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Did OT Morality Get Thrown Under the Bus?

One of the methods used to discount sections of the Bible that may go against what one wants to believe is to illustrate how we no longer abide by many of the commandments in the Old Testament. The implication being, of course, if we don’t have to avoid eating pigs or sacrifice sheep upon an altar anymore, then who’s to say prohibitions against homosexual relationships or premarital sex haven’t also gone the way of the dinosaur? Or that sex outside of marriage is no longer wrong?

There is some truth to the viewpoint. That is, there are commandments in the Old Testament that we no longer follow. There were some changes made along the way. Some would attribute them to cultural differences, but we must not assume too quickly this is the case. Especially when the reason for those changes are spelled out in the Bible itself.

Therein lies the problem. People point to changes and then assume that means everything is up in the air and available for redefining in the manner we want to define, so as to allow for our favorite sin. When we become the arbitrators of which commandments to keep and which commandments to dump, then we have invalidated the authority of Scripture to be any kind of reliable guide and moral compass. Indeed, that appears to be the goal of many groups, to relegate Scriptures out of the realm of moral teaching and restrict it to purely “spiritual” applications.

However, the spiritual cannot be artificially separated from the rest of life. If God intended anything, it was to have us live a way of life that promotes physical, emotional, moral, social, and spiritual health. The whole person. The commandments were not given just to have rules, but to guide us into living within our design specs so that we will find the greatest fulfillment.

The answer to the changes is in the Scriptures itself, and falls under two main categories: fulfillment and clarification. All changes and subsequent leaving behind certain commandments are due to one or a combination of both reasons. Let’s take a look at some examples to illustrate what we are talking about.

The sacrificial system. This is an example of Jesus fulfilling the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. There is ample scriptures supporting that because of Jesus’ sacrifice, there was no longer a need for the image of animal sacrifices which pointed to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Jesus fulfilled that section of the Law, wiping out pages of commandments that no longer apply to us. Once the real sacrifice had been made, there was no longer any need for the blood of goats and rams.

Stoning of adulterers. The Old Testament Law said that those caught in the act of adultery must be stoned. There were similar seemingly harsh laws in response to sin. This is another example of fulfillment. What Jesus did on the cross and through His resurrection was to bring a new healing to each person that up until then did not exist. Death reigned, but Christ defeated death by death and by rising to life again.

A medical example helps here. Let’s say a certain infection has no cure, so when a limb gets infected, the only way to save the person is to cut off the limb. It is drastic, it is harsh, but better than the whole body being destroyed. But then one day, someone discovers a cure for this disease. Cutting off one’s limb is no longer necessary, would even be considered an irresponsible and stupid decision. For why cut it off when it can be saved?

Before Christ, there was no healing for sin. Left unchecked among the people, sin acted like an infection. The only way to keep the whole of God’s people from being lost was to cut off those who had become infected to the point they would infect others. To put them in quarantine, so to speak. The only solution to check sin was a radical one.

Once Christ came, however, sin had a cure. This is why the story of the woman caught in adultery is so critical to this understanding. (John 8:3-11) Most people focus on how Jesus deflected the Pharisees who were testing him. They figured if He went lenient on her, they could accuse Him of not following the law. If He was strict, they could accuse Him of not being flexible and realistic. But He told them, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” They all left, leaving Jesus alone with her.

Keep in mind, according to the law she should have been stoned. According to what Jesus said, He was the only person in the crowd, being without sin, who could cast the first stone. Being God, He would have been within His rights to follow His own law and cast the stone. But He didn’t. Instead He said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Why the change? Because she would be healed and infect no one else with her viewpoint. Because her encounter with Christ changed her.

But this did not make adultery no longer a sin, it simply showed that because of Christ that sin could be healed. Same with many others that before required the radical cutting off of of people infected by sin. Through healing, that aspect was fulfilled and the former commandment no longer applied.

Avoiding work on the Sabbath. Numerous times the Pharisees accused Jesus of promoting work on the Sabbath, something explicitly prohibited by Law. Or at least, as the Pharisees interpreted “work,” Jesus was guilty. They had huge volumes listing out what was work and what wasn’t. Jesus alludes to one of them when He said, “What man is there among you who shall have one sheep, and if it should fall into a ditch on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?” (Mat 12:11)

Jesus then concludes in the next verse, “How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” By this he clarifies what was meant by “work.” Indeed, He makes it plain that the Sabbath was not meant to be a burden to man, but a blessing: “The Sabbath came into being for the sake of man, and not man for the sake of the Sabbath.” (Mrk 2:27)

Multiple wives. There was no commandment to have multiple wives, and nothing in the New Testament against it save when the New Testament Church wanted leaders, then the rule was a bishop or presbyter or deacon should be the husband of only one wife. (1Tim 3:2, 12, Tit 1:6) Also, for the Church to enroll a woman as a widow, she had to be the wife of only one husband. (1Tim 5:9) The later indicates what is discussed isn’t one at a time, but one spouse for one’s whole life. A widow by definition has no current husband, so it could only be referring to one previous husband.

