Why Don't Christians Follow Old Testament Ceremonial Laws?

In a small town in Texas people entering the city limits in cars must honk their horn so that those on horses would not be startled. That’s the law. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But it isn’t difficult to see that at one time it might have served a very valuable purpose.

When a Christian looks back at the Old Testament, some of the laws seem pretty ridiculous. For example, how could God ever require people not to eat pork, or to work on Saturdays? Of course, God’s laws are never ridiculous. But it is true that many of them served a purpose only for a limited time.

So why did God give all of those ceremonial laws of the Old Testament to the Israelites? One of the purposes for giving them those laws is one of his purposes whenever he gives laws. Whenever God reveals his will to human beings, one of the things he wants them to realize is that they are sinful. God’s laws set the bar for us. They tell us how God wants us to live. And inevitably they lead us to realize that we haven’t measured up to that bar. They lead us to realize that there is a problem between us and God that needs to be solved.

Another purpose for giving the Israelites those laws was to keep them distinct from the other nations of the world. Long before God gave any of those laws, he had made a promise. He promised a man named Abraham that one of his descendants would be the Savior of the entire world (Genesis 12:3). God cannot make a promise that he does not fulfill. Therefore, because he had promised that the Savior of the world would come from Abraham’s descendants, he needed to keep Abraham’s descendants distinct as a people. Therefore he gave them a unique set of laws that ensured that they would remain a unique nation. Finally, God gave Old Testament laws for the purpose of reminding the people of the coming Savior. With this purpose we especially think of what are often referred to as ceremonial laws – laws that had to do with the people’s worship life. An example of a ceremonial law is the Sabbath day law. The Sabbath day law stated that the last day of every week, Saturday, was to be a day of physical rest for the people. In fact, the word Sabbath means “rest.” On that day they were not to do any work.

The purpose of that law was to point ahead to the coming Savior. Jesus, the Savior of the world, was going to bring true rest for all people. Not a day off each week. Instead, eternal, spiritual rest. Jesus was going to fix the problem between God and mankind caused by sin. You and I do not need to work to make our relationship with God right. Jesus did all the work. We get to rest.

So what changed? Basically, Jesus came. He did all of the things that God promised he was going to do. And because Jesus came, God’s Old Testament laws were no longer necessary. The people of Israel no longer needed to be a distinct nation. In the same way, the people no longer needed to be reminded of the coming Savior. They rejoiced in the fact that the Savior had already come. The apostle Paul expressed this truth when he wrote, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16,17).