Out With the Old in With the New? Christians and the Old Testament

DSC_4094Recently, I’ve noticed a rather disturbing trend in the way that lots of Christians view a large portion of the Bible, what we call the “Old Testament.”  Since the Old Testament (OT) comprises 39 of the 66 total books in the Bible (roughly 60%), it seems we might want to have a correct understanding of those books.

It seems to me, however, that a majority of Christians have one of two responses to the Old Testament: either they simply moralize the text or they just neglect it all together.  After all, (the thought goes) it is “old” so what do we need it for anyway?  Don’t we have something “new” and better?  Unfortunately, these two “approaches” to the text of the OT trickle down into books, Bible studies, Sunday School lessons, and sermons.  Even the mention of the OT often conjures up images of crusty old scholars in dusty offices droning on monotonously about ancient Hebrew culture.  So why spend our time on that, when we can just skip to the good stuff?

For example, a popular book on how to study the Bible claims that less than 2% of OT prophecy is messianic (i.e. about Jesus Christ), less than 5% describes the New Covenant age (i.e. all the time after Christ came), and less than 1% concerns events yet to come in our time (Stuart & Fee, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 182).  If that’s the case, then no wonder people ignore it.  What does have to do with us anyway? (Not to mention that gives a pretty shaky foundation on which to build a belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah). But, since there are still a lot of words there, we should talk about it some, and there are nice stories, so let’s just read the nice stories and talk about how they tell us to be better, nicer people.  But, there is something flawed with this view: it doesn’t at all agree with the New Testament’s (NT) take on the OT.

First, and foremost, we need to realize that the OT is theology.  Far from being a collection of nice moral stories, it is the self-revelation of who God is and what He is up to in His creation and in history.  That being the case, it is better to ask of any OT passage, “What does this teach us about God and about humanity?”  And from there we can apply the text to our own lives.  In that way, we let the theology of the text teach us, instead of simply trying to find the “moral” of the story.  For example, maybe the account of David killing Goliath is less about how God can use anyone to do His work if we just let Him, and more about God demonstrating His power and sovereignty and zeal for His glory.

Second, to neglect the OT in favor of the NT leaves us with a less than complete understanding of the NT.  Neglect is wrong because as Paul makes clear, all Scripture is inspired by God and useful (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Moreover, the OT is foundational for understanding the NT, because in it we read about where we came from, how we got in the mess we’re in, and God’s plan to do something about it through Christ.  And, with all due respect to the gentlemen named above, more than a small percentage of the OT is about Christ: all of it is.  Jesus (Luke 24:44-49), John (John 5:39-40), Paul (Acts 26:22-23), and Peter (1 Peter 1:10-12) seem to agree that all of the OT testifies about the life, death, resurrection, and continuing mission of Jesus Christ.  Now, this does not mean that every single word of the OT is about Christ, but that every book -whether narrative or poetry- points to Christ in various ways, some obviously more direct than others.  These verses instruct us that Christ is the lenses through which we are to now read, interpret, and study the OT.  Christ is the great theme of the OT, the one through whom God will accomplish His mission of redemption. In others words, not only does the OT teach us theology, but it is supremely Christology.

If that is the case, then the OT has much to say to the church today.  It gives context to what is revealed in the NT.  It explains why the Good News of the Gospel is actually good news.  In fact, the NT writers were so throughly entrenched in God’s Word (our OT), hardly a paragraph goes by in the NT without some reference or allusion to the OT.  So, how do we best understand the NT?  How do we better come to know the God we worship, lovingly obey, and serve?  By reading the OT.  So, let me encourage you to spend some time in the OT, reading it, studying it, wrestling with it.  It is the foundation of our faith, it is a treasure trove of Christ.

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Filed under How to Read the Bible, Old Testament

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