…So what role does the Old Testament play in our Christian lives? That’s the question today, and it comes from a listener named Sarah. “Hello, Pastor John — thanks for your ministry faithfulness over the years, this podcast, and for fielding my question. Generally speaking, the Old Testament is still very valuable to us — obviously — but to what extent? Now that the new covenant has arrived, God doesn’t require animal sacrifices for our sins, for example. So what are the best uses of the Old Testament for giving shape to our Christian lives today?”
Let me begin with the recommendation of a book. Jason DeRouchie just published a book called How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament. It has a huge section in it on the practical uses of the Old Testament for our day.
Jason is the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary. I just listened to a message of his a few days ago about how the Old Testament is not just turned into useful Christian Scripture for our own Christian living, but was intended by God and by the authors themselves to be used that way beyond their own day — in the distant future, including our time. You can probably find that message, by the way, at the audio or video section over at the Bethlehem College & Seminary website.
This is a huge issue that Sarah raises, but I think I can say just two or three things that will help her feel how precious and wonderful and useful the Old Testament is for our Christian life today.
The first thing to say is, when Jesus Christ came into the world as the long-expected Messiah of the Old Testament, a profound and dramatic change happened in the way we handle the Old Testament. This is because Jesus was the fulfillment — that’s the key New Testament word, the fulfillment — and the goal of so much Old Testament religion.
For example, Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament animal sacrifices, which were offered as a temporary way of pointing to the way God covers sins. The entire sacrificial system comes to an end in Jesus. We don’t need sacrifices anymore because Jesus was the decisive sacrifice himself.
He also is the high priest — the final, decisive, finish-it high priest, who mediates between man and God so that the sacrificial system and the priestly ministry of the sacrifices go away. We have a high priest that takes us right into the throne of grace, personally.
That means that the ceremonial laws surrounding that entire system also undergo a dramatic change. For example, Mark says in his Gospel, “Thus he [Jesus] declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). You can see how the ceremonial law that we’re attaching to those processes (those ceremonies) are also altered.
When the gospel spills over the banks to the Gentile world, and not just ethnic Israel (so that the Gentiles are now included in the Abrahamic people of God), that ethnocentricity and earthly, political, theocentric approach of the civil government in the Old Testament undergoes a dramatic change.
The church today is not one ethnicity with an earthly homeland and its own form of civil government. Instead, the church is a scattered people who are exiles and sojourners among all the nations of the world, functioning as refugees in all kinds of alien political systems as representatives of the true heavenly citizenship. It’s a radically different form of being the people of God than the Jewish people were in the Old Testament.
You can see from just those few examples (and there could be others) that when we read the Old Testament, we are, by its own intention — as Jason DeRouchie showed me so well a few days ago — making the necessary changes of application for our day.
But nothing I’ve said in all that should be construed to imply that the Scriptures are not profoundly useful today. All of them — all of them — are useful. Second Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” — profitable for Christians. Not just a few scattered, nice points like Isaiah 53. All of it is profitable.
There are two reasons for that that I’ll mention. There are others — lots of others probably.
- God has not changed. Therefore, wherever we rightly understand his character and his ways in the Old Testament, we are learning something true about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who loved us and sent Christ to die for us.
When Christ died, his blood secured for us a joyful participation, a full participation as Gentiles in all the promises of God in the Old Testament. This is one of the most important truths that Sarah, in asking this question, should take hold of with all her might. It’s certainly the one that means most to me. Here’s the way Paul expresses it in 2 Corinthians 1:20: “All the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.”
That is an absolutely glorious, amazing, wonderful, stunning, precious sentence. When you read the Old Testament, there are promises upon promises upon promises made to God’s people, and in Christ, they are yours.
You’re now grafted in — into the seed — because of Christ. Paul says in Galatians 3 that as the seed of Israel, you benefit from all the promises made to Israel. You become part of the Abrahamic hope of the world.
Ancient Promises for You
Here’s one example of how this works.
Hebrews 13:5 says, “Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” And here’s how he argues: “for he has said” — then he quotes Joshua 1:5 (words given to Joshua) — “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Then he continues in verse 6, “So we can confidently say” — and then he quotes Psalm 118 — “the Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
You see how he’s doing this. This is what we do. We hear the command, “Be content, and keep your life free from the love of money,” but how can I? Answer: go to the book of Joshua; go to the Psalms. You’ll hear promises that will steady your heart and make you peaceful. That’s amazing.
Here’s one more example from Romans 12:19–20. Paul is arguing that Christians should not return evil for evil. How does he argue? Here’s how he does it. He says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written” — where? Deuteronomy 32:5: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
He continues in verse 20, only this time without even telling us he’s quoting the entirety of Proverbs 25:21–22: “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” On and on he goes in the New Testament.
Two Glorious Benefits
My limited, but I hope significant and helpful, suggestion for Sarah is that two glorious uses of the Old Testament today are these. First, meeting God for who he really is so that we can know him and worship him since his character was revealed as truly in the Old Testament as in the New Testament.
Second, letting the hundreds of promises in the Old Testament wash over you as your blood-bought birthright in Christ Jesus so that every day, you set yourself free from sin by the superior pleasures of the promises of God.
Source: Desiring God | John Piper