Design and purpose of the Law of Moses

Michael Hatcher


“You are the ones who do not believe in the Old Testament!” This is an accusation which many in the Lord’s church face on a regular basis. Sometimes it is as a result of direct misrepresentation to prejudice people against the Lord’s church and other times it is simply as a result of misunderstanding what is taught without any intended dishonesty. Either way this accusation is a false one. The sad thing is that some members of the Lord’s church do not understand the Old Testament, and they often leave the wrong impression. However, let this writer assure you that we do believe in the Old Testament, we simply understand that the Old Testament is not the law to which we are subject today.


It is not the purpose of this chapter to show that the Old Testament has been taken away, but in a study of the purpose and design of that Testament, it is a necessary part of this study. The Old Testament Law of Moses was never intended to be a universal law. In a discussion of the Sabbath Law, God states, “It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed” (Exo. 31:17). As Moses gives the Law to the nation of Israel after the wilderness wanderings and prior to going into the land of promise, he states, “And Moses called all Israel, and said unto them, Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your ears this day, that ye may learn them, and keep, and do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day” (Deu. 5:1-3). Moses states specifically that the Law of Moses was made with the ones who were there: that is the Israelites. Therefore, the Law of Moses was never a universal law, it was a Law dealing with the Jews. The Gentile world was never subject to that Law.

When Christ died on the cross, He fulfilled the Old Testament Law and thus abrogated it. Jesus stated, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mat. 5:17-18). When Jesus fulfilled the Law, it did pass away. That certainly is one of the aspects of Jesus’ statement upon the cross when He cried, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He had finished fulfilling the Law, thus it passed away.

Paul often spoke to the fact that the Old Testament Law had been taken away so we are no longer subject to it. “Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace” (Eph. 2:15). The “law of commandments contained in ordinances” has reference to the Mosaic Law. It was that law which was a dividing law between the Jew and the Gentile. Jesus abolished that law so that both Jew and Gentile could be one and thus have peace. In a parallel passage Paul wrote, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Col. 2:14). Those ordinances are “the rules and requirements of the law of Moses.” Paul clearly states that these ordinances have been taken out of the way permanently at the cross of Christ.

The Hebrews writer shows that the Christian system is superior to any other religious system and in particular the Mosaic system. In this he shows that we have a greater priesthood than the Levitical priesthood: the priesthood of Christ. However, Christ could not be a priest on earth because He was not of the tribe of Levi—He came from the tribe of Judah. For Christ to be a priest there must be a change in the priesthood which was brought about by a change in the law. “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law…. For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof” (Heb. 7:12, 18). That change in the Law was a change from the Old Testament Law, the Law of Moses, to the Law of Christ.

As Paul writes to the Roman brethren, he argues that we are free from the Mosaic Law in Romans 7. He begins by saying, “Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?” (Rom. 7:1). He then uses an illustration to show the point. A woman is married to a man as long as he lives, and if she is married to someone else while he lives she is an adulteress, but if he is dead she is not an adultress. He then makes the application: “Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God” (Rom. 7:4). To what law are we dead? “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). The law which said, “Thou shalt not covet” is the Mosaic Law and specifically the Ten Commandments (Exo. 20:17). Therefore we are dead to the Mosaic Law so we can be married to (subject to) the Law of Christ.

Some might be led to ask: “If we are not subject to the Old Testament, then of what use is it?” This author sees four purposes of the Law of Moses, but these four purposes are intertwined. In the next section, it will be our intention to look at these four areas, then we intend to go into the Old Testament Law to show application of these four principles.


What is sin and how do I know if I have sinned? These are important and great questions that each person needs to know and understand. If a person does not realize that he has sinned, he will see no need for a Savior. Thus, there is a great need for a person to know what constitutes sin and thus to realize that he has sinned. One of the great purposes of the Old Testament Law is to define and highlight sin. Notice in Paul’s writings how he, by inspiration, emphasizes this point. As he writes to the Roman brethren, he states, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20). Here we have the clear statement of one of the purposes of the Law. The knowledge of sin comes by the law. The context shows “the law” refers to the Mosaic Law. Thus, the purpose of the Law of Moses is to give man a knowledge of sin. Later in this same book, Paul emphasizes this again when he writes, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet…. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (Rom. 7:7, 13). Paul has shown that we are no longer subject to or amenable to the Mosaic Law (1-4). We have been delivered from the Old Testament Law so we can live according to the instructions of the Spirit as revealed in the New Testament (6). Thus, Paul, responding to any possible arguments, asks the question concerning the Law: “is the Law sin?” Was the Mosaic Law evil or sinful? Of course not! Then what was the purpose of the Old Testament Law? Instead of the Law being sin or causing man to sin, it revealed sin to us. Paul writes that he would not know sin, specifically the sin of coveting, if sin had not been revealed to be sin in the Old Testament.

