Should Christians Care About the Old Testament?

A young Christian guy wrote to ask, “Do I really have to care all that much about the Old Testament?”

My answer:

If you want to care about something Jesus himself was deeply passionate about, then, yes, you need to care about the Old Testament.

The reason Jesus cared so much about the Old Testament–to which he often referred, and from which so many of his teachings were explicitly derived–is the same reason any person cares so much about his or her personal history. The Old Testament is the story of God before he incarnated himself as Jesus; it is the story of Jesus’ past. The Old Testament is the ground from which Jesus arose; his genealogical, social, cultural, and theological roots are embedded deeply within it.

The Old Testament is largely–in some ways you could even say mainly–about the future coming of the Jewish messiah. Jesus’ extraordinary claim–the miracle of his very life–is that he was the messiah everywhere foretold in the Old Testament. He understood himself to be that figure. He knew that he was the fulfillment of the prophecies foretold for centuries by the Jewish fathers and prophets.

As far as Jesus was concerned, the Old Testament was the story of which he personally was the climax.

So every Christian should care deeply about the Old Testament, in the same way that a person is naturally motivated to know everything they can about the past of someone for whom they have a great deal of love. If you found a box containing a wealth of information about the background of your father–letters he’d written; stories, poems and songs others had written about him; photographs of places he’d been and people he’d known; works of art he’d created–wouldn’t you dive right into those archives, and not stop until you’d read and studied every last bit of it?

If you love Jesus, then you should be attracted to the Old Testament just like you would be to that box containing your father’s history. In the most real of senses, the Old Testament is a book about your father’s history.

As an example of the degree to which the New Testament constantly reaches back to the Old Testament, here are some passages from the opening chapters of New Testament’s Gospel According to Matthew. Note how inextricable the life of Jesus is from the God of the Old Testament.

Matthew 1:20-24

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [being the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 7:14]: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

Matthew 2:2-6

When [King Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet [being Micah, at Micah:5-2] has written:

“ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler

who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

Matthew 2:13-18

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet [being Hosea, at Hosea 11:1]: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,

weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children

and refusing to be comforted,

because they are no more.”

And finally…

Matthew 2:19-23

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

These passages, from the first part of the first book of the New Testament, are about as amazing as amazing gets, insofar as they illustrate what makes the Bible such a miraculous creation: though it is sixty-six different books written by forty or more people over some fifteen centuries, it is demonstrably one book, driven by one purpose, toward one goal, by one spirit. These passage are recognized by Christians as ringing affirmations that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecies foretold about him by the Old Testament’s Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah. And that’s just a taste of the astounding kinds of revelations about Christ that one can glean from the Old Testament when one is familiar with the New.

So, again: yes, you should be interested in the Old Testament.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • Kathryn Waycaster

    Well said, John. As an amateur student of genealogy, you make a great point about the Old Testament being Jesus's personal history.

    I think the Old Testament is beautiful. My only problem is that Christians tend to cherry pick laws in order to make points–religious and political which has caused me to discount and diminish the Old Testament. What say ye, John?…:-)

    • Ben

      I immediately thought of how advertising use classic songs and music in order to flog their stuff. On the surface, they have diminished the original product but in reality, we just need to re-establish the context. It doesn't matter how many companies identify with a piece of music, when you hear it in a concert hall, you will not be thinking of a product.

      I think when we re-approach the scriptures from a mindset of "show me God" rather than how does this passage apply to my life, issues, ideologies, doctrinal history, we re-establish the context and restore the beauty. Cherry-pickers are like bit-players taking center-stage or the 7th violin attempts a solo…they've missed the point and their place. So just block 'em out and enjoy the music!

      • Rthanne

        Ben, that is so stated that I think you should copyright it!

      • Diana

        Yes, I agree with Ruthanne. "I think when we re-approach the scriptures from a mindset of “show me God” rather than how does this passage apply to my life, issues, ideologies, doctrinal history, we re-establish the context and restore the beauty." This, especially is well-spoken. Thank you, Ben.

      • Kathryn Waycaster

        Great point, Ben. Although, the music sounds a lot different when you're surrounded by 7th chair violins…:-)

  • Ben

    Excellent response to an all-too-common question!

