One of the methods used to discount sections of the Bible that may go against what one wants to believe is to illustrate how we no longer abide by many of the commandments in the Old Testament. The implication being, of course, if we don’t have to avoid eating pigs or sacrifice sheep upon an altar anymore, then who’s to say prohibitions against homosexual relationships or premarital sex haven’t also gone the way of the dinosaur? Or that sex outside of marriage is no longer wrong?
There is some truth to the viewpoint. That is, there are commandments in the Old Testament that we no longer follow. There were some changes made along the way. Some would attribute them to cultural differences, but we must not assume too quickly this is the case. Especially when the reason for those changes are spelled out in the Bible itself.
Therein lies the problem. People point to changes and then assume that means everything is up in the air and available for redefining in the manner we want to define, so as to allow for our favorite sin. When we become the arbitrators of which commandments to keep and which commandments to dump, then we have invalidated the authority of Scripture to be any kind of reliable guide and moral compass. Indeed, that appears to be the goal of many groups, to relegate Scriptures out of the realm of moral teaching and restrict it to purely “spiritual” applications.
However, the spiritual cannot be artificially separated from the rest of life.
If God intended anything, it was to have us live a way of life that promotes physical, emotional, moral, social, and spiritual health. The whole person. The commandments were not given just to have rules, but to guide us into living within our design specs so that we will find the greatest fulfillment.
The answer to the changes is in the Scriptures itself, and falls under two main categories: fulfillment and clarification. All changes and subsequent leaving behind certain commandments are due to one or a combination of both reasons. Let’s take a look at some examples to illustrate what we are talking about.
The sacrificial system
This is an example of Jesus fulfilling the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. There is ample scriptures supporting that because of Jesus’ sacrifice, there was no longer a need for the image of animal sacrifices which pointed to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Jesus fulfilled that section of the Law, wiping out pages of commandments that no longer apply to us. Once the real sacrifice had been made, there was no longer any need for the blood of goats and rams.
Stoning of adulterers
The Old Testament Law said that those caught in the act of adultery must be stoned. There were similar seemingly harsh laws in response to sin. This is another example of fulfillment. What Jesus did on the cross and through His resurrection was to bring a new healing to each person that up until then did not exist. Death reigned, but Christ defeated death by death and by rising to life again.
A medical example helps here. Let’s say a certain infection has no cure, so when a limb gets infected, the only way to save the person is to cut off the limb. It is drastic, it is harsh, but better than the whole body being destroyed. But then one day, someone discovers a cure for this disease. Cutting off one’s limb is no longer necessary, would even be considered an irresponsible and stupid decision. For why cut it off when it can be saved?
Before Christ, there was no healing for sin. Left unchecked among the people, sin acted like an infection. The only way to keep the whole of God’s people from being lost was to cut off those who had become infected to the point they would infect others. To put them in quarantine, so to speak. The only solution to check sin was a radical one.
Once Christ came, however, sin had a cure. This is why the story of the woman caught in adultery is so critical to this understanding. (John 8:3-11) Most people focus on how Jesus deflected the Pharisees who were testing him. They figured if He went lenient on her, they could accuse Him of not following the law. If He was strict, they could accuse Him of not being flexible and realistic. But He told them, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” They all left, leaving Jesus alone with her.
Keep in mind, according to the law she should have been stoned.
According to what Jesus said, He was the only person in the crowd, being without sin, who could cast the first stone. Being God, He would have been within His rights to follow His own law and cast the stone. But He didn’t. Instead He said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Why the change? Because she would be healed and infect no one else with her viewpoint. Because her encounter with Christ changed her.
But this did not make adultery no longer a sin, it simply showed that because of Christ that sin could be healed. Same with many others that before required the radical cutting off of of people infected by sin. Through healing, that aspect was fulfilled and the former commandment no longer applied.
