Scholars have observed that in the Torah (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), God has given 613 commandments (mitzvah) to his people. Some of these commands are affirmed by Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament, but others are canceled. Students of the Bible wrestle with the difference: why are some things required by Moses but no longer required by the apostles? Why are some things forbidden by Moses but permitted by the apostles? What is the difference between ham and premarital sex?
Let’s take some test cases to examine God’s commands. One of his commands is, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” Under the Law of Moses, the Sabbath was defined as the seventh day of the week, beginning at sunset Friday and ending at sunset Saturday. A few Christians go to church on Saturdays; some of them even call Sunday worship “the mark of the beast.” Some worship on the first day of the week but move the prohibition of any work to Sundays, passing “blue laws” that require certain kinds of business to be closed every Sunday. What does Scripture say? ”Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).
The celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, Easter Sunday, bounces around in March or April according to a complicated formula involving the full moon. Early in Christianity, believers tried to reach a consensus on the day of that celebration. Some of them became so angry about the different formulas that they actually excommunicated each other—saying that people weren’t really part of the Church if they celebrated Easter on the wrong day. What does Scripture say? ”Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).
The Law of Moses made strict stipulations about food, especially meat. Blood had to be drained from meat, so that no blood was consumed by God’s people. Only certain animals were kosher (acceptable as food), animals that chewed the cud and had a split hoof. Pigs were not kosher, nor were rabbits and rodents. Fish had to have scales; shrimp and lobster and oysters were forbidden. A few Christians try to stick to kosher food laws today, at least in part. What does Scripture say? ”Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).
The first Christians, including all twelve apostles, were Jewish. They maintained Saturday worship and kosher food rules out of habit. When people of other cultures began believing in Jesus, Church leaders wondered how many Laws of Moses needed to be followed by the new believers. Must the men become circumcised? Must the families maintain kosher kitchens? Must they refrain from all work on Saturdays? Acts 15 describes the first Christian convention, as the apostles gathered to discuss these questions. They concluded that only four rules needed to be followed by the Gentiles: Abstain from food sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from animals that have been strangled, and from sexual immorality.
One might expect a few more prohibitions, such as murder and theft and false witness. Evidently the Church leaders thought it obvious that these are not permitted among Christians. It seems strange, though, that three of the four prohibitions are food-related, and all three were later canceled by Paul, in spite of the fact that he took part in this meeting. Paul told congregations in Rome and in Corinth that their members could eat meat that had been offered to idols so long as no one present had a problem with that. He wrote to the Colossian Christians, “Let no one pass judgment on you in regards to food or drink….”
“The substance is Christ.” All the commands of the Law of Moses were pictures of Jesus Christ. Some of the pictures are easily seen, such as the animal sacrifices and the Passover lamb. Others require deeper study, such as resting on the seventh day of the week. Not only did God as Creator rest on the seventh day of the week, but Jesus Christ as Redeemer rested on the seventh day of Holy Week. His body rested in a tomb. His spirit rested in the hands of his Father in Paradise. Christians are free from the Law because Christ has fulfilled the Law for us. The substance—that is, Christ—has come, so we no longer need to observe the shadows. We are free.
Our freedom is not license to do whatever our sinful hearts desire. Our freedom is power to imitate Jesus. As imitators of Christ, we still love God whole-heartedly. As imitators of Christ, we love our neighbors. We respect their lives, their marriages, their property, and their reputations. We act to help our neighbors rather than hurting them or ignoring them. We are content with what God has given us, so we do not covet anything that belongs to our neighbors.
The Church convention of Acts 15 appears to have been studying Leviticus, chapters 17 and 18. All four of their prohibitions are found in those chapters. Leviticus is about purity. It provided the Israelites instruction in remaining pure, beginning with sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin, and continuing with various other rules, laws, and commandments. The Church convention chose those signs of purity that might challenge Gentiles. Anything offered to idols would seem tainted and not pure. Blood was sacred, largely because of the blood Christ shed on the cross. Sexual immorality was a sin, not only against the people involved, but against Christ and the Church, for every marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church.
Ham and shrimp were forbidden to God’s people under the Law of Moses because they were not part of the sacrificial system like the kosher animals (cattle, sheep, goats, doves, etc.). Ham and shrimp are permitted to God’s people today because we are free, thanks to Christ. Sexual immorality was forbidden to God’s people under the Law of Moses because marriage is a picture of God’s love for his people. Sexual immorality remains forbidden to God’s people today because the love of God has not changed. Some Christians have tried to distinguish the prohibitions by labeling them ceremonial law (no longer valid) and moral law (still valid). This distinction overlooks the fact that Christians are free from all of God’s Law. The burden of the Law has been lifted by Christ. The condemnation of the Law has been removed by Christ. We were dead in our sins until Christ rose and we were raised with him. Our sins are forgiven, our debts are canceled, and the demands of the law have been nailed to the cross. Christ triumphed over all our enemies, and we now share in his victory (Colossians 2:13-15).
We are free from the Law because the substance is Christ. Now our substance is imitation of Christ, which is described by the same Law that once condemned us. The Law describes how we are being transformed into the image of Christ. Therefore, sexual immorality (as well as murder, theft, and dishonesty) is avoided as something Jesus would not do. Respect for God—and for his name and his time—is expected, because this is what Jesus would do. The Law does not threaten us, but it does describe us, because it describes Jesus.
The shadow no longer matters, because Christ has come and has claimed us as his people. We rejoice to be his people and to see ourselves transformed into His image. None of us is perfect yet, but the transformation is under way. Christ makes all the difference in the world. J.