THE OLD TESTAMENT CHALLENGED
Recently, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley has received a lot of pushback from the Christian community for telling Christians to “unhitch” their faith from the OT: “[First century] Church leaders unhitched the church from the worldview, value system, and regulations of the Jewish scriptures,” said Stanley.
I wasn’t a Christian long when I realized I preferred to spend my time of Bible study in the New Testament (NT) rather than the Old Testament (OT), which isn’t surprising. After all, we call ourselves Christians because of Jesus Christ, so it’s natural to want to spend more time in his teachings and the letters of his disciples in the NT. With this, the OT is much more ancient, longer, and more difficult to grasp than the NT. Frankly, many Christians don’t know what to make of much of the OT and when considering challenging issues concerning the Bible, many Christians find themselves wishing the OT simply wasn’t there.
Where Stanley still claims the OT is the inspired word of God, those who hold a less-traditional view of Scripture assign the OT lesser status than the NT, some even dismissing much (or all) of the OT as not part God’s divine Word. In fact, many – whether they realize it or not – chop up the Bible and create a hierarchy of biblical authority. According to this thinking, the four Gospels – and particularly Jesus’ actual words in those Gospels – are more authoritative than both the OT and other NT writings.
The church’s traditional, historical view of the Bible is that it’s all God’s Word. Whether it’s Moses’ words, Jeremiah’s words, Matthew’s words, Paul’s words, or Jesus’ words, it’s all “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) and holds the same level of authority: the authority of God.
But the fact remains, many Christians do their best to simply avoid the OT. Yet, the longer I study the Bible, the more I have realized that one cannot make sense of the NT without the OT (and vice versa). The Bible is not two separate, unrelated revelations of God, but one continuing revelation.
The OT is important for all Christians to wrestle with and gain a better understanding of, and I want my brothers and sisters in Christ to understand this.
So, to get this point across, I will NOT be arguing for a traditional view of Scripture or explaining why the canon is divinely-inspired or laying out biblical theology so one sees the logical connection between the OT and NT.
No, we’re simply going to look at Jesus’ attitude towards the OT. We’ll work through one gospel per article, starting with Mark.
I think you’ll see that Jesus’ thinking and theology are all perfectly in line with the OT and that Jesus considered what we call the OT anything but irrelevant.
THE DATA: MARK’S GOSPEL
I decided to start with the Gospel of Mark for one simple reason: it’s easily the shortest of the four. How much will Jesus refer to the OT in it?
Mark contains 16 “chapters.” As I read through, I simply jotted down every reference to the OT I came across (excluding most of the times Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man,” though this is a title adopted from the OT). Though chapters were not part of the original manuscripts, they give us a rough idea of the length of each Gospel as compared to the others.
I counted 18 OT references.
Of these, 15 were said by Jesus himself. So, all but 3 came from Jesus’ mouth.
Thus, 83% of OT references, allusions, and quotes in Mark’s Gospel are Jesus’ words.
THE GOSPEL OF MARK:
18 References to OT
15 References to OT made by Jesus
83% of OT references are made by Jesus
Let’s look quickly at 5 significant passages from those 15 OT references by Jesus:
2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:2–9).
When questioned about divorce, Jesus without hesitating points his opponents to the Jewish Scripture (what we call the OT). Not only does he refer back to the creation story in Genesis 1-2, but he quotes directly from it (while indirectly referring to Adam and Eve). With this, Jesus refers directly to Moses (and his writings on divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
It’s interesting to note that Jesus clearly teaches that not all OT commandments by Moses are universal. (For a more on why certain OT commandments are still followed by Christians and other are not, click here.) But what is most significant is that Jesus uses Genesis 1-2 – pointing way back to creation before the fall into sin – to give his definition of marriage: one man and one woman becoming “one flesh” for life through God.
24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:24–27).
Here, Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees, who don’t believe in the future resurrection of the dead. Again, it’s striking how Jesus immediately refers back to the OT to argue his stance, even chastising them for not knowing Scripture and plainly telling them “you are wrong.” Once again, he refers to Moses, mentioning specifically Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush in Exodus 3, as well as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from Genesis.
But what is most interesting is that Jesus bases his whole argument on the tense of a single verb! As proof of a future resurrection, Jesus quotes God’s words to Moses at the burning bush: “I am the God of Abraham…Isaac… Jacob.” From a human standpoint, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long dead at the time of Moses’ life, yet God is – not was – their God. Jesus is using the present tense Hebrew word for am to prove that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still experiencing life with God. To those on earth, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were gone, but Jesus says it’s not so; God is still their God because they still live.
What kind of confidence in the authority and preservation of the OT must Jesus have to base his whole argument of the tense of one verb?
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28–31)
This passage is important because it shows Jesus’ understanding of the continuity of the OT and NT. Many Christians shy away from the OT because, they think, its teachings do not fit well into NT teachings. Jesus clearly doesn’t think there’s any disconnect between the OT and NT. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18; thus, the greatest commandments, according to Jesus, come from the OT. As I said above, the OT and NT are one continuos revelation from God.
This should motivate us all to work for a better understanding of the OT. Yes, some of it seems strange and harsh to us, but Jesus did not think so. This should motivate us to wrestle with the tough passages to understand them as Jesus did.
Furthermore, understanding the difference between the OT moral law and the OT religious law and why Christians continue to follow one and not the other is essential. (To start, again see here.)
35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,
“ ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.” ’
37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. (Mark 12:35–37)
I love this passage because, again, we see Jesus using the specific wording of an OT passage to astound his listeners. This is also significant not only because Jesus quotes Psalm 110 and confirms David as the author, but also Jesus states that David wrote this by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus basically asks, if the Messiah will be David’s descendant (“son”), how can the great King David call him his Lord? Jesus is dropping a loud hint that the divinely-inspired Psalms are telling them that the Messiah will be much, much greater than King David.
49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” (Mark 14:49).
This final passage we’ll look at in this article is from Jesus’ arrest before his crucifixion. Though he doesn’t make a specific reference to an OT passage, he refers to “the Scriptures” – which to a Jew of Jesus’ day could only be what we call the OT today – and that they are being fulfilled through these events. Thus, Jesus says his arrest and execution actually fulfill the OT.
One comes to understand through Jesus (and the NT revelation) that the whole of the OT is a foreshadowing and preparation for the coming of the God-man and his atonement for sins by his death on the cross. Where it’s beyond the scope of this article to explore how Christ fulfills the OT law, it’s enough to note here that Jesus in Mark 14:49 (and other places in the Gospels) confirms that he does.
But if that’s not satisfying to you, take a moment and read Isaiah 53. Here’s a taste:
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
Did Jesus consider the Old Testament relevant? He clearly did.