The Bible is made up of an Old and a New Testament. While that may seem like an obvious ‘Sunday School’ kind of thing to say, it is actually a profound theological statement. The authoritative word of God in its canonical form has come to us in two distinct portions with Jesus Christ standing at the critical divide. One of our tasks as Christians today is to figure out what each portion contributes to our knowledge of God, such that our faith in him is nourished and our love for him grows. We also need to work out what it means for the practice of our faith, such that our love for others is demonstrated in the world. In other words, we need to ask, “How does the fact that we have an Old and a New Testament inform our beliefs and practices as Christians?”
It has been said that the Bible is essentially made up of stories, stipulations, songs, and other people’s mail. It’s not a bad summary, really. One of the things this tells us is that the Bible was not written to us, but for us. That is, we as Christians living in the twenty-first century were not the intended audience of any of the literature in the Bible. However, we are its recipients, it preservers, and those over whom the Bible has an authoritative claim. The diverse material in the Bible was originally written by and for people living in different ages and cultures to our own. This means that it is a mistake to read ourselves directly into the biblical literature. Mind you, this is an easy mistake to make, and we do it often. For example, when the Law stipulates what ‘you’ must or must not do, we might be tempted to treat this as a direction to us, rather than to the ancient nation of Israel in its covenant relationship to God. Similarly, when the Apostle Peter writes that Jesus’ divine power has given ‘us’ everything for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called ‘us’ (2 Peter 1.3), we tend to think he is addressing us and all Christians, rather than describing the situation of the Apostles who knew Jesus during his earthly ministry. To an extent this kind of mistake is understandable, because as Christians we stand under the authority of God’s word and should let it impact us. However, the first thing we must do in letting it impact us is recognise that the words were written to and about others. Accordingly, one of our most important interpretive tasks is to understand to whom the stories, stipulations, songs, and mail were originally given. Only then can we ask what relationship we today have to those original audiences and thereby work out how any given passage of the Bible impacts us.
Another significant factor to bear in mind is that the Bible as a whole tells a unified story about God and his dealings with humanity. Thus, while we have two distinct testaments, they are still integrally related to each other.
Furthermore, stories unfold. They progress through stages, complications, twists and turns, before arriving at a resolution and then finally coming to an end. As Christians we acknowledge that the resolution to God’s dealings with humanity is found in Jesus. He is the climax of the whole storyline of history as we find it in the Bible. However, we have not yet reached the end of history. In other words, we live between the resolution of the story and its ending.
This is also important for understanding how the Old Testament fits into the scheme of things. In the Old Testament, which comes before Jesus, the storyline is still unfolding. Those who lived in the Old Testament era of history did not have the benefit of knowing the resolution to the story in which they were taking part. For them, God and his purposes were to some degree still unknowns, though he was revealing his unchangeable self and will to them bit by bit. Just as when the sun rises in the morning, it does not actually alter its shape, but simply comes into fuller view as it rises, affording us the light to see what would otherwise be dim landscapes, so God in the Old Testament was in the process of revealing himself and gradually giving to humanity the light we need to make sense of the world in which we live.
This is why the Old Testament goes through so many stages of history, and even has apparently dissonant voices in it. For example, Deuteronomy can affirm that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, and yet the Teacher in Ecclesiastes can voice his utter befuddlement at why he sees so many righteous people suffering at the same time that so many wicked people prosper. Even today as we read these theological tensions, we may feel some of the discomfort of those who lived in the Old Testament era when revelation was still unfolding and the resolution to these issues had not yet come. But come it did. In Jesus, we see one who is supremely righteous suffering death at the hands of wicked people, at the same time as we see God passing judgement on humanity’s wickedness and raising Jesus to life for our justification. At the cross and empty tomb of Christ, we finally understand God and his purposes. Neither Deuteronomy nor Ecclesiastes were the end of the story. To pick up the sentiment of the writer to the Hebrews, God had spoken in the past at various times and in various ways, but he finally spoke through his Son, who is the radiance of his glory and the exact expression of his being (Heb 1.1–3).
Furthermore, in the Old Testament, God had not finished his dealings with humanity. Although he gave glimpses of where he was taking history, at no point in the Old Testament do we actually get to history’s destination. So while the Old Testament gives us a true picture of God and his purposes, it is still an incomplete picture. That should sound a caution to us in how we use the Old Testament: if we use it without the New, we may distort our understanding of God, which will in turn detrimentally affect our beliefs and practices.
