Friday, January 27, 2012
How Should Christians Read the Old Testament?
One of the biggest questions that most Christians have when it comes to reading the Bible is in regards to how and what to apply to our lives today particularly when it comes to the Old Testament. It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to realize that many of the rules from the Old Testament seem difficult or impossible to follow or just downright strange in a modern context. So for many people the solution is to simply pick and choose which rules to follow based on what seems right or practical.
Usually Christians agree that following the Ten Commandments is a good idea and yet I don’t know of any Christians that really follow all ten. For the majority of Christians it is nine commandments because no one really follows Sabbath keeping the way that God had intended for the Israelites to follow Sabbath observance in the Old Testament (meaning refraining from all work at sundown on Friday and all day Saturday until sundown). The way that most Christians get around this one is to make Sunday the new Sabbath though a refrain from activities really isn’t practiced by most. And this reveals one of the most common approaches to how to apply the Old Testament – it’s simply a matter of finding functional equivalents to translate the ideas from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. This way of translating Old Testament into New Testament reaches into much of the way that people have come to understand church: the pastor becomes the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament priest, the church building becomes the New Testament equivalent of the temple, and tithes which funded the Old Testament priesthood and Temple (along with other initiatives to provide for the welfare of the poor and the stranger) easily gets applied to running it all.
Then there is another approach to the scriptures which often goes hand in hand with what I have listed above which is to apply the blessings and curses listed in the Old Testament to a New Testament context. This is demonstrated in preaching that urges people to give or pray or fast so that they will be blessed and not cursed. It is my opinion that these approaches to the Bible are built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Covenants. In this post I want to offer what I see as a better way to navigate through these issues that both affirms the authority of scripture as well as one that will lead to flourishing and growth as people of the New Covenant.
So the first question I want to deal with is what was the Old Covenant? What were the terms of the Covenant? And what from that covenant is applicable in the New Covenant?
The Covenant God made with Israel was part of his rescue plan for humanity. The world had been caught in a downward spiral of sin since the fall (Genesis 3) but God was determined to have the world and his people liberated from the clutches of sin and rebellion. God’s rescue plan started with his promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 when God promised to Abraham that he would bless him so that all the nations of the world would be blessed through what God was doing in that relationship. It was Abraham’s descendants that became the people of Israel. They formed their identity under 430 years of slavery in Egypt until God was ready to move forward with the next phase – the Exodus. God raised up Moses as a deliver or his people who, through miracles, signs and wonders (the climax being the Passover) broke the Israelites out of slavery and set them on the path to the promise land. It was in the wilderness of the Exodus that God then made the Mosaic Covenant that would truly set Israel apart from all the nations of the world. This special relationship wasn’t just for the sake of being special but had at its core the continuing of God’s rescue plan begun with Abraham to bless the whole world. At one point God even tells them that they are to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation. In other words, their relationship with God was to show the other nations what God was like and to lead them to God.
This special relationship was codified as a Covenant which included the Ten Commandments as well as 600+ other laws that would govern everything from their diet to worship to the ways they cared for the poor. The Covenant was modeled after Suzerain Vassal Covenants of that day in which a weaker people would seek the protection of a lord or king in exchange for serving him. Though the set of laws governing the covenant was rather complex the underlying idea was pretty simple: if they obeyed the rules they would be blessed, if they disobeyed the rules they would be cursed. For the most part the blessing and curses had to do with land and prosperity. Blessings= land and prosperity while the curses= exile, lack and want. This is why most of the prophecies from the Old Testament tend to focus on either being rewarded for being faithful to the Covenant which meant prospering in the land God gave them or the judgment for not being faithful to the Covenant which would result in exile, want and lack (a failure of the crops to produce, or plagues of locusts etc.).
This simple understanding of the Old Covenant is immensely helpful in how to approach the Old Testament. To illustrate this I want to look at 3 passages from the Old Testament that seem very popular in modern Christianity.
The first is Jeremiah 29:11
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
I have seen this scripture on cards and bookmarks, as well as worship songs inspired by these words and the message is pretty clear – God has good plans for us. Yet if we read the verses in context we find that this scripture is about the Old Covenant.
10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity.[b] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
With an understanding of the Old Covenant we can see that this fits in the framework of the Old Covenant blessings and curses. As a father myself there are times when I have to punish my children. When I ground my son I tell him that I am punishing him because I love him and that when the punishment comes to an end he will have a fresh start with the hope that he learns to live life a better way. This is kind of what God is getting at in these verses. The Israelites had not obeyed the terms of the Covenant and were beginning an exile in Babylon. God tells them that this exile will be 70 years but closes by saying that he has good plans for them that they would prosper and that they would return to the land (blessings). When read in context we can see that the encouragement of 29:11 was directly related to the Old Covenant. I might add that reading this in context makes me a little reluctant to choose this as my life verse!
Another scripture that I have heard used quite a bit in my journey is 2 Chronicles 7:14
“…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Again, if we take this verse on its own we miss the Covenantal language that frames it. Let’s look at it by including verses 13
13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
God is again speaking in the language of The Covenant. What is being said here is that if they find themselves in a drought, or with a plague of locusts it means they are not remaining faithful to The Covenant. What is then required is repentance and return to covenant faithfulness, which will be followed by God reinstating the blessings (healing the land).
Finally let’s turn to a very popular passage that I have heard cited in many a sermon on tithing – Malachi 3. I will cut to the chase and put this one in context from the beginning:
6 “I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. 7 Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty.
“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’
8 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’
“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the LORD Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the LORD Almighty.—Malachi 3:1-12
Do you see the pattern here? The Israelites were under a curse (God’s judgment) for not being faithful to The Covenant. The prophet is calling them back to covenant faithfulness as demonstrated in returning to God and following the Old Testament Law, which includes bringing the tithe to the storehouse. And as with the other verses we’ve looked at this if they choose to follow the Law they will be blessed (the land will bear fruit and the other nations will see the blessings).
Are any of the verses speaking directly to us as Christ-followers in a New Covenant? No. Theses blessings and curses were tied to following the Old Covenant. I will close by looking at a passage from Galatians written by a guy named Paul who used to follow the Old Covenant Law fervently before becoming a Christian.
10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “Whoever does these things will live by them.”
In his letter to the Church of Galatia Paul is instructing the church on what place the Old Covenant Law has for followers of Christ. His conclusion is that unless you follow all of it you are guilty of all of it. So how much of the Old Covenant’s blessings and curses are for us? None. To try to follow any of the Old Covenant Law that Jesus himself has not explicitly carried over into the New Covenant is to step from freedom back into slavery. This isn’t simply a matter of grace verses works but of understanding that we are part of a whole new covenant based on God’s faithfulness in Jesus.
There are, no doubt, some questions that will be raised by this approach but I will turn to those in a future blog post.
Related Posts: Taking Care of the Temple
How Did the First Christians Read the Bible
The Bible Made Impossible - A Review
Book Review - God Without Religion