I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:
- the phrase ‘Word of God’
- the theme of ‘Mission’
- the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘
- the ministry of ‘Healing’,
- the question of ‘Welcome’,
- the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’,
- the biblical view of creation
- what the Bible means by the term ‘church’.
- what the Bible says about grief and grieving.
This column explores the question ‘What’s so good about the Old Testament?’ as part of a whole edition of the magazine on this issue.
The God we find in the Old Testament is vindictive and cruel. He issues arbitrary edicts; he exterminates people on a whim; he is prejudiced, misogynist and homophobic. As a result, the Old Testament is full of stone age barbarity. Jesus, on the other hand, is loving and inclusive. He is concerned for the marginalised; he restores the broken; and he preaches a gospel of love. Thank goodness we have Jesus to tell us the truth about God, in contrast to the misleading impression of the OT.
This might be a slight exaggeration of a particular view, but in one form or another, this view is quite widespread both within and outside the church today. And it is not new—it was first articulated by Marcion of Sinope (85–160), an important early theologian and evangelist, who wanted to present Jesus as the loving one who rescued us from the wickedness of the god of the Old Testament.
Critical to exploring this issue is the question of interpretation, of how we read texts. This is illustrated by the popular reading of John 1.17; most read it as saying ‘For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ (AV). Yet there is no ‘but’ in the text! John is not contrasting the law with the grace of Jesus, but making them a parallel—we have received ‘grace upon grace’, the gracious gift of the law in Moses, and the gracious gift of the new covenant in Jesus. It is more of the same, not something good in place of something bad.
Here are seven things that are good about the Old Testament, which shows why we need it so much.
1. Its poetry, promises and psalms. You don’t have to be a Christian for long to find sustenance in the remarkable imagery of the Old Testament, particularly the poetic promises of the prophets. Early in my Christian life, I held on to the promise of direction ‘This is the way; walk in it’ (Is 30.21); like others, I longed to have ‘my strength renewed’ (Is 40.31); and I sang about ‘beautiful feet’ that bring good news (Is 52.7).
2. Its central truths about God. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments, he cited two key OT texts—Deut 6.4 (‘You shall love the Lord your God…’) and Lev 19.18 (‘You shall love your neighbour…’). But both of these are attached to central claims about who God is: he is ‘one’, the central confession of both Jewish and Christian belief; and he is the lord to whom we give account. ‘The Lord is gracious and compassionate’ runs like a thread through the law, the prophets and the writings.
3. Its theology of practical living. The New Testament was written to a small, fledgling movement, struggling for a place in a mighty empire. But the OT was written in the context of a nation finding its place in the world. Here we find much practical wisdom on how to conduct life together as the people of God, and it is here we must go to reflect on questions of work and wealth, of land and environment, of justice and peace.
4. Its foundational importance for the NT. When Paul speaks of scripture as ‘God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3.16), and essential for the life of the disciple, he is referring to the OT. When he urges on Timothy the importance of the ‘public reading of scripture’ (1 Tim 4.13), he means the OT. When he passes on, as of ‘first importance’ that ‘Christ died…and was raised according to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15.3–4), these are the OT scriptures.
5. Its anticipations of Jesus’ claims. You cannot go far in reading the gospels before you are stumbling across reference upon reference to the OT—and without realising this you will not understand what the gospels are saying about Jesus. ‘You are my son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1.11) alludes to both Gen 22.2 and Isaiah 42.1; Jesus is the precious son, offered as a sacrifice, the faithful servant who will bring righteousness to many.
6. Its status as canon. Everywhere in the NT the assumption is made that and new and the old are in continuity, and that the OT are the scriptures of the Jewish-Gentile people of God who now follow Jesus as Lord. We have been grafted in to Israel (Rom 11.17) and the two (Jew, Gentile, Eph 2.15) have become one; the scriptures of Israel are our scriptures.
7. Its integrity, reflecting the nature of God. We noted the central confession of scripture, that God is one, and in him ‘there is no variation or shadow of turning’ (James 1.17). There are clearly tensions between the two testaments, and they are not trivial. But if scripture is indeed breathed out by God, then we cannot set them in opposition to one another; we cannot dismiss the one in favour of the other.
This does not answer all the questions suggested at the beginning; indeed, it heightens the challenge to read the whole of Scripture with coherence. There is work to do, especially in reading the ‘difficult’ passages of the OT—but it is work we cannot avoid.
Another good resource in this area is the Bible Project video on the loyal love of God, part of their ‘Character of God’ series.