In writing to the Galatian brethren, Paul would write, “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Gal. 3:19). Paul discussed the promises made to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) and shows that the Law of Moses could not disannul those promises and that the inheritance did not come through the Mosaic Law. Then of what purpose is the Law? It was added to the Abrahamic promise because of sin. It served the purpose to reveal sin to man.


As the Old Testament Law revealed sin to man, it also reveals to man his inability to sinlessly keep the Mosaic Law. When one is born into this world, he is born without sin (Ecc. 7:29; Psa. 106:37-38; Eze. 18:4, 20; Mat. 18:3; 19:13-15). As they grow, they reach, what we generally call, an “age of accountability” (Deu. 1:39; Isa. 7:16). When they reach the time in their life when they know to choose the right and refuse the evil, they do that which is wrong (Eze. 28:15). The Law of Moses did not make provision for man’s weaknesses and sin. Yet, one must keep or obey the Law sinlessly to be justified by the works of the Law.

Paul would write, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. 3:10-13). He points out that those who are of the works of the Law are under a curse because they must continue in all things which are written in the Law. This simply demands too much because no one can sinlessly obey all the Law. Previously in this letter Paul had written, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Gal. 3:22).

In writing to the Roman brethren he states that God’s wrath is revealed against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). He goes on to show that the Gentile world was under the wrath of God because they had transgressed God’s will (Rom. 1:18-32). He then points out that the Jew is no better than the Gentile because they had the Law and did not keep it (Rom. 2). Then he concludes by showing that since Jew and Gentile did not keep the Law, that all men are under the condemnation of God. Notice as he writes, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:… For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10, 23).

There is no one who can stand in a right relationship with God through their sinless obedience to the Law of Moses. This is why the Law of Moses was a “law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2) instead of a Law which produces life. Since all are under the curse (Gal. 3:10), the Law cannot justify but it does show our need for someone who can justify. This leads us to the next purpose of the Law of Moses.


With the knowledge of what constitutes sin, and the knowledge that each person has sinned, and knowing that no one can save themselves nor sinlessly obey or keep the Law, there is the realization that man needs a Redeemer or Savior. Therefore, one of the purposes of the Law of Moses is that of preparing mankind for the Messiah. It does this by first making us realize our need for the Messiah. The Law lets us know what constitutes sin and that we have committed sin in our life. The Law also reveals to us that we cannot sinlessly keep the Law, and, therefore, we are under a curse. With this knowledge, we now know that we need someone to save us from our sin, thus the need for the Messiah. However, God had to prepare the world for the coming of the Savior. Paul wrote, “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). From the time of man’s first sin (Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden), God began preparing the world for the coming of the One who would destroy the power of Satan (Gen. 3:15) and take away man’s sins.

The Law of Moses was given to prepare man for His coming. A part of this was telling about Him so when He came, all would know that He is the One. As Jesus spoke to the two disciples while on the road to Emmaus, Luke records, “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The Old Testament Law was speaking about Christ, His coming, and the kingdom He would establish.

The prophets foretold many aspects of the Messiah’s life (His birth, life, death, purpose, etc.). When Jesus came, He fulfilled all these prophecies. Jesus reminded His apostles of His fulfilment of the prophecies when He said, “And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44). Notice that the Old Testament was written about Him. They were preparing the way for Him so all would come to Him. Jesus said, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life” (John 5:39-40).

When Jesus came and established His Law (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2; et al.), He abrogated the Old Testament Law. To take away the Law of Moses, He had to fulfill it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Mat. 5:17). He came with the utmost respect for the Law and fulfilled the Law so it could be taken away. However, we should understand that the Law was prophesying of Jesus. In prophesying of Him, it was foretelling and preparing the way for Him.


