Bible students usually spend much time in the New Testament. Such is reasonable as most students seek to know Jesus Christ. Since most of what we know about Jesus is in the New Testament that is where we spend most of our time. For some, the Old Testament is almost a lost or forgotten tome from an archaic time. Although we grew up on stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Samson and David, we have since moved on to newer material. I think ignoring the Old Testament, whether through casual neglect or deliberate avoidance is a mistake. A working knowledge of the Old Testament helps bring the New to life. I am absolutely convinced that we cannot fully appreciate the sacrificial death of Jesus apart from an understanding of the Old Testament and the Laws of Moses.
Putting the Old Testament in Perspective
Once we begin to study the books of Genesis through Malachi we are confronted with an important question: How should I apply the Old Testament today? For example, Leviticus is full of detailed instructions about animal sacrifices (Leviticus 1-4). Should I practice animal sacrifices today? Why or why not? Long hair was often a sign of special consecration to God through the Nazrite vow (Numbers 6:5; Judges 13:5; Judges 16:17; 1 Samuel 1:11). Should I let my hair grow? What about disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)? Am I supposed to stone my teenager when he disobeys? Even the casual reader will note that there seems to be a big difference between the Old and the New Testaments. How do I understand that differences.
Paul speaks of the need to “rightly divide” Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15) so we may conclude that there are differences to be understood. The greatest difference seems to be between the “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) given by Christ and the “law of Moses” (Joshua 8:31-32; 1 Corinthians 9:9). Let me state my conclusion first and then offer scriptural support.
I conclude that the law of Moses was given to a specific people (Jews) for a specific time (until Christ) for a specific purpose (to prepare and enlighten men for the Christian era).
It was God Almighty who freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:33-41; Exodus 19:4). He brought them to Mt. Sinai where he gave them their laws. God called Moses and his brother Aaron to the mountain where he began by giving them what we call today the 10 Commandments (Exodus 19:24).
Notice carefully how God begins this period of lawgiving. He says in Exodus 20:1,2:
Then God spoke all these words saying, I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other Gods before me…
This verse is important because we see that God is speaking specifically to the children of Israel and to no one else. Although other nations were in existence and even though their obedience to God was expected, they were never expected to follow the law of Moses for it was not given to them. All of the promises, dating back some 500 years, were directed to the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (c.f. Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 26:2-5; Genesis 28:10-18). The covenant was between God and the people of Israel only.
The covenant between God and the Israelites would not last forever. Any contract or covenant binds both parties. When the Israelites broke the covenant with God, he established a new one. Jeremiah makes plain that a change was coming when he writes, “Behold, days are coming declares the Lord when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah…” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The writer of Hebrews takes up this idea in Hebrews 8:6-7 when he writes:
But now He (Christ) has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.” (emphasis mine – JBE)
The first covenant (Old Testament) was replaced by a second or new covenant (New Testament), by Christ himself who is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). So then, we see that the Old Testament covenant is not for us today but came to an end about 2,000 years ago.
Do We Believe the Old Testament?
Just because the old law is no longer in effect does not mean it was not true. It was true in every word and could not be broken as Jesus himself said (John 10:35). Every word of the Old Testament is just as inspired as the words of New Testament. We do believe and honor the Old Testament.
But the key question, which has a profound impact on our faith today, is not whether we believe the Old Testament but whether we practice Old Testament doctrine.
We do not practice the ceremonies, rites and holidays of the Law of Moses because it is not for us today. It has been superseded or replaced by something built upon better promises (Hebrews 8:6). Our guide for faith, life and worship is the New Testament of Jesus Christ. As if God knew we would need additional support to turn from the Old to the New he said as much at the Mount of Transfiguration when, in the miraculous presence of Moses of Elijah, God told Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus (Matthew 17:5)! The point was clear, God no longer worked through Moses, the great lawgiver, or through Elijah, the great prophet. Now his work was in Christ Jesus.
What Use is the Old Testament Today?
Given that the Old Testament is no longer our guide or authority in spiritual matters a person might think he can ignore the Old Testament and focus solely on the New. However he would be cheating himself.
The church in Galatia was struggling with false teaching including some who wanted to force Christians to practice Jewish forms of worship (Galatians 3:1-14). Paul argued that salvation was in Christ and not in the works of the Old Testament Law. However, even in this environment of false worship is Paul willing to discount the Law of Moses. Indeed, he concludes that the Law of Moses (Old Testament) was a “…tutor to lead us to Christ…”(Galatians 3:24). But he immediately adds that we are no longer under that tutor (Galatians 3:25-27).
In short, the Old Testament is a guide or teacher through which we come to know Christ. It is the manner by which we come to know and understand sin (Romans 3:20-22; Romans 7:7). The Old Testament was a vague portrayal of what was to come (Colossians 2:17) and through it we may be better students and servants.
Since the Old Testament and the Law of Moses has been set aside for something greater, we must not look to the Old Testament for authority in worship. Although a vital part of worship in the Old Testament we would not include an altar and animal sacrifices in our worship today would we? Certainly not. Likewise, we would not look to the Old Law to justify the use of cymbals and trumpets in worship today either – or would we? Some surely do for there is no such authority in the New Testament. It is not that people desire to violate the present covenant but they simply have not thought through the implications of returning to the Old Testament for Christian era worship.
Let us honor the Old Testament while maintaining the proper perspective always. As God said of Christ in Matthew 17:5, Hear Him!
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