by Layton Talbert
This article first appeared in FrontLine • May/June 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Is the Old Testament at all authoritative for the New Testament era? Should the New Testament believer even attach much value to the Old Testament? And if so, in what ways and areas is the Old Testament (OT) to be applied as either authoritative or valuable for the New Testament (NT) Christian?
Beginning with the Jerusalem Council some twenty years after the inception of the Church, history has witnessed an unending struggle with the relativity of the OT to the NT believer. It is instructive to note that, in the Church’s first major confrontation with this issue, the Jerusalem Council resolved that the OT is authoritative for the NT non-Jewish believer in its moral and ethical principles, but not in its ritualistic precepts (Acts 15:1–29). Nevertheless, Christians who have wrestled with the problem through the years have come to a variety of conclusions.
Unfortunately, a common view tends to be one of disparagement, or at least neglect, of the OT. Many Christians treat the OT as little more than a prophetic handbook fulfilled by Christ with a devotional appendix (Psalms and Proverbs), and they do not utilize it to its full, God-intended potential. Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser pointedly observes that
it is difficult to think of very many areas of Christian theology that are not affected in a major way, either by the inclusion or the deliberate omission of the OT data from its systematization. Moreover, when it is recalled that over three fourths of the total Bible is found in the OT, it is enough to give one pause before cavalierly bypassing the most extensive record of God’s revelation to mankind (Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 17).
For the Christian, the leading question in the debate is, what does the NT have to say about the OT? Ironically, there is little ambiguity in the answer to that question. The NT itself argues that the whole OT is profitable, relevant, and authoritative for the NT Christian—not only in its prophetic predictions, but also in its revelation of God, its evaluation of man, its moral demands, and its application of timeless principles. Many factors argue for this conclusion, but three major considerations highlight the relationship of the OT Scriptures to the NT Christian: the NT view of the OT, the NT use of the OT, and the nature of the Author of both the OT and the NT.
The NT View of the OT
There are eight NT passages that inform the Christian reader outright in what ways and to what extent the OT relates to him. These passages address the very heart of this issue and must, therefore, govern a Christian’s thinking if he is to cultivate a Biblical perspective and an accurate use of the bulk of God’s revelation to man.
The earthly ministry of Christ was, of course, permeated with His use of the OT. His assessment of the OT relative to the Christian is succinctly summed up in two passages. (1) In John 5:39 He affirms that the OT has a significantly Christological orientation. (The OT Scriptures, Christ claimed, “are they which testify of me.”) This is further confirmed by the Lord’s post-resurrection sermon to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:26, 27). (2) In addition, Christ’s statement in Matthew 5:17, 18 stresses the continuing relativity and authority of the OT for all time.
(3) Peter has one particularly insightful revelation about the OT writers to add to the list. In the theologically- oriented context of 1 Peter 1:10–12, he emphasizes that the OT prophets were not ministering so much to their own era as to future Christians. This passage not only verifies that the OT prophets often communicated far more than they realized or understood, but also demonstrates that God plainly designed and intended much of the OT more for NT believers than for the OT saints.
(4) Paul, in contexts of theological instruction as well as practical exhortation, contributes the most—and the most significant—comments relative to the value of the OT for the Christian. In Romans 4:23, 24, he not only uses the OT to establish and illustrate the theological doctrine of justification by faith, but also essentially argues that God included a very specific portion in the OT (Gen. 15:6b) for our benefit. (5) In Romans 15:4, a passage devoted to practical doctrine and exhortation, Paul asserts that everything written in the OT was included for our instruction. (6) In the eminently practical context of 1 Corinthians 9:9, 10, which deals with ministerial remuneration, Paul argues that a specific, obscure OT law regarding the treatment of animals was actually written for our sakes. (7) In 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11, Paul teaches that the historical experiences of Israel are designed to warn us, and they were recorded for our spiritual welfare to deter similar behavior on our part. (8) Finally, the crowning comment of the NT on the OT is found in 2 Timothy 3:15–17. Paul’s inspired assessment of all Scripture (which, at the time he penned those words, still consisted primarily of the OT) is that it is directly from God and profitable to the Christian in establishing his creed as well as his conduct. The impact of the plain implication of verse 17 is unambiguous and inescapable: no NT believer can achieve full maturity or be thoroughly equipped to serve God without the full-orbed ministry of “all scripture”—OT as well as NT—in his life. God has expressly given and preserved the whole Bible to that intent.
To summarize the NT teaching on the OT, the following principles can be observed from the passages cited above: (1) The OT has a decidedly Christological orientation (John 5). (2) The OT remains pertinent for believers of all ages (Matt. 5). (3) The OT was divinely designed, in many of its revelations, more for the NT believer than for the OT saint (1 Pet. 1). (4) The OT was recorded for our doctrinal and practical benefit and is divinely intended for our spiritual welfare (Rom. 4, 15; 1 Cor. 9, 10). Finally, (5) the OT makes a profitable and significant contribution to Christian belief and behavior, and is God-intended to make Christians mature and equipped to serve the Lord (2 Tim. 3).
For a Christian to ignore or neglect his OT, therefore, is not only detrimental, but actually disobedient. Nevertheless, the question remains as to how the OT is to be understood and applied. The answer is to be found, at least partly, in the patterns established by the NT use of the OT.
