By Matt Lefebvre

Introduction

How is the Old Testament relevant to us today?  This is a question that can be found on the lips of various groups ranging from the most passionate Christian believers to the most antagonistic atheist polemicists.  What is disturbing about this is that their answers tend to be the same at times.  The response might go something like, “No, the Old Testament is not relevant for us today…and for that we are very thankful.”  According to the new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, the God of the Old Testament is, for lack of a better word, evil, and His laws are either unjust or downright weird.  Now, the question of God’s character is of secondary importance for them because they believe these laws to be the concoction of men anyway, disbelieving in God’s existence in the first place, but what is to be said of the Christian?  Though not many would dare to say it, it is my perception that there are a good number of Bible-believing Christians who would consider the Old Testament of considerably less value than the New Testament.  It is not my intention to argue for the priority of the Old Testament over the New Testament, but since a minority of Christians has actually read through the whole Old Testament, I find it more worthy of attention.  But why is this the case?  Excuses vary in plausibility and quasi-spirituality:

“The Old Testament is just a bunch of random names and laws.”

“We are living in the New Covenant and the Old is obsolete.”

“The God of the Old Testament is full of wrath, while Jesus is full of grace.”

“The Old Testament is too far removed from modern times to be relevant.”

“The Old Testament mostly records the failures of Israel to keep the law with little success.”

Maybe some of these sound familiar, even to the point of bringing specific verses to mind, and while there may be a measure of truth in each excuse, I believe them to be misused and overstated.  So my task in this article will not be to disprove or contradict these statements, but simply to bring what I consider to be a much needed alternate perspective that will hopefully remove some of the obstacles people may have in discovering the wonders of the Old Testament.

“The Old Testament is just a bunch of random names and laws.”

This perception of the Old Testament is one that I have heard from people I consider to be very passionate for God, but obviously quite honest as well.  There is a sense of uncertainty at the prospect of admitting that you find part of the Bible boring, as if you will immediately be struck with some kind of plague for saying it, but most people would say that they have their favourite books, and then those that they find…well… let’s just say less than stimulating.  First of all, I would just like to clear the air in that regard by saying that this is okay and not a sign of personal impiety to not think that the genealogy of Esau’s descendants in Genesis 36 is the greatest revelation of the year for you.  That is not to say that there is nothing of value in it, but for something to be important, it does not have to contain life-altering truth in every name.  That being said, to think of the Old Testament as a collection of irrelevant names and laws is a gross exaggeration and often comes from those who have not actually discovered that for themselves, but just heard it from someone else.  Once when I was staffing a Discipleship Training School with Youth With A Mission it was decided that we would read through the Bible together starting with Genesis and just see how far we would get.  One girl expressed doubts about the value of it, mentioning the repetition of all those laws and names, but when I asked for an example, she could not give me one.  It is true that there is repetition of some laws and names, but in many cases, the later account supplements the earlier law or genealogy, often adapting it to a new context or situation.  So while it may seem unnecessary at a cursory reading, a look at how the whole picture fits together reveals purpose that would otherwise be unnoticed, and that is just the problem most often.  Many people tend to read the Bible like they are flipping through a magazine in a doctor’s office waiting room, reading a bit here and a bit there, wondering why there are not many pictures.  Christians can feel like they are getting away with it to a certain extent in the New Testament (though I would still say they are missing quite a lot), because many verses in themselves are packed with truth about God and our lives.  However, trying to read the Old Testament like that is like trying to make sense of a few unrelated pieces of a thousand piece puzzle.

To appreciate the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, it needs to be understood, not as a random collection of books and letters dealing with radically different topics, but as the story of God, unfolding through His relationship with His people, finding the climax in Jesus Christ.  Of course everything seems random if it is not read as it was intended to be read, and if the reader comes to the Old Testament with that kind of attitude, I would say they would most likely be justified in finding it boring.  Just as it is hard to get into a novel if you just read little pieces here and there, the Bible is most enriching when it is read for what it is.  An example of this could be in Genesis.  This book contains no laws, but it has a lot of names, and for the most part, names we do not readily recognize.  It can be hard to see why they are there and a reader could even be forgiven for skipping over them to get back to the cool stories they learned in Sunday school.  However, when thought is given to the audience Genesis was written for, a group of people who had been in slavery (Israel) under a pagan nation (Egypt) that worshipped other gods and had their own account of where everything came from, it makes a lot of sense that this group of slaves, once they had been delivered from this pagan nation, would need an explanation to set the record straight.  The names in Genesis provide both an account of where the nations came from and more specifically Israel.  They describe the lineage of those who were faithful to God and believed His promises, sometimes in opposition to those who did not follow God.  These names were more than simple space-fillers, but they were giving these slaves their national identity and heritage in their part in the promise from the God who created all the nations, but chose them!  In isolation, of course the names seem to be disconnected and useless information, but in the context of the story of Genesis and continuing through the rest of the Old Testament, we can see God’s faithfulness in making a nation to be His and to be a light to the nations!

