Article VII: Of the Old Testament


I think we need to be honest as Christians: We struggle with the Old Testament don't we?

  • It's hard to read: all those lists of unpronounceable people and tribes.
  • It seems so distant: all those laws about sacrifices and what food you can eat. It seems so harsh: there's lots of battles and killing and God seems to be behind some of it.
  • It's often really hard to understand: what exactly am I to do with Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs?
  • It's often been criticised as unreliable: did creation happen like that, what about the parting of the Red Sea and so on?

Now we're not going to answer all those questions this in this blog – although I think they are all answerable.  I wanted to list those struggles to be honest about why we often avoid the Old Testament, apart from a few purple patches and popular stories.  Even Christians who read their Bibles quite avidly are often much happier in the New Testament than the Old.  Many preachers would much rather have passages from the New Testament than the Old.

When I was at Bible college in my first term we were doing an overview of the Old Testament. The lecturer at various points asked us to put our hands up when we had last heard a sermon or a series of sermons on particular books of the Bible.  You can imagine how many hands went up for Leviticus or Numbers or Deuteronomy, or should I say how many hands didn't go up!  Yet we all claimed to be Bible-believing Christians, who went to churches committed to teaching the Bible faithfully.  None of us, or our churches, would have had any problem agreeing with our last Article on the Authority of Scripture.  And yet we picked and chose which bits of Scripture!

The point is: if all Scripture is God-breathed, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, then that includes the OT.  It includes the unpronounceable names, the laws about sacrifices, and the holy wars.  It includes Leviticus, Numbers and Ecclesiastes.

In the 39 Articles, the first 5 articles have taught us the doctrine of God – things like the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.  Articles 6-8 teach us about the rule of our faith.  Last time when we looked at Article 6 we saw that Scripture is our prime authority and Scripture was defined as the Old and New Testaments.  Article 7, which we're looking at in this post, describes the place of the Old Testament for Christians in defining their faith.

My goal is that I want us to trust and apply the Old Testament to our lives as Christians.

1. The Unity of the Old and New Testaments

So I want to start by recognising the unity of the Old and the New Testaments.

Article VII starts like this:

THE Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises.

The start and the end of that section are the key bit for this point (we'll come back to the middle in a minute).  The challenge that is being addressed is the same challenge we have today.  Isn't the Old Testament done with now we have Christ and the New Testament?  Isn't it even wrong (contrary), now we have the more perfect revelation of Jesus?  Can't we just focus on the New Testament?  The bit at the end is saying, in effect, isn't the Old Testament out of date – the old Fathers (Old Testament believers) were believers in something that is now out of date.

No says our article.  There's a unity.  We mustn't listen to those who deny that unity and suggest that Old Testament and New Testament disagree.

There's good biblical reason for that. We read in 2 Timothy 3:15-16 that: the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful (NIV)

That's talking about at least the Old Testament.  The Old Testament speaks that same message that the Apostle Paul, the other Apostles and Jesus taught.

In Matthew 5:17-18 Jesus says:

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. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (NIV)

That expression “the Law or the Prophets” is a way of talking about the whole Old Testament.  Yes, there are some implications for the Old Testament because of Jesus coming.  But the Old Testament doesn't pass away.  Rather, the New Testament fulfills the Old Testament and you need the Old Testament to know what is being fulfilled.  As the Theologian Gerald Bray notes writing about this Article: “The New Testament is essentially a commentary on the Old, insisting that the promises of law and prophets had been fulfilled in Christ.”

Or as someone in the congregation said to me:
The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed.  The New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.
All of which is simply to say that the Old Testament and the New Testament are united.  One without the other makes no sense.  It'd be like having Torvill without Dean,  Morecambe without Wise, Tom without Jerry or Batman without Robin.  The two work together.

So we can't dismiss the OT.  We can't not read it.  We can't not preach it.  We can't be that person who told a new vicar “We're a New Testament church?” - meaning they weren't interested in the Old. There is a unity between our Testaments.

With all that in mind, it doesn't really address the problems we have with the Old Testament.  We can read it well enough, but how should we approach understanding it?

2. The Centrality of Christ

That leads to the second point.  Perhaps the surprising key to understanding the OT, is Jesus.  It is the centrality of Christ that actually holds the Bible together.

That's the emphasis in our article when it says:

for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man.

The point is that the Old Testament is explaining, describing and preparing for the salvation that is offered in Christ. The events of that salvation occur in the New Testament and are followed by the message of that salvation being spread to the ends of the earth.  There is a sense in which the faith of the saints in the Old Testament is just as much in Christ as ours is, as they trusted in God's promises to send his Messiah, even though they never saw him in this life.

We find Jesus expounding that 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. (NIV)

In other words, the OT prepares for and leads up to Jesus.

Jesus says it again in John 5:39:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me (NIV)

Again, the Scriptures we're talking about here are the Old Testament – Jesus is talking to Jewish leaders.  And the surprise, perhaps, is that the Old Testament teaches us about Jesus.

