A while back a fellow Methodist pastor said he thought it inappropriate for Christians to claim the Hebrew Bible as our own Scriptures. He learned this in seminary, and I had heard the argument before too. The term he used to refer to what Christians have traditionally and generally called the Old Testament, “the Hebrew Bible,” is one way that some Christians have tried to avoid making such a claim, or at least to show respect for the Jewish people. A couple of weeks ago I saw a video of another Methodist pastor talking about the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31 while trying to say that it was a promise only for the Jews on the one hand, but also somehow trying to claim that the principle was applicable to modern Christians, and even then making an argument that the law that God would write on our hearts today would be a law of love not really in continuity with the law revealed in the “Hebrew Bible.” While trying to respect the Jewish faith he ended up belittling it by arguing that his notion of the law of love written on the heart is so much better than the law recorded in the “Hebrew Bible.” It was confused and, therefore, very confusing on a number of levels. The idea that claiming the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is inappropriate actually comes with more problems than the ones it attempts to solve.
Sometimes our solutions to perceived problems are more problematic than the perceived problems themselves. The problem in this case is if it’s true that claiming the Old Testament as Christian Scripture is wrong then we also have to dismiss the New Testament, including the claims of Jesus. The New Testament and Jesus as recorded therein repeatedly claim that Jesus came to and is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus himself clarified that this did not mean that he came to abolish the law and set up a completely different religion. He insisted that the law, the psalms, and the prophets were pointing to him all along. He claimed to be and his apostles proclaimed him to be the one who fulfilled the promises of God found therein. Jesus insisted that the Scripture (i.e. the OT/Hebrew Bible) must be fulfilled and in instituting the Lord’s supper he claimed that the New Covenant promise found in the Old Testament was to become a reality through his sacrificial death on the cross and through the power of his resurrection. Just read the Gospels for Christ’s sake. I mean that literally.
You can’t get past the second chapter of Matthew before the importance of how Jesus fulfills Old Testament Scripture becomes evident (see the work of Richard Hays “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” to understand the subtle and nuanced ways the Gospel writers reference OT passages). Jesus himself said with regards to his own actions that the Scriptures must be fulfilled (Matt 26:54; Mark 14:49; Luke 22:35-38). In 1 Corinthians 15, Saint Paul, emphasizes “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (v. 4). And this, along with Christ’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection, Paul insists was of first importance. Jesus taught the Scriptures and recovered and revealed their true meaning in contrast to the distortions of the varied traditions and false interpretations that were prevalent during his earthy ministry. The New Testament authors quote the Old Testament commandments as an authority for Jewish and Gentile Christians over and over again throughout. They also use the negative example of the failure of God’s people in the Old Testament stories to be faithful to God’s commandments as warnings for the New Covenant people of God (i.e. 1 Cor 10; Rev 2-3).
And when they talk about love it is never to pit love against faithfulness to God’s commandments. Jesus clearly commended the commandments summed up in the Ten Commandments for obedience on specific occasions (Mark 10:17-23). When he said the two most important laws were to love God fully and love ones neighbor as oneself, he wasn’t setting aside the other commandments, rather he was summarizing what they were all about. Jesus is the one who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; see also 1 John 5:). He didn’t say that in a vacuum so we in our postmodern times could fill it with whatever meaning we want. The apostle Paul rightly understood what Jesus would have meant when he says:
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10 ESV (emphasis obviously mine)
Yet in spite of this clear connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the continuity between the two declared in the latter, some still want to rend asunder what the Holy Spirit has joined together. A United Methodist seminary professor wrote an article arguing last summer that the Church had faith before the Church had Scripture (Can’t find the link now, unfortunately). Wrong! Faith in Christ as the fulfillment of Scripture was there from the very beginning of the Church.
On the very day of his resurrection, what does Luke say Jesus said to his disciples?
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Luke 24:25-27 ESV
“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’” Luke 24:44-49
When Paul in 2 Timothy says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (3:16-17),” he is referring to the Old Testament!! The Church has always had Scripture, even before and as the New Testament was being written.
So if it is wrong for Christians to claim the “Hebrew Bible” as their own Scriptures, then the New Testament and Jesus were wrong! I don’t believe that to be the case, but that is the logical implication.
I think so much of this just comes from the fact that we fail to understand the Old Covenant found in the law (Hebrew “Torah”) promised a new covenant all along. There are hints of this throughout the Old Testament. The logic of it is contained in the promise God made to Abraham that in and through the covenant God would establish with him and his descendants through Isaac, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12, 15, 17, etc.). God established a covenant with Abraham and his descendant through his son Isaac, whom had been promised by God and delivered by the miraculous power of God. From Isaac God would choose Jacob who would become Israel and the founding father of the nation of Israel. All along God intended to set Israel apart to be a light to the rest of the nations by way of their righteous and just living. Holiness by way of righteous living according to the moral law of God was at the heart of why God had chosen Abraham from the very beginning of their covenant together. In fact holy and righteous living in obedience to God’s word would be the means through which God would fulfill his promises to Abraham.
“For I [God] have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” Genesis 18:19
Of course Israel as a nation would fail to live in such a way that God’s promise to Abraham could be fulfilled. But where Israel failed, their Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth succeeded in living a life of perfect obedience to God’s will revealed in Torah, the Psalms, and the Prophets. Through faith in Jesus, people of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, are part of the family of Abraham and receive the promise of the new covenant, forgiveness of sins, a new heart with God’s law written thereupon, and the infilling of God’s very own Spirit. The promise of what Jeremiah would eventually call the new covenant was already alluded to in Deuteronomy 30. Jeremiah reiterated and expanded upon it as recorded in Jeremiah 31:31 ff, and Ezekiel (36-37) did as well. In fact Ezekiel 36:25-27 is probably also the background to Jesus’ teaching about the new birth in John 3. In every case the promise of the new covenant is that God’s people would be equipped and empowered for obedience to God’s law, Torah.
