Why Don’t We Follow All the Old Testament Laws? (Tough Questions Teenagers Ask)

Learning how to read the Bible has always been important. But I would argue that it’s increasingly important in this day and age of memes, tweets, teabag proverbs, and fortune cookie wisdom that habitually pirates content from its original context to serve an alternate agenda.

When this bite-size culture is applied to Scripture, the results can be devastating. Scripture is easily misused and misapplied. Moreover, as teachers, we’re at risk of becoming just another content-creator who is seen using a clever phrase to suit our ends. When this happens, the audience — our youth —becomes the ultimate authority, giving them the impression that they can either “like and share” or “dislike and move on” as they see fit when it comes to bits and pieces of Scripture.

We’re losing the art of capturing and shaping the imagination of a generation to help them more truly embody their role as image-bearers of the One True God. What I believe we need is more narrative storytelling of the world the Bible asks us to inhabit and imagine.

It’s worth noting that the oldest versions of the Scriptures didn’t have chapter breaks, let alone verse breaks. Even the Psalms we have were not broken up into individual books but collated into a unified form that builds and tells a story through the many individual songs.

No passage of Scripture — but particularly no law, command, or moral imperative — is intended to stand alone outside of the larger historical and narrative context in which it is situated.

I say all this before even attempting to answer the question at hand because the very question assumes that we are free to pick and choose from the Old Testament, liking or disliking a particular law or passage based on how it fits into our agenda or view of the world. I would argue that this approach itself is flawed.

We are not given the authority to pick and choose the bits and bobs of Scripture we like best and ignore the rest. And unfortunately, this is how students have often seen adults deal with the Old Testament — including teachers and pastors. This is particularly the case when youth see us treating Old Testament passages about gay sex as relevant and binding while ignoring nearby imperatives about sex during menstruation or sex with slaves (or even weirder laws like not being able to wear fabric with two types of materials). It’s bad hermeneutics. And I would argue that it is interpretive practices like this that are ultimately behind the question at hand for many of those asking.

Individual Old Testaments laws were not intended to be broken up and applied on their own like optional toppings at a Holiness Buffet. They are “The Law” — not “The laws”. And they were given for a purpose (but more on that below).

The Bible As A Theodrama

When we begin reading through the narrative of the Bible, it doesn’t take long to see that it’s moving somewhere. And crucially, we see that the story is constantly building upon itself, developing themes and patterns that get increasingly complex and multifaceted. In the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, this is God’s providence: God’s completely holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing every creature and every action.[1]

From Eden to tabernacle to temple to Jesus to New Creation. From the Garden to the Promised Land to Exile to the Kingdom of God to the New Jerusalem. From animal skins for Adam and Eve’s nakedness to animal sacrifices to atone for sin to Jesus’ death on the cross to Christians presenting ourselves as living sacrifices. It’s all one unified story that begins in Genesis, moves through Israel, comes to a climax in Jesus, continues in the church, and culminates in Jesus’ return and New Creation.

From this perspective, Scripture can be rightly called a Theodrama , as one theologian aptly puts it.[2]

A while back I came across an illustration by the pastor-theologian NT Wright that has been helpful to me in understanding what it might mean to live within a Theodrama driven by God’s providence.[3] I believe it is an image that can resonate with our youth and will help us address the question at hand.

Wright invites us to imagine that someone has discovered a lost play of William Shakespeare. The play’s authenticity is unquestionable, but there’s a problem. Of the six acts that make up the play, one—the Act V—is incomplete. It’s been partially destroyed by time.

We are asked to imagine that the first four acts provide such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is widely agreed upon by the artistic community that the play ought to be staged.

But what to do about the missing bits of the fifth act? It would be inappropriate write a definitive Act V that would be putting words into the mouth of Shakespeare, making him responsible for words he did not write.

So what is to be done?

Wright suggests the best way forward would be to give the key roles to actors saturated in the language and culture of Shakespeare. These actors would commit to immersing themselves in discovered text, learning the movement, themes, and voices within the play. And then, as they perform the play, they would be left to work out the missing bits of Act V for themselves, fully aware of where Act VI picks up.

Wright paints the picture of skillful improvisation constrained by the authority of the text known to originate with Shakespeare. Wright then uses this image as a metaphor for the Christian life.

As humans invited to play a part in God’s story, we have been given the first acts of God’s redemptive history in the Old Testament, crescendoing with the coming of Jesus in the Gospels. Moreover, we have been given the beginning of the current act with the letters of the New Testament and the institution of the church.

