Understanding the Old Testament

Last year, I was confronted by the fact that my knowledge of scripture was surface at best. Having gone to church my entire life, I had relied heavily upon what had been preached to me and not what I had read for myself. My theology wasn’t just weak; it was lifeless. My Bible had been kept tucked safely on the shelf, only pulled out for church and the occasional verse reference. That all ended last spring when the Holy Spirit ignited an unnatural desire in me to study God’s word. This was especially unusual because I’ve never enjoyed reading books. Never. In fact, I’d choose almost anything over reading a book. Yet, there I sat, nose in scripture. The Holy Spirit can indeed perform wonders. I decided to start in the area I knew least about–the Old Testament. For me and sadly probably many young Christians, the Old Testament had been reduced to a series of short Sunday school stories that simply emphasized our need to believe and obey God. As for the Old Testament law, that was just an old set of rigorous rules understood by few today and only applicable and of consequence to the Old Testament Israelites. In other words, the Old Testament was better off oversimplified and our focus directed largely to the New Testament. This was my understanding. If we believe what Jesus said about the Old Testament in Luke though, then we have to believe that the Old Testament has great purpose and significance far outside an assortment of adolescent stories and surely merits our time and attention. Don’t you think?

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. 26 Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” 27 Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Luke 24:25-27 NLT

The Covenant

Looking back in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus, the Israelites were living in slavery in the land of Egypt and the groans of their affliction were heard by God and God recalled His covenant with their ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God had promised these three men that they would have countless descendants from a multitude of nations, that these descendants would possess the land of Canaan forever, and that these descendants would be fruitful and God would be their God forever (Genesis 17:4-8). This was an everlasting covenant that began with Abraham and was then confirmed down through Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 17:19). What exactly had Abraham done though to deserve the blessings of this covenant?

6 And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.
Genesis 15:6 NLT

Abraham had done nothing to earn the justification God had granted him. It was through Abraham’s faith alone that God had deemed him righteous and forgiven all of his sins. We know that Abraham’s sins were justified because of what we read in Matthew. Jesus tells us that Abraham did not die in his sin, but lives eternally (Matthew 22:31-32). When Abraham placed his faith and trust in God, God committed His unfailing love to Abraham and his descendants. There was one condition to this covenant though, they had to remain faithful and obedient to God.

The condition

9 Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands.
Deuteronomy 7:9 NLT

How could God guarantee the obedience of Abraham and his descendants? Where was God’s sovereignty if the covenant hinged on the obedience of human beings enslaved to their own sinful nature? There is a simple explanation. We know that God committed His unfailing love to Abraham (Genesis 24:27). What did this unfailing love look like? The book of John answers this.

17 For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.
John 1:17 NLT

The Old Testament descendants (the Israelites) had been given God’s perfect standard–the law (Galatians 3:23). In contrast to the holiness of God’s law, the sins of Israel were made blindingly evident and their guilt undeniable (Romans 3:19-20). The law not only revealed Israel’s sin, but caused their sinful nature to take root and propegate (Romans 7:5). Ultimately, the Israelites succumbed to the curse contained within the law (Daniel 9:5-11). When all hope seemed lost, God’s unfailing love took form in the man of Jesus–the Son of God. Jesus brought certainty to the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. Jesus’ preordained life, death, and resurrection fully atoned for the sins of the world, but only to the benefit of the faithful (Galatians 3:25-26). Abraham and his descendants were justified by their faith–not by their obedience to the law and its sacrificial system.

THE HEIRS

Through faith alone in Jesus alone, the faithful become the rightful heirs and descendants of Abraham; and therefore, inherit the promises of Abraham’s covenant (Galatians 3:7, 3:29). These faithful heirs are not limited to Abraham’s direct lineage, but are from a multitude of nations–Gentile nations. Jesus declared this in Matthew and Paul reiterated it in Galatians.

11 And I tell you this, that many Gentiles will come from all over the world—from east and west—and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew 8:11 NLT

8 What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would make the Gentiles right in his sight because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.”
Galatians 3:8 NLT

What an awesome thought to ponder that the same covenant established with Abraham descended down through the generations to greet me–a Gentile? We, the heirs comprised of both Jews and Gentiles, were brought into a new covenant with God.

THE Holy Spirit

This new covenant was different than the first. Jesus had paid sins penalty, conquered death, and saved us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13). Our obedience to God (and to the law) was no longer a prerequisite for our salvation, but a product or fruit of our faith.

11 May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God.
Philippians 1:11 NLT

This fruit (obedience) is produced by and through the work of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us (Galatians 5:22-24). In other words, we have absolutely zero contribution to our salvation outside our faith (Galatians 3:2-5, 4:4-7, Ephesians 2:8-10). Any good or holy obedient act we perform is not of our own merit or flesh, but the leading of the Holy Spirit.

25 Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.
Galatians 5:25 NLT

THE Fruit

The Old Testament and the law had purpose that reached far beyond the Old Testament and certainly deserves its place in our redemptive story today. From this quick study, we can begin to understand why the Old Testament was referred to as a shadow of things to come (Hebrews 10:1-4). The law was good and holy, but the sinful nature of mankind required offerings and those offerings were imperfect. Jesus was the spotless offering God required.

11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time.
Hebrews 10:11-12 NLT

With an understanding of the Old Testament, I’ll warn you; it is easy to then fall into one of two misguided schools of thought. First, there is legalism. This is the idea that we must still be obedient to the Old Testament law in order to attain salvation. A common defense for this position is Matthew 5:17. While I am not saying this verse is erroneous (because it isn’t), it does require some context though as Jesus goes on from there to remind us that we can not earn our righteousness (Matthew 5:20). When we try to earn salvation through following the law, we are living in our flesh (our sinful nature) and this will only result in us being bound to sin, bound to guilt, and bound to death.

21 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
Romans 3:21-22 NLT

On the flip side of this misguided coin, we find antinomianism which is the belief that Jesus set us free from having to follow any law. This goes a step too far in the other direction. While Jesus fulfilled the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Old Testament law for us, God’s commandments (the ten commandments) still remains as addressed by Jesus and the Apostle John.

23 Jesus replied, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them. 24 Anyone who doesn’t love me will not obey me. And remember, my words are not my own. What I am telling you is from the Father who sent me.
John 14:23-24 NLT

3 Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome.
1 John 5:3 NLT

We can see that these two extremes–legalism and antinomianism–have failed to contextualize scripture. Anytime we cherry pick scripture, we’re at risk of denying its inerrant and consistent qualities. Paul brings some much needed context to the issue of obedience in Romans.

1 Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? 2 Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? 3 Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? 4 For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
Romans 6:1-4 NLT

15 Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not!16 Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living.
Romans 6:15-16 NLT

If we agree that all scripture is perfect and congruent, then we must recognize that simply because obedience is not a requirement for salvation does not then imply that obedience is altogether nullified. We have been called to live new lives–obedient lives only made possible through the grace of God and the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:8-9).

17 Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. 18 Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.
Romans 6:17-18 NLT

Paul says we have a choice to make as believers. We can keep sinning or obey God. We can follow our sinful nature or choose righteous living. We can wither away or bear fruit (Luke 8:4-15).

13 Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. 14 Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. 15 For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. 16 In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. 17 Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.
Ephesians 6:13-18 NLT

May we bear fruit, friends.