Although there is already a clear implication that there would be some differences between the two covenants, the Old and the New, as is self-evident in the term “new” itself, there is also a definite and substantial continuity. Eventually the church would discern through the Spirit and careful study of the Scriptures (i.e. the OT), a difference between the laws specifically for the ethnic, Old Covenant nation of Israel and the burgeoning international New Covenant community made up of Jews and Gentiles (See Acts 15; Galatians). This distinction, although there is some potential for misunderstanding, is captured in Articles 6 of the United Methodist Articles of Religion, which declares a harmony between the Old and New Testaments and that
“although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites, doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral” (p. 67 UMBOD 2016).
One potential misunderstanding is the idea that the ceremonial laws were wrong. That’s not the case; they fulfilled their purpose, but are not applicable to or necessary for all people everywhere for all time. Moreover, we still fulfill their symbolic purpose of being markers or badges of holy identity through faith and can learn from them more of what Christ’s sacrificial death means for us, for example. Another major potential misunderstanding could be that we are justified and saved BY obedience to the moral law. That is not what this means. We are saved not saved BY obedience to God’s law, but we are saved FOR obedience to God’s law, as Israel also was. We are saved by grace through faith for obedience to God’s law (see Eph 2:8-10; Romans 8).
Instead we seem to find more and more ingenious and/or disingenuous ways to make the law void through grace and faith (see Rom 3:31 in KJV; also Rom 6). John Wesley identified and offered reproof for this tendency toward antinomianism (i.e. lawlessness) in his two part sermon series entitled, “The Law Established through Faith” (Sermons 35 & 36). Wesley understood, along with Saint Paul, that Christian faith does not “overthrow the law.” Rather through faith, “on the contrary, we uphold the law” (see Rom 3:31 ESV). In his first sermon on that topic, Wesley goes through the ways we can make the law void through misunderstanding justification by faith, which he insisted is the cornerstone of Christian doctrine. One of the primary ways Wesley said we can make the law void instead of upholding it is to not preach the law and warn about the judgment to come so as to lead people to faith in Christ. Another is to so emphasize what God has done FOR us in Christ so as to utterly ignore what God’s grace does IN us in terms of transformation for holy living from a purified heart.
Again, Wesley is quick to point out:
“‘But are we not justified by faith, without the works of the law?’ Undoubtedly we are; without the works either of the ceremonial or the moral law. And would to God all men were convicted of this! It would prevent innumerable evils; Antinomianism in particular: For generally speaking, they are the Pharisees who make the Antinomians. Running into an extreme so palpably contrary to Scripture, they occasion others to run into the opposite one. These, seeking to be justified by works, affright those from allowing any place for them.
But the truth lies between both. We are, doubtless, justified by faith. This is the corner-stone of the whole Christian building. We are justified without the works of the law, as any previous condition of justification; but they are an immediate fruit of that faith whereby we are justified. So that if good works do not follow our faith, even all inward and outward holiness, it is plain our faith is nothing worth; we are yet in our sins. Therefore, that we are justified by faith, even by our faith without works, is no ground for making void the law through faith; or for imagining that faith is a dispensation from any kind or degree of holiness.” Sermon 35 Section II:5-6
Holiness, righteous living according to the moral law is a result of justification by faith, not the cause of it. Martin Luther also taught this truth. In his “Treatise on Good Works” he said Christian faith fulfills obedience to the first commandment from which obedience to the rest of the commandments flows. This he said is the content of the good works which are the fruit of genuine Christian faith. Salvation by grace through faith doesn’t give us a license to ignore the law; it gives us the power to fulfill it!
Yes, there is a difference between ceremonial, ritual, and civil law meant for the nation state of Israel and the moral law of God, which is universal and timeless, and by which he judges all people. This is not to say that it wasn’t immoral for an Israelite to flout ceremonial law, and that point of potential confusion is not an excuse to declare that “moral law was a category completely unknown to the ‘Hebrew Bible'” as another of our United Methodist ministers recently did. While the distinction is not as clear-cut as our sometimes shorthand language may imply, it is quite evident in the New Testament itself. For example, in Ephesians, while Paul can say “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” that separated Jews from Gentiles has been abolished in chapter 2 (v. 11-22), he also says in chapter 5, echoing the Ten Commandments:
“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Ephesians 5:3-11 ESV
So of course the Old Testament has plenty of ongoing significance for Christians and should be considered Christian Scripture without any qualms, even as we respect the fact that Jews still rightfully claim it as their own and were the ones originally entrusted with it (see Rom 3:1-2) as well. That being said, another way that Wesley said we can make the law void, is by failing to teach the whole counsel of God, which would certainly include all of the Old Testament, which contains plenty of law but also plenty of the gospel. The same can be said of the New Testament as well. To call the Old Testament old should not be construed to mean that it is obsolete or has been corrected. Rather it is to emphasize that its most powerful promise, the promise of the New Covenant, is fulfilled in the life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we believe to be the Messiah and the Savior of the world, and about whom the New Testament bears witness.
If we could break our addiction to prooftexting and be delivered from our penchant for pulling Biblical texts from their contexts and plugging them into the faddish religious and political narratives of the day, we could find our own place in the story of God’s love for His covenant people revealed in His word. And we could see how Jesus fulfills the promises of God to Abraham and his family, of which we can be a member through faith. Then we would see that all of God’s story is our story too.
“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit[e] through faith.” Galatians 3:7-14 ESV