Often when we discuss the purpose of the Old Testament, this is the main aspect which is discussed. Paul wrote, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The things which were “written aforetime” are the Old Testament Scriptures. They provide historical examples for us so as we study them we can learn. As we look at the examples provided for us we learn patience which is the quality of being steadfast. We also are comforted as we look at the Scriptures. These qualities which are learned by studying the Law of Moses produces within us hope. As we examine the lives of the great men of faith, we observe their steadfast reliance on God which then inspires within us that same desire. After the Hebrews writer records many of the heros of faith (Heb. 11), he then states, “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). James, the half-brother of our Lord encouraged us to consider the prophets as an example: “Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (Jam. 5:10-11). What a great hope this provides for us that if we have that steadfast reliance upon God, we then have hope.

Paul speaks of his need to continue in faithfulness to God lest he become a castaway (1 Cor. 9:26-27). In showing the possibility of apostatizing from God, he uses physical Israel as an example for us. He shows how that all of them enjoyed spiritual blessings (1 Cor. 10:1-4), but that God was not pleased with many of them (v. 5). He then states, “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (v. 6). He continues to give illustrations of the lack of faithfulness to God, then states, “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (v. 11). We need to learn from the examples given to us in the Law of Moses to remain faithful to God to inherit the promises of God.


God created man and placed him in a marvelous garden. During this time, God and man possessed a sweet fellowship one with another. Adam and Eve communed with God as He would come in the “cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). God had given them His laws for them to continue to enjoy that fellowship. He placed them in the garden to “dress it and keep it” (2:15). They were to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (1:28). God also informed them what not to do: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (2:17). The serpent came tempting Eve to do what God had instructed man not to do (3:1-5). Eve took of the fruit and ate it and also gave it to Adam who also ate of it (v. 6). We learn the nature of sin; that it is a transgression of God’s law: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). We also learn of God’s dealings with man regarding sin and the separation which sin brings (Isa. 59:1-2) as Adam and Eve are cast out from the presence of God (Gen. 3:23-24). Since sin has come into the world, we learn the need for a Savior to redeem man back to God, thus God gives the promise of the Messiah. “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (3:15). Thus, in these first few chapters of the Bible we see all four aspects of the purpose of the Old Testament.

As one continues looking at the Scriptures, he observes the proliferation of sin as he reads of Cain murdering his brother Able and Lamech with his polygamy and murders (Gen. 4). Then we read how that “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5). We learn of God’s attitude toward sin as He sends a flood upon the earth to destroy man. However, we find that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8). We learn why Noah found grace in God’s eyes when we read, “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (6:9), and “thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he” (6.22). In all of these accounts, we are learning about sin and what constitutes sin. God is also showing man that he cannot live a sinless life and therefore he needs a Savior. They are also historical examples for man to learn about God’s dealings with man.

As we come to Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 12 we find three great promises made to him. “Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed….And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him” (Gen. 12:1-3, 7). There is (1) a land promise, (2) a nation promise, and (3) a spiritual promise that through Abraham’s seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Concerning this last promise Paul wrote, “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ” (Gal. 3:16). These promises are repeated several times first to Abraham, then to Isaac and Jacob. Twelve sons were born to Jacob. Ten of the sons envied Joseph and sold him into bondage. He was taken to Egypt and through the providence of God arose to second in command only under Pharaoh. Because of a great famine, Joseph’s family moved to Egypt where they were made a great nation numerically. Moses would write, “Thy fathers went down into Egypt with threescore and ten persons; and now the Lord thy God hath made thee as the stars of heaven for multitude” (Deu. 10:22).

At the appropriate time, God called Moses and had him go to Pharaoh and tell him, “Let my people go” (Exo. 5:1; 7:16; 8:1; et al.). When Pharaoh refused, God brought them out of Egypt with a powerful hand. He then led Israel to Mount Sinai and there gave them His Law (the Law of Moses). In giving them this Law, God was revealing to them in a codified way what constitutes sin. They were being instructed out of the Law regarding the things of God: “Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law” (Rom. 2:17-18). They were being instructed how to be in a right relationship with God, but the Law of Moses ended up convicting them of sin. “What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:9-10).

As one moves to Leviticus, he sees the theme of man’s need to be holy because God is holy. “For I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. For I am the Lord that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45). All the sacrifices and offerings they brought before God reminded them that they had sinned and were in need of a Savior. Yet, those sacrifices could never take away their sin. “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect” (Heb. 10:1). The reason those sacrifices could not take away sin is “for it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Thus, we see the Law of Moses teaching man the need for Someone to come Who could take away sins. “If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron?… For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God” (Heb. 7:11, 19). The Law was not perfect because it had no true provision for taking away sin, so it showed the need for a Second greater covenant which had a greater priest than the priest based upon the Law of Moses. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second” (Heb. 8:7).

