Why Bother With the Old Testament?
Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 9:53AM
Jeff Smith in Authority, Discipleship, Worship

Although the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament contain some of the most thrilling narrative in both the Bible and literature overall, the Hebrew Scriptures exist today in the shadow of the twenty-seven volume New Testament of Jesus Christ.

That, of course, is by design. The anonymous writer of the New Testament letter to the Hebrew Christians strove to prevent his readers from abandoning Christ to return to the arms of Moses. He described the law around which the Old Testament was constructed as “but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” found in Christ and the new covenant (Hebrews 10:1). The apostle Paul addressed the saints in Rome with the same warning about surrendering to the pressures to mix the covenants. He compared them to husbands, one of whom was dead and buried, so that the bride could freely and legally wed the living (Romans 7:1-6). The Law of Moses was, by then, dead and defunct; the New Testament was alive and well. “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6).

Jesus, whose stated mission was to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, succeeded in replacing that anticipatory collection with a document of grace and hope, “for the law made nothing perfect … but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:19; see also Matthew 5:17-20, Ephesians 2:14-16, Romans 7:7). 

Grace is described and extended through the New Testament of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the Law of the Spirit is established, setting people free from sin and spiritual death (Romans 8:2). Unlike the Law of Moses, the New Testament is a perfect law of liberty, containing the will of Christ (James 1:25, 2:12; Galatians 6:2, Hebrews 9:16). Four inspired biographers create a model of the ways of Jesus, while a handful of other writers detail the nature of the kingdom as the church and expound upon the righteous lifestyle of a disciple. The New Testament, more compact and universal, emerges as the authoritative text for the church, while the Old Testament canon retreats from its former prominence. 

Although many persist in the belief that, at least, the Ten Commandments, remain in effect after the cross, the entirety of the Old Testament has been abolished and superseded as a means of law. It becomes “a ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” compared to the surpassing glory of the words of Christ (Second Corinthians 3:7-11).

Many divine requirements, however, are merely renewed under Christ – one still cannot murder or commit adultery, but the commands and prohibitions are rendered in a more comprehensively spiritual manner. Especially in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus foreshadows the profundity of his teaching by plunging his audience into the depths of their hearts and motivations to choose sin or sanctity (see Matthew 5:21-48).

Gone are the animal sacrifices, Israelite nationalism, Sabbath enforcement, and even the mechanical instruments of worship music. Their authority perished at the cross and would require New Testament reiteration to spring back to power. In their place, self-sacrifice, universal appeal, the first day of the week, and vocal music connect the heart of man to the mind of God in discipleship and praise. Attempts to justify oneself or one’s manner of life and service according to the Mosaic authority is rejected as a profaning of the blood of Christ. “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:4-5).

The question, then, sometimes arises – why bother reading and studying the Old Testament at all? The New Testament anticipates that concern, though, declaring “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” (Romans 15:4).

The Old Testament contains more than Law. Commonly called “The Law and the Prophets,” it foretells the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of his kingdom in stunning detail. Even where the prophecies are primarily concerned with Israel’s short term history, their fulfillment across history signifies both divine prescience and sovereignty. The prophets, therefore, demand consideration as proof of God’s power and evidence of the genuineness of Christ’s messianic claim. The climactic revealing of the sign of Jonah, so dear to Jesus, is rendered meaningless without a knowledge of the Prophets (Matthew 12:39-42).

In its vast historical sections, the Old Testament offers true tales of thrilling exploits and insight into relating to God. Writing to a band of Gentile Christians in the first century, the apostle Paul validated the usefulness of the Old Testament histories in illustrating the dangers of double-minded discipleship: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (First Corinthians 10:11).

The Old Testament also contains an impressive collection of ancient Wisdom Literature – psalms, proverbs, poems, and discourses on the grandeur of God, the vanities of everyday life, and the sometimes frustrating pursuit of holiness. Although they can only be applied today in a context regulated by the teachings of Jesus, the insight of the Wisdom Literature is often timeless and always brilliant. 

Although the Old Testament’s legal authority has expired, it does not follow that it is now without purpose or place in the study of Christians. Much of the imagery and many of the illustrations in the New Testament are reverently referential to the Old, leaving the reader with an incomplete understanding unless a working knowledge of the Old Testament is developed.

Article originally appeared on ElectronicGospel (http://electronicgospel.com/).
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