    I think that often this question is really saying, "Is there anything for ME in the Old Testament?" And, unfortunately, the response (of which I've been guilty) is just as often, "You can be inspired by heroes of the faith and learn life lessons from them!"

    We, the church, have reduced the Bible (Old and New Testaments) too often into a moral teaching guide rather than the revealing of God's story culminating in Christ Jesus. And that story is indeed a love story and that's why I particularly appreciate your analogy of diving into a loved-one's history (which I will shamelessly steal and share with as many people as I can!).

    Thanks!

  • Jpjm Parton

    It kind of rubs me the wrong way to hear people talk about old testament and new testament. To me that infers that the old was replaced by the new and nothing could be further from the truth. The Torah, the Prophets, and the writings that make up the Tanach (Old Testament) are the Holy Scriptures, What is referred to as New Testament is a historical account of the life of the Messiah with Acts being a record of the events that took place after the Messiah's resurrection. The other books are just commentary. I personally do not put the new testament on the same level as the Holy Scriptures.

  • http://joanneelaine.podbean.com Joanne Branson

    John, my father was killed in the line of duty serving the Navy and just days after his death, my mother realized she was pregnant with me. I was born exactly 9 months to the day after he died. She had a cedar chest full of everything she had that belonged to him.

    She married shortly after I was born and together they decided that he would be my dad and no mention would be made of my biological father. Eventually I found out because of relatives that kept popping up that weren't associated with my brothers, so I asked questions. I was quelched at every turn. Finally, when I was an adult, she decided it was time to just turn it all over to me. By then, most of the stories had been forgotten and most of the memories had faded. So I ended up with a lot of "stuff" and not a lot of legacy. To this day I cling to all of his belongings, hoping that as time goes on I'll meet people who can add a piece to the puzzle.

    We don't realize how blessed we are to have a legacy that we can visit and revisit time and time again. Through it we can learn about our own identities as well as that of our Savior.

  • http://Www.taintedcanvas.com Jonathan Sigmon

    This is a fantastic response! Great use of language. Thanks!

  • frank sonnek

    "The Old Testament is largely–in some ways you could even say mainly–about the future coming of the Jewish messiah. Jesus’ "

    My only criticism dear brother John is that this is waaaaay to timid and conservative. Read and see if you agree!

    Jesus told the Pharisees this:

    "You search the scriptures (aka old testament) because you think you will find eternal life there" "They [the old testament books] are a testimony about Me. "

    So when I read the Old Testament and come across a passage where I cannot see how it has, ultimately , something to do with the coming of the Messiah, then I assume that that passage is still dark to me, that I still am not understanding it properly. Which is ok.

    I don´t need to understand everything. I already have everything I need by being in Christ. Christ is the entire and only point of Scriptures. Period. Even the Law is intended to bring us to that Christ. Without Christ the law can only kill us and give us a life that leads only to death.

  • Tim

    "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." —2 Tim 3:16-17

    This doesn't mean that we will completely understand "All Scripture", but I certainly don't believe that any of it is myth or a mistakes in the oral tradition. Hebrews 13:8 says that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. In John 14:26, Jesus stated that the Holy Spirit (which is God) will come to inhabit our temples of human flesh to teach ALL THINGS and bring to our remembrance everything that Jesus ever said. So I would tend to think that any error(s) made in the oral tradition were made PRIOR to the Day of Pentecost. Since Jesus Himself made no mention of any error up to His first incarnation, I would still hold that even the most liberal translations, while not perfectly paraphrased…is STILL inspired and profitable as 2Tim 3:16-17 implies.

    • frank sonnek

      audience. Who is Jesus speaking to when he says something? When he said "the kingdom of God is within you/in your midst" he was talking to the pharisees. forgetting who the audience is can lead to wierd understandings right?

      Jesus was talking to the apostles only when he promised the holy spirit to bring to rememberance the words of Jesus. What resulted was the new testament written by…. the apostles.

      He did not promise that to the rest of us.

      • Tim

        I'd say John 14:23 qualifies the audience. "If ANYONE loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."

  • Matthew Tweedell

    None of it is myth or mistakes—not 1 & 2 Maccabees, or the Book of Mormon, or that of Enoch, or the Gospel of Thomas, or that of Barnabas, or the Qur'an, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Rig Veda, or [insert favorite Scriptures]?