So when we read the Old Testament, we mustn’t think that those who wrote it and who lived in that era knew God and his purposes as fully as we do. On the contrary, we have the blessed benefit of hindsight, having seen what they longed to see and heard what they longed to hear (cf. Matt 13.17). But with this blessed position comes much responsibility. We need to handle the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, properly.
As Christians, we want to do justice to all of Scripture. We affirm that the entire Bible is God’s authoritative word under which we sit, and rightly so, for it is all God-breathed and useful to us. However, this does not mean that we should treat all parts of Scripture in the same way. One danger we face is that of failing to see the Old Testament as the Old Testament—as that part of the unfolding storyline that comes before the resolution in Christ. We affirm that the Old Testament gives us a true picture of God, but we must at the same time affirm that it is an incomplete picture within the grander scheme of Scripture. If we do not, we risk absolutising the Old Testament in a legalistic kind of way.
For example, in light of Jesus, we must affirm with Paul that the Law served as a guardian or tutor for the people of Israel until the appointed time when Christ came and fulfilled it (see Gal 3.24 – 4.5). The Law has, therefore, served its purpose. The Law indeed is holy and just and good (Rom 7.12), but it no longer has authority over Christians as Law. Instead, it now serves us as witness to the unfolding character of God, guiding us as wisdom and as scripture, but not as Law. But we are not ancient Israel living in the land, and therefore we are not under the Law. We are under the Law of Christ, under a new covenant, under grace, in a time of fulfilment and fuller revelation. If, however, we fail to realise the provisionality of the Old Testament and treat it just like the New Testament, we may mistakenly think that we must still obey the Law as Law—that Christians must observe the Sabbath from Friday night to Saturday night. We might say that Christians should avoid eating pork as something detestable to God. We may declare that homosexuals should be ruthlessly put to death. We might pledge a blind allegiance to modern Israel because we conclude that it is the continuation of God’s chosen nation with a special claim over a particular slice of the Middle East, regardless of anyone else’s claim within the region or whether their policies are just. We may even say that God is not a trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet to do any of these is to fail to appreciate the progressive nature of revelation in Scripture, or the resolution that specifically comes with Jesus. The Old Testament begins to show us God and his will, but as Christians, we live on this side of the cross and empty tomb, and should live by the light of God’s fuller revelation. Just as the writer of the Hebrews urged in his letter, we must acknowledge that with Jesus things have changed irrevocably. There is now no turning back. Jesus is the game changer.
Alternatively, we may swing the other way and end up treating the New Testament just like the Old. That is, we may think that the New Testament is also an unfinished story for which the ‘punch line’ has yet to be delivered. If we do this, we will tend to look for more revelation that takes us further away from Apostolic witness and New Testament theology. We may seek new experiences and depend on them for defining ourselves and our theology. We may seek new prophets who have new words to give us, and put our faith in them for determining what we should believe and practise. We will probably feel an inexorable pull from our culture to conform our beliefs and practices to its norms. We may feel the inclination to give up seemingly ‘old fashioned’ values in favour of more widely acceptable notions, especially on issues for which our society may ridicule the New Testament perspective, such as its views on men and women, sexuality, and the exclusivity of Jesus. All the while, because we are treating the New Testament in the same way as the Old, we will have convinced ourselves that we are still being biblically faithful, and yet we will have weighed anchor from Christ and drifted off on tides that take us away from the God who made himself known in Christ and inspired the Scriptures for our benefit.
Essentially, these pitfalls stem from the same error: not realising that Scripture is God’s unfolding revelation that culminates in Jesus. We cannot graduate the Old Testament to the position of the New, nor can we relegate the New Testament to the position of the Old. Rather, we must understand that Scripture has come to us in an Old and a New Testament, with Christ standing at the critical juncture of resolution between them. In Christ, God’s final word has been spoken and the faith has been once and for all delivered to the saints. While we wait for the end, we must let the word about the Christ dwell in us richly, for this is how we will be able to teach and admonish each other with all wisdom, to frame our words and practices faithfully, with heartfelt gratitude to God.
This piece is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared in Southern Cross (the Sydney Anglican diocesan monthly magazine), November 2012.