out there about moral, civil and ceremonial law, as you can see here. Some might argue that moral laws aren’t necessarily in effect still, seeing them as simply “excellent examples as to how to love God and love others.” You can read more about the stoning issue here.
Either way, there’s clearly an explanation for critics who decry the Bible as a book commanding the stoning of children, among other laws that would seem problematic in the modern era.
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