After reading a post entitled Why the Old Testament promises and laws don’t apply to us, hopefully your first response is, “Well, what is the point of the Old Testament then? Is it even God’s Word? Why is it even in the Bible?”
The New Testament gives succinct and clear answers to these questions in 2 Timothy 3:16, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. The “Scripture” being referred to here is the Old Testament. Jesus affirms this truth in his remark in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
The Old Testament is a great example of the need for the basic rule of hermeneutics (how we interpret the Bible) to come in to play. The silver-bullet question of hermeneutics is What part of this text is only to be applied in the culture/context in which it was written, and which part is the divinely-inspired message that is to be applied the same in all contexts for all time? (i.e. how should we apply it today?)
Whether we realize it or not, we apply hermeneutics every time we read a Bible verse. When we read “Greet one another with a holy kiss” in Romans 16:16, we instantly apply hermeneutics to know that kissing was a cultural way of expressing hospitality and friendliness in the 1st century, and that the divinely-inspired eternal meaning of the text is not that church should be a holy smoochfest, but that we should show hospitality and friendliness in our church settings, with warmth, hugs, handshakes, smiles, etc.
I’m a big fan of coffee. In what form is coffee meant to be consumed: bean, grounds, or liquid? Obviously the answer is liquid. We use an intentional process of filtering the grounds so that the designed purpose of the coffee comes out for our consumption. The coffee filter represents the tools of hermeneutics. When we consume a text without using proper hermeneutics, applying to our situation what was only meant to be applied in the situation it was written, we end up eating coffee grinds instead of drinking coffee, which is never good.
In a nutshell, our hermeneutical “filter” consists of the culture, language, time, situation, and covenant in which the original author wrote to his original audience.
While we are not obligated to the agreement made between God and Moses (the old covenant), the meaning behind each command in the Old Testament still represents the heart of God, which is unchanging. When we use the filter of hermeneutics, we can discover this heart, which is the eternal meaning behind the command, and apply it to today’s context. In my next blog post, I will explain the meaning of some of the strange laws from my first post on old covenant vs. new covenant. Believe it or not, we can take each of these and find the ultimate meaning Romans 13:8-10 and Matthew 7:12 tell us we are to find in them, and that is to love our neighbor. More on that later.
The rest of the OT flows from the Torah (what Jesus refers to as “The Law”, that is, the first 5 books of the Bible). The Torah essentially is the old covenant. The old covenant’s laws are contained within it, as well as the blessings and curses for obedience or disobedience of those laws (see Lev. 26 and Deut. 28). The flow from here is helpful in understanding the rest of the OT hermeneutically. Most of the history of the OT is a demonstration of how God’s people either followed the old covenant and were blessed for it, or didn’t follow it so were not blessed for it. There is a lot of describing events in the historical books of the OT (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Chronicles, etc.) without prescribing more commands. The prescriptions found in these books are typically just repeating what is already in the Torah.
Understanding these genres are crucial to avoid eating coffee grounds. The Wisdom literature in the Old Testament (Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Job) is not written to prescribe commands to us, or to describe history. It is written as wisdom. It is written as helpful guidance for life, not as promises. We should read this differently than we read a promise.
Next we have the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Obadiah, Hosea, Malachi, etc.). The prophets are re-prescribing the old covenant to the people. Much of the prophetic writing is warnings that the people will lose their land/nation if they continue to rebel against God. The people already knew this (again, Lev. 26 & Deut. 28), but the prophets job was to remind and warn them of this. (They eventually do lose their land, see Lamentations, Daniel…then eventually get it back, see Ezra/Nehemiah).
The entire OT is soaked in old covenant, but we can still gain plenty of great coffee from finding the message that exists outside of the old covenant agreement itself. Leave the part about the promise of land (so I don’t get a lush lawn if I obey God???) and the specific laws (the church in Galatians had problems doing this) in the coffee filter, but take the meaning behind the entire old covenant, which is that God wants a personal and intimate (no “cheating on him”) relationship with his people (us!), and that He has set his people (us!) apart to be missionaries/light to the world.
And as we read each individual book, we can discover even fresher pots of hot coffee as we figure out who the author is, who they wrote it to, and why they wrote it. When I realize Moses wrote Genesis to the Hebrew people recently freed from 400 years of slavery, it revolutionizing the purpose and power behind each specifically selected story of this lost, purposeless, faithless, people’s family tree.
In addition to all this, the entire OT serves as a warning to us to not lose faith in a faithful God, the way the Israelites did time and time again. Like the child who longs to touch the pretty glowing stove, we can simply see the scars on our spiritual ancestors’ hands and heed the warnings that they ignored.
There is so much we can gather from God’s word in the Old Testament. Especially as we look back at it through the lens of Jesus, which the entire OT is pointing toward. It is definitely useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Drink up! (just don’t eat the coffee grinds…)
Other posts in this series:
- Understanding Weird Parts of the Old Testament: Old vs. New Covenant
- Where the old covenant came from and why it doesn’t apply to us.
- Richard Dawkins: God commanding Old Testament Wars, Genocides, Infant Killings???
- Why the entire Bible matters, even if Rob Bell says it doesn’t
- Why the Weird Old Testament Laws Ever Existed
Still to come:
- How misunderstanding the old covenant versus the new creates an unbiblical health-and-wealth / prosperity message today.