Ironing Out Our Conflicting Message on the Usefulness of the Old Testament

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I cannot tell you how many times I have heard in my life that the Old Testament is irrelevant to us because it was nailed to the cross and is therefore no longer useful to Christians today. People have based this view on a number of things. First there is Colossians 2:14 that says something actually was nailed to the cross and it was the “written code.” Without studying what that might actually refer to people assumed that when Paul wrote “written code” that he meant the Old Testament.

What I think is also behind the need to see the OT as nailed to the cross is that if you open yourself up to what is in the OT then things like instrumental music get put on the table and you have to figure out what to do with that. When the denominational world uses things like the Psalms to justify instrumental music in debate it is much easier to find a verse that just knocks out the whole OT than to do the heavy lifting of what you actually do with the psalms and why things are different in the New Testament. Obviously not everything in the OT would still apply even if we nailed to the cross the idea that the OT was nailed to the cross (sacrifices as one example) but the shortcut is to just ditch the whole thing, win the debate, and move on. I am convinced that some of the stranger views that Churches of Christ have traditionally held over the years (like the Old Testament being nailed to the cross) developed out of debate winning more than good exegesis that then got repeated enough times to solidify into tradition.

How is our message conflicting? The problem is in our practice we haven’t ditched the whole thing and moved on. In fact while saying in one breath that the OT was nailed to the cross we say in the next breath that it is needed to prove various doctrinal points. So we go to places like Genesis 6:14 and God’s instruction to use “gopher wood” or Nadab and Abihu for rules on specificity of worship while also saying the OT is irrelevant. Oddly enough both of these examples are used to instruct worship practice while at the same time saying other verses in the OT shouldn’t do that very thing!

That is highly confusing! The inconsistency is not lost on everyone.

What makes that even more problematic is that Paul himself stated the OT was useful for many things in 2 Tim 3:16. Mose of the time that verse is used people are referencing the whole of scripture or, in the case of Churches of Christ and our traditional view on the Old Testament, the New Testament itself. The odd thing is that when Paul wrote those words the NT didn’t exist in its present form and Paul is even writing those words as scripture in the very moment they are being written. What is Paul referring to when he writes “all scripture” here? He is referring to the scriptures, literally the writings, as he knew them and quoted them constantly in his letters – the Old Testament, which based on our traditional view, would put Paul at odds with himself. On one hand he appears to say it is nailed to the cross in Colossians and then on the other hand says that it is useful for so many things that the OT is indispensable in the life of the Christian!

Either Paul is conflicted or we are. I am going to say its us, not you…Paul.

What is more, the Gospels constantly rely heavily on the Old Testament as scripture to make their case for Jesus. You can say that was pre-resurrection and so they were under the Law but that misses the point. The Gospels were not written down during the ministry of Jesus. They were written down later, in the 60s and beyond, even after Paul’s writings. The Gospel writers made their points about Jesus from the very book that we say is irrelevant to Christians. The Gospel writers knew that the OT itself was the most relevant document in existence when it came to understanding exactly who Jesus was and is. The same could be said for Paul. The same could be said for Revelation, written by the apostle John, whose story cannot be told without the Old Testament as it is referenced or alluded to hundreds of times in that single book.

There has already been enough said on what it was that was nailed to the cross. The thumbnail sketch is this. Paul never refers to the Law as the “written code.” Paul has numerous descriptors of the Law of Moses and the Old Testament and it is never this word. If you read Colossians 2:14 in context without the preconceived idea that it is the Old Testament it reads differently. What is being nailed to the cross is our list of indebtedness, a legal list of debts, that is being brought against us by the powers of darkness. Jesus cancels out our debt by his death on the cross. It is paid in full.

How do we develop a consistent view of the Old Testament? We allow it to be useful in exactly the same ways we find the New Testament writers find it useful. We find Jesus in those pages. We come to know God in those pages. Not every doctrine and teaching of the Old Testament in still relevant and we know that exactly from the New Testament itself as they did the same wrestling we need to do and we need their precedent in how they reached their conclusions as found in Acts to help guide our thought process today. Read Acts 15 with this in mind. Read Galatians with this in mind and consider how they came to the conclusions they came to by their wrestling through how the OT was to be used in light of the resurrection of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of the Law and yet, some of the Law still mattered to them. It is easy to read right over what we aren’t familiar with but the things bound on the Gentile believers in Acts 15 are directly out of the Law of Moses. They did enforce those regulations without enforcing others. There are theological and religious reasons for that we can get into another time. Before we can dive into that we first have to see the Old Testament was seen as useful and even some things still binding in the early church and that in recognizing that and doing decent interpretive work on what Paul meant and was consistent in saying about the scriptures.