“We are living in the New Covenant and the Old is obsolete.”

Okay, so the Old Testament may not be what stereotypes may make it out to be and there may be a lot that can be important through seeing the big picture, the continuing story.  However, the mindset of many Christians is that living in the New Covenant exempts them from having to understand the Old Covenant.  After all, the title of this section is pretty much straight from Hebrews 8:13

“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

So the Old Covenant certainly meant something to Old Testament Israel, but what could it mean for the New Testament people of God?  Well, for the earliest Christians, the apostles, the author of Hebrews (whom we have just quoted), and even Jesus Himself, a whole lot!  Let’s start with the author of Hebrews.  I believe the quote above to be the inspired word of God and thus 100% true, and I am in no way contradicting it, but like any verse in the Bible, it needs to be understood in context.  First of all, it is notable to point out how the author refers to the Old Covenant in other places.  Hebrews 8:5 and 10:1 describe the earthly sanctuary and the law respectively as a shadow of the heavenly things, the true realities.  In addition, the vast majority of what Hebrews is talking about comes from the Old Testament, and the same could be said of the other New Testament authors, especially those who recorded the words of the Lord Jesus.  It is easy to forget that the New Testament did not exist in the form we have it now when Jesus was teaching and the apostles spreading the message of Christ.  What is conspicuously revealed is that the Old Covenant was not simply a cosmic experiment that God decided to be unsuccessful, thus creating the need for a new one, but was God’s way of pointing to what was to come.  Richard Dawkins, whom I mentioned above, has been somewhat gracious to admit that Jesus’ teaching was a great improvement on the ethics of the Old Testament, but discounting the bloody sacrifices and commendations to holiness, Dawkins misses what this shadow was actually doing.  Though the model was imperfect in itself, it was sufficient to prepare God’s people for what was to be fulfilled in Jesus.  The law was a disciplinarian until Christ came (Galatians 3:24), at the fullness of time, when He could be born under the law to redeem those under the law (Galatians 4:4-5).

It is quite right to say that the Law could not give life and was not perfect, and also that it testified to Jesus, being the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (John 5:39-40, Galatians 3:21-22).  However, I do not believe this merits a dismissal of the Old Testament, precisely because Jesus is the fulfillment of it.  As Jesus told Nicodemus that he could not believe heavenly things if he did not believe the earthly things he was told (John 3:12), so God gave earthly things that would point to the heavenly things in the Old Testament.  God knew the limitations of man and how he would need a lot of help to understand what God was going to do in redeeming him from what he was not yet aware he needed to be redeemed from.  What I have observed among Christians that is a common problem is that they know the religious vocabulary as used in the New Testament, but if you asked them to explain what these words actually mean, they might be totally stumped or give an answer that is either a very narrow perspective on the word or not correct at all.  Words like faith, justification, grace, sanctification, or atonement can send a Christian mind through a loop, either because they have not used that mind in a while or because they have not read the Old Testament.  One of the repeated laws that I alluded to above would be the Passover, initially celebrated when Israel was delivered from Egypt.  What happened was very bloody and foreign to some, but there was an important truth that was then picked up in the New Testament.  God said He would execute judgements on the Egyptians and the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12) and this would happen through the death of every firstborn in the land of Egypt.  However, to avoid this, the people could slaughter a lamb and put the blood on the doorposts of their house, and the LORD would not kill their firstborn male.  This event spoke of God’s justice, His mercy, and His power, justice to judge wickedness and disobedience, mercy to allow some to escape judgement, and power to deliver His people from the most powerful nation in the world at the time.  When we come to the New Testament, the imagery is already ripe for the picking.  Jesus’ death came at the time of the Passover, during which He told His disciples that His blood of the covenant would be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26-27).  John described Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:27) and Paul says that Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7).  Through this we understand that there is a punishment for sin, but just like the lamb in Exodus, Jesus would cover the sin, so God’s judgement (still very real in the New Testament, as we will see below) would not punish those who would accept the blood of this Lamb.  Just like God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, believers would be set free spiritually.  It is not easy to see the significance of Jesus fulfilling something, unless we actually know what that something was.  Though the message of Jesus was eventually brought to the Gentiles, largely by Paul, the beginnings of Christianity were thoroughly Jewish, so to understand what they were talking about, it is important that we understand the Bible they were using!

