During a live-stream on Christian apologist David Wood’s YouTube channel, a viewer asked veteran historical Jesus scholar, Mike Licona (who happened to be David’s guest) to clarify one of his earlier statements to the effect that he did not like reading the Old Testament. Licona without mincing words replied, “Look I’d be honest, there are some things in the Old Testament that just kinda..bother me and disturb me…that trouble me and make me feel uncomfortable”. It would not be out of place to say his reply embodies the deepest (and in some cases not so deep) thoughts of most right-thinking, logical Christians today.
Although, accounts of the Old Testament are not adverse to the veracity of the Christian faith, it still remains a massive elephant in the room. One that would not get bored and just walk away if we ignore it enough.
Unfortunately, we as adults, now know that a baby (or kid) that shuts its eyes to the object in front of it has not gotten rid of the object and neither can Christians resolve their innermost conflicts and struggles with the Old Testament by closing their eyes to it.
The Old Testament, when all is said and done, still raises a number of valid questions in Christian hearts. But asking and answering the right questions would go a long way in addressing some of those deep-seated issues. Questions like: (i) What is the Old Testament? (ii)Why is it part and parcel of the Bible? (iii) What is its relevance, if any, to the Christian faith? and more importantly, (iv) how are Christians to interact with it?
The Old Testament is an embodiment of the dealings of God with Israel as a nation. Although it kicks off with the creation account, it centers on one man, Abraham, in Genesis 12 and from then on focuses on that one man’s descendants (Isaac, Jacob renamed Israel) and how this man’s seed went into Egypt, multiplied and despite the most vitriolic and malevolent attempts of Pharaoh and his cohorts, emerged a nation. This is the reason the preamble of the famous ten commandments reads,
“I am the LORD thy God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2)
If you are not a part of that generation or nation that was brought out of Egypt, the commandments which follow that preamble do not apply to you. If atheists, skeptics and Christians alike understood this, they would stop wasting valuable time, energy and paper (poor innocent trees!) arguing about the unsuitability of the ten commandments for modern day society. Scripture emphasizes that the Old Testament was for Israel. Malachi in the Old Testament writes,
“Remember ye the law of Moses my servant which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments” (Malachi 4:4)
Paul in the New Testament, in describing his countrymen writes,
“Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants and the giving of the law…” (Romans 9:4)
If indeed the Old Testament pertains only to Israel, two questions logically follow.
First, what was the fate of other nations who were contemporaries of Old Testament Israel in the sight of God?
Paul in preaching the gospel to the men of Lystra admonished them to turn from powerless idols to the living God,
“Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16)
Again, Paul in his most epic sermon on Mars hill urged the Athenians not to think of the triune God as gold, silver, stone or artwork sculpted by men. He added,
“And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30)
A combined reading of the above quoted texts shows that other nations were allowed to walk in their own ways because it was a time of ignorance. God was not dealing with them at all. Of course, they will be equally judged by their works on the last day but not according to the same standards Old Testament Israel would be judged by. Although this is another discussion for another time, it is sufficient for now to point out that Paul did write,
“For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12)
The second question that logically follows the answer to the first question is why does the Bible even contain the Old Testament if it was not written to Christians? The reason is that the Old Testament, provides the historical background and context to Jesus Christ, the author of the Christian faith.
For example, the book of Matthew begins with, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). It is only the Old Testament that provides the stories of Abraham and David and the context within which the promise of a Son was made to them (Genesis 22:18, Galatians 3:16, 2 Samuel 7:14, Hebrews 1:5). This brings us to the question about the relevance of the Old Testament to Christianity.
