Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 4) Hebrews: Freedom from Dead Works

In the previous articles in this series (see links below), I believe we did a thorough job of addressing the claims of the email that sparked this blog series, but we received this comment on one of the articles, a response to the question in the series title: Must Christians follow the Old Testament Law? The comment:

“Short answer yes…all believers in Yeshua HaMashiach [Jesus the Messiah] must follow the Torah with the exception of blood sacrifice since Yeshua was the last ‘red heifer’. Believers are justified by grace and mature during the period of ‘sanctification’ as we live in obedience to the Law.”

Below, we will further address our big question, as well as address this comment about sanctification, as we look at the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. (As before, I will use the King James Version, since some of our friends appear to be King James-Onlyists, but also mix in my preferred modern translations [ESV, NASB] for clarity.)

HEBREWS: The “Necessity” of a Change

To start, we jump to Chapter 7 of Hebrews, where the author lays out how Jesus is the perfect high priest. Perfection could not be reached through the deeds of OT priesthood, whether for the priests themselves nor on the behalf of all of Israel (7:11); therefore, the OT priesthood was temporary. But Christ is “perfect forever” (7:28), the holy, innocent, exalted (7:26) high priest who gave the perfect sacrifice (himself) “once for all” (7:27). Leading up to this big conclusion, the author says some interesting things concerning the OT Law:

22 By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament. (Heb 7:22 KJV)

In other words,

22 so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. (Heb 7:22 NASB)

And this is because,

18 For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. 19 For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God. (Heb 7:18–20 KJV)

To put it another way,

18 For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. (Heb 7:18–19 ESV)

And so,

 12 For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. (Heb 7:12 KJV)

So, here we quite plainly see in God’s holy Word that the old covenant of the OT is just that: “old.” In fact, 7:18 speaks of its “weaknesses and unprofitableness” (KJV)—strong words, but this is what God’s Word says. Because of the coming of the only perfect priest, Jesus Christ, who offered the only perfect sacrifice (himself), there’s a “necessity” for a change in the law of God (7:12). Again, these are strong words about the OT Law right in God’s Word!

This theme continues throughout the following chapters in Hebrews. The OT priest was an “example and shadow of heavenly things” (KJV)—a “copy and shadow” of heavenly truths (ESV) (8:4-5). Jesus brought a “better” covenant because the old covenant was not without fault (8:6-7). Again, these are the words of the Bible itself:

But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. (Heb 8:6-7 KJV)

After citing OT prophet Jeremiah, who speaks of a “new covenant” (Jer 31:31-34), the author of Hebrews states, 

 13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. (Heb 8:13 KJV)

In other words,

13 In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Heb 8:13 ESV)

The covenant of Moses is “obsolete,” which includes the Aaronic priesthood, the earthly sanctuary (the Jerusalem temple), and the Levitical sacrifices. As scholar F.F. Bruce writes in his commentary on Hebrews, “The age of the law and the prophets is past; the age of the Son is here, and here to stay.” 

Chapter 9 begins with referring to the first convenant’s “ordinances” (KJV) or “regulations” (NASB) of divine service and goes into a description of the OT tabernacle and its operations. Yet, all of the rituals could not make anyone “perfect in conscience” (NASB); thus, “food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body” will only be “imposed until a time of reformation” (9:10 NASB). Immediately, the author states,

 11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building (Heb 9:10–11 KJV)

Notice the flow of thought: The OT rituals could not make us perfect, SO they were temporary, BUT Christ has now come. Thus, these OT rituals are “dead works”:

​​14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb 9:14 KJV)

 Therefore, the first covenant is gone and we’re under a new covenant (9:15, 18), because…

For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near… For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb 10:1, 4 NASB) 

Christ took away the first covenant to establish the second covenant (10:9), and by this new covenant “we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10 KJV, also 7:27) and “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” (10:14 KJV, also see 7:27, 13:10).

Then, in 10:16, the author cites Jeremiah 31:31-34 for the second time in this letter, where God speaks of a new covenant where his Law will not be something external, but internal to God’s people:

But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, And write it in their hearts; And will be their God, And they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33 KJV)

With the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit into all who declare Christ as Lord and Savior, this divine promise became a reality. 

Conclusion & 2 Corinthians 3

Therefore, we strongly agree with our friend who left the comment saying that Christians no longer have to perform sacrifices as God’s people did in the OT. But to defend his comment that Christians need to continue to follow the rest of the OT Law to grow in sanctification is quite an uphill battle. Based on everything we looked at in this series, I would say the burden is on him to convince us from God’s Word. God’s Word repeats many times that Christians are under a new, different covenant. Under the new covenant, it’s Christ’s sacrifice and the indwelling Holy Spirit that sanctifies us, that makes us holy. 

