You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. Deuteronomy 25.4
It is easy to dismiss the Old Testament as not worth our time, or at least more obscure and hard to understand. The New Testament is so much more densely filled with truth that it makes it difficult to spend much time in most of the Old Testament. This feels even truer with the laws listed throughout the Torah. What is the point for us who are Christians to have any handle on those laws? Aren’t we free from them? Doesn’t it produce legalism?
For this, we should remember 2 Timothy 3.16-17: All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. What was scripture for Paul? Wasn’t it what we call the Old Testament interpreted through the life and work of Jesus? 2 Timothy hadn’t even been completely written yet when Paul wrote those words! Neither had most of the New Testament. So we must not be critical of the Old Testament. Instead, the Spirit of God is active in and through the words of the Old Testament for our edification. So do not dismiss any part of it, but endeavor to know it and see how it speaks to us about Christ. The law doesn’t necessarily produce legalism. The hardness of a person’s heart produces legalism. Galatians says, ‘For freedom, Christ has set you free!’ with very good reason. We have been set free from our sin which the law revealed to humanity: and we have become slaves to righteousness.
The reformers develop a helpful way for us to understand the law. The law is a mirror: it showed Israel her sin. Romans 3.20, for example, tells us this: For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. Law in Israel also restrained evil. This is the second use.
The third use is what I’d like to draw our attention to currently. The third use is that the law guides the regenerate in what is good. On first thought, this seems contradictory to the thought that Christ has set us free, but we see that Paul even uses the law of the Old Testament this way. In 1 Timothy 5.18 and in 1 Corinthians 9.9 Paul quotes the passage listed above from Deuteronomy. In Corinthians Paul asks, ‘God is not concerned with the oxen, is He?’ He is asking this question expecting a, ‘Surely not’ answer. Of course the law’s concern is for humans. Now there are a few different ways to read the text.
Justin Taylor suggests that the Deuteronomy passage is specifically focused on promoting justice in a community: ‘be sure to take care of the oxen whether or not you own it or borrow it.’ He makes a plausible case that the law was required in case an oxen was borrowed for threshing, then the person threshing wouldn’t want the oxen to touch any of the grain. In that case, the borrowed oxen would be returned in worse shape than when he first got it, and this would be an injustice to the owner of the oxen. Another common interpretation is that God is showing concern for the oxen, that the animal be taken care of.
Whichever way we read the passage, this much is clear: Paul derives a principle from it that he can apply in a New Testament context. Whether the Deuteronomy passage is focused on the principle of justice in a community or on having compassion for a worker, there is an essential principle which is a guide even in New Testament times to followers of Christ. Although the law isn’t binding on us as a set of legal rules with penalties, it is a guide for wisdom and righteousness to followers of Christ. We must, however, be careful to understand the original context and intent of the laws and we must also be careful not to impose what may be used as guiding wisdom for our lives as binding on others. May we be faithful and wise in this endeavor.