The Old Testament is relevant in that it prophesied of the gospel, the core of the Christian faith. Hence Paul writes,
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (which he had promised by his prophets in the holy scriptures) (Romans 1:1–2)
Again, he writes that the gospel was kept secret since the world began but,
“…now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandments of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26)
Jesus also affirms this when He said that not only did the law and the prophets prophesy about His ministry which John the Baptist ushered in (Matthew 11:13), but that Moses wrote about Him (John 5:46). In essence, the New Testament is from the Old Testament and there would be no New Testament without the Old Testament. As Rick Joyner puts it, “The Old Testament is the Letter but the New Testament is the Spirit”. The only difference is that under the New Testament, the Christian by virtue of being in Christ now has in himself a new spirit which has totally fulfilled the entire Old Testament.
Remember that Jesus Christ never said the law and the prophets would never pass away, He just said they would not pass away until they had been fulfilled (Matthew 5:17–18). His death and resurrection fulfilled the Old Covenant and He gives as many as believe on Him the Holy Spirit as a result of that fulfillment. This means while those under the Old Testament had to labour and strive to keep the letter of the law in the flesh, those under the New Testament have already kept the law in the spirit as a free gift of God in Christ Jesus.
The Old Testament is also relevant in that it contains many illustrations of the New Testament (What theologians call “types and shadows”). Hence Paul describes the birth of Ishmael and Isaac as an allegory for the Old Covenant and the New Covenant (Galatians 4:20–31). He likens God’s choosing of Jacob from the womb before he had done anything to the Christian’s being chosen outside of his works, an election of grace, as he calls it (Romans 9:11–13). Jesus Himself likened His crucifixion on the cross to Moses’ bronze serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14, Numbers 21). Paul also states that the Old Testament feasts and ceremonies were shadows, the substance of which, is Christ (Colossians 2:16–17).
This leads us to the final question. How should Christians interact with the Old Testament? This is crucial because despite the fact that the New testament is from the Old Testament, it does not negate the fact that the Old Testament is, well…Old!
“In that he(God) saith, A new Covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13, Words in parenthesis mine),
Paul again gives us some pointers. First, he writes,
“For whatsoever things were written aforetime are written were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4)
“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” (1 Corinthians 10:11)
The Old Testament accounts are to be read as examples to learn from. Paul himself quoted extensively from the Old Testament and even the ten commandments on some occasions(See for instance Ephesians 6:1–3) but he did not quote them because he or his intended audience were bound by them (On the contrary, he began the epistle by describing their position in Christ and emphasized they were saved by grace through faith, Ephesians 1 & 2), he quoted them as a reference point.
Much like a court of law in one country may, in delivering its judgment, draw inspiration from the jurisprudence, judgment or practice of another country as regards the same or a similar issue or issues of law. That court is not bound by that foreign law any more than the church or the Christian is bound by the Old Testament.
The final point hanging in the balance is that a reading of all that has been discussed would seem to indicate that Israel as a nation today is still bound by the Old Testament. After all, they are descendants of those who were brought out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of bondage according to Exodus 20:2. This is however not the case because the Old Testament was for a by-gone generation of Israelites,
“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets hath in these last days spoken unto us by the Son…” (Hebrews 1:1–2)
The prophets were for the Israelite fathers of the Old Testament. Today, God speaks the same language to every creature under heaven, Jesus Christ, His Son (Colossians 1:13–29). Hence Paul continuously emphasizes that there is no Jew or Gentile (non-Jew) in Christ (Galatians 3:28, Romans 10:12, Colossians 3:11).
In summary, the Old Testament was for and to the Jews, it is relevant in a very restricted sense and should be interacted with only within those boundaries. It should be read as a historical background to Christianity, a body of literature pregnant with prophesies and hidden mysteries of the gospel (the foundation of the Christian faith as we know it today) and lessons to learn from God’s past dealings with the people and nation of Israel.
The way to deal with the elephant of the Old Testament in the room of the Christian faith is not to hide from it, ignore it or shut your eyes to it but rather to shine the light of the glorious gospel of Christ on it. When that light comes in, you see the over-arching depths of the grace and wisdom of God in the person of Christ as well as the gospel, thus guaranteeing one result; the elephant pales in comparison and becomes of little or no significance.