Also, throughout the Scripture, we are given glimpses of the end towards which the Theodrama is moving. And so, as participants in God’s divine drama, we are called to study Scripture’s movement from Act I to the Finale so that we can get our bearings for how we ought to faithfully live today as a part of our Spirit-lead and biblically-driven “improvisation” within the story God is writing.

Scripture, then, informs our understanding, guides our actions, and renews our minds in such a way as to be faithful to the roles we are given within our current context. Or, in the words of the apostle Paul, “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” (1 Timothy 3:16-17).

And once we begin seeing Scripture as a Theodrama, the answer to the question at hand becomes rather straightforward.

Why don’t we follow all the Old Testament laws? Because we’re no longer living within that part of the story.

Just as it is perfectly acceptable within the Harry Potter plot line for Ron to kiss Lavender Brown in book six, by the time you get to the end of book seven of the series, he better only be kissing Hermione Granger—who is now his wife.

Or for Star Wars fans: It was pretty exciting when Leia kissed Luke in ‘A New Hope’. But by ‘Return of the Jedi’—after the narrative has revealed that they’re brother and sister—Leia better only be kissing Han Solo.

In both cases, an action is totally appropriate in one part of the story is totally inappropriate in a later part because the story has moved on and the circumstances have changed.

We need to help our students understand that the Law was given within a particular context to move the plot line of the Theodrama forward — toward Jesus, toward our timeline, and toward New Creation.

If the story has moved on, what use are the OT laws for today?

Just because we are in a different part of the story does not mean we should ignore the Old Testament laws or think that they don’t have any use in our lives today. The God who gave the Law to shape Israel is the same God we find revealed in Jesus who wants to reshape us.

And because it’s the same God and the same story, there is a lot of wisdom we can gain from the Law for how to faithfully play our part in the Theodrama today. But to see this, it’s helpful to look at the laws within their original context to see how they functioned and what they would have meant for Israel in their part of the story.

Interpreters have long divided the Law into various categories, the two most basic of which are laws about how Israel is to relate to God and laws about Israel is to relate to other humans. Jesus himself draws upon this duality when he sums up the Law as loving God and loving your neighbor (cf. Matthew 12:30-31).

It’s possible to further subdivide the Law into laws about holiness, sacrifice, sacred time, and justice.

Laws relating to holiness focus on Israel’s call to be set apart from the surrounding cultures to help the nations see that the God of Israel is not like other gods.

Sacrificial laws speak to God’s desire to dwell amongst his people in a special way — and the persistent and real problem human sin presents within God’s plan to dwell on earth as God does in heaven.

Laws about sacred time (sabbath, feasts and festivals, etc) are designed to help Israel remember God’s sovereignty. They remind Israel how God has intervened in history on behalf of God’s purposes for creation, as well as anticipate God’s continued involvement within history to bring the Theodrama to its proper conclusion.

The laws relating to social justice are also powerful reminders that God has chosen humanity as God’s co-workers—and that despite humans becoming a part of the problem, God still intends to work in and through humans to name evil and subvert evil’s effects within God’s good creation.

When we read these laws and imagine their impact within Israel’s context, we can begin to better imagine what being a Jesus-follower means for us today. We can imagine new ways to live into God’s call to be set apart (holiness), die to self and live in Christ (sacrifice), celebrate what God has done and anticipate what God will one day do (sacred time), and name and subdue evil and its effects (justice).

The same categories for faithful living still apply for us today. Jesus himself 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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)

The Law is still useful for helping to inform and shape our imagination as we seek to live faithfully today — but we don’t do that by going back in time and living under the Law (or cherry picking individual laws and ignoring others to suit our needs, for reasons mentioned above).

This is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3. You can imagine Paul as a director standing at the front of the stage yelling at us, “Cut! Cut! Cut! You foolish Galatians! Why are you still living under the Law? Don’t you know that Jesus died, rose again, and gave us the Spirit?!? Leia: Why are you trying to kiss Luke now?!? Don’t you know he’s your brother? Ron: stop smooching Lavender — you’re married to Hermione in this part of the story!”

And then, having chastised our improper improvisation within the story, we immerse ourselves afresh within the Theodrama as we hear the Spirit cry out, “Action!” And we set our face towards more faithfully loving God and loving our neighbors in holiness, with sacrifice, as a part of a story God is writing, working towards justice along the way.

In other words, we get on with the task of trying to faithfully play our part within the grand Theodrama God is writing for all of creation.


[1] WSC Question #11.

[2] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (WJK, 2005).

[3] For more on this perspective, see N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God (New York: HarperOne, 2011).

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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