It is important in this conversation that we stick with scripture itself for our guide. In Churches of Christ that is one of our mantras – that we stick by scripture even over tradition. But in the case of how we read and use the Old Testament we skip right past what the New Testament itself has to say about this very issue and often times do the exact opposite.
That being said, all reading of scripture requires interpretation. Even the simple verse, John 3:16, requires interpretation to be understood. What does it mean that God “gave” Jesus? Is this the incarnation, the crucifixion, or the resurrection (as first fruits from the grave) or a combination of those options. Some texts are more obvious than others but all reading requires interpretation.
So let’s start with a text – 2 Timothy 3:16. In my experience it is one of the most quoted verses in Churches of Christ because it states a truism that is important to our movement and should be important to all Christians – that the Word of God matters and that it is the authoritative source for much of what it means to truly be Christian. We are so familiar with this principle that when we hear 2 Tim 3:16 we automatically connect that verse with our practice. But what does that verse really say? That takes interpretation.
Here is the verse with a bit of context for good measure,
“14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.,”
Timothy has known the Holy Scriptures since his youth. The scriptures that existed in the days of Timothy’s youth was the Old Testament. When Paul wrote 2 Timothy what he considered to be scripture was the Old Testament. You can see that in his own letters where he constantly sites the OT as authoritative and instructive for the very reason that it is the Word of God. Now, post-resurrection of Jesus and post-Damascus road, Paul had to work diligently to come to a fuller understanding of those scriptures in his “Bible”. Paul constantly uses the Old Testament in the manner in which he describes in 2 Tim 3:16. The New Testament didn’t exist in its completed form when Paul wrote 2 Tim 3:16. The Gospels were still oral tradition at that point as well.
What did Paul mean when he wrote 2 Tim 3:16? Paul is not referring to the Bible as we know it. It didn’t exist yet. He meant the Old Testament. That doesn’t mean Paul would disagree with seeing the New Testament as scripture. Not in the least. We first have to figure out what Paul meant when he wrote what he wrote without assuming he means the same thing we would mean if these words were written today, to us. If Paul wrote this today, to us he would undoubtedly include the rest of the New Testament. But that isn’t what he had in mind at the time.
To Paul the Old Testament is indispensable to preaching Jesus. Peter would agree. Look at Acts 2 and look at all the scriptures Peter uses to make his case that Jesus is the Messiah. Matthew would agree as would John, etc…etc. Acts 17:2-3 says this,
“As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said.“
This was Paul’s custom. This was how he worked. He went to the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews from the Old Testament because it was their common ground and it contained within its pages something one today might not expect…it contained the Gospel! Paul both explained and proved “the Messiah/Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead” from the Old Testament itself! Paul didn’t see those words as being nailed to the cross. Rather he saw them as essential to his gospel proclamation.
As good Bible students who respect the authority of the word of God and claim to follow it closely, one must do exactly what Paul does here and agree with him in theory and in practice. So the first thing we must understand about the Old Testament is that it is useful for everything Paul says it is useful for: that it is “God-breathed”, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness and for thoroughly equipping Christians for every good work. The OT can and should be used for everything Paul says it can and should be used for. That doesn’t mean the New Testament is excluded. That hasn’t been our problem.
If we took Paul seriously here I believe our preaching and teaching would change. We would begin to notice the commonality between the testaments. We would begin appreciating context and stop the common practice of prooftexting and shotgunning dozens of texts to make points that aren’t really there. We would come to a more full understanding of the Gospel because the Gospel is not fully understood apart from the Old Testament. This would vastly improve our theology and in the end make us MORE biblical, not less. It would make the Gospel fuller and more robust, not less. It would help us come to more fully appreciate God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I believe it would lead to stronger Christians, stronger faith…stronger churches.
In the next post we will look at Acts 15 to see how they used the Old Testament in a way that pleased God.
For more thoughts on this see Bobby’s post on 2 Timothy 3:16 here. Just for context, I read his post after posting this but I have heard Bobby share a lot of thoughts on this verse over the last few years, mostly on Facebook, that have undoubtedly influenced my thinking here.