There is often confusion about the role of the Old Testament Law and how it relates to Christians today. Some say the Levitical laws were just for the Jewish people, while others say they apply to everyone who would worship God. Some think they teach a different way of salvation than the New Testament, and some even think they represent a different God than the loving, merciful one revealed in the New Testament. What is the Levitical Law, and what was its purpose?
First, let’s clarify some terms. The Levites were the descendants of Levi, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Moses was of the tribe of Levi, and when God delivered the Law to him on Mount Sinai, He marked the Levites as the tribe responsible for the primary religious duties in the nation. They were made priests, singers, and caretakers in the worship of God. In calling it the Levitical Law, we acknowledge that God revealed the Law through Moses, a Levite, and that God appointed the Levites as the religious leaders of Israel. The same Law is sometimes called “Mosaic” because it was given through Moses, and it is also referred to as the “Old Covenant,” because it is part of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants.
To discover God’s purpose in the Law, we must first look at its inception, and the things God said to Moses about it. When Moses and the people arrived at Mount Sinai, God said, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5–6). The first mention of the Law to the nation was as a covenant—a legal agreement between God and the people He chose. The Israelites were required to obey it fully if they were to receive its benefits.
God began His introduction to the Law with the Ten Commandments, but the entire Law encompasses 613 commandments, as detailed in the rest of the books of Moses. Jesus summarized the Law as having two emphases: love for God and love for neighbors (Matthew 22:37–39). These emphases can be easily seen in the Ten Commandments: the first four commands focus on our relation to God, and the remainder focus on interpersonal relations. If we think that is the whole purpose of the Law, though, we miss an important element. Many of the individual commands give detailed instruction on how God was to be worshiped and how the people were to live their lives. As we will see, it is in those fine details that love was either shown or withheld.
For hundreds of years, the Israelites lived under the Levitical Law, sometimes obeying it but more often failing to follow God’s commands. Much of Old Testament history deals with the punishments Israel received for their disobedience. When Jesus Christ came, He said that He did not “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets . . . but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took the Law to a higher level, applying it to the thoughts and intents of the heart. This perspective significantly diminishes our ability to keep the Law.
The apostle Paul gives us insight into God’s purpose for the Law in his letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 3:10 he says, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’” The fine details show up again—if we don’t keep every command perfectly, we are condemned (see James 2:10). In Galatians 3:19, Paul asks, “What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.” What does that mean? Verse 24 clarifies: “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” The Law pointed out our sinfulness, proved our inability to keep our end of the covenant, made us prisoners in our guilt, and showed our need of a Savior. The purpose of the Law is also revealed in Romans 3:19–20 as producing a consciousness of sin and holding the world “accountable to God.” Paul even goes so far as to say he would not have known what sin was except by the Law (Romans 7:7).
The Levitical Law did its job well, pointing out the sinfulness of mankind and condemning us for it. But, as powerful as it was in that regard, it was powerless in another way. Hebrews 7:18–19 tells us that the old Law was set aside “because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect).” The Law had no way of changing our sinful nature. We needed something better to accomplish that. In fact, Hebrews goes on to say that the Law was “only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never . . . make perfect those who draw near to worship” (Hebrews 10:1).
God’s desire has always been to have fellowship with mankind, but our sin prevented that. He gave the Law to set a standard of holiness—and, at the same time, to show that we could never meet that standard on our own. That’s why Jesus Christ had to come—to fulfill all the righteous requirements of the Law on our behalf, and then to take the punishment of violating that Law, also on our behalf. Paul wrote in Galatians 2:16 that we are not justified “by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” When we receive God’s forgiveness through our confession of faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death, the Law is fulfilled for us, and “there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:18). The Law’s condemnation does not fall on us, because “the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).