This is illustrated clearly by Jesus when He is asked by the Pharisees whether it is lawful to “put away” his wife. (Mrk 10:2) Jesus asks them what Moses said, and they replied Moses permitted the giving of a certificate of divorce. Jesus then goes on to clarify not only why Moses permitted that, but also that marriage is for one man and woman, not multiple of either.

First he lays out the design of marriage as God originally intended. That is, that a man shall take a wife, and the two shall become one flesh. What God has joined, let not man put asunder. But how does one put such a union asunder. He clarifies that in the next comments.

“So He said to them, ‘Whoever should put away his wife and marry another commits adultery against her. And if a wife should put away her husband and be married to another, she commits adultery.’” (Mrk 10:11-12)

Note the linkage. Divorce alone isn’t the problem. It is marrying another, that is, having sexual relationships with a new person. That is committing adultery, and rends asunder the previous union when it is done. Which is why a man or woman is not sinning by marrying another when the other spouse commits adultery, because that union has already been destroyed.

Jesus clarifies for us what divorce is, when it becomes real divorce by committing adultery, and that God’s design is for a man or woman to have only one spouse through their lifetime. Whether one at a time, or several at the same time, Jesus made it clear either situation was sinful, and that it was allowed in times past because of our stubbornness. Not because God wanted it that way.

In most every instance we could bring up where something was practiced or commanded in the Old Testament, but appeared to have changed, the reason could be shown to arise from one or a combination of these two factors: fulfillment and/or clarification. So to demonstrate why we should change or drop other commandments in the Old Testament, one would have to clearly show what was fulfilled or clarified to justify the change.

When it comes to the sinfulness of certain moral codes like sex outside of marriage, whether “premarital” or adultery, homosexuality, or other types, not only is there no fulfillment that would make them no longer applicable, or clarification that excuses their classification as a sin, instead one finds reinforcement of their continued sinfulness.

The Church leaders met in council to determine which of the Jewish Law the Gentile Christian converts would need to follow. They only passed on three specific parts of the Law, one of which was to abstain from “sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:20) This clearly shows that the Old Testament morality about sexual matters was passed on as valid to the growing Gentile Church. Indeed, at no point in Christian history did the Church ever back off of these activities as being sin, until post-modern times among some Christian groups.

So not only do you not find any justification in Scriptures that these moral laws changed either through fulfillment or Jesus clarifying what was meant, you don’t have any indication that these activities have ever been considered not sinful from Moses to this day. There is no change. There is no basis upon which to dismiss them simply because you can point to items that have changed and you want to lump these activities in with them based upon personal bias against them.

For these reasons, the obsoleteness of certain sections of the Old Testament cannot be used to justify declaring something as not sinful, or to ignore clear injunctions in the Old Testament that haven’t changed nor is there any basis upon which to do so.

Can sin stop being sinful?

About R. L. Copple
R. L. Copple enjoys a good cup of coffee and a fun story. These two realities and inspiration from the likes of Lester Del Ray, J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, among others, caused him to write his own science fiction and fantasy stories to increase the fun in the world and to share his fresh perspective.
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8 Responses to Did OT Morality Get Thrown Under the Bus?

  1. R. L. Copple says:

    A reader asked me a question via email on this article and I responded. Unfortunately, the email address bounced back as invalid. Probably a typo or something. Being as it was a question worthy of an answer and of interest to others, I’m posting it here. Not adding the name as I don’t want to assume she wants to be made public, but you know who you are. At least if she checks in here, she’ll see the answer I tried to send her. Here is her question:

    What about Deut. 22:5 in relation to fulfillment or clarification? for today? Since pants still seem to pertain more to men in the U.S., for instance, are women needing to stay with dresses/skirts to please God? Or is it more a modesty issue?

