by Paul Masters
Living in the era of the New Testament, we naturally (and rightly) give special attention to the books of the New Testament. In those gospels and epistles we find the words of Christ and His disciples to the modern church, or ecclesia, and they are indeed relevant. Without them we would have great difficulty understanding the nature of the New Covenant, the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, and what being a Christian entails.
Fortunately, we worship a merciful God who wants us to understand and know him, and he has provided his Word as well as his Spirit to guide us along the path to understanding. So we have the last 27 books of the Bible beside first 39.
The Old Testament consists of a rich collection of literature, including history, law, poetry, and prophecy. It comprises nearly two thirds of our modern Bibles, thus being the lion’s share of divinely inspired words within that tome. That’s substantial!
And yet how often do we find “Bibles” left lying around, or sold in stores, that consist only of the New Testament, and perhaps with a token book or two from the Old (typically Psalms and Proverbs, for some reason). There are actually preachers who say the Old Testament is no longer relevant, or that the New Testament brought in a wholly different set of values and rules than those of the Old Testament.
Very often, mostly online, I’ve read debates between Judeo Christians and atheists, and typically it’s a trainwreck. It’s rather embarrassing. The atheist slaps the Christian with a law from the Old Testament – unclean meats, mixed materials, slavery, etc – and the Christian nearly always sputters out the worn out and weak response of “That was the Old Testament. We’re under the New Testament now!”
And of course the atheist has a field day with that, pointing out that the Christian is picking and choosing. I cringe as the Christian attempts to defend his or her position, much to the atheist’s hilarity. It’s been said that atheists have a better knowledge of the Bible than Christians do, and I’m sad to admit that this is largely true. As annoying as atheists may be, the fact is that they challenge us, and encounters with them should keep us honest.
The Apostle Paul says in II Timothy 3:16 that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” ALL Scripture is God-breathed, and being God-breathed is inherently HOLY AND SACRED.
Who are we to throw away anything holy and sacred? So when God says we must avoid certain foods or refrain from marking our bodies, or when he says things about marriage and slavery which go contrary to 21st century sensibilities, we are faced with a choice – either concede that these words are holy and sacred, or insist that our own ideals are holy and sacred. We can’t have it both ways.
Paul writes in Romans 15:4 –
For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime” is an obvious reference to the writings of the Law and the prophets – to which Christ himself referred in Matthew 5:17 when he said –
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil [establish].
Consider further the many, many times when Christ and the apostles all consistently quoted from the Old Testament to support their teachings. Jesus often prefaced his quotes with, “It is written” – and in each case his quote can be traced directly to the Old Testament. If the OT was irrelevant to the NT message, then such quotes would not have been used at all.
In no case did either Jesus or his apostles say the Old Testament writings were irrelevant. As a matter of fact, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for “making void” the Law with their own traditions:
He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye. (Mark 7:6-13)
Jesus here quotes Isaiah (a prophet) and Moses (God’s agent in codifying the Law), calling them out for “laying aside the commandment of God”. The only commandments of God they had were those found in what today is known as the Old Testament. Obviously Christ considered Isaiah and Moses to be authoritative writings, and was perturbed with the Pharisees for ignoring them.
And Paul appealed to the Old Testament writings as verification of his words when he said to King Agrippa, “Believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest.” (Acts 26:27) Furthermore Paul goes on to say to the Romans, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” (Romans 3:31) And where do we read the law and the prophets?
The Old Testament!
To add another nail to this coffin, let’s discuss sin for a bit. Very few “New Covenant” preachers will try to say sin does not exist. After all, sin is why Christ came to die – he was the sacrifice to take away our sin. But what is sin? Few NT-only preachers will dare to quote the plain words of the apostle John, who clearly defines sin as “transgression of the Law” (I John 3:4), or the word of Paul, who says that it is by the Law that we identify sin (Romans 3:20). In other words, without the Old Testament, there would be no reason for us to repent of any sin, because sin itself would have been abolished right along with the Law.
One small part of the problem with ignoring the Old Testament is that, because it is therein that we find the commandments, statutes, and judgments of the Law, it is therein that we find the extent of our sinfulness. Understanding the depth of our sin makes us see our need for a Savior, which we can read about in the New Testament. We can never truly comprehend the wondrous glory of the Gospel without knowing the condemnation of the Law written in the Old Testament. Further, we can never know how to live sanctified lives in Christ without the guidance of God’s morality as codified in the Old Testament. Paul says of the Law, “Wherefore the Law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” (Romans 7:12) Therefore, in order to be holy, just, and good ourselves we must model our lives by the Law and the commandments.
The argument that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New is also contradictory of Scripture. “For I am YHWH, I change not,” God says in Malachi 3:6. If Jesus brought a wholly new law to us, then he was opposed to the Father, and a false prophet who was introducing a different god. This would have made him worthy of death in God’s eyes (Deuteronomy 13). It would mean that Jesus was NOT the Word of God made flesh, but rather an entirely different word altogether. It would mean he was NOT the Messiah. It would mean he and the apostles were all liars. The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New are both the same unchangeable and eternal YHWH.
The preachers and layfolk who insist the Old Testament is irrelevant are woefully ignorant of the New Testament works which they claim to so dutifully follow. Instead of sputtering awkwardly when the atheist reminds us of the food laws, we should re-examine our meal contents. When he asks if we wear clothing of mixed material, we should consider what’s in our wardrobe. When he says, “I could never serve your God – he’s jealous and wrathful and genocidal!”, rather than denying it, we can simply respond, “Well then, that makes you rather foolish, now doesn’t it?”
Christians need to be honest in their introspection, and the Old Testament lays forth the means by which to do that. Without the Old, we can never understand the New, and without the New, we can never see the glorious culmination of the Old. The two are indispensable to each other, and the Christian who tries to divorce them is committing an error of gross proportions. Every word of God is holy, just, and good, including the parts we’ve decided we don’t like. Consuming it piecemeal and separating the parts we find unpalatable, like we do with our dinners, is sacrilegious. “Man shall not live by bread alone,” Christ says in Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “but by EVERY word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
Every word, whether found in the Old Testament or the New Testament, is for our guidance and edification. Our understanding of who we are and what we are supposed to do is infinitely richer when we consider everything God has to say, and we can confidently face the gainsayers when we take seriously all the words of Scripture.