The Old Testament Roots of Our Faith – Achtemeier

Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament – Beale

The Authority of the Old Testament – Bright

Judaism in the New Testament – Chilton and Neusner

Jewish Background of the New Testament – Scott

In the Shadow of the Temple – Skarsaune

Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith – Wilson

Jesus the Jewish Theologian – Young

Jesus and the Judaism of His Time – Zeitlin

Thanks to Bobby Valentine for sharing his thoughts on this subject over the years and for pointing me to a few of these resources a couple of years back.


15 Responses

  1. You are gracious to mention my name here Matt. I am humbled. First a story. I was doing a seminar for a congregation back east a few years ago. I was highlighting the victory of the cross and Colossians 2.14 was one text I used to explicate the Christus Victor motif. Never mentioned instrumental music, etc (wasn’t even on my radar). In a Q&A the first question was “what you said about Col 2.14 cannot be true because if it is we have no means to oppose IM.” He was not interested in what Paul said or (sadly) the marvelous message of 2.14 and its context for Jesus defeating the powers. It has to be the “Old Testament” so we can oppose instrumental music. I was thunderstruck!

    Second, over the years it has impressed me that the last thing the resurrected Jesus did in those 40 days with his disciples was give them a crash course in “Old Testament” theology (Lk 24.27, 44-47).

    Third we are often afraid to deal with the “Old Testament” because our understanding of it is so incredibly flawed. Progressives take the legalism of their youth (be it the 50s or the 80s) and literally project that onto the word “law” and “Jewish.” But as a rabbi friend of mine once said to our congregation in Milwaukee, “Saul of Tarsus did not have to be convinced that Ha-shem is gracious and merciful beyond all measure.” Over the years I have said pretty much the same thing this way, “God did not become a Christian when Jesus came.”

    I fault ministers as much as anyone for these unbelievable caricatures of 76% of God’s word. There are difficult passages no doubt but there are in the “New Testament” as well.

    Finally, I would like to add a couple resources to your list:

    Ronald M. Hals, Grace and Faith in the Old Testament should be required reading of anyone wanting to understand God’s word.

    Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is both easy to read and wonderful.

    John Goldingay, Do We Need the New Testament: Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself.

    I appreciate your voice Matt. May we be better Bible students as we praise the Father of Jesus who is the God of the Old Testament.

    1. Well there we have it! That is exactly that line of thinking that keeps us from reading what is actually there.

      Luke 24 covers all three areas of the Hebrew Bible. I am sure you have pointed that out elsewhere. Jesus covered himself in the OT from cover to cover. It occurred to me some time back that is why Matthew and the other Gospel writers connect the texts they connect. They often get a bad rap for ignoring the original contexts of the passages they connect with Jesus. I believe they are passing on what Jesus directly told them in these instances after the resurrection. Jesus continued to disciple his disciples after he rose from the dead. How cool is that?

    2. I would say the same about Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. I believe he is repeating the connections Jesus taught him in those post-resurrection lessons.

  2. I hope you don’t mind me adding my own work here! I wrote a poem years ago based on this passage:

    Colossians 2:9-15

    Spawn of the demon world,
    those who walk the night–
    powers which feed on fear
    lie crushed beneath his feet;
    Image of the Invisible.
    I have walked that night, have known
    its fear. Chained by decrees:
    “Do not taste!
    Do not touch!
    Do not handle!”
    But the specter can rule no more.
    Debt is nailed to wood.
    Chains are broken by mangled hands.

  3. I tried to post this but something strange happened. Hope it doesn’t post twice! Here is another reference worth reading: Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels by Richard B. Hays. I just finished reading it. An excellent treatment of the Gospel’s use of the Old Testament Christologically (despite the modern historical-criticism’s approach). Here is a teaser quote:

    “For the Evangelists [Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John], Israel’s Scripture told the true story of the world. Scripture was not merely a repository of ancient writings containing important laws or ideas or propositions; rather, it traced out a coherent story line that stretched from creation, through the election of Israel, to the telos of God’s redemption of the world. This story emerges with particular force in Luke’s account, but Mark and Matthew share a similar vision. Even John presupposes this narrative framework, as shown by his references to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, and Israel’s Passover and wilderness traditions. One significant implication of learning to live in this story-shaped world is that a Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay primary attention to large narrative arcs and patterns in the Old Testament, rather than treating Scripture chiefly as a source of oracles, prooftexts, or halakhic regulations. The Evangelists, who are themselves storytellers, are much more interested in the Old Testament as story than as prediction or as law.”

  4. Matt, you said. “How do we develop a consistent view of the Old Testament? We allow it to be useful in exactly the same ways we find the New Testament writers find it useful. We find Jesus in those pages”.

    Excellent point! Please let me add, “We look for and find love in those pages”. There is something about looking for the love of God in the OT that allows us to use its passages as an olive branch rather than a club.