    And here is my reply:

    The scripture verse you mention is this:

    A woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a
    man put on a woman’s garment; for whosoever doeth these things is an
    abomination unto Jehovah thy God.
    (Deu 22:5 ASV)

    Most men back then wore robes, so any pants they wore would not be that displayed. It would be more like they were wearing dresses. So that isn’t the issue so much: pants vs. dresses. Rather, it is the desire to wear the opposite sex’s clothing that is at issue. And when you look at the clarification side of it, though this was in full force during NT times as well so you don’t get any detailed explanation of its basis like you did with some of the laws, it revolves not so much the material or style itself, as it does the desire to dress like the other sex. It has at its basis a dissatisfaction and discontentment with how God made a person. Which I would suggest is still true. As a man, I have no desire to wear women’s pants, for example.

  2. Hi, Rick! Fantastic post, truly.

    I only have one question for clarification regarding marriage, divorce, and widows… Is your view that widows were not supposed to remarry? I know there was the OT practice of a brother marrying his brother’s widow to perpetuate his line. I thought also that somewhere in the Bible it said that death dissolves the marriage contract. If so, then I would think a widow would be free to marry again, just like someone who was divorced and their spouse cheated. Just curious to hear more of your thoughts on that line.


    • R. L. Copple says:

      I’m not aware in Scripture where it says death dissolves a marriage. Maybe a marriage contract as in betrothal contract made by two families (they didn’t have “state” contracts back then), but once bonded physically, the two become one. That’s the main reason there really is no such thing as “premarital” sex, because sex creates a marital bond with everyone a person does it with, even if it is not the fullness of marriage as in legal, social, emotional, and spiritual bonds. And every subsequent bonding with another divorces, that is, rends asunder, the previous bond.

      The law that a brother of a spouse marry the widow of his brother was only if the two had not given birth to an heir, to carry on his brother’s line. Involved in that back then was not only emotional reasons of wanting an heir, but financial in that was how land was passed down. The law gives it as an non-ideal workaround to a sticky situation. And of note is the brother would not consider any son born from the relationship his own son, but the son of his brother. But it was not to be considered the norm for marriage.

      That is why the Sadducees used this law to try and trap Jesus. “In the resurrection therefore whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her.” (Mat 22:28 ASV) Jesus’ answer, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as angels in heaven,” you have your closest thing to death breaking the marital bond. However, it is not solid. He only said in heaven people are not married and given in marriage. He did not say those married in this life no longer are bonded with their spouse. But to take Jesus literally here, He is saying that in heaven, you won’t be living in a house with a wife and family, and having marital relations. Life will be more like the angels. However, that doesn’t speak to the “one flesh” bond created in this life. It doesn’t make it clear that the one shall become two upon death. Only that it will be nothing like it is here in this life, I would suspect because our bond will be primarily to God. Jesus is the bridegroom and we are the bride.

      So while one could interpret Jesus’ response as saying death rends asunder the two in marriage, it could also not be interpreted that way, and indeed in Church history it has generally been expected that a widow would remain such. But, due to “hardness of heart” or simply our fallen condition that Paul speaks of when he says it is better to marry rather than burn and sin in that way, it has been allowed.

      In the Orthodox Church, which has rituals going back to the early Church, second marriages are allowed, but it is a repentant ceremony instead of the more celebratory first marriage, because there is a recognition that what is being done isn’t ideal and involves sin on some level, it is in response to our fallen condition, not as God designed it to be.

      One thing that seals it for me is the children. They are the literal manifestation of “one flesh” that the two become. St. John Chrysostom makes that point in one of his homilies on marriage. Children don’t disappear when one of the spouses die. That child represents an eternal bond between two people, for that soul will live eternally. Nothing can change that.

      Also at play is that marriage is an icon/image of our relationship with God. You see this all through the Bible, whether it is Hosea marrying a whore as a prophecy to Israel, or St. Paul in Ephesians. Do we want to create the image that we have more than one God? That we can divorce God and marry another? That’s the image remarrying creates theologically.

      So I think my answer to your question is remarriage is allowed, but it is not the ideal that Jesus lays out for us. It is a response to our fallen condition. Just as in times past having multiple wives and concubines has been allowed. But it isn’t in the design specs.

      • I’m not aware in Scripture where it says death dissolves a marriage.

        Romans 7:2-3 says exactly that: “For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.”

        Paul also explicitly counsels younger widows to marry again in 1 Timothy 5:14 (albeit for somewhat unflattering reasons, but then he expresses a similar ambivalence about single people getting married in 1 Corinthians 7).

