Law,  Old Testament

Following the Principle of the Law

photo of ruler signifying the principle of the law

We have looked previously at the clear testimony of Scripture that the believer’s relationship to the Mosaic Law has drastically changed. In fact, because the Mosaic Law was tied to the Mosaic Covenant, when the Mosaic Covenant passed away, the believer was no longer under the Law (cf. Gal 5:18). But, yet we see Paul and the other Apostles constantly being influenced by and appealing to the Law. How can this be?  

It stands to reason that although the Law is no longer binding, this does not mean there is no more usefulness to the Mosaic Law. In fact, I would argue that the Mosaic Law retains its didactic purpose and helps instruct mankind how to live in light of the creation principles. In other words, the Law stops functioning as a law code, but it retains its pedagogical function, giving the Christian insight into the character of the Creator and His created order. This explains the drastic doing away of the Old Covenant, but also helps us understand how to apply the Law under the New Covenant.

So, in order for the New Covenant believer to benefit from the Law, I would propose the believer seeks to obey the principle of the Law (rather than the letter of the Law) by following these three steps.

1. Determine the original meaning, significance, and purpose of the law.

The first step is to examine the original meaning of the law in question through the exegetical process. This part in the process attempts to solve exegetical questions and determine appropriate historical context and purpose. This is likely the most difficult, yet most significant part of the process. Since most modern cultural elements are significantly different from the historical culture of Scripture, this process will require care and due diligence in ascertaining the original context and meaning.  

2. Trace the theological significance of the law.

An important part of the application process involves understanding what the specific law teaches us about God’s created order or His character. The laws which make up the Sinaitic legislation provide a unique opportunity see the character of God as well as the design of the created order. The theological significance of the law must be separated from the cultural milieu of ancient Israel. Thus, proper appropriation of any law must involve identifying the context of the law and discerning the theological significance behind that law by tracing it back to God or the created order.

3. Determine the application and implication of the theology of the law.

Based on the previous steps, one should be able to ascertain the theology and/or wisdom about God or the created order from the specific law in question. It is helpful in this step to be able to utilize the New Testament and see if any New Testament author makes reference or allusion to the theological application of the law.

An Example: Deuteronomy 22:8

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it (Deut 22:8)

photo of roof

Step 1: Determine the original significance

Unlike the American experience, Israel utilized their roof space as a place to gather (2 Sam 11:2; Acts 10:9). The typical house in America is inclined, and not habitable, but a roof would be flat in Israel. Thus, Deuteronomy 22:8 ensures that a fence is put around the roof of the house to avoid someone falling and killing themselves.

Step 2: Trace the theological significance of the law

Ultimately, Deuteronomy 22:8 embodies the principle of the 6th of the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not murder. If you make the 6th commandment a positive declaration (which is a typical way to ascertain the main principle the Ten Commandments), the main takeaway is “You must value life.”

This principle of valuing life is grounded in creation. In Genesis 1:26-28, we read that man and woman have ultimate value in creation because they are made in the image of God. Thus, because mankind is made in the image of God, God forbids the unlawful taking of life (Gen 9:5-6). This is also why life must be treated as sacred and valuable.

Although the 6th commandment gives the general principle, this principle of valuing life and preserving it is applied in a more specific way in Deuteronomy 22:8. An Israelite should take care to protect those who are on his roof, and not endanger them needlessly.

Step 3: Apply to Modern Culture

photo of pool

Most of us are not living on our roof. However, the principle is applicable in many scenarios. Having a car with functioning seat belts, having a fence or a pool cover in order to protect children from falling into an in-ground pool and drowning—these would be appropriate applications of this principle of preserving life.

Conclusion

The Law is incredibly valuable to the New covenant believer. The New Testament seems clear that the Law does not retain is legally binding status over the life of a believer. But, the Law has transitioned to a solely pedagogical role in the life of believers. The Law teaches us how to think about God, and how to live in His created order. Thus, we can always apply the principles behind the laws.

Main photo by Christian Kaindl on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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