Loving the Old Testament
By Rev. Tony Cooke
For the past several months, I have been reading the Old Testament slowly and systematically, and it has done my soul good. I have always majored on the New Testament, and I’m sure that this will always be the case; after all, that is OUR Covenant. But there has been something very rich and meaningful that I’ve been enjoying in mulling over God’s dealings with humanity prior to the coming of Jesus.
Paul was referring to the Old Testament writings when he said, “Every Scripture is God-breathed (given by His inspiration) and profitable for instruction, for reproof and conviction of sin, for correction of error and discipline in obedience, [and] for training in righteousness (in holy living, in conformity to God’s will in thought, purpose, and action).[i] Paul further validated the value of the Old Testament in Romans 15:14 and 1 Corinthians 10:11.
- “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (NKJV)
- “All these events happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us, who live at the time when this age is drawing to a close.” (NLT)
In spite of the high value that Jesus and the Apostles placed on the Old Testament writings, there are still those who are fairly dismissive of it. You may have been in a conversation with someone and brought up a principle from the Old Testament, only to have your statement trivialized by the response, “Yes, but that’s from the Old Testament.” I realize we are not under the Law of Moses, but the Old Testament contains so much more than just “the Law.” Much of the Old Testament reflects eternal principles that transcend all covenants and ages!
For example, the principle of the Sabbath was first articulated in Genesis 2:2-3, long before Mosaic regulations were placed upon it. It is true that we are not under the Old Testament Law of the Sabbath, but we are asking for serious trouble if we don’t honor the principle of the Sabbath in our lives (we all need rest). Likewise, the tithe existed long before the imposition of any Mosaic regulations as a principle and expression of faith. The book of Proverbs isn’t simply Old Testament; it’s the eternal wisdom of God. If we violate those principles from Proverbs (such as diligence, integrity, and self-control) we can still experience very negative consequences.
Today, it seems that some are quick to cry “legalism!” if any kinds of boundaries or guidelines for behavior are communicated. While no serious student of the New Testament wants to live under or put others under Mosaic legalism, it’s important to realize that many of the standards associated with “the Law” are actually clearly taught in the New Testament as well. For example, in just a few verses in Ephesians, Paul tells believers:
- Stop telling lies (4:25).
- Quit stealing (4:28).
- Don’t use foul or abusive language (4:29).
- Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you (5:3).
Are those admonitions legalism? No! But to label and reject such commands as legalism certainly opens up the door to a life of lasciviousness. If you’re perfect in all those areas, will you earn your salvation? No! We are saved by grace through faith, but because we are saved, we want to live in a way that pleases God and reflects obedience to the standards that He has articulated in both the Old and New Testaments. The fact that many of these principles were first articulated in the Old Testament merely strengthens and reinforces the fact that God wants us honoring His standards and living in a way that truly pleases Him. God’s grace, properly understood, gives us the ability to obey Him.
What about the heart-cry of David in the book of Psalms? When he acknowledged his sin and repented with tears, is that just an Old Testament phenomenon? Or is confession of sin and repentance a transcendent principle that teaches us something yet today? I think if we look at the New Testament, we see that these are also timeless truths. When Paul addressed an issue of blatant sin in the Corinthian church, he said (1 Corinthians 5:2, Message), “And you’re so above it all that it doesn’t even faze you! Shouldn’t this break your hearts? Shouldn’t it bring you to your knees in tears?”
In another place, we see the same type of heartfelt, passionate repentance that David exhibited in the Psalms being demonstrated by the Corinthian believers (2 Corinthians 7:11, Message): “And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart.” Grace in the New Testament should not cause believers to have a flippant disregard for sin and for things that grieve the Holy Spirit. The presence of repentance and the pursuit of purity in the Old Testament should not diminish our spiritual needs or our need to respond appropriately to God as New Testament believers.
And what about the great exploits of men and women of faith throughout the Old Testament? If you rip those from the minds of believers today, you’ll also have to remove the entire 11th Chapter of Hebrews. Those narratives are not irrelevant simply because they happened before Jesus came; they remain as stellar examples of faith and obedience to inspire us as we seek to follow God with their same fervency.
Throughout Church history, some have greatly minimized the significance of the Old Testament. One radical example is the second century heretic and Gnostic, Marcion. The son of the Bishop of Pontus, he rejected the entire Old Testament and any New Testament writings that he felt had any positive inclination toward the Old Testament or toward Jewish readers. The “canon” he proposed for his many followers contained only a heavily edited version of Luke’s Gospel and ten of Paul’s epistles. Marcion went so far as to proclaim that the harsh and inconsistent God of the Old Testament was an entirely different God than the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Though some have tried to entirely eradicate the influence of the Old Testament in the life of the believer, we should consider the value placed on the Old Testament throughout the New.
“There are more than 250 direct quotations from the Old Testament to be found on the pages of the New. Even more important are the vast number of references and allusions which… draw on the terminology of modes of thought and expression to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. One scholar lists a total of 1,603 quotations, references, and allusions which link the New Testament with the Old.
The Book of Isaiah is the most frequently used Old Testament book, with a total of 308 New Testament allusions. Psalms runs a close second with 303 references. In the New Testament, Revelation makes most frequent allusions to the Old Testament with 574 references, more than one-third the total number in the entire New Testament. The book of Acts contains 169, Luke 140, Matthew 135, Hebrews 115, and Romans 103.
All of the New Testament writers assumed that God’s dealings with man in the history of redemption form a continuous whole, out of which whole came both the Old and New Testaments. A “New” Covenant implies an “Old” Covenant, to which it stands in relation as well as in contrast. Indeed the idea of fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New means continuity with the past, as well as the introduction of something new. Neither the Old Testament nor the New is fully understandable without the other. Both form two halves of a perfect whole. The Old Testament without the New is like a head without a body. Tertullian said, ‘In the Old Testament, the New is concealed; in the New Testament the Old is revealed.’”[ii]
Martin Luther said, “I beg every devout Christian not to despise the simplicity of language and the stories found in the Old Testament. He should remember that, however simple the Old Testament may seem, it contains the words, works, judgments, and actions of God himself. Indeed the simplicity makes fools of the wise and clever, and allows the poor and simple to see the ways of God. Therefore submit your thoughts and feelings to the stories you read, and let yourself be carried like a child to God.”
I realize that the entire Word of God—both the Old and the New Testaments—must be rightly divided. We need to have good tools of Bible interpretation to know how to make wise and accurate applications of the Scripture. But anyone who would have a disrespectful or dismissive attitude toward the wonderful principles of the Old Testament (or the clear commands of the New Testament) has certainly violated Jesus’ description (Matthew 13:52, NLT) of a good Bible teacher: “Every teacher of religious law who has become a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a person who brings out of the storehouse the new teachings as well as the old.”
May God help and strengthen each of us as we endeavor to walk in the full counsel of God!
[i] 2 Timothy 3:16 (Amplified Version)
[ii] “Exploring the Old Testament,” Edited by W.T. Purkiser. Beacon Hill Press, 1955.