Avoiding work on the Sabbath
Numerous times the Pharisees accused Jesus of promoting work on the Sabbath, something explicitly prohibited by Law. Or at least, as the Pharisees interpreted “work,” Jesus was guilty. They had huge volumes listing out what was work and what wasn’t. Jesus alludes to one of them when He said, “What man is there among you who shall have one sheep, and if it should fall into a ditch on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?” (Mat 12:11)
Jesus then concludes in the next verse, “How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” By this he clarifies what was meant by “work.” Indeed, He makes it plain that the Sabbath was not meant to be a burden to man, but a blessing: “The Sabbath came into being for the sake of man, and not man for the sake of the Sabbath.” (Mrk 2:27)
There was no commandment to have multiple wives, and nothing in the New Testament against it save when the New Testament Church wanted leaders, then the rule was a bishop or presbyter or deacon should be the husband of only one wife. (1Tim 3:2, 12, Tit 1:6) Also, for the Church to enroll a woman as a widow, she had to be the wife of only one husband. (1Tim 5:9) The later indicates what is discussed isn’t one at a time, but one spouse for one’s whole life. A widow by definition has no current husband, so it could only be referring to one previous husband.
This is illustrated clearly by Jesus when He is asked by the Pharisees whether it is lawful to “put away” his wife. (Mrk 10:2) Jesus asks them what Moses said, and they replied Moses permitted the giving of a certificate of divorce. Jesus then goes on to clarify not only why Moses permitted that, but also that marriage is for one man and woman, not multiple of either.
First he lays out the design of marriage as God originally intended. That is, that a man shall take a wife, and the two shall become one flesh. What God has joined, let not man put asunder. But how does one put such a union asunder. He clarifies that in the next comments.
“So He said to them, ‘Whoever should put away his wife and marry another commits adultery against her. And if a wife should put away her husband and be married to another, she commits adultery.'” (Mrk 10:11-12)
Note the linkage. Divorce alone isn’t the problem. It is marrying another, that is, having sexual relationships with a new person. That is committing adultery, and rends asunder the previous union when it is done. Which is why a man or woman is not sinning by marrying another when the other spouse commits adultery, because that union has already been destroyed.
Jesus clarifies for us what divorce is, when it becomes real divorce by committing adultery, and that God’s design is for a man or woman to have only one spouse through their lifetime. Whether one at a time, or several at the same time, Jesus made it clear either situation was sinful, and that it was allowed in times past because of our stubbornness. Not because God wanted it that way.
In most every instance we could bring up where something was practiced or commanded in the Old Testament, but appeared to have changed.
The reason could be shown to arise from one or a combination of these two factors: fulfillment and/or clarification.
So to demonstrate why we should change or drop other commandments in the Old Testament, one would have to clearly show what was fulfilled or clarified to justify the change.
When it comes to the sinfulness of certain moral codes like sex outside of marriage, whether “premarital” or adultery, homosexuality, or other types, not only is there no fulfillment that would make them no longer applicable, or clarification that excuses their classification as a sin, instead one finds reinforcement of their continued sinfulness.
The Church leaders met in council to determine which of the Jewish Law the Gentile Christian converts would need to follow. They only passed on three specific parts of the Law, one of which was to abstain from “sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:20) This clearly shows that the Old Testament morality about sexual matters was passed on as valid to the growing Gentile Church. Indeed, at no point in Christian history did the Church ever back off of these activities as being sin, until post-modern times among some Christian groups.
So not only do you not find any justification in Scriptures that these moral laws changed either through fulfillment or Jesus clarifying what was meant, you don’t have any indication that these activities have ever been considered not sinful from Moses to this day. There is no change. There is no basis upon which to dismiss them, simply because you can point to items that have changed and you want to lump these activities in with them based upon personal bias against them.
For these reasons, the obsoleteness of certain sections of the Old Testament cannot be used to justify declaring something as not sinful, or to ignore clear injunctions in the Old Testament that haven’t changed nor is there any basis upon which to do so.
Can sin stop being sinful?
This article originally appeared on R. L. Copple’s blog.