Lately, I have fielded quite a few questions regarding the Old Law, and its application in the New Covenant. It seems there is confusion among Christians about whether or not the Old Law applies to Christians anymore; and if it does, how it applies. Numerous individuals have told me that the Old Law does not apply to Christians. After all, doesn’t St. Paul address that issue in many of his letters? Doesn’t he make it clear that the Old Law does not have to be followed? Before we get into all of that, let us first clarify what we mean when we talk about the Old Law.
The Old Law (also called simply the Law) are the rules set down by God for the Hebrews to follow. Anyone who wanted to be a part of the Old Covenant had to follow the Law. This required certain rituals and ceremonies to be performed at certain times of one’s life, or at certain times of the year. Circumcision for males infants (a type of baptism for females) was required for them to be initiated into the Old Covenant eight days after birth. Every covenant has a renewal ritual. For the Old Covenant that would be the sacrifice offered for sin. There were ceremonies required at certain times of the year. For instance, the Passover was celebrated once a year. During this time a lamb was slaughtered as an offering to God.
Other rules Jews often followed that some considered a part of the Old Law were things like washing one’s hands before every meal. This was not a precept given by God, and it was one clearly spurned by Jesus. (Mt. 15:1-9) Another example of this comes from Matthew 12:1-8. Here we see the Jews taking an actual command of God (to rest on the Sabbath), and turning it into a man-made tradition. God said to rest on the Sabbath, but he certainly never meant for people to do nothing. Some work is necessary even on the Sabbath. Jesus recognized this and pointed out to the Jews how David had worked on the Sabbath out of necessity when he was fleeing and hiding from King Saul.
The Old Law really are those rules God required the Jews to follow. Those rules invented by man, or exaggerations of God’s laws, are not really a part of the Old Law. Yet, God was clear that even those rules given by Him would not be the same forever. YHWH was very clear that a Messiah would come, and things would change. When YHWH gave the Jews the Sabbath as a day of rest, or ordered that sacrifices be made, He was clear that these things would be permanent. There would always be a Sabbath, and there would always be a sacrifice. But the manner in which these were observed was never set in stone.
It is interesting to note that in the New Testament, whenever the New Covenant is mentioned, the Greek word “kainos” is used. “Kainos” can simply mean “new”, but it can also mean “superior”. (Click the link to see the definition: The Greek word used to describe the Old Covenant (or Old Law) is often “palaioo”, or one of its derivatives. This word means “to make obsolete”. (Click link to see the definition.
So we see that the New Testament writers often referred to the Old Covenant (Old Law) as obsolete. Does this mean that everything from the Old Law is simply done away with? Of course not! YHWH was clear that some things would be permanent. As I said before, there would always be a Sabbath, and there would always be a sacrifice. Jesus reinforced the Ten Commandments as a legitimate set rules that must be followed. Yet, He was clear that the application of these things were altered with His Passion, death, and resurrection.
Jesus made clear that the Ten Commandments still applied to Christians, but the manner of their application is altered. For Jews “Thou shalt not kill” simply meant one should not kill. For Christians, it goes deeper than that. We should not act out in anger towards others. We should not harbor ill will for our fellow man.
There is still a sacrifice to be made, but Jesus gave us the perfect sacrifice on the cross. No one can surpass, or even equal, His sacrifice. It was a once-and-for-all sacrifice. We unite ourselves to it when we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That’s what the Holy Eucharist is about. It isn’t that Jesus dies again at every Mass. Catholics have never believed that. It is that God unites us with Jesus’ sacrifice. We are “transported”, as it were, to the very day Jesus died. This is called “anamnesis”.
We Christians still have a Sabbath, but it is no longer the Sabbath the Jews observed. Our Sabbath is Sunday/Saturday evening. This is due to Jesus’ resurrection. In ancient Palestine there were only twelve hours in a day. Night time was considered its own day. According to our 24-hour day, Jesus rose sometime between late Saturday evening and early Sunday morning.
Jesus’ resurrection completes God’s work of creation. The universe was created for man, but God knew man would fall. He knew that a Messiah would be necessary to save mankind. So, the universe was also created (one might even say primarily created) with Jesus in mind. The world was created for Him and for us. With Jesus’ resurrection God’s work of creation was completed, as it were. That is why the Church sometimes refers to this age as a sort of eighth day of creation.
So we can see how the Old Law still applies to us Christians. It is only that its manner of application has altered. Sure, there are some things that no longer apply. These are things like: hygienic regulations, dietary regulations, rituals, ceremonies, etc. Yet, the laws regarding morality and worship still apply. It is only that they apply differently in light of Jesus’ saving work.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity