How should Christians view the Old Testament?

Adam CozortArticles, General4 Comments

When one begins to consider the Old Testament and its place among New Testament Christians, the study can lead to some depths not often considered. Many people, stating they believe the Bible, want to hold to portions of the Old Testament as still valid today, yet they recognize that there are certain aspects that cannot be applicable to us in this day and time. So how should we, in the days of New Testament Christianity, view and approach the Old Testament?

Such a question is not easily satisfied in a simple one word or one phrase answer. There are a number of aspects to this question that must be considered before a complete picture can be drawn. Therefore, please consider briefly each of these aspects as we seek to come to a satisfactory answer.

At the outset of such a discussion as this, the first area that must be understood is the purpose and scope of the Old Testament: for what, and to whom, was it given? Most people believe that, since it is in the Bible, the Old Testament was designed and intended to be followed by all men. However, this is not the case. Consider the words of the Lord to Israel when they came to Mount Sinai: “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel” (Exo. 19:5-6).

God tells the children of Israel that if they will keep the covenant he is about to give them (the Old Testament) they will be a separated treasure from the rest of the world, a holy (from the Hebrew word meaning “to be set apart”) nation. The Old Testament was not given to, nor was it intended for, all men everywhere. It was intended specifically for one nation, the Israelites. Paul would affirm the truth of this when he wrote, “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law (the Old Law), do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves” (Rom. 2:14). Paul affirms that the Gentiles (non-Jews) did not have the Old Law binding upon them, but had a law for themselves. It was not a made-up law of whatever they desired; it was the same law that had applied to all men from the time of Adam to Moses: the laws of patriarchy, which were unwritten, but handed down through the families from generation to generation (Rom. 4:15; 5:13-14). Therefore, we must understand that the Old Law was designed for, and given to, the Jews only. It is also of interest to note that God never once commanded or encouraged the children of Israel to go and convert the rest of the world to Old Testament principles and teaching: because the law was never designed for those outside of Israel.

So, what was the purpose of the Law? If it was not for all men everywhere, why was it given? Its basic purpose was to protect and guide the people through whom God would send the Savior of all men. God promised Abraham to make of him a great nation and to bless the whole world through his descendants (Gen. 12:2-3). That nation would be Israel, and that descendant would be Jesus.

Throughout the Old Testament, everything looks forward to one event, the coming of the Christ. The over 300 prophecies pertaining to the coming Christ, the prophecies concerning the coming kingdom (the church), and the prophecies concerning how God would deal with, and protect, his people; all of these look forward to, and keep our eyes focused on, the coming of Christ. In fact, there is not a single Old Testament prophecy that extends beyond the first century. The Old Law was not intended to last forever, nor were the Jews intended to be God’s chosen people for all time: but the law was intended to bring men to a knowledge and understanding of the coming Christ and to foreshadow the things that would be established in the church. This point is duly emphasized by Paul when he wrote to the Galatians: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24).

Seeing, then, that the Old Law was given to the Jews only, and that it was intended to bring us to knowledge and recognition of the Christ: what happened to the Law when Christ came? Jesus was clear about his intentions pertaining to the law when he said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mat. 5:17-18). The Old Law could not be removed until its purpose was completed, fulfilled. Therefore, Jesus came to fulfill the intents and prophecies of the Old Law; to completely finish the purpose for which it was given so that a new law could be put in its place.

This removal of the Old Law was accomplished with Jesus’ death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension. By his actions he fulfilled the Old Law and established a New Covenant. This is affirmed in a number of passages of Scripture; consider a couple of them. We have already looked at Galatians 3:24, now consider the next verse where Paul writes: “But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” When the New Covenant was put in place, the Old Covenant was no longer valid or in use. This is further affirmed in the book of Hebrews when it is written: “Then said he, Lo I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:9-10). Jesus fulfilled the Old Law through his life and death, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Col. 2:14). He did not destroy the law, but he completed and fulfilled its intended purposes, thereby removing it in the same way any contract today is removed once the terms of the contract are completed.

So what does that mean for the Christian today, how should we look at the Old Law? It is certain that the law is no longer in effect today, otherwise Jesus did not do what he came to do and all of our efforts are in vain. It is also equally true that we cannot pick and choose aspects of the law we like and want to keep, because the Scriptures are clear that if we try to bind certain aspects of a law, we must bind the whole law. Paul wrote, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). If we are going to keep one aspect of the law, we must keep all of it. This is impossible with the Old Law, for whether with the priesthood, the sacrifices, or the ordinances, no man can keep the entirety of the Old Law today.

Therefore, we must understand that no aspect of the Old Testament is binding as law for us today. This is greatly emphasized in the New Testament through the letters of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews: all of which have, as their primary intent, the purpose of showing the greatness of the New Law over the Old and how the Old Law has been put away and all men are equal under Christ. The only aspects of the Old Law that are binding on men today are the ones that are stated again in the New Covenant (which would include 9 of the 10 commandments, moral laws and principles, etc.)

However, that does not mean that the principles and teachings of the Old Law are false and should be disregarded. Paul also wrote, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime (the Old Testament) were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). Through the Old Law we see the plans of God coming to fruition, the nature of God being revealed, the steps God took to ensure that all men had the opportunity to receive salvation, and the ways in which God shows from the beginning the plans that he has for mankind through Christ and the church.

The Old Testament is of immense value, and the Christian who is unwilling to study it has handcuffed his knowledge and understanding of many aspects of God and the New Testament; but the Old Testament is not a binding law for the obedience of any man today. It had its time, and it had its purpose, but both were fulfilled with the coming of Christ and his kingdom. If any of the Old Testament contract was not completed by Christ: he was a failure and a fraud, and is thereby unworthy of our service and obedience. Since that is not the case, let us be mindful to keep the Old Testament in its place, learn from it, and serve our Lord acceptably by keeping the law he has given and not trying to muddy it by applying a law that has long since passed.

4 Comments on “How should Christians view the Old Testament?”

  1. I view you as a clear “teacher” of God and I come to you as a “student”. I want to emphasise the phrase “struggling with” rather than “questioning”. The topic continues to be “authority”. On so many interpretations of Scripture, if I attend a Church in the North (comprised of more liberal people) versus one in the South (more conservative) what is taught and believed are dramatically different. At times, I feel my head “exploding”.

    Today you said one thing that illustrates my “struggling” in referencing the “New Covenant’s” 9 of 10 Commandments. Each Sunday (in a very conservative Southern Church), I see a great number of people involved in real estate on their cell phones talking business deals (like showing houses later on Sunday). When I’ve asked about this, I’ve been told that nowhere in the NT does it forbid working on Sunday/Sabbath.

    I very much disagree — as I believe OT & NT Scripture instructs us not to work for “individual commercial gain”, but to rest. I go to Mark and read “what exactly was going on in the fields” and what Christ said. I reference Genesis, where God took a day of rest. I remember that Christ “rested” (His work was completed on Earth) one full day between his crucifixion and resurrection.

    Its man’s (1) rationalizations and (2) highlighing “certain specific sins” (usually sexual in nature in today’s culture wars) all in the name and authority of Christ that drives me up the wall.

  2. For clarification — I am “ASSUMING” that the missing Commandment (9 of 10) that you reference is Sunday/Sabbath. At least this is what I heard and taught within the Church of Christ. As to my “Authority” theme, this is a good example of my struggles. Folks like Mr. Cathy (whom I a big admirer) of Chick Fil’a believes that Scripture is absolutely clear on this from command, example, and inference. But, probably most people in the COC that make a living in real estate only believe that 9 of the 10 Commandments apply. So who’s right (per Scripture)? A rationalization argument that since working on Sunday was not specifically forbidden in the NT is a path down a very slippery slope — as this is “exactly” the argument of Christian gays in a monogamous relationship. I gotta stop here as I feel my “head starting to explode” again.

    1. Stephen,
      Sorry for not getting back to you yesterday. I certainly understand where you are coming from, allow me to throw you a few thoughts to consider.
      I do not know what you mean by a “rationality argument,” but I am assuming you mean an argument simply formulated to allow one to do what they want to do, regardless of the actual teaching of Scripture. If that is what you mean, I do not believe in those forms of arguments any more than you do, but I do believe Scripture must be handled correctly.
      The Scriptures plainly teach that without a binding law in place, there can be no sin, because sin is a violation of the law (Rom. 4:15; 1 John 3:4). It is true that there is no statement in the New Testament prohibiting work on the first day of the week as there was in the Old Testament for the Sabbath Day. In fact, secular history tells us (and it is validated throughout the New Testament) that most times the church would assemble in the evenings because many Christians were servants and laborers who had to work during the day (take Acts 20 in Troas for an example).
      Also understand what the Sabbath was under the Old Law. It was not a day set aside to assemble to worship God, it was a day of rest. One was not allowed to do any form of work (even cooking was out), nor were they allowed to travel any meaningful distance. Keeping this as an ordinance for Sundays in the New Testament would make even assembling for worship impossible.
      However, while there is not a law requiring a “day of rest” in the New Testament, there are principles of spiritual maturity, if you will, that would certainly apply to what you are saying. Understanding the many examples you stated (and keeping in mind the fact that Jesus still lived under the Law of Moses during his days on this earth: it was his death that fulfilled the law, not his birth) there are principles we would be wise to consider and put in practice to serve God fully and effectively.
      Christians should follow the example of Jesus and take time regularly for prayer, meditation upon God’s Word, and rest for the body and mind. It is quite impossible to give diligence (2 Pet. 1:5) to developing spiritually when we are spending all of our diligence on physical pursuits. Therefore, while there is no law in place requiring it, the wise Christian will recognize the principles of rest, focus, meditation, and service revealed throughout the Scriptures and will strive to ensure such are accomplished in their personal lives.
      One cannot make a law where God has not; however, one can use the principles made plain throughout Scripture to show how the wise and conscientious servant will utilize the opportunities presented to the glory of God and development of appropriate character.

  3. Lunch break — Thanks Adam. You are helping me (and hopefully others) as a teacher. Request: In the coming weeks could you write about Paul versus Christ (4 Gospels)? Should we approach what Christ said and what Paul said as “equal” in Authority? Or, is there a difference? I can not really think of anything Christ said that confuses me — but St. Paul is a different story. Paul was both a “big picture” guy (where I am not confused) like in explaining salvation but also a “pastor” having to deal with many “situations” in the Early Church (which at times seems to be cultural specific). Its people’s applying Paul writings in this pastorial role to today’s very different culture where I sometimes struggle. Of course, this isn’t anything new — people have been “debating” this for centuries. Can you help us understand better?

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