Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” —Mark 12:24
In recent months, much discussion in Christian publications, on blogs and in other forums about the nature and divine inspiration of the Old Testament has caused alarm in some quarters, as well as likely confusion about the Old Testament’s place in the church.
Franklin Graham, as well as a number of pastors and theologians, have sounded warnings over the dangers of such teachings in the church that question the authority of God’s Word and the relevance of the Ten Commandments.
“Make no mistake: the Old Testament helps us understand the character and nature of Almighty God so that we can know how to approach Him with reverence and godly fear,” Franklin says. “A whole generation of Israelites wandered in the wilderness because they didn’t obey God and His Word. Every jot and tittle of the Bible—Old Testament and New Testament—is God’s Word, to be believed and obeyed.
“When Jesus was questioned by the religious leaders in the Gospels, He went to the Old Testament Scriptures, showing their authority as God’s Holy Word. If the Lord Jesus Christ believed and obeyed the Old Testament as God’s Word, then we had better believe it and obey it as well.”
Provocative statements about the Old Testament in particular caused R. Albert Mohler to observe last September: “A true defense of the Christian faith has never been more needed than now, but an attempt to rescue Christianity from its dependence upon Scripture is doomed to disaster.”
REACHING A POSTMODERN SOCIETY
The “remedies” that some are suggesting for reaching a postmodern society strike at the heart of Scripture in order to try to make the faith more palatable to sinners. Often, the Old Testament is the first thing that gets shuttled.
It’s not a new problem. Confusion over the Old Testament goes back at least as far as the second century when Marcion tried to unleash the Old Testament from the New.
Liberal theologians have long criticized Old Testament miracles and in recent decades have dismissed Old Testament standards on sexuality to jibe with the sexual revolution.
Yet, even among those who would say they believe God’s Word is absolute truth from cover to cover, there seems to be what David Prince, a professor of preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has called “a dearth of Old Testament preaching.” Whatever the reasons, the Old Testament isn’t preached as often or as dynamically as it should be. One survey puts it at about 20 percent of sermons arising from the Old Testament, while the Old Testament text accounts for more than 70 percent of the Bible.
JESUS POINTED TO THE OLD TESTAMENT
Far from being impractical or irrelevant, says Walter C. Kaiser Jr., renowned Old Testament scholar and prolific author, the Old Testament is a repository of God’s grace and holiness, telling His grand story of redemption for sinners through justifying faith. Jesus Himself, Kaiser notes, chose the vast expanse of the Old Testament to ground His disciples in the Gospel message.
“I always begin with Luke 24,” Kaiser told Decision. “The risen Jesus meets the two guys on the Emmaus Road and He scolds them as they are grappling with what had just occurred that Sunday morning. He says, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken,’ and beginning with Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms, He began to explain all things concerning Himself.’ He thought those two men could, should and ought to have known the Old Testament, and therefore they would have been better prepared for the events that were at hand on that Easter Sunday morning.”
To do less for modern believers grappling with the mystery of the Gospel is malpractice, Kaiser says.
“To say that we now have the new covenant, therefore we don’t need the Old Testament, no, no, hold your horses—that’s wrong,” Kaiser added. “The great mountain peaks are the promise in Genesis 3:15, the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15, the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7, and the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 and then repeated in Hebrews 8 and Hebrews 10.”
Kaiser says the church “floats in the air and has no roots unless it is attached through faith” to Israel’s Messiah and “grafted in” to the Olive Tree of Israel.
THE JEWISH LAW
Much has been made about the Hebrew law, with its ceremonial regulations, and even the moral components of the law, which Romans 2 says are written on the conscience of humans who have never known the Scripture. Yet homosexual activists, liberal theologians and a few reckless pastors have made erroneous statements about the law and its relationship to Christians today.
“Just because Jesus came, it doesn’t mean that people should toss away the commands, for example, to not commit murder or to not commit adultery,” says Skip Heitzig, pastor of Calvary of Albuquerque in New Mexico. “Those are still underpinning commands that have served as moral guardrails and have been used by many cultures.”
Heitzig emphasizes Jesus’ statement that He came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
“Jesus went on to say, ‘Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 5:19). Dismissing the Old Testament’s moral commands “marginalizes” the Old Testament Scriptures “and robs them of their contextual power,” Heitzig says.
A MORAL FOUNDATION
Some have even argued that the Ten Commandments have no authority under the new covenant.
Quite the contrary, says Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, who believes the Ten Commandments should be taught and memorized as a moral foundation for Christian living. It is noteworthy, Graham says, that each commandment is repeated in the New Testament.
