The Importance and Relevance of the Old Testament to the Christian

The Old Testament as a set of moral rules or obligations. The Old Testament as passé, out of date, or even irrelevant for the New Testament Christian. These two broad ideas define what many Christians think about the Old Testament today. Unfortunately, when we neglect or jettison the Old Testament, which makes up almost three quarters of our Christian Bible by the way, we do so to our spiritual malnourishment and to the Church’s detriment. There are many reasons why the Old Testament is important and relevant to the Christian and this paper aims to address some of these.

  1. The Bible is one story written by one Author

It cannot be overemphasised how important knowing that the Bible is ultimately authored by God is. This means that while the Bible consists of sixty-six books, coming from the hands of at least thirty distinct writers, scattered over a period of some fifteen hundred years, containing vastly different genres; they all tell one story. There is a meta-narrative: an overarching theme that binds all the individual stories and teachings of the Bible together. It is a story about a redemptive God, who sets out to redeem a rebellious people for Himself; that He might dwell with them and they might glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.

Movies are enjoyed the world over. One of the movies I have personally enjoyed is “Taken”, starring Liam Neeson. In this story, Neeson plays Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative, whose daughter Kim, against his advice, travels off with her friend Amanda to France by themselves. While there, Kim and Amanda are kidnapped by Albanian human traffickers for the purpose of selling them into sexual slavery. Mills goes on a heroic rescue attempt and at the end of the story, manages to save his daughter and reunite with her.

This storyline is a common movie formula which can be summarised as follows: union, break of union, rescue, reunion. The Bible, in fact, follows a similar outline: creation, sin, redemption, consummation. Therefore, if we take away the Old Testament, we lose more than half the story! There will be no context to the rescue-redemption narrative; we won’t understand why we need redemption in the first place. The loss of the meta-narrative is one reason why we in modern society live with existential angst; there is no one grand scheme of things in which our individual lives find their role and place. Recapturing this as Christians will enable us to live out our God-given mandate and task knowing that every thread of our lives will be weaved into God’s masterplan for the ages, for our good and for His glory!

  1. The Old Testament is all about Christ

To say that the central figure of the entire Bible is Jesus Christ would be an understatement. The entire Bible pivots on the person and work of Jesus. To him all redemptive history points, and from him all fulfilment comes. Again, without the Old Testament, we miss out on all the background it provides in terms of the most significant roles prefigured therein, namely: prophet, priest and king, and how Jesus fully and finally and perfectly fulfils all these offices in His life, death, resurrection and ascension.

It isn’t just that the Old Testament pre-figures Christ (although it certainly does). It isn’t just that there are myriads of prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Christ (although there certainly are). The Old Testament fundamentally reveals Christ!  And though it is true that the New Testament completes the revelation of Christ, we miss out on all the beauty, splendour and even nuance that the Old Testament provides. For example, though the gospels capture the historical details of Jesus’ crucifixion, Isaiah 53 provides a breath-taking and poignant commentary on the event.

Perhaps the clearest passage which illustrates this principle is found in the encounter Jesus had with His two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In the gospel of Luke 24:27, it says, “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” 

Having a Christ-centered, gospel-focussed exegesis of Old Testament passages will help guard Christians against moralism or legalism. We will be less prone to see the Old Testament figures as merely examples for us to follow and the Old Testament laws as merely commandments to obey. Rather, we would see Christ as He really is: the Messiah, our Saviour. He is the Hero of every Bible story, not us. Knowing this frees us from the burden and guilt of trying to earn God’s favour and also from the burden of trying to live the Christian life on our own strength. Rather, we rely on Christ’s penal substitution as the basis of our forgiveness and acceptance before God and the Holy Spirit’s empowering (which is only made possible because of Christ’s work on the Cross) in our discipleship.

  1. The Old Testament is authoritative

There is a strand of teaching in Christian circles that has gained popularity recently and it goes something like this: the Old Testament (generically considered the Law) has been fulfilled in Christ, and therefore non-binding upon the New Testament believer. Too many equate the Old Testament with what the Pharisees believed and practiced and therefore have stuck a label ‘legalism’ on anything to do with it.