“The God of the Old Testament is full of wrath, while Jesus is full of grace.”

I have hinted at this at earlier points, both in references to objections to the Bible brought about by atheists and as a common misunderstanding among believers.  Richard Dawkins has written, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction…” (The God Delusion, p.51) at which point he goes on to list various unflattering characteristics of what he sees in the Old Testament God.  He later concedes that Jesus is a huge improvement, as if they are night and day from each other (For more on Dawkins and his book, click here).  He is not alone in this distinction, though those believers who draw the line would mostly not use the same choice of words.  However, I have noticed that this continues to be a very widespread reason why Christians do not want to read the Old Testament.  I do not intend at this point to address the issues regarding the actions and commands of God in the Old Testament (I address the issues of slaverygenocide, and treatment of women in other articles), but I do hope to tear down the dividing wall between the testaments in regard to the character of God.  Not only do I believe God to be gracious and forgiving in the Old Testament, but I also see Him to be a wrathful Judge in the New Testament.  Again, I think those who do not see this are those who have not read the Old Testament and in all probability, have not read the New Testament closely enough.  To give some examples of this false dichotomy, let’s have a look at the God of love in the Old Testament.  Deuteronomy 7:7-9 shows God choosing His people, not because they were the greatest, but because He loved them.  Indeed, just a chapter earlier, in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, we find what Jesus explains as the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38).  It seems clear that the heart of the law is love, and it was that from the very beginning.  The other commandment that is like it is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22:39-40, coming from Leviticus 19:18, commands love of the neighbour.  Richard Dawkins has claimed that this means loving another Jew, but that does not fit with what we find in the same chapter, for the stranger was also to be loved (Leviticus 19:34).  This fits well with Deuteronomy 10:18-19, showing how God’s love for the sojourner was to be emulated.  Now, while God was clearly wrathful when the people disobeyed Him, to their own harm, it is clear that His love did not change.  When Israel was deep in idolatry and wickedness, God could still tell them, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jeremiah 31:3).  What about the New Testament God of love and mercy?  It is totally true that this is emphasized in Jesus, because He took the sin of the world on Himself (1 Peter 2:24).  However, this is not the whole picture.  Romans 1:18 and 2:5 describe the wrath of God in the past and future, with no distinction made.  Romans 2:8 reveals who will be receiving this wrath: the self-seeking and disobedient.  John 3:16 is certainly a wonderful description of God’s love, but if you keep reading, John 3:18 indicates that those who do not believe are condemned already.  At the end of the chapter, there is another contrast, ending with the ones who do not obey the Son not seeing life, but having the wrath of God remain on them (John 3:36).  It is not just God the Father, though, as Jesus is One with Him and is actually the One doing the judging in the end.  Christ is the Judge (John 5:22, 27, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8, Revelation 19:11-16) and those who do not accept Him as their Saviour will not be hidden in the great day of judgement.  It is true that Jesus said to put away the sword, but that was precisely because His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:11, 36).  Again, the shadows of the Old Testament had shown the heavenly kingdom that was coming, and will finally come when Jesus destroys all evil and even death itself ( 1 Corinthians 15:54-55).  In my opinion, those who see a difference between these two Gods either have not read it right or have a warped idea of love and justice, or maybe both.