The NT Use of the OT
The NT is replete with quotations of and allusions to the OT. Estimates vary (depending on one’s definition of “quotation”) from 150 to 300 explicit quotations, with over a thousand allusions to the OT. These not only comprise a considerable proportion of the content of the NT, but also frequently provide the basis for doctrinal instruction, practical exhortation, logical argumentation, or illustrative elucidation of Biblical truth.
For example, Paul argues in Romans 15:4 that what was written in the OT was written for our instruction. The context is significant, for the argument of the passage runs as follows: (a) instruction—believers are to abstain from offensive activities for the sake of weaker brethren (chapter 14); (b) exhortation—strong Christians ought to bear the infirmities of the weak (15:1-2); (c) example—even Christ did not live a self-serving life; (d) quotation—“but as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell upon me [Ps. 69:9]” (15:3); (e) application—for whatever was written in the OT was written for our instruction (15:4). The connection between verses 3 and 4 is the fulcrum of Paul’s argument relative to the value of the OT. Paul applies Psalm 69:9 to Christ in this context, because He is the supreme example of the principle of self-denial that is contained in Psalm 69:9, and Paul is concerned with inculcating that principle in his readers. The application of this OT principle to Christ furnishes a case-in-point to demonstrate that all the OT is designed to teach us timeless, applicable axioms.
Another example is 1 Corinthians 9:8–10, where the context demonstrates the application of an underlying universal truth, which Paul uncovered in a seemingly obscure legislative detail. In the process of arguing the legitimacy of ministerial exemption from outside labor, and the responsibility of believers to support financially their preachers (vv. 6, 7), he goes so far as to insist (v. 8) that the OT law teaches this principle of ministerial remuneration when it says, “Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn [Deut. 25:4]” (v. 9). Did God, Paul goes on to ask, say that just for the sake of oxen? Or was He saying it for our sakes? Assuredly, he concludes, He was saying it for our sakes! This illustrates Paul’s recognition that underlying the literal, temporal, localized, nationalized OT revelation there exist eternal, universal, axiomatic truths—timeless principles that the NT itself applies to modern Christians.
The Immutability of God
The final consideration that must shape our attitude toward the OT is a theological one regarding the nature of the Author. The inspiration and authority of the OT is everywhere assumed and frequently explicitly affirmed in the NT. Hebrews 1:1, 2 spans the theological gulf between the OT and NT by asserting that the same God who spoke in past times to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son. One important thought that this passage invites is that the NT writers were not consciously composing a “New Testament” as distinct from the “Old Testament.” They were simply continuing to record the revelation God was giving through them.
The NT is not an updated and edited revision of the OT; it is a sequel—an organically related continuation of God’s self-revelation. God, in His character and nature and in His evaluation and essential expectations of man, never changes. The cardinal text for the immutability (unchangeableness) of God is, of course, Malachi 3:6, “I am the Lord, I change not.” Its NT sister text is Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
This is not to say that God never alters His methods in dealing with men. God’s will for man never changes, although the specific means to performing and fulfilling that will may be altered by God. Such is the case with the temporal institutions established by the Lord for Israel. But even in the OT regulations for Israel (repealed for the Church), there are eternal truths that reveal why God required those specifics of Israel, and why the principles they embody are still relevant today.
For the NT Christian, the OT is not an optional study. The NT verifies the authority and relativity of the OT for the Christian. The NT use of the OT demonstrates its applicability to the Christian. The immutability of the Author ensures the timelessness of its essential revelations.
The OT is not a book of outdated temporal institutions, but a volume of ageless, eternal truths. For sheer bulk and diversity of material it is, frankly, unrivaled by the NT. This is not to pit one volume against the other, for they are one Book. Neither can be correctly interpreted nor fully appreciated without the other.
The final argument for the Christian’s view of and relationship to the OT comes back to 2 Timothy 3:16, 17. Every portion of both the NT and the OT is profitable, and therefore necessary, to effect full spiritual maturity and to equip God’s people in any and every age to serve Him as they ought.
Dr. Layton Talbert is a FrontLine Contributing Editor.
- Here Christ assures His hearers that He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them; for, “till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled.” That “law” in v. 18 is a generic term is evident from v. 17. Thus, the OT, in Morgan’s words, “cannot be set aside, it cannot be abrogated, it cannot be trifled with as unimportant” (Studies in the Four Gospels [Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1937], 51). [↩]
- The OT prophets “prophesied of the grace that should come unto you,” and it was “not unto themselves but unto us they did minister.” Note here and in Paul’s arguments below the repeated emphasis upon the OT’s benefit and design for the Christian (“unto us,” “for our sakes,” etc.). [↩]
- Paul says of Abraham, “Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.” [↩]
- “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” For a discussion of the oft-ignored but suggestive context of this well-known verse, see the next section. [↩]
- “For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. . . . For our sakes, no doubt, this is written.” See next section for a discussion of this context. [↩]
- Now these things were our examples” and “all these things happened unto them for ensamples; and they are written for our admonition.” [↩]
- “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” [↩]
- Extraordinary examples include Romans 9, 10, where OT quotations comprise nearly one half of the total material (25 out of 54 verses), and Galatians 3, where a quarter of the material is OT (7 of 29 verses). [↩]
- He is not denying the literal intent of the original words. “He only means to say that the law had a higher reference. Although the proximate end of the command was that the laboring beast should be treated justly, yet its ultimate design was to teach men the moral truth involved in the precept. If God requires that even the ox, which spends his strength in our service, should not be defrauded of his reward,” then He certainly expects this principle to be exercised toward men (Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians [1857; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976], 157–58). [↩]