In the past year, the Old Testament was called a lot of nasty names. Some confused (though well-intentioned) pastors have gone so far as to imply that the OT is unnecessary. While such pastors believe that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, they do not see it as having much authority regarding behavior in the church. While I don’t make it a habit to call out pastors, even if they have views that differ from mine, it’s hard to let this go. This hermeneutic is leading the church down a very dangerous path.
I will say at the front that I appreciate their heart for people, especially those outside the church. Their goal is to make the Bible accessible and engaging to a modern culture that is far removed from things like slaughtering animals, harvesting fields, or battling polytheism. For many reading the OT becomes merely an exercise in history and thus can be discarded when needed. As a result, these pastors have used phrases like, “Unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures” or “God has a plan for you to know him personally without all that stuff that is so hard to understand—that baggage.”
The “O” T
As I said, their heart seems to be in the right place. They are worried that Christians and non-Christians alike are turned off from faith because of what is found in the OT. When many people think of the OT they think of
- obscure prophecies about people who no longer exist
- obtuse and strange laws that the NT identifies as obsolete
- offensive narratives of sex and violence
Obscure. Obsolete. Offensive. It truly is the “O” T. And so it is no surprise that more and more ministers communicate that it is best to leave the OT alone and focus on the New Testament.
Is it ALL useful?
Are they right? Should we study the OT or leave it in the dust bin as a relic to times past?
This question has echoed down through the centuries of church history, ever since the new covenant of Jesus Christ made the old covenant obsolete (Heb 8:13). The apostle Paul even faced this question, and he responded that the Old Testament was written to teach the church (Rom 15:4). Paul also says a very intriguing thing about the OT—something that could save us a lot of controversy and grief in debating the OT. Let us not forget the verse that so many cite to affirm divine inspiration:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:14-17).
While these verses can be applied to the NT as well, for Paul “all Scripture” = the Old Testament. They didn’t have any other Scriptures yet. The NT was a few hundred years off from being canonized. With that in mind, I just want to highlight 3 things that Paul states that we often overlook.
1) Early Christians learned about faith from the OT
Timothy was taught about faith and belief from the stories of the Old Testament. Of course the story of Jesus would have been a part of it, but his belief was in more than just the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He learned about God of the Old Testament working in the lives of the Patriarchs, the Israelites, and the Jews. This is the same God who now works in the church.
2) Early Christians learned about salvation from the OT
Notice what Paul says—the sacred writings (the OT) instruct for salvation. Salvation history did not begin with Jesus. The salvation that Jesus brought was the culmination of God’s saving works. The story of Jesus is incomplete without Passover and the Exodus as the backdrop. So discarding that history does a disservice to God’s continued work in the world.
3) Early Christians learned about discipleship from the OT
But the Old Testament is NOT just a nice history lesson. Paul understands that the OT teaches but not just for intellectual instruction—reproof, correction and training have to do with discipleship. They have to do with growing in faith by urging hearers toward the right path. The OT has plenty to teach us to become better Christians—better followers of Christ.
The very term, “New Testament Christian” isn’t biblical and it doesn’t do justice to ALL of God’s Word. We read the Bible in its entirety. And when we do so, some amazing things happen:
- The OT transforms our understanding of the NT
- The OT shapes how we see God
- The OT reveals the grace by which we are saved
- The OT reinforces redemption, forgiveness and salvation provided by Christ
To put it another way, reading and interpreting the New Testament without the Old Testament is like trying to power a train car without the engine. You end up going nowhere.
So let’s stop the madness, stop discarding 3/4 of the Bible, and start embracing the totality of God’s Word that we may be fully equipped.