The issue with this belief is not that it is wrong, but incomplete. There is both discontinuity as well as continuity from the Old Testament into the New. Whilst we cannot earn our salvation through obedience to the Mosaic law, nonetheless, even the New Testament, in the magnum opus of the the apostle Paul in the book of Romans describes the path to salvation as the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5, 16:26). And obedience implies a law or a rule to be followed.

Jesus Himself had no Bible save for the Old Testament; He identified Old Testament Scripture as God’s Word (Mark 7:13; 12:36) and ‘considered to be authoritative (Matt. 4:3-4, 7, 10; 23;1-3).’ Perhaps the most striking words of Jesus with regards to this matter can be found in Matthew 5:17-20. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Part of the difficulty in squaring these words of Jesus, and the gospel which proclaims salvation by grace through faith, is the seeming emphasis of obedience to the commandments as a prerequisite to enter the kingdom of heaven. However, understood rightly, what Jesus was saying was not that we can earn our way to salvation; rather, that a life that is saved will necessarily display the obedience to authenticate the faith.

Knowing that the Old Testament still has relevance and in fact, authority, in the lives of believers will keep us from the modern-day error of the hyper-grace gospel; and we won’t see obedience to God as contradictory to God’s grace in Christ given freely to us. Grace therefore is opposed to earning, not to effort.

  1. The Old Testament reveals our need for a Saviour

If the New Testament is the answer, the Old Testament asks the question. If the New Testament is the cure, the Old Testament describes the disease. They are inseparable and without the other, each is incomplete. We would not run into the saving arms of Christ if we did not know the peril our souls are in. We would not seek the Divine Physician if we did not know we are sick (Mark 2:17). One stated purpose of Old Testament Law is this: “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” Galatians 3:24. The beauty of Christ shines brightest when pitched against the darkness of human sin and depravity; and the conviction of the Law which exposes how much we fall short of God’s standard drives us to seek the forgiveness and freedom that only Christ can provide.

  1. The Old Testament defines what’s new about the New Covenant

The language of ‘covenant’ is crucial in the Old Testament. A covenant is a relational commitment of trust, love and care, and God makes a number of covenants with His people in the Old Testament – with Abraham, Moses, and others. We can aptly sum up the Bible, from a literary perspective into ‘the old (Mosiac) covenant and the new covenant in Christ. Indeed, the early church named the two parts of the Bible after these covenants (Old Testament and New Testament)’. The difference between the old covenant and the new covenant, again, is not one of obedience (Old Testament) versus grace (New Testament), but the manner of obedience and the empowering grace for the obedience. In fact, the Old Testament foreshadows both aspects in passages such as Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:26-27. We see in these passages that the New Covenant moved obedience from the external act to the internal motivation and also gave the necessary impetus in the form of the Holy Spirit given to every believer.

This is fundamental to the Christian because in understanding this, we would spare ourselves the danger of truly being a legalist, like the Pharisees, focussing on the external acts of piety rather than an internal desire to obey Christ because we love Him from our hearts. We would cease to strive to obey God in our own human strength but rather rely on the Holy Spirit. We would also be conscious of not falling into the opposite error of antinomianism, and disregarding obedience to God in our Christian walk entirely.

  1. The Old Testament presents doctrine in narrative form

While much of the New Testament epistles are in didactic form, a large proportion of the Old Testament is in narrative form. Through typology, we get an insight to Christ’s priesthood from the Aaronic priesthood, kingship from David, and prophetic office from Moses. New Testament baptism is related to the graphic scene of how God saved Noah from the great flood (1 Peter 3:20, 21). The patriarch, Abraham, the father of faith, demonstrated justifying faith in obeying and following God to the great unknown when God called him. The prophet Elijah portrays effectual and fervent prayer. The deep friendship of David and Jonathan illustrates the communion of saints. All these and more exist in the Old Testament as powerful examples and illustrations of biblical truths.

Conclusion

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8). Because we recognise there is progressive revelation in Scripture, we are able to see Jesus in every page of the Old Testament as well as the New. Therefore, the Old Testament anticipates the New and the New Testament interprets the Old. The importance of the Old Testament is not merely that we might gain wisdom and insights, it is not merely that we discover moral guidelines in order to live by them, it is most crucially a means by which we discover the nature and character of our God and understand His plan of salvation in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. May we make this our lifelong pursuit, to know our God through the entire canon of Scripture, His holy and previous Word.

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