The 5 Keys to Understand the Old Testament

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A powerful scene from Disney's Prince of Egypt


Recently a popular megachurch pastor told his congregation that the Church needs to "unhitch" herself from the Old Testament Scripture. In his sermon he claimed that the early Christians did not look to the Old Testament for moral guidance. He went so far as to state, "Thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments." He continued, "God has done something through the Jews for the world. But the ‘through the Jews’ part of the story is over, and now something new and better and inclusive has come.”

Admittedly the Old Testament (hereafter referred to as the OT) is not only hard to understand, but often presents both the Christian and the unbeliever with difficult complex issues that must be addressed. However, to simply negate the entirety of the OT by relegating its significance to a different time and different people is to greatly impoverish the Christian message about God. Even worse, it puts us at risk of manufacturing a false god and therefore a false Jesus. And when given the opportunity, we will always make a false Jesus who lets us feel comfortable in our sin! But what did the real Jesus teach about the OT? Jesus taught that he was Son of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Famously he was almost stoned for declaring, "Before Abraham was I AM" (John 8:58). Although it might be easier to "unhitch" ourselves from the OT, we simply can't. We can't unhitch ourselves from the OT because the God of the OT is still our God today.

This Sunday I will continue the argument for why the OT is still the Word of God for us. But I want to take some time in this article to lay out a paradigm for reading the OT correctly at a follower of Jesus. I sincerely believe you will find this helpful as we walk through the book of Exodus together over the next seven weeks.

The apostle Paul spent much of his time in his many letters explaining the relationship between the OT and Christians. I believe he best summarizes his approach to the OT in the following two statements:

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. - Gal 3:24 (ESV)

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. - Rom 10:4 (NIV)

In both verses Paul is speaking from an historical perspective, explaining the importance and function of the OT (which he calls the "law") in relationship to the coming of Jesus and his work and teachings. According to Paul, the OT was like a legal guardian, given by God to protect and mature his people in order to make them ready for God to come into the flesh (to incarnate) as the Lord Jesus Christ, at which point they would reach spiritual adulthood. And so Paul gives us the first key of our paradigm for understanding the OT:

Key 1: The OT is all about preparing the world for Jesus.

It is also important to understand how God desires to work in the world. At the very beginning of the OT we learn that God is committed to ruling the world through humans. He appoints Man and Woman as "made in his image" to rule the world in love. After they fail, God continues to be committed to this purpose. Praise God that he is committed to us! Because of this commitment God promises in Genesis 3:15 that through humans he will work to renovate and heal the broken world.

Key 2: God is fully committed to healing the world through humans.

God begins the process of restoring and healing the world through humans through Abraham. This eventually leads to God creating a special relationship with the descendants of Abraham, the people of Israel. God gives Israel the unique and special job of being a "nation of priests" to the world. As priests they are tasked with showing people the true God and leading the world to know him. This is only fully realized when God himself becomes an Israelite (and therefore human) in Jesus Christ. Notice! This is an important point. This special job given by God to Israel is NOT given to the rest of the nations. And so Israel will be given unique instructions that are never given to other peoples, nor expected of them in order to follow God. We can find an example of this in the OT book of Jonah. The Israelite prophet Jonah is called by God to preach to the foreign capital city of Nineveh. Through his preaching, the entire city of Nineveh turns to God and is saved. Although they are expected to live moral lives as a fruit of their repentance, they are not expected to be circumcised or follow all the OT dietary laws like the people of Israel. We will return to discuss this particular matter later. In the meantime, here is our third key:

Key 3: God gave Israel a special role in being "priests" to the world with unique instructions and responsibilities.

The OT instructions to Israel can be roughly divided into three aspects. The OT laws are 1) national 2) ceremonial and 3) moral. How do these three kinds of laws relate to the OT's function of preparing the world for Jesus?