“After all, God wrote the Ten Commandments with His own hand. And therefore it stands as the eternal Word of God. The Ten Commandments actually free us to live under the power of grace. The law, the Ten Commandments, show us our sin, as Scripture says, like a schoolmaster that leads us to Christ.”
“Jesus did not repudiate the Ten Commandments,” says Pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif. “In fact, He even took them further in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 through 7.”
Laurie points out that the Lord took the commandments against murder and adultery and applied the same standard to murderous thoughts or adulterous desires—issues of the heart and mind to which very few are guiltless.
“The early church understood that the commandments and the law in general were given to drive us to Jesus,” Laurie added. “As Paul writes in Galatians 3:24, ‘Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith’” (NLT).
Kaiser, the Old Testament scholar, says it is crucial to understand that the Ten Commandments were given in grace and in the context of remembrance.
“God reminds them, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ It has the environment of love and grace and deliverance of God. Before you start saying ‘thou shalt not’ or ‘thou shalt,’ you have to understand that here is the loving and gracious Lord. So grace precedes law in this case and sets the environment for the Decalogue.”
REVEALING GOD’S CHARACTER
Among some liberal theologians and some in the gay movement, prohibitions about the mixing of linen and wool (Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11) or dietary restrictions about shellfish have been equated with laws regulating human sexuality. Since one is no longer required for believers, neither is the other, the reasoning goes.
Kaiser points to a hermeneutic for those who wish to separate truth from error on such questions in the New Testament age.
“The moral law and principles come from the character of God and reflect His person, nature and works,” Kaiser notes. “The ceremonial laws are attached to worship at the tabernacle or temple of God in Israel. This distinction can be found also in our Lord’s words in Matthew 23:23 where Jesus marks the difference between the ‘lighter matters of the law,’ such as tithing a tenth of mint, dill or cumin, and the ‘weightier matters of the law’ such as ‘justice, mercy, or faithfulness.’”
The works of God include His ordering of male and female.
As Graham notes, “God judged Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, and specifically the sin of homosexuality, before the law was given. Therefore, we know that God judges this sin, as it predates the giving of the Ten Commandments or the law.
“There are both civil and ceremonial laws in the Old Testament that are portraits of Christ and a picture of salvation that is to come in Him. These are fulfilled in Christ as is the moral law. But while we do not practice as Christians the ceremonial or civil laws of Israel, the moral law still stands.”
THE SCARLET THREAD OF REDEMPTION
One of the storied American pastors of the 20th century, W.A. Criswell, described the grand narrative of redemption for sinners as a “scarlet thread” woven through the Bible, red with the blood of Christ beginning with the symbolic covering of the man and woman after their sin in Genesis 3:21, all the way to the multitude of souls found written in the Lamb’s Book of Life in Revelation.
“The entire Bible is about the Gospel,” observes Don Wilton, pastor of First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, S.C., who served as Billy Graham’s personal pastor during the last several decades of his life. “Any understanding of the relationship between the Mosaic law and the grace of God through Jesus Christ is seen in the very beginning, in Genesis 1.”
Wilton emphasizes that the end of the Bible points back to the beginning, with recreated men and women, once fallen, now living with God in a perfect state once again.
“Dr. Billy Graham took great lengths to remind me to ‘always preach Jesus,’ regardless of what passage I was preaching from. … For Mr. Graham, preaching was about the love of God in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, and that this Gospel message permeated the Bible from cover to cover.”
Whether in the Old Testament or New Testament, the preacher should always exalt Christ and the message of redemption, Jack Graham says.
“There is that ‘scarlet thread of redemption’ running throughout the pages of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation,” Graham added. “Charles H. Spurgeon once said, ‘Cut the Bible anywhere and it will bleed.’ So the Bible is a ‘bloody book.’ It is the story of salvation and how sinful people can be rightly related to a holy God. Therefore, when you preach the Bible, you will always be preaching Christ and the salvation He gives.”
As with New Testament believers, Old Testament saints were justified through faith in the God who promised a coming Savior. Kaiser says one of the most beautiful evangelistic stories in Scripture is the Old Testament story of Naaman, in 2 Kings 5.
A trusted soldier of King Aram, Naaman, stricken with leprosy, goes with permission to the Israelite king and to the Prophet Elisha on the bold advice of a little Hebrew girl who had been taken captive.
“He takes this little girl’s witness and he goes off and then he’s told to dip in the dirty, muddy Jordan River, and he’s finally prevailed upon. He does it. And the seventh time he comes up whole and he says, ‘Now I know! I know there is no other God in all the world. There is no one else from here on out. I’m not going to even bother. No more sacrifices to false gods.’ … That man was changed. It was by the grace of God.”
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from The Holy Bible, New Living Translation.