How to Read the Old Testament (Part 1)

Eyeglasses and eye chart

As a new disciple I found it very difficult to read the Old Testament. Not because of the long lists of strange sounding names or because I found it difficult to follow the story line, but simply because it seemed to have nothing to do with Jesus. To put it simply, the Old Testament just seemed to flatly contradict the New Testament. I want to write a few posts on how Christians are supposed to approach the Law, Prophets and the Psalms. I don’t know where we will end up in this series or how many posts it will contain. There are so many issues to cover and errors to avoid. I will do my best to get to the point on the various issues. That should make the reading of this series easier, but it also means the reader will have to diligently search the Scriptures to see if these things are so or not. And the reader will also have to do the work of developing the principles I throw out there in seed form.

Those of us that are familiar with the New Testament and with the issues faced by the early Church will easily recognize that modern believers are not the first to wrestle with trying to harmonize the Old and New Testaments. Most of Paul’s letters and a lot of the content of the Gospels were dedicated to this particular issue. And the post-apostolic authors also spent a lot of time on this issue.

The first blaring contradiction is found in the laws given in the Old Testament versus those given in the New. Clearly the Jews were forbidden from eating certain things while Jesus and Paul both make it clear that nothing is forbidden in the New Covenant (Mark 7:19, 1 Tim. 4:4-5). Genesis 17 clearly says all the males of God’s people must be circumcised, while Galatians says this is not needed. In Colossians 2:16-17 we are told that Christians don’t need to keep the Sabbath, but keeping the Sabbath was one of the 10 Commandments given by God to Moses. Jesus commands us not to swear oaths, the Old Testament commanded us to do so in God’s name. In the Old Covenant divorce was permitted, but Jesus forbids it.

Another thing that confused me was the contradiction I saw between Old Testament law and New Testament grace. I had the impression from all the preaching that I heard from Christian pulpits that in the Old Testament people had to earn their salvation by obedience, but in the New Testament salvation was a free gift, and that we would be judged by our faith and not by our works.

From the Sermon on the Mount and the life of Christ overall I got the clear impression that Christianity was opposed to physical violence. Jesus said that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword. And Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter 6 that we wrestle not with flesh and blood. But when I turned to the Old Testament I couldn’t miss the fact that people were going to war at God’s command.

These are just some examples of things that struck me as odd. Hopefully I will be able to deal with all of these issues and more in this series, even if I do it indirectly. As I said, some of the connections between the various issues will have to be drawn by the reader; I will just do my best to get all the main principles out there for each person to work through.

The 3 Options

There are basically three main options out there about how to connect the two Testaments together. The first two are erroneous and were dealt with extensively by the early church. And the second of the three was dealt with extensively in the New Testament itself. The third perspective is the Christian perspective.

Option 1 – Marcionism and Hyper-Grace Message

Marcionism was a sect that was closely related to Gnosticism. This heretical sect taught that the Old Testament was not to be used by Christians at all. They believed that an evil God, one full of wrath and legalism produced it. But that the New Testament, at least parts of it, were from the highest God who is one of love and grace. This sect, and many of the Gnostic sects which gave birth to it, denied that God would judge the sin of his chosen people. They would ask, “How could a God of love and mercy possibly show wrath instead of salvation?!”

This was a very simple solution to the problem of the seeming, and sometimes real, differences between the Old and New Testaments. They simply said the content and message was different because the divine authors (i.e. gods) were different.

Nowadays you would be hard pressed to find any “Christian” sect that would so boldly throw out the entire Old Testament. But what is known as the “hyper-grace” or “radical-grace” movement has made the Old Testament obsolete, through their message of forgiveness of past, present and future sins. They believe that once one has believed in Jesus atoning sacrifice they will never face God’s wrath no matter how they live. They wouldn’t say it is good to sin, in fact they would say it is bad. But they do say that whether we sin or not, it will not affect our eternal destiny.

Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them” (Mat. 5:17). The Marcionites would say Jesus did come to abolish them because he was from a different God altogether and they are useless for believers. The hyper-grace movement would reinterpret Jesus to say, “I did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to abolish them.” Their Gospel is all about what God has done, and does not have any other requirements on people except to believe. They don’t believe Christ brought a new law (i.e. Sermon on the Mount) that would fulfill the “righteous requirements” of the old law (Rom. 8:4). They make the Old Testament obsolete by making the New Testament lawless.

The truth is, the Marcionite solution is more consistent than those who just try to ignore the Law of Christ. But the early Church, and the authors of the Apostolic Scriptures, did a great job of showing that the Old Testament was indeed Christian Scripture. So the modern day Marcionites must give lip service to the Old Testament even though they deny the ways of God revealed in it. Anyone that teaches that we will not be judged according to our works (1Pet1, 2Cor5, Rev22, Rom2, etc.) is aligning themselves with Marcionism. Anyone that says that because of what Jesus did for us we will not be held accountable for disobeying his commands is not only ignoring the Old Testament, but also the New (Mat.5-7).

Option 2 – Judaizers and Hebraic Roots Movement

The second erroneous way to harmonize the Old Testament with the apostolic writings is to deny that the Law of Moses has been superseded by the Gospel. The Judaizers were early Jewish believers in Jesus that believed that Christians still had to obey all the Old Covenant commands. This included circumcision, dietary laws, animal sacrifices, etc.