1) National - Through the national laws God worked to differentiate and separate Israel from the surrounding pagan nations. This is necessary so God could begin to help Israel to unlearn the self destructive patterns of life and worship practices of the surrounding peoples. These laws include the basic laws necessary for the continuance of the nation. Many of the dietary laws also worked to differentiate the nation of Israel from other peoples. The difficult and different diet kept the people of Israel from sharing table-fellowship with the surrounding peoples and therefore helped keep them from being drawn into pagan idolatrous practices. Through the national laws, God is creating the right culture and place for Jesus to come into the world.

2) Ceremonial - The ceremonial laws set up the complicated worship practices prescribed by God. These are meant to teach the people about the character of God and the nature of sin. Ultimately all the ceremonial laws are object lessons pointing to Jesus. Through the ceremonial laws, Israel is "acting out" prophecies so that the world can understand what Jesus will accomplish on the cross.

3) Moral - God progressively revealed through the moral laws how he desires humans to relate to himself and to each other. Because humans change slowly, God started by first revealing the very basic moral teachings found in the Ten Commandments. Later through the prophets he explained the deeper meaning behind these teachings. This process is completed when Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount fully revealed God's moral standard for us. Through the moral laws, God shows us how he wants us to live, how we fail to do it, and how we need his forgiveness and Holy Spirit that will come only through Jesus Christ.

Paul teaches us that since Christ has come, there is no longer any need for the national and ceremonial laws of the OT. Their function has been completed in Jesus who is the "culmination" of the OT law (Rom 10:4). National laws are not needed because now through Jesus all nations are equally welcomed into a special relationship with God (John 10:16). Ceremonial laws are not needed because now all of their prophetic value has been fulfilled through Jesus' death and resurrection (Heb 10:1). These instructions which prepared Israel for her unique role have now been fully realized when the Jewish people gave the world Jesus Christ through the Virgin Mary. The non-Jewish people, who were never required to follow the special instructions of the national and ceremonial laws, now have the incredible blessing of also becoming part of the special people of God through Jesus Christ. Paul, talking to the non-Jewish Christians, puts it this way, "although a wild olive shoot, you were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree" (Rom 11:17b). We non-Jewish believers have been made part of the people of Israel through Jesus. This means that the OT is now our story too!

Jesus also fulfilled God's moral law. He is the only human to have ever lived a perfectly moral life before God. He even chose to die instead of denying God by breaking a single one of his commandments. Now Jesus calls all of us to follow his example. This is why both Jesus and Paul make extensive use of the OT when instructing people on how to live a life pleasing to God (Rom 13:8-10). Now that Christ has come, the Church, which is filled with the Spirit of Christ, continues to fulfill the moral law revealed in the OT through loving others. "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law" (Rom 13:8 ESV). And so this gives us our fourth and fifth key:

Key 4: The OT's unique instructions and responsibilities to Israel are no longer necessary to practice because Jesus has fulfilled their purposes.

Key 5: The OT continues to be the Word of God to us today because it teaches us the character and work of God through Jesus, shows us who we are as part of God's special people, and furnishes us with moral instruction.

I sincerely hope that you will find this short "theology of the OT" helpful as we begin the deep dive into the world of the OT and the people of God. Although teaching through the OT can be difficult, I firmly believe that the effort will be well worth it, as we begin to better understand our God, ourselves, and his mission for us in this world. In the meantime please take the time to become well acquainted with the 5 keys to understand the OT.

To review:


The 5 Keys to Understand the OT

Key 1:
The OT is all about preparing the world for Jesus.

Key 2:
God is fully committed to healing the world through humans.

Key 3:
God gave Israel a special role in being "priests" to the world with unique instructions and responsibilities.

Key 4:
The OT's unique instructions and responsibilities to Israel are no longer necessary to practice because Jesus has fulfilled their purposes.


Key 5:
The OT continues to be the Word of God to us today because it teaches us the character and work of God through Jesus, shows us who we are as part of God's special people, and furnishes us with moral instruction.


Peace,
The Rev. Kurt Hein