At Westminster Reads we’ have read our way through the book of Hebrews and that has me thinking about how important understanding the Old Testament is if we want to really understand the New Testament.
Sometimes Christians think of the Old Testament as unimportant or irrelevant or obsolete or worse still replaced even superseded by the New Testament. People sometimes talk about the wrathful God of the Old Testament in contrast to the God of love in the New Testament. But Christians will not truly understand Paul and John and the other New Testament writers- and we really won’t understand Jesus – without understanding the Old Testament.
For example in Hebrews, the author compares Melchizedek to Jesus. And the author compares Jesus with the Levitical priesthood. The author helps his readers understand Christ’s sacrifice by using their understanding of the Jewish sacrificial system. The author took what was important and meaningful and vital to their faith and used that to explain what God is doing in and through and with Jesus. What the author did worked really well for first century Jewish readers. Unfortunately most modern readers only have a superficial understanding of what the author is writing about. If we have read Torah at all, we likely have only read bits and pieces. We don’t have a sense of what Torah is and why it matters. If we don’t have an understanding of what Torah meant to first century Jews, we are liable to misunderstand what the writer of Hebrews is explaining.
It is not a novel statement to say that Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish. But we sometimes forget that they remained Torah observant Jews. One of the early problems the apostles had to solve was whether or not gentile followers of Jesus needed to become Jews also. They had to think very carefully about what it meant to be a Jew. What it meant to be gentile. And what Jesus meant to both Jew and Gentile. The Council of Jerusalem decided that Gentiles did not have to convert to Judaism, but that did not mean Jews should not to remain Jews. If you read Paul’s letters carefully you will find he carefully works to reconcile these two ways of being a follower of Jesus. But Paul never says that Jews should stop being Jewish. Jesus is the one in whom Torah finds its fullest expression. The Messiah is for the Jew first and then the Gentile.
The gospel writers assume their readers know the stories of the Old Testament well. In Matthew’s gospel, for example, the author helps his readers understand Jesus by using their understanding of Moses. The author doesn’t come out and say, “look at the ways Jesus is similar to Moses but greater. If you remember what you know about Moses, you will have a good start at understanding Jesus.” No, the author of Matthew is more subtle than that. The author assumes we are so familiar with the story of Moses and Israel that we will understand his allusions to it. When Matthew tells us about Jesus’ birth, he tells of a family who flee to Egypt for safety, of an imperial ruler who slaughters Jewish children, of a faithful man called out of Egypt, of one who saves his people and leads them to freedom. If we know the stories in Genesis and Exodus, the way Matthew tells Jesus’ story has extra depth. We are encouraged to make connections between what God has done in the past, what God had done in Jesus and what God is doing now. We find our place in God’s story.
When was the last time you read a significant “chunk” of the Old Testament? Do you know the story of Abraham? Of Jacob? Of Moses? Of Samuel and David and Solomon? Could you tell these stories to someone who didn’t know them? What is the story of the Exodus? Of the Exile? Why is Passover celebrated? Why was Israel given Torah? Why are there rules about diet and conduct? What was the point? What happened when people brought sacrifices to the Temple? What did they think they were doing? What does the Old Testament have to do with Jesus? What does the Old Testament have to do with us, today?
These are important questions. If you can’t quite recall the whole story of Jacob, don’t worry. You can find it in Genesis. The story of Moses and the Exodus and the Passover is in the book of Exodus.
Perhaps you’ll want to spend some time reading and learning about the Old Testament? I hope so. If you do, you won’t be disappointed.
Here are some resources to get you started:
Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life Lois Tverberg Zondervan: 2012
Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith Marvin R. Wilson Eerdmans:1990
Understanding the Old Testament Bernhard Anderson Prentice Hall:1997
What resources have you found helpful? What would you add to this list?
Beginning January 2013, Westminster Reads will spend the a year reading Torah. Won’t you join us?