The subject of which Biblical laws apply today can be confusing for many Christians. This is because some claim a great many of the laws given to ancient Israel still apply today while others claim none of them do and that under the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33) believers are only responsible for fulling the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2) or the “law of love” (Matthew 22:37-40; James 2:8).
To come to a sound biblical answer to this question we must first understand that the laws given to ancient Israel were of different types (Jeremiah 7:22-23; Hebrews 8:13):
1. The ritual or sacrificial laws. Of the more than 600 laws found in the Old Testament, the great majority are the ritual laws pertaining to the temple, its priesthood, and sacrifices (see Leviticus 16:18-19, for example). This is the easiest category to deal with as the New Testament unequivocally shows that these laws foreshadowed the work and death of Jesus Christ and were fulfilled by him as the ultimate sacrifice (Hebrews 9:11-14).
That is why the apostle Paul draws a clear distinction between the ritual laws of the Old Testament and the spiritual or moral laws (see below) in verses such as this: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” (1 Corinthians 7:19).
2. The civil or governmental laws. These laws were given for the civil administration of the physical nation of ancient Israel (see Deuteronomy 24:10-11, for example). The purpose of many of these laws was to provide an identity for Israel as the people of God and to separate them from the pagan nations around them. Because we do not live under the government of ancient Israel, these laws do not directly apply to us today. In fact, rather than being called to be separate from the nations, Christians are called to carry the gospel “into all the world” (Matthew 28:19). Yet the principles behind many of these laws can still be applied today in keeping ourselves separate from the sinful aspects of the societies in which we live (2 Corinthians 6:17) and in other ways.
For example, the Old Testament civil law states that the people of God were not to muzzle an ox, but must allow it to eat as it was used to thresh the grain (Deuteronomy 25:4). In the New Testament, Paul uses the principle behind this law to show that it is not wrong for a minister of the Gospel to be supported by the work he does. Here, and in other cases, Paul argues from an old civil law to a modern application of its principle.
3. The spiritual or moral laws. These are actually a minority of the laws of the Old Testament, yet they are the most important (see Exodus 20, for example). The Ten Commandments are particularly vital because they summarize the moral or spiritual laws given to Israel, and many scholars feel that there is clear biblical evidence of all ten commandments being understood before the nation of Israel came into existence. We certainly find them being followed in the later writings of the New Testament, which shows that they were not like the sacrificial or governmental laws pertaining to Israel alone and that they continued beyond the death of Christ (see Ephesians 6:1-2, for example). As a result, we can say that the spiritual or moral laws found in the Old Testament transcend time and space and are perfectly applicable today.
We may have heard that all we have to do as Christians is to love God and our fellow humans, but the spiritual or moral laws show us how we do that. That is why the apostle John (the “apostle of love” himself) tells us “this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome,” (1 John 5:3).
Although the ritual laws of the Old Testament were fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice, and the civil laws of Israel are no longer applicable because the church is not a separate physical nation, the basic moral laws of the Old Testament are clearly reflected in the New Testament (Romans 13:8-10; Colossians 3:5-10, etc.).
In many cases we can also learn valuable principles from the other types of laws found in the Old Testament – which is why Paul tells us that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NKJV). But Paul is equally clear in showing that the Christian should not become enslaved to laws that were fulfilled or no longer apply (Galatians 5:1-3).
So the Bible shows that the moral principles found in the Old Testament and reaffirmed in the New Testament are valid for us today and guide us in living out the new life to which God calls us (Galatians 5:16-26).