This is just one example of a lack of appreciation for what the Old Testament shows about God, but there are other examples worth noting in the context of misunderstanding.  By way of anecdote, D. James Kennedy records in the beginning of The Apologetics Study Bible about an opportunity he had to speak to a man who did not believe in the Scriptures at all, though he was a well-educated and well-read writer.  This man claimed that the Bible was just like any other book, written by men.  Kennedy thought this was very interesting and proceeded to read a number of statements about someone, reading many passages from the Bible, and the other man was to tell Kennedy to whom these references referred.  The answer the man gave was plainly and without a doubt “Jesus of Nazareth”.  However, as it turned out, all these references were from the Old Testament!  It may be disappointing to find that the New Testament authors were less original than we thought they were, but that is not a bad thing when they had the Old Testament to work with.  For example, the great Scripture of the Reformation, “The righteous shall live by his faith” is taken from two books of the Bible which Martin Luther wrote commentaries on and thought extremely highly of, namely Galatians and Romans.  However, where did Paul get it from?  You guessed it…the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4).  A common misconception, which goes along with God judging in the Old Testament and forgiving in the New, is that the Old Testament was all about outward action and the New Testament is the dawn of faith.  Contrary to this, in addition to the Scripture from Habakkuk, there are passages that show clearly that it was always about faith and never about simply outward actions.  Many passages could be taken from Isaiah, sometimes called the fifth Gospel because of the many references to Jesus in it, but one in particular shows the point above in vivid terms and is worth quoting at length.

Isaiah 1:10-20  “Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!  What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.  When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?  Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations– I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.  When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil,  learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.  Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;  but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

It is clear from this, not only that going through the motions of worship was not what God wanted without justice in their hearts, but it also shows that they could be forgiven of their sins if they would turn to Him.  Deuteronomy 10:16 says to circumcise the heart and Joel 2:12-13 says that they should rend their hearts and not their garments.  For God, it was always about faith and the hearts of people, but He was just using a shadow to bring them to the true reality, eventually in Christ.  So it is not only in the New Testament that God’s love can be found, for there are many rich examples of how God showed love in the Old Testament, despite the people really not deserving it.  Then in the New Testament, we should not expect to find only a Sunday school Jesus, but One who will sit on the judgement seat to pass judgement on all (Romans 14:10-12)!

“The Old Testament is too far removed from modern times to be relevant.”

What effect time should have on the relevance of revelation from God, I do not see.  While I recognize that the law given to Israel was for a specific people in a specific time, it is still the word of God, and Jesus would not refer to it authoritatively if He did not think so.  I have mentioned above that the Old Testament was all the early Christians, and Christ Himself, had to refer to in reference to God’s word, Scripture.  Although Jesus was a lot closer to the Old Testament than we are today, in quoting the law of Moses, He was still going back over a thousand years, and times had changed.  A good example of how Christ used the law was when He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  The devil brought three temptations, but each time Jesus responded by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy (8:3/6:16/6:13).  This had been written about Israel’s temptations in the wilderness, much like what Jesus was going through, and He took what had been written long before and applied it to His present situation, and it seemed to work.  Even today, we can apply this truth, to not serve other gods, whatever they may be, but to follow God alone and trust His faithfulness.  It might be said that this is a spiritual example and is very easy to take the truth from, but what about all those other laws?

Let me say first of all that I do strongly affirm that believers in Jesus today are under the New Covenant and are not subject to the Old Covenant.  There are various laws, particularly the Ten Commandments (except the Sabbath) that are renewed in the New Testament, so I agree that we should abide by those.  I am not saying that the Old Testament law is law for us, but I do believe that there are principles in the laws that God used to build a nation from a group of slaves in the wilderness, so even if it was not perfect, I still see that there is a lot we can learn from it.  Landa Cope, in her book The Old Testament Template, lists different examples from the Old Testament law that have become an integral part of modern society.  These things include separation of power in government (Deuteronomy 16:18-20/17:8-20), limitation of debt (Deuteronomy 15:1-11), refugees (Numbers 35:9-34), basic sanitation (Deuteronomy 23:12-13), and other various principles applied from God’s word.  Loren Cunningham tells of Geneva, the smelliest city in Europe, in The Book That Transforms Nations, and how the principles of the Bible helped transform the city and lay the foundation for what it is today: an international crossroads and the seat of the UN.  John Calvin and the reformers had a big hand in changing the city, because they believed that God’s word was inspired and that revelation was worth implementing.  That is not to say that every law need be applied somehow today, but it should certainly prevent us from writing it all off as totally useless and irrelevant.  Again, I am not implying that the Old Testament law was meant to be perfect, but if it could transform a group of slaves into a nation, one that would eventually be sought out by people from far and wide (1 Kings 4:29-34/10:1-10), it is worth our attention!