Jesus, after his resurrection, gave his disciples a masterclass in how the Old Testament pointed to him in Luke:

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. ... He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:27, 44-45 NIV)

My wife got some new glasses a little while ago and as soon as she got them they started giving her headaches.  She went back to the opticians to find that they had completely the wrong lenses in.  If you look through the wrong lenses it can cause all sorts of problems.  If you ever pick up someone else's glasses by mistake you know you get a very confused image!

Often people find that with the Old Testament.  They have a very blurry view of it and it causes them all sorts of headaches.  Why?  Because they're not looking at it through the right lens: Jesus Christ.

This has a couple of applications for Christians.

The first is, are you looking at the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus?  As you get to know the God of holy justice and of mercy for his people, do you see a picture of the man on the cross?  Do you see sacrifices pointing to his one great sacrifice, kings pointing to the one true king, true prophets pointing to the one who was the truth and so on.

The second is, are you reading the Old Testament to learn about Jesus?  Sometimes Christians reject, consciously or otherwise, the Old Testament because they're only interested in knowing Jesus and Jesus is found in the New Testament, right?  But no, our article and Jesus himself, encourages us to study the Old Testament to know him better.

Jesus is central to Scripture.  Both Old and New Testaments.

3. Applying the Old Testament Today

That understanding of the centrality of Christ actually goes a long way to helping us with our problems with the OT and to restoring some joy in reading the OT.  But our article helps us a little more in applying the OT today – specifically the law and commands

The last part of the article says this:

Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

This takes a little bit of explaining.  One way or rule of thumb for understanding all the OT laws in places like Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy is to split them into three groups.

  • Ceremonial laws, which refer to the religious stuff – sacrifices, priests, temple, tabernacle and so on.
  • Civil laws, which refer to the government of Israel – things about kings, judges, punishments etc.
  • Moral laws, which are the more general right and wrong principles and ways to act, the sort of things you find in the 10 commandments and spelled out in more detail in other places.

Now what the article says is that we no longer need to adhere to the ceremonial side of things.  That's because Jesus transformed the concept of sacrifice and priest and temple and so on.  We don't come to church and sacrifice a couple of lambs for our sins, we confess our sins and trust in the one mediator between God and man.

Similarly, Christianity is no longer a nation-based religion, but is open to all, from whatever nation, who trust in Jesus, because Jesus commanded the gospel to go to the nations (Matthew 28:19) and so it would be wrong to apply the civil law to Britain and say: “Look this is the people of God.”  No God's people are now the church – not the building obviously, but the Christian people.

When I say that both civil and ceremonial law are no longer binding, it's not that they are irrelevant. In fact, they may be very relevant, especially as we see how they point to Jesus and are fulfilled in him – for example the Old Testament concept of a priest is critical to understanding Jesus' role in the New Testament and the Old Testament concept of a king is pretty important too!

In both cases we're understanding those laws through the lens of Jesus. But it says those laws were for that time then and that they pointed to the future in Jesus.

However, the moral law, because it is simply a reflection of the moral character of God, remains in force.  Again, of course, we understand it as Jesus interprets it and fulfils it for us.  If you've read through the Sermon on the Mount you'll have seen Jesus doing that.  But in a general sense we're still not supposed to have idols, commit murder or adultery and so on!

There's an interesting illustration of putting these principles to work at the moment. It's not unusual to hear Christians to be criticised for picking and choosing how they apply the Old Testament law, especially at the moment in the controversial question of homosexual relationships (e.g. Leviticus 18:22; 20:13).  I've heard this argument on Question Time on the BBC for example.  It goes something like this.  "You can't criticise homosexual relationships from the laws in Leviticus, when you eat prawns, or wear clothes of mixed fibres, because the Old Testament tells you not to do that as well.  You just pick and choose because you're homophobic!"

The problem is that the critic doesn't understand that they've picked on two different types of law – prawns and mixed fibres are ceremonial laws because the refer to purity and being clean, which is fulfilled in Jesus death on the cross.  Laws about homosexual relationships fall into moral law and are still binding, which is why Paul re-affirms them (e.g. Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9) .

The encouragement in both these last points is not to hang back from the Old Testament, because as we study it we know Jesus better, we know God better and we know better how to live rightly.  It really does teach, rebuke, correct and train us in righteousness as Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16.


So we've been reminded that the Old and New Testaments are united in one; that Jesus is the centre of both and we only understand both in the light of Jesus and finally we've seen that Jesus helps us know what to do in the specific case of the law.

With that help, I hope that we are encouraged.  While I undoubtedly haven't answered all the reasons why Christians struggle with the Old Testament, I hope I've encouraged you to trust that the Old Testament is for you if you're are Christian.  You can trust it and it does apply to you.  It matters for your Christian life.


Popular posts from this blog

Red Lines, Faithfulness and Playing the Game

The Idolatry of the Middle-Class Church Member?

Re-Balancing Our Resources