    • Matthew Tweedell

      (That was supposed to be a reply to Tim.)

    • Tim

      When I say Scriptures (capital "S") I'm referring primarily to the Scriptures referred to by Paul which is the Tanakh. The New Testament is a revelation of those texts in the life of Christ. I wouldn't include the writings you cited as Scripture (capital "S"). I would possibly call them religious texts, maybe sacred texts. But I put no stock in their validity.

      • Matthew Tweedell

        Why do you think Paul didn't have the books of Maccabees, Wisdom, Baruch, Ben Sira, etc. in mind when he wrote this? I would argue that the fact that he says "all Scripture" is telling, in that it shows that he was on the side of accepting the entire Septuagint (which was the version used in his own scriptural references), and not just what was in the Tanakh.

        • Tim

          Your argument is well taken. I certainly do imagine Paul had those texts. The Septuagint in Koine Greek was most likely the one Saul would have studied. But I hold that the factors which excluded the Maccabees, Wisdom, Baruch, etc. from the Jewish Tanakh were possibly revealed to Saul as his brush with Christ turned him from Lawyer to Prisoner. Those writings certainly would have influenced his teaching and epistles. I've alluded to things I've read in the Quran, Book of Mormon, Spurgeon, and Darby. But I would never hold them up as God-breathed texts. Of course I have no way of proving that. It's just a hunch.

          • Matthew Tweedell

            I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of my argument and taking the time to respond to it. I hope you won't mind if I continue playing the devil's advocate a bit further.

            Perhaps this hunch is the nudging of the Holy Spirit; perhaps it is just the opposite. Perhaps to Paul were revealed the reasons that maybe you, but certainly not by the majority of Christians, have ultimately rejected the other books; yet why then would he not mention this in any of the epistles, especially the pastoral epistles, especially when he uses the term "all Scripture" in an unqualified way that Hellenized pastors such as Timothy could only naturally assume refers to the corpus entire of the LXX?

            Perhaps some of it IS mythos. So what? It is nevertheless at the same time logos. Since the Age of Enlightenment we have tended to see these in conflict; yet neither can exist without some amount of the other, and in Christianity we find their perfect synthesis: o mythos ton logon—as C.S. Lewis calls it, "True Myth". I think it is misguided to define Scripture in any way other than written word in which one sees the inspiration of the Holy Spirit evident through its usefulness "for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness". The Holy Spirit inspires edification in righteousness–no more, no less; different people might find the Spirit in a variety of different icons in our world (including the icon of the Word–the Bible).

          • Matthew Tweedell

            oops! That's plural, isn't it? I meant "tou logou", not "ton logon".

  • gooseberrybush

    This post is really great, John. A lot of people seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew.

    • http://megaloi.blogspot.com Redlefty

      Unpossible. He was neither rich nor wore one of those cool hats. Artwork proves that was actually an Anglo-Saxon hair-band rocker.

  • http://megaloi.blogspot.com Redlefty

    John,

    It may be a little misleading to say that those quotes are only from the first book of the New Testament, which implies that the entire NT is just as frequent in quoting OT passages. Yet the book of Matthew happens to be the NT book most linked to the OT, due to Matthew’s approach to the story of Jesus and his intended audience (Jews).

    I do value the OT very much, but more like Ben stated above in the appreciation of the grand story of God and His relationship with the human race. And I also believe that some of that story is fact, some of it is poetry, some of it is myth and some of it is mistaken due to generations of mostly-oral folktelling.

    But I still love it!

  • Latoya

    Great post :) My hubby always puts it this way, "The old testament points to the new testament". You cant have one without the other!

  • Dave

    HI John.

    Pity our Christian forefathers gave the spilt the names Old and New. The Old has come to mean something undesirable. Perhaps we would have better understanding if the split had not been made at all, or just call them: Former Testament and Latter Testament.

    Love in Jesus

    Dave

    • Diana

      The terms I like are "Hebrew Scriptures" and "Greek Scriptures." Of course, I believe the Christians of the New Testament times used a version of the Hebrew Scriptures that had been translated into Greek, so this wouldn't have been a helpful distinction back in the day.

      When the Bible went from being a bunch of books to being "The Book," it made it harder for future generations to understand the many books of the Bible as separate entities. This had its good points and its bad.


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