A Question of Relevance (Exodus 20).
One of the big questions when it comes to the Bible is relevance: does it mean anything to us today? Does it have any value for today? Does it apply to us today? It’s a question that’s asked of the New Testament and even more so of the Old. It was written so long ago, so much has changed. Reading it now can seem like a fantasy novel – an alien world completely removed from our own. So some people dismiss it altogether. The Bible is just a relic of the past, something to be ignored or cherished only as a treasure from history.
I suppose the question, and therefore the answer, is different depending on who’s asking it. For a person without faith, approaching this on a purely secular basis, a lot of the laws in Exodus and elsewhere in the Pentateuch can seem irrelevant and even silly, preoccupied as they are with holiness, reverence for God and spiritual cleanliness. Fair enough. If I wasn’t a Christian I might ridicule such things too. But for this person, who doesn’t believe, there is still value. They should remember that these laws underpin all modern law and laid the foundations for most of the principles we hold most dear. Things like the sanctity of human life, the importance of truthfulness, the right of private property, due legal process, respect within the family, and so on and on.
If you ignore the first four commandments, which are about God, idolatry, blasphemy and Sabbath rest respectively, then there’s not much to dislike about the other six. At least five of them are now guarded by modern legislation. They make for a pretty good approach to life: honour your parents, don’t murder, don’t cheat on your wife/husband, don’t steal, don’t lie about your friends, don’t steal. Not only are these things still relevant, but also why wouldn’t we observe them? They are the hallmarks of all decent societies and of all good people. If non-Christians honour these commandments without realising, how much more should we Christians do so?
For a Christian asking this question it’s more about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, the progression from the Old Covenant to the New, and from Law to Grace. The New Testament teaches that we are no longer under law but under grace (Romans 6:14), that the requirements of the Law have been fulfilled for us by Jesus (Matt. 5:17) and that our righteousness has been freely given to us as the gift of God, not earned by us keeping the commandments (Romans 3:21-22; Ephesians 2:8).
So, what, does the Law no longer apply? Do we not need to obey it? Well, we need to understand that when Jesus spoke of fulfilling the law He also said that it was not abolished. In Romans 3 Paul also goes on to say that ‘we uphold the law’ (Romans 3:31). It’s still there, it’s still good, it’s still a reflection of God’s righteousness and our best index for understanding His expectations of us.
It’s about our motives, the premise on which we obey the law. Do we keep God’s commandments in order to win our salvation? No, we can’t do that. Jesus did that for us. Obedience driven by self-justification is futile and is called legalism. Do we keep the commandments to please God out of gratitude for what He has done for us? Yes. It’s not our salvation that hangs upon obedience of the law anymore, it’s our spiritual well-being and the treasure that we lay up in heaven. Keeping the Ten Commandments is not something we do to win God’s favour, it’s something we do as a natural by-product of knowing Him. His grace to us naturally manifests itself in our life as godliness. Those who are loved love others. And, as Romans teaches us, ‘Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law’ (13:10). If you love your neighbour you won’t kill him, steal from her, lie about them and so on, and you’ll find that you have naturally kept the law. Your reward is God’s increased blessing in your life, not eternal life, because that one was already in the bank.
It’s also worth making the distinction between different parts of the law. The laws written down by Moses in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy fall into three categories: ceremonial, civil and moral. The three different categories covered three different areas, involved different things and have different applicability today. The only thing they had in common was that they were all an expression of God’s heart and desire for relationship with His people.
The ceremonial law was about how to purify and cleanse unholy people so that they could approach a holy God. This was the messy bit, with all the blood, guts and smoke of endless sacrifices. This is the bit that no longer applies in any way shape or form – Jesus’ one great sacrifice did the job once and for all (Hebrews 7:27), relieving us of the need to do any of us. We are free to approach God with no preconditions.
The civil law was about daily life in Israel, how their society was to be governed. But while there’s much to be admired and learned from these laws they do not necessarily apply today. They were shaped and intended for Israel’s situation in an ancient pastoral society. A lot of the same principles are found in modern society, and one reason why these laws don’t apply is because they are covered and enforced by modern legislation – the laws that govern how we relate to each other, how we make restitution for wrongs, how we look after the poor, as so on.
The moral law is how people should behave towards God and others, things they should do simply because it’s right, God-like and loving. This is exemplified in the Ten Commandments, and they are as good and as relevant today as when they were written thousands of years ago. They embody timeless principles that will never go out of date. There is no society, anywhere, ever, which wouldn’t benefit from these laws and which wouldn’t be a better place for living them out. The difference between Old and New Testament when it comes to the moral law is what happens when we don’t obey them. In Moses’ day disobedience led to condemnation and required punishment. In Christ there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). Failure to obey the law now still has consequences, but not death or damnation. Instead we miss opportunities to grow, to become more like God, and we forfeit some of His blessings in the here and now.
There’s so much more that could be said, but these are just some of my thoughts about relevance. Or, if you’re like me and you like big fancy words, about hermeneutics. You might disagree, but just don’t write off the Old Testament as irrelevant. Every word has a value (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
To take away:
How do you determine whether something in the Bible is relevant to you or not? Don’t automatically take things for granted or be too quick to dismiss them.