“The Old Testament mostly records the failures of Israel to keep the law with little success.”

This last statement is maybe not so much for those who have not read the Old Testament, but for those who have and did not really get much out of it.  Sure, God may have given this law that is so practical and yet spiritually rich with echoes of His love, but the fact is, Israel did not follow this law during most of their history, as recorded in the Old Testament.  Again, like the other statements above, I am not denying this fact, but I question the extent to which it is applicable to the importance of the Old Testament.  I will openly admit that there are some books that are not my favourite to read because there is just so much sin in them and not a lot of obedience.  That being said, the value of these books is not necessarily to make us feel happy after reading them, but to see the detrimental effects that sin has.  Paul says that if it was not for the law, he would not have known sin (Romans 7:7).  As depressing as this might be at first, it was important for the people of Israel to see that, one, sin had consequences, and two, they could not keep themselves from sinning and thereby forfeit their righteous status.  Romans 1-3 makes a convincing case for no one being righteous, whether Jew or Gentile, but it hits home harder when you read something like Numbers or Judges or Kings or Jeremiah.  Not only can you see what, but also why.  Through the narratives of the Old Testament, we see hidden motives and ambitions.  We see the depth of treachery and the results.  In looking into these stories, we can see what their problem was and begin to identify it in ourselves.  1 Corinthians 10:1-13 talks about examples happening as a witness and a bad example, so that believers should not follow in the footsteps of those who went before.  Of course, you can read about these things in the New Testament, but you don’t really understand what their problems were until you read the history of Israel.

Luckily, however, it is not all doom and gloom.  Paul also gives us similar wording, but a different outlook in Romans 15:4

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

In addition to learning from bad examples, we can also be encouraged by what the Old Testament tells us.  We can see many evil kings in Israel, but we can also see the faithfulness and mercy of God in not destroying them because of one man’s righteousness, David.  He was far from perfect, but again, even in the Old Testament, it was about faith and the heart.  He showed a heart for God that was like no other, to the point of God promising that his throne would be established forever.  That is why the Messiah is referred to as the Son of David and why Matthew and Luke take care to show Jesus’ lineage being from David.  Through one man’s obedience many were blessed beyond their merit and there are other examples of a few righteous standing up in the face of many wicked in the name of God and being victorious.  Some might consider success by numbers of Old Testament people who followed the ways of God and that might be a fair way to count it.  However, since the ultimate goal that started when God was first forming the nation of Israel, starting with Abraham, was to bless all nations, and not just one (Genesis 12:1-3), God was looking at the bigger picture of where history was going.  If God needed to find a perfect nation, He might still be looking, but what He did find was a nation with some who would show the kind of faith He was looking for, to lay the foundation for the climax in Jesus Christ.  It is true that Israel struggled with idolatry, following the religions of other nations, but Paul Copan makes a very pertinent observation about this on p.166 of Is God A Moral Monster?.

“The theological and moral threat of foreign religion, however, didn’t so damage Israel that its monotheism and covenantal awareness were totally eclipsed.  By the first century AD, the theological stage had been sufficiently set: Israel’s Scriptures were preserved, her national identity forged, her temple worship restored, her messianic expectations rekindled, and her monotheistic dedication secured.”

I think part of the wonder of God is how He can accomplish His plans through imperfect humans.  He does not need us to be perfect, but just to be obedient and willing to be used by Him, and it is my opinion that this comes out so clear in the Old Testament!

Conclusion

In the second century AD, a heretic named Marcion made a canon, rejecting the Old Testament and only including Paul and Luke as credible authors, while still heavily editing these works, because they too were based on the Old Testament.  His theological disposition could not reconcile the God of love with the God of justice.  Though many would not share his radical course of action, for all practical purposes, there are many who would share his split between the testaments.  Though I have not covered all questions regarding the Old Testament’s relationship to the New, I hope I have given sufficient reason to give the Old Testament its due attention.  I also hope that the next time you hear an atheist who criticizes the Old Testament, you would, one, not agree with him, and two, have something to say in response.  I leave you with the words of our Saviour from His most well-known discourse.

Matthew 5:17-18  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s