Moses then led the Israelites to the land of Canaan which was the land God had promised to Abraham. Joshua then led them into the land to take possession of it. A mention of the types found in the Old Testament is appropriate at this point, because so many of them are pointing to and preparing the way for the coming Messiah. Moses and Joshua both are types of the Christ. It is stated that God would send one that was like unto Moses: “The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken;… I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him” (Deu. 18:15, 18).

The main part of the Abrahamic promise was the seed promise. The great nation and the land promise were both for the purpose of preserving a people and preparing the world for the Messiah. For the Messiah to come, there had to be a people through whom He could come. Thus, the promise of a great nation to preserve a people or nation through whom the Seed would come. For the nation or people to develop, they needed a land, thus God gave them the land of Canaan. Thus, the nation and the land promises go together, but they both are for the spiritual promise of a coming Seed who would save the world.

After taking the promised land, God raised up judges to deliver the Israelites. Those judges were also types of the Messiah as they were deliverers from the bondage of their oppressors while the Messiah is a Deliverer from the bondage of sin.

At the end of the period of the judges, the people cry for a king to be like the nations around them (1 Sam. 8). God gave them Saul but after his rebellion against God (1 Sam. 15), God raised up David to be king over Israel. David had the desire to build God a house, but was forbidden by God because he was a man of war and shed blood (1 Chr. 28:3). However, God promises David that his seed would build God a house. “And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever” (2 Sam. 7:12-16). God was preparing the way for our Lord and identifying Him as one who would be from Abraham’s seed through David. This seed of David would be the King along with being a prophet (Deu. 18:15, 18) and High Priest (Psa. 110:4; Heb. 7:11). He would be the Anointed One—the Christ.

As one studies the prophets, he learns all about the birth, life, and death of the Messiah. We learn of the place of the Savior’s birth (Mic. 5:2), the time frame of His birth (Dan. 2, 9), that He would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), where His ministry would take place (Isa. 9:1-2), that He would speak in parables (Psa. 78:2, 67-68) and work miracles (Isa. 35:5-6). Likewise the details of His death are spelled out in minute detail: that He would be sold for thirty pieces of silver (Zec. 11:12), betrayed by a friend (Psa. 41:9), His disciples would forsake Him (Zec. 13:7), He would be smitten and spat upon (Isa. 50:6), He would be wounded, bruised, and striped (Isa. 53:5), His hands and feet pierced (Psa. 22:16), crucified with thieves (Isa. 53:12), et al. Bert Thompson wrote, “Scholars have documented over 300 messianic prophecies in the Old Testament (Lockyer, 1973, p. 21). From Genesis through Malachi, the history of Jesus is foretold in minute detail.” All these prophecies were preparing the way for the Christ so when He came all would accept Him and come to Him to be saved.

All through these times of Old Testament history, we observe God’s dealings with man. God was providing man with illustrations of obedience and disobedience. He was showing man His reactions to man and his lifestyle. We witness God’s blessings coming upon man when man obeys His will, and God’s condemnation upon those who disobey Him. These historical accounts give encouragement to those who read them today that we can obey even as they obeyed. When we go through trials, tribulations, and persecutions, we know that others have gone through the same things and remained faithful therefore receiving God’s favors.


The man who fails to read and study the Old Testament is spiritually deprived. One cannot have an understanding of the New Testament without knowing the Old Testament. We have some adages to show the connection between the two Testaments: “The Old is by the New explained, the New is in the Old contained,” “The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is by the New revealed.” While we are not subject to the Law of Moses, we should study and learn from the Old Testament to have a complete understanding of God and His dealings with man, our need for a Savior, and how God would work all things together for the perfect time to send His Son as a Savior of man.


All quotations from the King James Version.

James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, Electronic ed. Logos Bible Software (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1996) G1378.

For a discussion of this see: Michael Hatcher, “Total Depravity,” Denominationalism Versus The Bible, ed. Terry M. Hightower (San Antonio, TX: Shenandoah Church of Christ, 1992), pp. 379-394.

Bert Thompson, My Sovereign, My Sin, My Salvation (Montegomery, AL: Apologetics Press, 1999), p. 13. The Lockyer reference is: Herbert Lockyer, All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), p. 21.

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