How is the Old Testament Useful Today?

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The word “graphe” in Greek is used 49 times in the New Testament and literally means “writing.” In the New Testament the kind of writing that is being discussed is inspired writing which in basically every case is the Old Testament and so the word is translated “scripture.” When the New Testament writers refer to the Old Testament this word is used along with its verb counterpart, “grapho”.

Every New Testament writer except for Luke were Jewish and were well versed in the writings of the Old Testament. What Paul said of Timothy was true of many Jewish men in the first century,

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” – 2 Tim 5:14-15

What scriptures would Timothy have known from his infancy given that 2 Timothy was written in the early 60s? The same thing this word always means when it is used in the New Testament – the Old Testament. These were the only holy, inspired, sacred writings in existence when Timothy was an infant. These were the scriptures Paul studied scrupulously and taught from in the synagogues to teach Jesus as the Messiah. Timothy was brought up knowing the Old Testament as scripture. This was part of his coming to faith in Jesus.

We can obviously point out that even Jesus says that he came to fulfill those scriptures so in one sense our relationship with the Old Testament has changed since before Jesus was raised from the death. So the Old Testament is not fully binding to us as it was to them.

One of the shortcomings of Christianity of the last few hundred years has been if it doesn’t have something to do with salvation then we aren’t interested so the moment you say the Law doesn’t have anything to do with salvation then people feel like it isn’t worth their time. Paul would disagree. The limited value of the Old Testament as it pertains to our salvation doesn’t negate the value of the OT scriptures and our need to be familiar with them. That doesn’t negate their usefulness as demonstrated by the very next thing Paul writes in the very next verse in what is the most familiar verse in all of 2 Timothy,

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Tim 3:16-17

Even thought Jesus is resurrected…even though Jesus has fulfilled the “graphe” (Matt 21:42, 26:54; Luke 4:21)…the Old Testament is still said to be useful for everything Paul lists here. I have already brought this up in a previous post but it is worth repeating. Not everything that is important has to be essential to salvation for us to pay attention to it. It is like saying the only thing important in marriage is getting married and avoiding divorce but don’t worry about everything in the middle. You might stay married but you can still be miserable. The Old Testament has value even if it has little to say about salvation…although I think one could contend it has much to say about salvation if read properly.

Here is my contention. We must affirm the Old Testament is beneficial for everything the New Testament writers themselves say it is beneficial for. If we don’t affirm that then we aren’t following their example and we aren’t even obeying the teachings of the New Testament itself.

So we look to the New Testament to see what the Old Testament was useful for and follow suit. This comes with one disclaimer. The New Testament writers worked through the Old Testament with the benefit of inspiration that we are not privy to. This allows them to make some direct connections that we might not make ourselves. So we do this with care and don’t presume to do this with the same authority or inspiration the New Testament writers had in doing this.

What can we learn from the New Testament writers in regard to the benefit of the Old Testament for Christians today?

First, we learn our story and that story is a continuous story with the story of Israel. The gospels start with purposeful ties and connections back into the Old Testament. This is a necessary connection and one that we take for granted. Fortunately they have done this work for us in the most important places, connected events, prophesies and teachings of the Old Testament to the events that occurred in the life and ministry of Jesus. They are demonstrating that “this is that.” That what is happening in Jesus directly corresponds to what the Old Testament was pointing to. Again, we take this for granted but we shouldn’t. If you want to understand Jesus as the Messiah then you need to know what the Old Testament itself said about the Messiah in order to get why Jesus said and did what he said and did.

Part of our difficult relationship with the Old Testament came for several hundred years of seeing discontinuity between the Testaments. Once you see the Old Testament through the influence of Luther and understand Judaism to be a works righteousness based system you lose your need to see the Old Testament of anything of benefit to us today. It takes work and study but the more you come to know the Old Testament on its own terms the more you will find it has continuity and similarity with the New Testament. There is a great beauty in finding the threads that are so precisely and delicately woven in the rich fabric of the two Testaments. Learn to appreciate them by studying the entire Bible.

Second, the Old Testament is faith building. Once you start to see the continuity in the story and how it all weaves together into a coherent whole with the advent of Jesus making sense of so much that was mysterious about the Old Testament our faith grows stronger. This means the Old Testament isn’t just good for telling kids’ stories and for a decent VBS theme. The Old Testament is efficacious for faith building. It teaches us about God. It teaches us about faith and faithfulness and righteousness. It teaches us about the nature of humanity and about sin and salvation.

Third, we learn that the covenants truly mattered. When God made a promise, he kept it. The covenants in the Old Testament reach their fulfillment in Christ. The covenant with Abraham to bless the nations through Abraham’s offspring is made complete in Christ as is God’s covenant with Moses (Torah) and with David (eternal kingship in David’s lineage). If you want to understand the significance of Jesus you need to go back and see what God had promised.That leads us to the next one.

Fourth, you cannot understand what fulfillment is all about until you understand what was promised and predicted. In other words, the law and the prophets are summed up in Christ. However, you cannot fully appreciate even the teachings of Jesus without understanding the Old Testament. Take the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus constantly refers back to what was said under Moses and how he is recasting what God said to Moses in a new light for a new day. Fulfillment is unintelligible unless you know what was being fulfilled. This requires some understanding of the Old Testament.

This is true in Acts and the Epistles of the church as well. If you want to understand the church, as the people of God in the New Testament, then you need to understand Israel as the people of God in the Old Testament. Even understanding the second coming and the depiction of these things in Revelation hinges on a knowledge of the Old Testament.

Let’s stop reading the last chapter of the novel first and never get around to reading the rest of the story. We are robbing ourselves of getting to know Jesus on a truly deeper level. We are missing out on the richness and continuity of our story. In the process our identity has become shallow and we have replaced faith formation with moralizing. It is no wonder Christianity is struggling. When we neglect the Old Testament we dig the foundation right out from under our feet and no longer appreciate the power of being of a faith heritage that is a historical faith. I think part of why this has happened is because we now live in a world or at least a Western culture that doesn’t appreciate context, especially historical context. When you boil all that is important down to the individual you will fail to appreciate the importance of your heritage and lineage and undermine your own identity.

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