The Old Testament is the Word of God. Jesus quoted it with all the authority of God (Matthew 22:32). It is not possible to authentically follow Jesus and reject the Old Testament.
While the whole Old Testament has the one divine author it is not a simple uniform book. It has many human authors. It is made up of 39 different books. More importantly it contains many different styles of literature such as poetry, proverbs, narrative, prophecy and law.
Furthermore, God inspired these different books in quite different circumstances over more than a thousand-year period. They cover Israel from the time of the Patriarchs through the Exodus out of Egypt into the conquest and life in the Promised Land to the Babylonian Exile and the period after that Exile leading up to the New Testament. It is not just a very long time frame, it is also a series of different stages in the life of God’s people. During those different stages God’s word has a developing message for his people – and for us.
The Old Testament events happened, and they were recorded for Christians. The New Testament says of the Exodus “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” But how do Christians understand the Old Testament?
Article 7 of Anglicans’ Thirty-nine Articles says
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.
This Article points to four important issues about the Old Testament today.
- Firstly, there is one message of the whole Bible – namely everlasting life offered to humanity in the only mediator between God and us namely Christ Jesus our Lord. This message is given in both Old and New Testaments without any conflict (2 Timothy 3:15).
- Secondly, those who try to limit the Old Testament’s message to the history of Israel with no relevance to the eternal message of the gospel are in error. Abraham was not looking for the promised land of Palestine but the heavenly country (Hebrews 11:16).
- Thirdly, within the Old Testament some laws were specifically written for the time and place in which they were given. These laws were a preparation for the coming of the Christ. They are fulfilled in Christ not ignored by him. He obeyed them when alive but completed their intention so as to make them obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). They are not irrelevant to Christianity; they are fundamental to our Christian understanding. But in Christ they have become obsolete – as they were designed to.
Two such areas of law are the ritual and national law. The ritual and ceremonial law especially concerning the temple priesthood and sacrificial system Jesus fulfilled by his death and resurrection. The national laws of Israel are fulfilled in the kingdom of God that Jesus established. This Kingdom is not of this world and so is not limited in space and time – to a particular people or any particular place. For the Kingdom of David’s Son Jesus is not Israel in Palestine but in heaven amongst all the nations of the world.
So we are not to enact the Laws of the Nation of Israel into today’s nations. Even though there are some very important principles of the laws given to the Nation of Israel that will be relevant to any state. Similarly, we are not to return to the ceremonies and rituals of Israel that Jesus fulfilled as if we could be forgiven through the blood of bulls or goats or as if Jesus’ death was inadequate for our forgiveness.
- Fourthly, there are some laws that, by their very nature are “moral”. These moral laws have a permanent direct relevance to Christian obligation. These are not affected by time or place for they are always true. We should not steal. We should not murder. We should not commit adultery. We should not bear false witness.
The Article is not saying that the Bible divides laws up into moral, national and ceremonial. It is pointing to the obvious reality that the laws differ in these ways. Just as Jesus pointed to the obvious when he accused the scribes and Pharisees of neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness”.