Do Christians Follow the Old Testament?

Does Christianity believe in the Old Testament? Of course! Our very faith is based on the promises of God that begin in Genesis. Do Christians follow the Old Testament and read it? As Christians, we need to rediscover the beauty of the Old Testament and the Law from the right perspective. To veer neither to the extreme of making the laws of the Torah the central focus, nor throwing them out as irrelevant.

Instead, let’s try to see the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures: Torah, Prophets, and Writings) in its original context and comprehend its importance to the life and history of Israel. To rather discern its intended purpose as a narrative for God’s interaction with humanity.

Christianity and the Old Testament

Christians often struggle with the question whether to read – and how thoroughly to study – the Old Testament. This dilemma stems from the fact that the New Testament–New Covenant–mentions the Law in various, sometimes seemingly contradictory contexts.

So, the tendency is to go to extremes.

Some Christians may disregard the entirety of the Old Testament, equating it with the “old covenant” (Sinai Covenant). They believe that it is fully dissolved in the light of a new covenant of grace. But could we ever read the New Testament properly without understanding the foundations and continuity of its historical and prophetic context?

Others may seek to return to the Jewish roots of faith and aim to please God through a renewed zeal for fulfilling the works of the Law. Yet “Torah observance” can quickly turn to legalism, spiritual pride, and works-based efforts to earn right standing before God and man. Those who rely on the works of the law are under a curse (Gal 3:10).

Is there a balanced response to these two extremes?

The Bible in Hebrew in Beit Jimal (or Beit Jamal) Catholic monastery

Should Christians Read the Old Testament?

If you answered the above question with “No”, because we are “saved by grace”, consider this.

The entire Bible, Torah and all, is still God-breathed scripture.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

In fact, the term for Scripture (Gr: γραφή) that Paul uses in this passage is used throughout the New Testament to refer to the Old Testament.

The Law is perfect in its holy requirements. It still functions as theology, as wisdom and love, as a tutor to lead us to our need for a Savior. The Law still reveals the sinfulness of mankind and the types and shadows that point to spiritual realities.

It was dynamic with Israel’s history. And its purpose, among other things, was to point through the brokenness of humanity to the perfect Judge and Lawgiver, the only One who could fully complete the demands of the Law.

Should We Follow the Law Today?

Adam & Eve couldn’t keep just one command in the perfect world in Eden. The Torah aptly reveals that the Jewish people couldn’t fulfill the 613 commandments of the Law in a broken world. So can anyone truly hope to follow the law and be “Torah observant” now?

If we’re true to the text of the Torah itself, we’ll find it is literally impossible to observe the exact terms of the Mosaic covenant today.

With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, even the ancient rabbis had to acknowledge that a “new covenant” was imperative. Without a temple, a functioning priesthood, or a sacrificial system, it was no longer possible to keep the Sinai covenant in its entirety.

By necessity, rabbinic Judaism developed its own trajectory of praxis, redefining the Sinai covenant with new traditions and terms of worship. The requirements for righteousness under this new yoke were based on Pharisaic traditions, many of which were distinct from the text of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Eventually, these traditions became the “Oral Law”, now codified within the Jewish Mishnah.

Torah Observant Christian

Many Christians who strive to follow the Old Testament laws, read it through this lens of rabbinic Judaism. This would make them into Torah observant Christians. As such, the Torah is primarily considered to be a law book and the commentary is the rule of application.

In this sense, to be “Torah observant” is to keep the commandments of the Sinai covenant as interpreted by rabbinic “Halakhah” (Heb: “walking” or “path”, the Jewish legal tradition that guides the daily life of practicing Jews).

This should not be entirely surprising. Even in the context of the New Covenant, much of our daily faith walk within the context of community is not explicit scriptural instruction. But rather, applied traditions for rightly walking out that faith.

It’s when the traditions of men are elevated to the status of biblical command that things get messy. Jesus directly addressed this in his polemic to the Scribes and Pharisees (Mk 7:1-13).

So, why would New Covenant believers even want to attempt meticulous “Torah observance” or to return to the commands of the Mosaic Law? First, you should see our introductory article to this topic, Should Christians Observe the Torah.

