Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
-Romans 15:3-4 (NIV)
It just sounds bad, doesn’t it? I mean, in most any other context calling something old is a way of differentiating it from what’s new, and therefore preferable. For instance:
Why do I have to drive the OLD car?
Are you going to wear that OLD shirt again?
Isn’t it time to replace that OLD carpet?
My phone is getting OLD and slow.
My husband is getting OLD and slow.
The Old Testament has a branding problem. Some people call it The Jewish Scriptures, but that doesn’t really help to make it sound more relevant, especially for non-Jews. Some people prefer The First Testament, but I’m not sure that helps a lot (and it sounds a little pretentious). Maybe you could call it The Story of Israel? The Account of God’s People? I don’t know — neither of those seems to help.
It’s more than just a branding problem, though. The Old Testament can be an obstacle to belief. It’s long and confusing, and there’s lots of war and killing and mayhem and sex, so it can seem a little like trying to base a faith system on Game of Thrones. What’s the difference between an Amorite and an Ammonite? Somebody point out En Gedi or Goshen on a map.
Most of what gives people doubts about the Bible is in the Old Testament. The age of the earth, the origin of human beings, the structure of the universe: the Old Testament makes claims about all of these things that seem incompatible with science.
And then there are the commands. Sure, nine of the Big Ten make sense. But what does building a parapet around my roof have to do with living a good life? Why shouldn’t I boil a young goat in its mother’s milk — oh, and why would I? Should I really not shave my sideburns? Is it really a big problem to wear a nice cotton/poly blend? And, if I can discard those commands, which others might also be disposable?
You get what I’m saying, right? It’s no wonder that at least one high-profile preacher thinks we should “unhitch” Christianity from the Old Testament. Few Christians are willing to say stuff like that, but most of us read the Old Testament selectively, at best. The parts that are really confusing, or seem insensitive, or defy our best efforts to explain — well, we sort of leave those alone, don’t we?
Good thing we have a New Testament.
Here’s the thing: the New Testament writers had another name for the Old Testament. They just called it The Scriptures, and, for them, it was pretty authoritative. All but two or three New Testament books quote from or allude to the Old Testament. While the New Testament writers made it clear that Christianity wasn’t contained by strict adherence to the old ways, they also made it clear that it wasn’t completely disconnected, either.
When Paul wants to encourage the Christians in Rome to bear with each other instead of insisting on their own way, he pointed them to Jesus’ example. But to nail it down, he quoted from Psalm 69: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” He used the quote — from a different time and place, about a different person — to remind his readers that when they followed Christ in serving others over themselves, he would identify with them and take on himself whatever abuse they might receive.
Right after that, Paul tells his readers what he hopes that quotation accomplished: he wants the ancient examples of faithful people enduring suffering for God, and the encouragement that they received in their faithfulness, to give faithful people of his day hope that their trust in the same God would not go unrewarded. “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us,” he assures them. The first Christians didn’t think that the Old Testament was a puzzle that needed to be unraveled or irrelevant history to be ignored. They didn’t see those books as dead documents, but as the living Word of God to be received as a source of hope that the same God who was active and faithful to his people back in those days centuries in the past could be trusted in their own day and time.
That’s not to say that they believed everything in it could or should be obeyed to the letter in their day. Jesus himself was willing to walk back some of the commands of the Old Testament*, and the early church made the decision to welcome non-Jews who had faith in Jesus whether they obeyed any of the Old Testament commands or not. Salvation was definitively determined to rest in God’s work through Jesus, and not on obedience to the Old Testament.
Strikingly, though, they didn’t see that as license to throw out the Old Testament — even as their own Scriptures were coming into existence. Even as their new identity in Christ replaced their old identities and loyalties, those Scriptures took on added meaning. They began to see in those Scriptures foreshadowing and anticipation of God’s final work of salvation, and began to see how Jesus’ work and death and resurrection were the last acts in the working out of God’s purposes in his world and in their lives.
To be sure, working out what the Old Testament has to do with us today is, if anything, more complicated now than it was then. The story of the fall of Jericho doesn’t teach us that if we walk around the walls of a city -- provided we can find a city with walls to walk around — that God will knock those walls down. The story of David and Goliath doesn’t teach us to fling stones at our enemies, and Amos’ judgment against Damascus shouldn’t dictate policy in the Middle East. But seen as sources of endurance and encouragement, they can and should lead us to hope in the faithfulness of our God to his promises and to his people.
We don’t need to adopt the worldview of the Old Testament to see the hope it offers to God’s people and adopt it as our own. We don’t have to see every command as meant for us, every reference as a secret code to be deciphered. We read it, in short, to see God. We echo its psalms in our hearts as we lift our own voices to God. We see its commands not as a moral code to be obeyed to the letter, but as a revelation of God’s character. In its stories we look for, not obscure history, but the account of events in which God’s people back then found out just who this unchanging God is.
You’ll find, I think, that reading it like that will never get old.
*He said, for instance, that the kosher food laws no longer applied, and that the location in which his followers worshipped was not important — both of which were central to Jewish identity in the Old Testament. He refused to allow divorce (except for sexual immorality), even though the Old Testament did. In the Sermon on the Mount, he “fulfills” the Law of Moses by redefining it as an expression of the perfect love of God.