Yesterday we read that “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 competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) It is evident, then, that the Old Testament is as profitable to us today as the New for all of these things, from teaching to training in righteousness.
Why is it that we ask this question? Why wouldn't we think that the Old Testament is relevant today? Of course, it was written a long time ago before the invention of cars and computers... perhaps we think it's not relevant because we cannot identify with the life and times of the people who lived back then? But people go through the same kinds of experiences regardless of when they lived, and we can always identify with the desires and emotions that all people feel throughout all of history. It is those aspects of humanity which are common to all of us that makes the Bible relevant today. We are all sinners, regardless of the time in which we live. All of us can identify even with the envy of Cain which so consumed him that he murdered his brother Abel. A story such as this could as easily be told today, and is absolutely relevant to us, for envy which leads to murder is in the hearts of us all. Envy, sexual immorality, idolatry in one form or another; these things are true of fallen humanity for all of history. There is nothing new under the sun. A great deal of the Old Testament is written in narrative, or “story” form. It tells the stories of people who are fundamentally like you and I, precisely so that we can identify with their lives, and see the relationship between God and His people... people like us.
Another reason we might think that the Old Testament isn't relevant to us is that the Old Testament is really all about Israel. More than that, God gave Israel the “Mosaic Law”. That is, a Law given by God to Moses for the nation of Israel to abide by. It involved sacrificing animals and observing various ceremonies, such as “Passover”. But since the New Testament tells us that we are no longer to sacrifice animals or observe these ceremonies, we might wonder how relevant the Old Testament is to us, when the people it writes about did all of these things. If, for example, God was upset with Israel for failing to keep the “Jubilee year”, what does that have to do with us, since we are no longer expected to keep it? But I think that if we look beyond the specific, such as the Jubilee year itself, and consider the purpose of the Jubilee, then we can apply this to our lives. The Jubilee was a year in which debts were forgiven, amongst other things. This was to prevent the oppression of the poor. The principle behind the Jubilee is certainly something we can apply to our lives. Whereas the Jubilee occurred once every fifty years, we understand that the principle behind it ought to be applied to our lives every day. Things like free will offerings that remind us how all we have belongs to God, or the Sabbath which reminds us to devote our time to God – these are all principles that should apply to our lives every day.
The Old Testament Law was never intended to be a kind of check-list of things that you have or haven't done. The Old Testament Law was always meant to be a revelation of the character of God for us to imitate. 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 says “For it is written in the Law of Moses, 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.' Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.” Paul says this to argue that he has the right to receive support from the people he has ministered to. (Though he's actually trying to show when it is appropriate to give up one's rights.) But we see how the Law was never meant to refer just to oxen, but to teach a principle of being kind and charitable to those who labour for you. In the Law this kindness is expressed towards oxen to make the point that if we should be kind and charitable toward oxen, how much more then toward people who labour for us.
Now, the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament is done away with. There is no longer a temple as the center of worship. And the people of God are no longer “centralised” in the nation of Israel. Peter says:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)
This passage is full of Old Testament allusions. The temple becomes an illustration of the “spiritual house” of the Church. What was said of Israel, that they would be a “holy priesthood” (Exodus 19:6), is here applied to the Church as the people of God. And we now offer up “spiritual sacrifices”. Many Old Testament things were illustrative of New Testament realities, and the more we read our Bibles, the more we come to understand that and see how these Old Testament things relate to our lives. We can see this clearly in the New Testament, especially in a book like Hebrews.
The Old Testament is the foundation upon which the New Testament is built. It is essential to be intimately acquainted with it if we desire to understand the New Testament properly. Jesus and the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament extensively, and most of the time they assume an acute knowledge of it. I am sure that we misunderstand their teaching if we have not first understood the Old Testament. God's people have always needed the Bible as their foundation...
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-21)