        What really struck me about this article, though, was the excellent point you make about Christ offering healing for sin that was not available under the Law. I think you’ve got an excellent analogy to go with it in comparing the reasons for amputation vs. treatment, and I’m looking forward to bringing this up with some fellow believers for discussion. Thanks for writing it.

        • R. L. Copple says:

          R. J., you are correct, in as far as the Law goes. I don’t know if Paul based this upon the brother marrying his brother’s wife situation, or if there was another law written down outside the OT that specified this. To my awareness, the law the Pharisees mention to Christ, that Moses allowed for divorce, isn’t in the OT either. So it is certainly likely Paul is referencing one of the many laws not specifically mentioned in the OT.

          The key difference between Moses’ allowance and what Paul speaks of here is that the death of a spouse releases a person from the charge of adultery in remarrying just as if one’s spouse committed adultery. Moses’ certificate of divorce does not, according to Christ.

          I would add that it is still the ideal, as Paul points out in the passage you mentioned in Timothy, that one not remarry in that instance. Based on my points above, I think God’s plan was one spouse, period. Which is why bishops and deacons were held to that standard, no matter the cause of a remarriage.

          So I would say that legally, yes the marriage bond is dissolved at death. However, it cannot erase the history of that bond, nor the children that are eternally “one flesh” from both parents. That one-fleshness never goes away. Multiple marriages also cannot as clearly parallel our marriage to God, as such would image multiple gods, not the God.

          But good catch. Thanks.

          • What a great discussion. The verse in Romans R.J mentioned was the one I was remembering.

            I like your thought that marriage parallels our relationship to God. “What God has joined together let no man put asunder.” And that children are “one-fleshness” personified. New ideas for me and I’ll have to think on them.

            The thing I wonder, then, is if marriage parallels our relationship to God and was clearly God’s design, then why did Paul think singleness was beneficial? One could say Jesus never married, but we know His bride is the church.

            And if I remember correctly, widows were cared for by their sons, which was why having sons was such a big deal in biblical times. Thus, the onus on the church to support widows because they had no ability to support themselves.

            Interestingly, in Leviticus 44:22 “They [the Levitical priests] must not marry a widow or a divorcee, but they may marry a virgin from the house of Israel or a widow who is a priest’s widow.”

            Also Paul in Titus 5:11ff says ” But do not accept younger widows on the list, because their passions may lead them away from Christ and they will desire to marry, 5:12 and so incur judgment for breaking their former pledge. 5:13 And besides that, going around from house to house they learn to be lazy, and they are not only lazy, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not. 5:14 So I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us. 5:15 For some have already wandered away to follow Satan.”

            So while singleness may be preferable, there are certainly cases in the Bible, even in the OT, where widows at least may remarry. I assume that goes for men as well? Dunno.

            LOVE, love, love thinking about theology. Fun, fun!

          • R. L. Copple says:

            Thanks for the comments, Lisa.

            The thing I wonder, then, is if marriage parallels our relationship to God and was clearly God’s design, then why did Paul think singleness was beneficial?

            Paul represents a more monastic tradition, that one marries God in effect, and is totally devoted to Him, not having commitments which might distract from that. That is why he says it is the better way. But he obviously wouldn’t deny based upon that the image of marriage reflecting our marriage to God, as he used it in Ephesians.

            So while singleness may be preferable, there are certainly cases in the Bible, even in the OT, where widows at least may remarry. I assume that goes for men as well?

            Yes. It is obvious Paul makes “exceptions” to the rule or ideal based on what is most expedient. Better to marry than to burn and sin, or in the case of young widows, end up driven by their passions to sin. There was allowance for our fallenness and hardness of heart in this matters.

            For example, many take Jesus’ words quoted in the article to mean divorce therefore isn’t allowed. But Christ never said that. Only the main reason a man might divorce his wife was so he could marry another. This was allowed in the Law, even though due to hardness of heart. But Jesus is pointing out the fact that a sin has been committed nonetheless, and it should be treated as such, just if someone had stolen something, or murdered someone, etc.

          • R. L. Copple says:


            I was thinking through some of these things, and another thought came to me.

            Or I remembered it. In the NT Church, there was an office called widows. They acted in a ministerial capacity, thus why Paul says they could only be of “one husband” to be enrolled in this service. Not all widows were included. Those who had family members to care for them, those who were too young and might be tempted to remarry, and those who had been married more than once.

            Clearly the design specs are as Jesus pointed out, that one man and woman are joined together and that bond not torn asunder. Divorce and remarriage was allowed, but it didn’t negate the reality that it was a step down from how God intended it to be.

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