Stop the Madness

Stop the Madness April 26, 2019

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.

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  • Faith L Sochay

    It’s funny. When I started looking into children’s Bibles I realized most of the length from the children’s Bibles came from the OT. I also realized that growing up I heard the OT stories as a child but when I transitioned to big people sermons, it stopped nearly cold turkey and most sermons were topical or New Testament. When I did hear about the Old Testament as an adult Israel was usually America and God was somehow speaking to “our country” as opposed to “God’s people everywhere”. That said, even though some of the “moral of the stories” in Sunday school were off, there was much more instruction using the Old Testament…Daniel and the Lions Den *doing what’s right even when it’s hard* Noah’s Ark etc…

    I wonder where the disconnect is? Why do we stop telling these stories to adults?

  • Tommy Moehlman


    Thanks for your post. Do you have any suggestions on developing reader competency of the OT in the context of the church?

  • Samuel Long

    That’s a great question Tommy. I think it starts by regularly telling the BIBLE story, not just the NT story. At some point during the preaching year, ministers need to walk through how it all fits together.
    Another possibility is using more OT examples/illustrations. Of course they need to be done well by being put in context rather than some sort of fluffy proof texting or moral tales.
    Finally, we just need more education in our churches. Whether in our small groups, Sunday School, special teaching sessions, etc., our church people need a better understanding of the story. John and I do a walk through the OT in churches and it is met with amazing response because people see the Bible as it is supposed to be–one united story–often for the first time. So I am happy to go do a 4 hour session with any church because I know how formative it is.

    Have you seen anything that works well in communicating the full gospel?

  • Samuel Long

    This is going to sound harsh, but so much preaching has become pop psychology couched in Biblical pseudo-truth. As such, delving into ancient Near Eastern customs and stories (the OT) seem like a waste of time. Furthermore, dealing with these texts is more trouble than they are worth, because most of them have some sort of “objectionable” material in them that would have to be ignored or explained away. So, let’s jut stick with a verse or 2 (often taken out of context) from the NT and call it a day. It’s sad really because our preachers are missing out on a treasure trove of instruction for our churches.

  • Tommy Moehlman

    Sam, I think those are viable suggestions.

    I think using John’s narration of the Bible story has it’s merits. I’ve found it helpful through the years.

    But I think another fruitful way is to demonstrate to Christians how the NT readers told and retold Israel’s story. They all look back through the Empty Tomb and the Cross to see how Christ “fills up” the story. So I think one example fo the kind of thing I am talking about is illustrating how Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14 and how he “metaleptically” evokes the story of Isaiah.

    Another way to tell the story is by analyzing how the OT uses itself.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    Old testament condones owning another human being as your property ( slavery).

    New testament condones owning another human being as your property (slavery).

    Conclusion: both testaments can be dismissed as guides for moral behaviour.

  • John Purssey

    The Bible as a whole is a challenge for Christians to use.

    There is a massive cultural distance between us and the writers of the New Testament, let alone the cultures of the different periods of the Torah, The Prophets, and The Writings.

    There are those who think we can just have a plain reading of the Bible, but they are not aware of their own cultural lenses.

    There is also differences of understanding on how the Bible is to be used. Some see it as a rule-book or a guide to life. I think it is better used as a something to start thinking or discussion, rather than end it.

    A Christian is meant to look at scripture through the principles of Jesus’ teaching and life, not as a replacement for him. With the “mind of Christ” you have a way to understand that some of the writings are not at all what Jesus would endorse. With self-examination and a community to reflect off you can learn to trust your heart.

    The OT writings do help understand the background behind the NT writings. And so does the contemporary culture that informs us that the Gospel writers used midrash on the OT in much the same way as their contemporary rabbis. Even the passages on divorce were adjusted by the writers for their audiences, so Matthew only talks about a man divorcing his wife as in Jewish audience women could not divorce husbands, while Mark writing to a Hellenized culture where women could divorce husbands, possibly in Rome, had Jesus’ saying that neither husbands or wives should divorce.

    But all this background required for understanding what the writers were actually saying makes it difficult for an ordinary reader to interpret passages correctly. So there remains the problem of using both the OT and the NT without coming to conclusions diametrically opposed to the intentions of the writers.

  • Carrie Long Wiley

    Loved this. You did a great job stating why we should study OT and pointed out what others are doing well and where they are going down the wrong path without condemning and demeaning them. Thanks.

  • AntithiChrist

    Following the tenets, commands, examples of either testament will ultimately land you in a jail or a psych ward, and for good reasons.

    Yet in modern Christian thinking, in order for “christ’s salvation” to be necessary, we need A&E’s literal fall from grace to be factually true. That’s the OT. If these two uneducated boffins hadn’t eaten from the tree of knowledge, we’d all still be happily running around naked in a big garden feeding dandelions to the baby velociraptors.

    That’s even before we get to any of Moses’ greatest hits like the Medianite Massacres and the kingdom-wide sexual slavery of all the virgin girls. All this at the command of an all-powerful deity, who despite claiming an ability to create and populate an entire universe in under a week. And yet somehow this deity’s best idea for mankind’s salvation (after the first failed attempt by drowning nearly everyone, worldwide) was to barbarically torture and kill his own beloved offspring.

    Somehow none of it really makes any sense, does it?