  5. First, the cofC long had a problem with taking verses out of context to make a point. The more verses read, the more likely it was that the context would be presented, which might have weakened a cofC argument based on only one verse. Next, so little of the Gospels are read in the cofC that the OT got put in the same boat of just being ignored. I have sat through 6 straight months of cofC “lessons” and never heard any Gospel. Why is this ok? All that mattered were the writings of Paul. I read online from various cofC congregations about how we aren’t to celebrate the birth of Christ because as this blog, put it, “People love the ‘Babe-in-the-Manger’ because He condemns no one, judges no one and teaches us only that God loved us enough to send His Only-Begotten Son.” Why can God’s love for man and his sending of a Messiah and example not be the focus of one or two Sundays? Is that alone going to harm people or do ministers think that 7 days is the longest people can go without forgetting the laws of Paul?

    1. I’m sorry this has been your experience in churches of Christ. Not all have been or are this way. But it is something I have heard often and to some degree have experienced pushback when I preached.

      I preached in one church for 12 years. During that time I preached through all four gospels (all told about four years worth of studies, spread out), special series on the Sermon on the Mount, during Christmas and Easter I most often focused on the birth and resurrection, and then one year for one month during Easter season I simply “told” in storytelling fashion the gospel of Mark (memorized and divided into four presentations). I remember once toward the end of my tenure being criticized for “not preaching the gospel.”

      Ah, well.

      I also preached through Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, the minor prophets, and Ecclesiastes, just to name a few books of the OT sermons. It was my practice to divide my plan of preaching into four sections for each year: 13 weeks on Old Testament (interspersed throughout the year…not all at once), 13 weeks of a gospel, 13 weeks epistle/NT, and 13 weeks topical. I believed that preaching through the Bible was the best way to give a balanced diet. As you can imagine there was some criticism for preaching too much OT.

      I think for the most part we are doing much better on this. Honestly, I think there are many churches of Christ who are truly trying to be better along these lines and I take heart in that.

    2. I agree with this assessment. As a whole I think we are moving in a better direction on this. Posts like these aren’t intended to be so critical as they are to offer a better way forward and help inform those who are trying to find or take that path.

    3. Indeed. And point taken. What gave me the most heart was that after merely “telling” the gospel of Mark (the four week series) where I offered almost no commentary–just straight oral storytelling–I received the most compliments I had ever received in preaching (and I heard no complaints or rumors of complaints). People merely said things like, “I never heard it that way before!” or “The gospel really came alive for me,” etc.

      Two observations: 1) people normally think in story form (“homo narrans” to steal the term from Walter Fisher) so they are likely to find deep connection with story forms, and 2) it gives credibility to the old Scottish quip: “When preaching quote a lot of scripture–that way if you completely fail, the people at least can walk away with something!” 8^)

  6. Matt, Just when I think those in the coC are moving in said direction of using the OT as context and reference, I find people that go into debate mode on certain things and then argue that the OT means nothing to the NT saint, because we are not Jews and the Law was done away with.

    What I find interesting is that these same NT saints will easily go back to Genesis for proof on creation against an evolutionist or Genesis when talking about sin in regards to Adam and Eve. They don’t relate that Genesis was part of the Torah or five books of Law for the Jews…there is a severe disconnect and an attempt to disfranchise scriptures.
    Also if were to actually follow Eph. and Col. and “admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, then we would be forced to pull from…well psalms like they did. Instead we loosely use the term psalm, but don’t really apply it as it was meant to be.

    I know many that look at the bible and say, “what do I need to be saved?” and the answer would be “Jesus”, so they say, “Well that is found in the NT”, so the OT is immaterial. It should be pointed out though that if we are going in that direction, that all we really need is Acts 2 for salvation and then we can throw out all of the gospels. After all we have I Cor.11 that retells the Lord’s Supper and the sins are listed in the letters. So out go the four gospels. I’m not entirely sure that some would disagree with that, but I would be saddened beyond belief.

    Part of the problem is looking to the scriptures for salvation. God’s motivation for sending his son to save us wasn’t salvation, but love. He sent his son down so that we could approach Him. The whole of the scriptures then is about the love of God towards man and that God wants that love back and God wants man back with Him. And there is no stronger case for that than the OT. And the OT points to the one who could achieve that Jesus.

  7. As I have learned from hearing priests preach, Jesus merely went back to teaching an earlier form of Judaism that had been replaced by rabbinic rules. Jesus taught very hard lessons through simple parables. Most of his teachings though were right from the Law and the Prophets, as Jesus held them both in high regard. The focus on getting the “church” right and wining debates against the Baptists with proof-texts left no time for the cofC to teach Jesus.

  8. Mark, that is true. If you look at Jesus comments on divorce, he pulls from Deut., the Law. In fact Matt.5 is Jesus correcting the Jews on the their interpretation of the Law towards the meanings.

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