Orthodox Jew reading at the Kotel, also called Western Wall or wailing wall

The Different Types of Laws

In the text of the Torah, God commanded Abram to leave his family and homeland, and Noah to build an ark. But these commands were contextual, and not applicable to all who express faith in God. Many laws were specific to men or women, or moral laws intertwined with ceremonial action and civic duty.

To distinguish which laws can be upheld in a New Covenant context, some categorize the Law into ceremonial, civic, and moral laws. They claim that some regulations persist while others are no longer relevant. However, nowhere does the Law divide itself up this way. More often, the texts describing various laws intertwine between all of these categories simultaneously.

So what does it even look like to “follow the Law” in a New Covenant Spirit-led reality? Much of Scripture is descriptive and not prescriptive. Sound biblical hermeneutics within the context of the community of faith help us to discern the difference.

Perhaps efforts to be “Torah observant” today stem from a desire to place greater value on the whole Bible, to identify with the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, and to more accurately live as One New Man (Eph 2:15). Or perhaps people simply want to honor God through a proper balance of faith and works, to obey Jesus’ words to “keep His commandments (Jn 14:15).

What is a Christian following the Old Testament, then?

Our response will be vastly different if we view the Hebrew Scriptures as a law book, God’s constitution with Israel, or if we see the Hebrew scriptures as a unified and divinely inspired narrative. What if it’s a love story of a holy God relentlessly pursuing a relationship with broken humanity – which also contains covenants and laws? 

Our interpretation and corresponding action will also differ if we read passages in the Hebrew scriptures primarily through a lens of personal application versus grasping the original context and what it points to first.

Something in humanity gravitates towards the familiarity of systems, a clear blueprint of rules and regulations. It can seem secure, even comfortable, perhaps because they serve as an external benchmark of success.

Is this not like the form and function of religion? Do Christians follow the Old Testament? In our walk with God, we often prefer the finality of a command to the freedom of grace. “God, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Israel heartily said the same when God gave them the Law at Sinai, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Ex 19:8).

Yet Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends” (Jn 15:15). This is an audacious invitation into a life of grace, where the Spirit of God writes His instruction (Torah) on our very hearts. This involves a new level of relationship. One not based on works but empowered by the Spirit of God at work in the circumcised hearts of those who believe (Deut 30:6; Rom 2:29).

Old Testament Relevance to Christianity

Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion called Christianity. He was the quintessential Jew. Yeshua lived and ministered in a fully Jewish context. He was the apex of messianic hope and prophecy, who perfectly fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law.

Jesus reminded his disciples that he did not come to abolish the Law or Prophets, but to “fulfill” them (Matt 5:17, πληρόω plēroō, to fill up the measure of, to accomplish, carry out, to perfect or make complete in every particular).

Paul employs this same word to describe the New Covenant life by the Spirit in Christ Jesus.

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:2-4 [emphasis added]

Following in the footsteps of the Messiah, we are transformed by the Spirit of the living God who produces the fruits of righteousness in his disciples. The guiding of the Spirit is not contrary to the principles of the Torah. But because of the work of Yeshua, Torah is no longer binding as a religious code. We are free to live by the Spirit.

man with a camel in the desert

Perfect Love Fulfilled the Law

The Spirit-empowered yoke in the New Covenant era is not law but love. For Yeshua, the exact imprint and nature of God, is perfect love (1 Jn 4:8; Heb 1:3). Paul further emphasizes this principle in both Romans and Galatians,

For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. Romans 13:9-10 [emphasis added]

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14

The Old Testament and Yeshua

Do Christians follow the Old Testament? In no way does the Torah become irrelevant in the New Covenant, rather, in Yeshua, it fulfills its purpose. The exact means of living out external rules and regulations of the Law become secondary to the weightier matters of the Law (justice, mercy, and faithfulness – Matt 23:23).

In the New Covenant community, our lives are to be ever more transformed by the Spirit to be fashioned into the likeness of Messiah. He is the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures and the perfect example of love.

So, should Christians read the Old Testament? Absolutely! It is inspired scripture that still perfectly fulfills its intended purpose, to lead Israel and all of humanity to the hope in Messiah. This is His story, the beauty and wisdom of which are revealed through the entire context.

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Casey Tait
Casey Tait has served for over 15 years in leadership training, mentoring, women’s ministry, humanitarian aid service, as well as teaching internationally. She is a published author, global adventurer and avid foodie. She currently serves on the Ministry Advancement Team at FIRM.
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