For the Judaizers, both ancient and modern, Christ did not say, “I did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but fulfill them.” Instead they believe he said, “I did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but I came to re-establish what Moses already said.” They equate the Law of Christ with the Law of Moses. For them there is no contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament, they are teaching the same thing, i.e. the Law of Moses. The false grace error seeks to minimize the Old Testament’s value in the life of the Christian. The modern Judaizers (i.e. Hebraic Roots Movement) seek to reinterpret everything Jesus, Paul and the other Apostles taught against the ancient Judaizers.

Since Paul was an Apostle to the Gentiles he often had to deal with this error. Those Jewish Christians who were zealous for the Law of Moses would spread the message that to be part of God’s covenant people in good standing (i.e. justified) they had to obey the Law of Moses in full. That is, one had to become Jewish in order to be a true Christian. This message often threw the humble Gentile churches into confusion. Paul argued in many of his letters (Philippians, Galatians, Romans, etc.) that it was devotion to (i.e. faith) Jesus Christ, not devotion to the Law of Moses that made one a true child of Abraham.

The false grace movement makes faith in Christ the very opposite of obedience to the Law of God. The modern day Judaizers make faith in Christ the exact same thing as obedience to the Law of Moses. The Hebraic Roots movement teaches that Christ did not fulfill the Law of Moses and the Prophets, but instead he re-established it. They don’t understand that Christ fulfilled the prophecies and righteousness of the Old Testament both in his actions and his message.

Option 3 – Apostolic Revelation

The modern mind is a product of the European Enlightenment. We grow up testing everything by reason. This has influenced our way of reading the Old Testament as well. Everything must be taken literally in its context. But this way of thinking will be challenged if we pay close attention to how the Apostles made use of the Old Testament. Spend some time checking the original context of all the Old Testament quotes in the book of Matthew or the letters to the Galatians and Romans. You will be surprised to find that the large majority of quotes are used completely out of context. In some cases they will be used in a completely opposite way than the Old Testament context would suggest. Were the Apostles twisting the scriptures? The answer of course is no. But we must recognize that their way of using Scripture is not easily accepted by the overly rationalistic modern mind.

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’” (Luke 24:44-47)

“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” (Eph. 3:4-5)

“We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed [predestined] for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this…. These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” (1 Cor. 2:7-10)

The Apostles received a divine revelation that had been hidden up until the time of Christ. God had always intended to create a holy people made up of both Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 1-3). But during the different periods of Old Testament history no one knew about this. Adam didn’t know. Noah didn’t know. Abraham didn’t know. Moses didn’t know. But then suddenly Christ came and the predestined plan of God began to be proclaimed. The “mystery which had been hidden” was now revealed through the Apostles.

Christ revealed the eternal plan of God to the Apostles. He showed them how this plan had been secretly revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures in “types and shadows.” With the message of a new creation being formed in Jesus Christ through his resurrection from the dead, the history of the Old Testament took on new significance. God used the natural and temporary to reveal the spiritual and the eternal message the Apostles were now preaching. They could preach about the sacrifice of Christ and use the Old Covenant sacrifices to illuminate various aspects of Christ’s atoning work. They could speak about a holy people, the called out ones (i.e. the Church), and refer to the natural people Israel as a shadow of what God had always intended. They could illustrate living a holy life separated from unclean works, but discussing the Old Covenant Tabernacle and the various cleanliness laws (foods, washings, etc.) related to it. They could refer to the moral laws found in the Ten Commandments and show how they would be fulfilled truly by obeying the Law of Christ which was summed up: Love God, love others.

“These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Col. 2:17)

“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11)

“They serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” (Heb. 8:5)

The Apostles did not ignore the historical reality of the Old Testament. Nor did they just randomly make up analogies to suit their purposes. Instead, God imparted to them the mystery of God’s eternal plan, and he showed them this message in the types and shadows of the Old Testament Law, Prophets and Psalms. The Jews until this day try to follow the letter of the Law, but fail to see the divine message God sovereignly worked out through the history and writings of Israel. One can only understand the eternal Word of God revealed in the Scriptures through the revelation of Christ that was given to the Apostles.

The modern Marcionites of false grace attempt to understand the eternal message by assuming it must be the exact opposite of everything found in the Old Testament. This strange way of biblical interpretation causes them to err on so many levels. The modern Judaizers of the Hebraic Roots movement seeks to interpret the Old Testament through natural eyes of worldly reason instead of divine apostolic revelation.

As Christians we must not ignore the Old Testament. These are the very Scriptures that Paul told us are inspired by God and profitable for growth in grace and righteousness. Jesus told us he didn’t come to contradict and overthrow them, but to fulfill their purpose and meaning. But we must not read the Old Covenant writings without viewing it through the apostolic revelation revealed in the New Testament. This would be to revert to the blindness of the letter of the Law. The Old Testament belongs to Christians and we must learn how to read them.

There are three options in how to read the Old Testament: The Gnostic way, the Jewish way and the Apostolic way; but only the third is genuinely Christian.

To Be Continued…

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