Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Anonymous Asks (1)

“The Old Testament is full of stuff that causes controversies and makes people who agree with it look bad: slavery, plagues, genocides ... an angry God. We’re Christians. We worship Jesus. Why not get rid of those books and concentrate on the New Testament?”
— Anonymous

Excellent question, touching on issues many struggle with. But as difficult as the Old Testament may be for some, there are at least three compelling reasons we can’t afford to overlook it, minimize it or reject it outright.

 Jesus Didn’t

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, right at the beginning of the New Testament, contains this statement:
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.”
Jesus referred to the “Law” and “Prophets”, but his belief in the absolute authority of the Old Testament was not limited to books containing law or prophecy. He quoted extensively from Genesis (which is pre-Law) and from the Psalms eleven times, more than any other book of the Old Testament. It is evident from the way he used the Old Testament text that while he thought it crucial to interpret it consistently and correctly, he regarded it as authoritative, sufficient and final in his day.

Some argue that in saying “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished,” Jesus meant that the Old Testament was useful only until the moment he would fulfill it by way of his death and resurrection. But that will not do. As we will see shortly, the OT is brim-full of things Christians really need to read if we are to have any hope of understanding the plans and purposes of God.

 The Gospel Writers Didn’t

It is necessary to understand the statement that Jesus “fulfilled the Law” correctly. Though he did many of the things prophesied about him in his first “coming”, there remains a great deal written in the Prophets that has yet to occur. It is impossible to argue, for instance, that Jesus has broken the nations with a rod of iron and dashed them in pieces like a potter’s vessel, as Psalm 2 promises. This cannot be said to be true yet in any meaningful way, though the Lord’s first coming laid in place all the necessary pieces for the arrival that great coming day.

And indeed, despite the fact that their Lord and Master had already ascended into heaven and had taken his seat at the right hand of God, the four men who wrote biographies of the Lord Jesus continued to demonstrate the highest regard for the Old Testament. They were not wrong about that.

Matthew, for instance, quotes from the Old Testament a full sixty-seven times, if Felix Just is to be believed. The words “This was to fulfill ...” preface many of these, and strongly suggest to us that Matthew believed he (and therefore we) could not properly comprehend the story of Jesus, the character of Jesus or the purpose of his coming apart from careful scrutiny of the Old Testament passages that speak of him.

To really grasp what Jesus means to us today demands that we investigate what he meant to his disciples in the first century, and that cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament which promised his coming. A Jesus without an Old Testament context to anticipate him, explain him, enthuse about his character and demonstrate the need for him is a Jesus without any meaningful roots in human history; a puppet-Christ who could be seized by anyone with an agenda and made to say anything at all.

Needless to say, that is not the Jesus we find in the Gospels.

 The Epistles Don’t

To say that Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets is not the same as saying that he threw away the Old Testament once he rose from the grave, or that he wants us to do the same. One quick spin through the New Testament will convince us beyond any doubt that every one of its writers insisted on the ongoing validity of the Old Testament and its continued authority in many areas of life notwithstanding the fact that Jesus had fulfilled the Law and made many — even most — of its ceremonial regulations superfluous for Christians.

A couple of examples: Peter holds up Sarah’s obedience to Abraham as one reason Christian women ought to dress modestly and cultivate a “gentle and quite spirit”. Paul says something similar (“women ... should be in submission”), and explicitly references the Law as his authority.

But these men did not just reference the OT in their letters. They also used its authority to justify major decisions impacting the church. In Acts 15, James uses a quote from Amos and Peter uses an argument from the OT history of Israel to make the case that the Gentiles should not be burdened by being required to observe the Law of Moses. Personally, I’m very glad they did.

In fact, the writers of the NT quote the OT hundreds of times, as this chart shows. They use it illustratively. They use it as theological authority. They use it to justify their commands about Christian behavior (1 Peter 5:7 referencing Psalm 54:22).

It is impossible to make the case that the writers of the Epistles regarded the OT as superfluous. They could not have made their arguments to Christians or Jews without it.

The Proper Use of the Old Testament

Properly used, the Old Testament sets the New Testament in the historical and theological context we need to really understand it. We are way too far removed in time, space and culture from the first century to even begin to comprehend the sayings of Christ or the teaching of the apostles without the deep background the Old Testament gives us.

Sure, the OT contains lots of difficult bits. But if we follow Jesus Christ, it is only logical to adopt the same view of the Old Testament as he had, and the same view as his early followers held.

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