“Most churchmen these days wisely disown the horrific genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament.” – Richard Dawkins, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/richard-dawkins-william-lane-craig
“Meanwhile, albeit sometimes in zigzag fashion, the long vectors of history pointed steadily toward his Son, Jesus, the final revelation of God in human form.” – Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read
My apologies to Richard, but I, for one, am not a churchman who is willing to disown anything ordered or carried out by the God of the Old Testament. It’s sad how some people are happy to take nothing more than a cursory glance at the first 39 books at the Bible, often seeing nothing more than a few scriptures posted on the web by sceptics decrying the ‘barbaric’ nature of them. To an extent, I can see why someone might get hung up on a verse like ‘Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys’ (1 Sam. 15:3). However, I do not believe that a verse glance at a verse like that should cause someone to ignore such verses as ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Hos. 6:6) or ‘those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength’ (Isa 40:31). Please be aware that I’m not saying that anyone should go to the other extreme and ignore the first verse that I gave, instead, we should read each verse in the context that it was written and in the background of the character of God revealed in the Bible as a whole (including the New Testament).
Having said that, I do not want to go into verses like 1 Samuel 15:3 now. You may say that this is avoiding the issue and ignoring my own advice, but it would be too much of a digression from the subject of this blog, so I’ll attempt to address it another time. What I do want to go into now is the relevance of the Old Testament, why it is important for Christianity and how it relates to the New Testament. The first point to make is that the Old Testament represents the old covenant. Many of the things in it, such as the rules of sacrifices, no longer apply to Christians who have been cleansed completely by the blood of Christ. But as Jesus himself said, he came to the world not to destroy the law, but to complete it (Mat. 5:17). How did he complete it? Well, the completion of the sacrificial law is evident in that Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice; by his death on the cross, he removed the need for animal sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem (again, the details of this are a topic best left for another blog). Furthermore, Jesus emphasised the need for holiness and perfection in his people (Mat. 5:48) which echoes a command in the Old Testament to be holy (Lev. 11:44), but he fulfilled this command because by his blood, anyone who calls on his name shall be made clean (Rom. 10:13, 1 John 1:7).
A second way in which the Old Testament and the New Testament are directly linked is through the OT prophets. Many of these prophets mentioned Jesus in some way at some point in their writings. My favourite prophetic passage is Isaiah 53. Incredibly, this passage predicts the piercing of Jesus (v. 5), several details about his torture and execution (v. 4-9) and his future glorification (v. 11-12). Other passages in the OT predict events in Jesus’ life with astonishing accuracy. For example, Psalm 22:18 predicts that Jesus’ clothing will be divided up by lot after his crucifixion, a prophecy that clearly comes true in John 19:24 (in fact, this detail gets a mention in all four gospels). This lends support to the point in the previous paragraph; the idea that the NT is a fulfilment of the OT.
God doesn’t change the plan that he has for the world (46:9-11). The verses above, along with other similar verses, show that God had a plan from the OT times to bring Jesus into the world as God incarnate and to save the world through him. The quote from Philip Yancey at the top of the page explains this concept very well. Why then, does God seem different in the OT to God in the NT? I have seen it argued (I can’t remember where) that the God of the OT is a strict, harsh father, whilst the God of the NT is more of a caring, motherly figure. However, anyone who’s read Revelation will know that the God of the NT definitely has a tough side (e.g. Rev. 19:11-21), whilst readers of passages such as Zephaniah 3:9-20 will know that the God of the OT can be a very caring, forgiving, loving person. This, then, brings us back to the importance of understanding any given verse or chapter in the context of the whole Bible. We also need to accept, as C. S. Lewis once said, the sovereignty of God, not just the love of God. It seems to me that Christians can forget the holiness of God, despite it being mentioned many more times in the Bible than the love of God. From my own reading, I’ve found that in the OT, the holiness of God is clearly emphasised (Isa. 6:3, 1 Sam. 2:2, Exo. 15:11), along with a command for humans to be holy like him, and in the NT, Jesus’ sacrifice brought about the conditions needed for humans to be made truly holy.
I am aware that there is so much more that could be said on this topic than that which I could reasonably fit into this post. I have tried to cover some important issues that link the OT and the NT, namely, the completion of the law, the prophecies of Jesus and the character of God, but I haven’t been able to go into great depth on these or other topics because of the limits of the nature of the post. I would respectfully ask any sceptic to look at passages of the OT in context always and not just rip them to shreds on assumptions about them, but I would also ask Christians not to neglect the OT (and by that, I don’t mean just read a couple of Psalms or Proverbs every now and then). There is so much in the first 39 books that is overlooked, like the tragic story of Samson, the beauty of the prophets and the wonders of creation revealed at the end of Job. Don’t be afraid of the OT, and read it with the knowledge that the NT has given us. It is my belief that the Bible is a complete book because all of it is relevant, not just the last few books that seem more comfortable for us to read.