I think our friend would agree with me that walking in the Spirit in obedience to God’s Word as imitators of Christ is how we continue to grow in that sanctification, to grow more like Christ, but I see no evidence in the NT that that means continuing to follow the OT ritual and religious laws. Of all the NT passages that speak of growing in sanctification, any hint of that meaning we continue to follow the OT Law is absent. Yes, we walk in obedience to God, which means following his moral law, and there is a clear continuity between the OT and NT in this sense. In fact, I have defended the importance of the OT in relation to the NT before. But I see no evidence in the NT that saved believers in Christ need to continue to follow the OT ritual and religious law. All the evidence points in the opposite direction. 

In fact, I believe Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3 are sufficient to close us out and put this to rest. Echoing Jeremiah 31:33 once again, Paul contrasts the Old and New Covenants—that which is written with ink or on stone tables (the Old Covenant) versus that which is written by the Holy Spirit on the human heart (the New Covenant) (3:1-5)—and this “hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life (3:6 KJV). He then speaks of those still reading the Old Covenant as having blinded minds, as if having a veil over their faces, a veil only Christ can remove (3:14):

16 Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away. 17 Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:16–18 KJV).

Christians are sanctified—made holy, set apart—through both the atoning sacrifice of Christ and the receiving of his Holy Spirit, which changes hearts and renews minds. Moreover, the Christian continues to grow in sanctification—to grow more into the image of Christ—by continuing to walk in the Holy Spirit in obedience to Christ, which is true freedom (2 Cor 3:17), which includes freedom from the OT Law.

Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 1) Galatians: Paul Gives a Smackdown

Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 2) Romans: It’s the End of the Law as We Know It (and Paul Feels Fine)

Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 3) Acts: What to Do With Those Filthy Gentiles

Related GFTM Articles:

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 1 of 2) Are OT laws arbitrary, offensive & silly?

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 2 of 2) Why do Christians follow some OT laws & not others?

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Mark)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Matthew)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of John)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Luke + Series Final Results)

Book Review: Urban Legends of Church History: 40 Common Misconceptions

Urban Legends of Church History: 40 Common Misconceptions by Michael Svigel and John Adair is the third book I’ve read in the “Urban Legends” series by B & H Academic. The first two address commonly repeated inaccuracies about the Old and New Testaments. Though all written by different scholars, all three books have the same accessible format, and all three books are extremely helpful to both the layperson and to those in ministry. Of the three, I found Urban Legends of Church History most interesting probably because (like many) my Bible knowledge is better than my church history knowledge. So, Urban Legends of Church History is a welcomed and much-needed tool, conveniently packaged. 

I would recommend all Christians—for their benefit—to pick up a good overview of church history, such as Church History in Plain English by Bruce L. Shelley or Justo L. Gonzalez’s two-volume The Story of Christianity to get a good grasp of the key events and movements in Christianity’s board and diverse 2,000-year history. Then, read Urban Legends of Church History as a helpful side-kick for tightening up that new knowledge. I believe all Christians and the Church at large can benefit by having a firmer grasp of Christian history. 

The book is broken into four parts: early church (AD 50-500), Medieval period (AD 500-1,500), the Protestant era (AD 1,500-1,700), and the modern age (AD 1,700-present). Some would want to read it from front to back, but if you don’t have time for that, when reading through the titles of the 40 chapters, many will jump out at you and pull you in for a reading: “The Earliest Christians Worshipped on Saturday”; “Nothing Good Came from the ‘Dark Ages’”; “John Calvin Summarized His Theology in ‘Five Points’”; “None of the American Founding Fathers Were Orthodox Christians”; “Women Never Served as Church Officers in the Early Church.” My only complaint is that since the book is just under 300 pages, I always ended up wishing that many of the more compelling chapters were longer. I was left wanting more explanation and details, even opposing viewpoints, but such is not the nature of this book. Anyhow, the authors provide plenty of references and recommendations for further research. 

Finally, I wanted to comment on the apologetic value of this book. As one who is in ministry where I defend the faith and teach others to do the same, I found it helpful as a quick resource to point people to. Everyone in ministry regularly hears “urban legends,” so where this might not be considered an apologetics book, I would point out the apologetic value of it. I especially found the first part focusing on the early church (AD 50-500) as helpful for addressing attacks on historical, orthodox Christianity by anti-theists, cults (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons), and “progressive” Christians, chapters like “The Church Apostatized Shortly after the Apostles”; “Pagan Philosophy Contaminated Christian Theology”; and “The Doctrine of the Trinity Developed Centuries after Jesus.”

*B & H Academic provided me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.