After God had led the Israelites out of Egypt and given them the old law, the Law of Moses, He had them go north to the southern end of Canaan. There He commanded Moses to send spies into the land of Canaan and, upon their return, to enter that land and conquer it. When the twelve spies returned, they brought glowing reports of the land, but ten of them felt that it was too strong to be conquered. Rather than listening to Joshua and Caleb, the people listened to the other ten spies and refused to attack the land. God then commanded Moses to have the Israelites turn back into the wilderness where they would be doomed to wander for another thirty-nine years. The Israelite people, however, liked this command even less than the original, so they decided that they would obey the first command instead. Moses warned them not to attack the Canaanites, for God was no longer with them. They marched into southern Canaan anyway. There they suffered a terrible defeat and, upon their return, were forced to march south into the wilderness again (Numbers 13-14).
Now the point of this story is that when God gives a command and revokes it, a person cannot please Him by doing the original command. It is the current command of God that is in effect. Many people fail to understand this and treat the Bible as if all commands in it were of equal validity for us today. But the scriptures teach that the old law, the law of Moses, has been abolished for us (Eph. 2:14-15). It would be wrong for us to go back to the Old Testament and try to please God by keeping the commands given there which are not given in the New Testament as well.
The old law commanded many forms of worship which were shadows of the reality which is in Christ (Col. 2:17; Heb. 10:1). In the old law we find many such things as the following commanded: sacrificing animals (Lev. 1:5), resting on the seventh day (Ex. 20:8-10), circumcising baby boys (Lev. 12:3), abstaining from eating unclean animals (Deut. 14:3-20), sprinkling holy water (Num. 19:17-18), burning lamps or candles (Lev. 24:4), playing instrumental music (2 Chron. 29:25), burning incense (Lev. 16:12-13), and priests wearing robes (Ex. 28:4). None of these items are commanded in the New Testament.
Now there is nothing wrong with doing such things in and of themselves. There is nothing wrong with killing an animal, not working on Saturday, having one's baby boy circumcised, failing to eat pork, sprinkling water, burning a candle, playing a piano, burning incense, or wearing a robe at graduation. As Paul writes, the law was good (1 Tim. 1:8).
The problem comes when a person wants to please God by obeying these shadows as religious commands. Paul tells the Galatians that if they are circumcised to please God, they will be cut off from Christ (Gal. 5:4). He says that to try to keep one command from the old law obligates them to keep the whole law (Gal. 5:3). He characterized their observance of Old Testament holidays as turning back to weak and beggarly elements and expressed his fear that he had labored over them in vain (Gal. 4:9-11). He wrote the Colossians that they should let no one judge them for their failure to observe the food laws, the feast days, and the sabbaths of the old law (Col. 2:16-17). The Christian sacrifice is Christ, not animals (Heb. 9:24-26).
Knowing this, shall we then return to the commands which are shadows? Shall we substitute the burning of candles for the worship of Christ, the light of the world (John 8:12)? Shall we substitute the melody of the harp, soothing as it is, for the song played on human voice and heart (Eph. 5:19)? Shall we offer incense to God instead of the prayers that it represents (Rev. 8:3)? Shall we forbid the eating of pork when Christ has pronounced it clean (Mark 7:19) rather than forbiding sin, the real thing that is unclean? No, in all these things we must hold to the reality, not to the shadow. Once God has changed the command, we cannot turn back again.
Copyright © 1993, Bruce Terry. All rights reserved. This article may be freely reprinted in bulletins and newsletters so long as no charge is made to the reader and this copyright notice is included.