If the new covenant brought in by Jesus replaced the old covenant made at Sinai, why do we need to read the Old Testament at all? Hebrews 8:13 tells us,
“By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”
Many Christians think that since Yeshua came and fulfilled all the Law in himself, there is no need any longer for the cumbersome and problematic Old Testament. I mean – all that stuff about not eating shellfish, or mixing fibres in your clothes and stoning people – we’ve got over all that now, right? In today’s society, so much of what’s written in the Old Testament seems so brutal and irrelevant – what are we supposed to make of it? Wouldn’t it be better if this outdated part of the Bible would just disappear?
Don’t give up on the Hebrew Scriptures just yet!
Although this may be a view held by many believers today, it would be a terrible mistake to ignore the Old Testament, better called the Hebrew Scriptures, since they are neither passé nor redundant. Here’s why.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)
When Paul wrote that, he was talking about the Hebrew Scriptures. He was not talking about the New Testament, because that hadn’t been put together yet. ALL of it is “breathed out by God”. You really want to throw it away?
Secondly, Jesus said, “the scripture cannot be broken” in John 10:35, and warned us: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”, in Matthew 5:17. If Jesus thinks the Hebrew Scriptures are important, then maybe, you know, they are.
Thirdly, have you read the New Testament? It’s just as problematic as the Old Testament!
Here’s something Barack Obama said in his keynote speech at the Call to Renewal conference in June 2006:
“Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus which suggests that slavery is OK, and that eating shellfish is an abomination? Or we could go with Deuteronomy which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount, a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own defense department would survive its application! So before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles now. Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles!”
Although he is mocking God’s word here, Obama has a point when he says “folks haven’t been reading their Bibles”, because if they did, they would find plenty of eye-watering wrath, bewilderment and awkward political incorrectness in the New Testament, and just as much outrageous grace, mercy and radical love in the Old as there is in the New. Unlike Obama, however, I believe that the Old and the New are both powerfully relevant today. There may be parts that are harder to understand than others, but when we dig deeper into those matters that trouble us, we often find that there are incredible riches of God’s character and truth to be found below the surface.
The two Hebrew words bang in the centre of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) are, by remarkable coincidence, “derosh darash”, which means “seek or dig diligently”.
Have you ever considered why God put such challenging books as Leviticus and Deuteronomy at the beginning of his word? The Koran starts with easy, short chapters and becomes increasingly lengthy, challenging and complex, but the Bible seems to be largely the other way around. Why? Perhaps it’s a challenge to the reader – a test. There are those who will take a quick look, scrunch up their noses and turn away, but others will give it more of a chance, showing hope and trust that there is meaning and goodness in these bewildering books even if it is not immediately visible. This is what God is looking for. We see this in the way God presents himself generally – he could easily bedazzle us with his brilliance and glory, making it undeniable and inescapable that he is indeed Lord. But he doesn’t. Why? He respects our free will and choice. He loves us and wants us to love him too, voluntarily, not out of compulsion, but out of our own desire. God wants us to seek him and his words diligently, trusting all the while that he is just, wise and loving… that there are good answers to the things we don’t understand, even if it takes time to find them.
He wants us to consider that he is WORTH IT – worth the pursuit, worth the struggle and worth fighting for. Like the sun that is the perfect distance away from the earth so that we don’t freeze or burn, God cloaks himself in just enough mystery that we are neither compelled to believe him, nor is it impossible to find him. And boy, what a pearl of great price is waiting to be found by those who are willing to seek.
Understand the Covenants – there are not two but five
Essential in navigating the Bible is to understand the covenants in it. There are not only two covenants, but five (or even more, depending on how you count them). There was the conditional covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai which the death and resurrection of Yeshua completed, but what about the others?
God made covenants that affect us all with Noah, with Abraham and with David, as well as the one given through Moses and the New Covenant in Yeshua. With each covenant we need to ask:
– Who are the promises for?
– Is the covenant permanent or temporary?
– Is it given with certain conditions, or freely and unconditionally?
This helps us to understand why the New Covenant that Jesus introduced does not cancel the whole Old Testament, but only relates to the temporary covenant with Moses, which was very much conditional. Moses himself prophesied that it was just a matter of time before it would all be shot to dust. The people of Israel failed spectacularly, were exiled and punished, and the Mosaic law with its system of sacrifices was replaced by the ultimate, permanent sacrifice of the Messiah, once and for all. A “new and better way” to God was carved out for us in the Messiah’s blood. The instructions to live in a God-honouring way were replaced by an even higher standard, with the law written in our hearts and the Holy Spirit given to help us live in the radical way of the Messiah.
However, God’s promise to Noah never to flood the earth again still stands, his promises made in his covenant to Abraham were never annulled, and neither was his covenant relating to David’s throne. Not only that, but the words of the Mosaic Law also remain valuable to us in helping us appreciate God’s nature, his heart, and he has also woven many amazing clues about what was to come throughout the entire Torah. We have written a book on the subject called Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus. The more you study, the more you find! It’s a bottomless well of fascination.
God has not reneged on his promises and gifts to Israel (since as Paul says in Romans 11, they are irrevocable) and Yeshua will come and reign on the throne of David. Where is that? Jerusalem! Just as it has been amazing to watch God fulfilling his promises to regather Israel from the nations and reestablish them in the land, so we can look forward to all the other promises that God has made to the nation of Israel coming to pass – they are our bona fide guarantee that God keeps his promises.
“The Law is good, if you use it properly” 1 Tim 1:8
It is a lifetime’s journey to learn how to understand the Bible and use it properly, but here are a couple of thoughts.
Understand the context
There are arguments about whether or not to take the Bible literally, but it’s better to try and take it literarily – that is, understand what kind of literature it is, and what God is saying through it. Each word is there on purpose, but what is God’s purpose? When Jesus tells parables, he does not need us to believe that there really was a prodigal son, but he wants us to understand the heart of the father in the story he made up to explain his point. In the same way, the Bible is full of all different kinds of stories, poetry, letters, parables, songs, and the book of Job is written as a play. Of course, there is also an enormous amount of history in there that really happened. We need to see first and foremost, who these words are written to, in what context, and what kind of literature it is. When we do this, we have to face an uncomfortable fact: most of the Bible was written to and about the people of Israel. Today we have the privilege of looking over their shoulder and seeing what God said to them, and learn about what God is like through reading it, but we must accept the context of the words we are reading.
Understanding Israel is key
The Bible is not just a collection of good ideas for living and inspirational thoughts – it is real history and geography, past, present and future. Our Messiah was real. His crazy Jewish family was real. He really lived, he really died, he really rose again, and he is coming back again to a real place in real time! If we are to cut out Israel and the Jewish people from the Bible, we would have very little left – God has chosen to hang his story of redemption for all peoples on the story of his chosen people, Israel. Developing an appreciation of God’s great story and how very real it is helps us to understand better how to apply his word in our days and how to read prophetic scriptures.
It is not primarily a story about us, but it is God’s story, which we are invited into. And we haven’t got to the end yet!
The Bible is a supernatural book containing prophecy and wisdom far greater than anything natural man could concoct – prophecies about the Messiah, Israel and the Middle East, and about world events.
We have the advantage of looking back and comparing the prophecies and Yeshua’s life and seeing that the Bible is stunningly accurate in its predictions, and now also the privilege of seeing God’s word coming to pass for Israel, but there is much more to come.
The Bible is as relevant today as it ever was – this is the time not to neglect the Scriptures, but to really get to grips with them, so that we can understand the author better, know where he says we are going, and be able to stand strong till the end in his word.