Do Christians use a book, more than half of which is obsolete and irrelevant? Did God provide humanity with two sets of inspired writings, the Old Testament and the New?
One of the common misconceptions among readers of the Bible is that a large part of it is obsolete-irrelevant for modern life. Sadly, some professing Christians have unwittingly turned a blind eye to much of God's revelation by rejecting what is known as the Old Testament. They believe that the New Testament-the writings of the apostles-is what really matters; that the Old Testament was valid up until Christ came, but at that time became old and outdated.
Did God, in essence, provide humankind with two Bibles? Did He inspire one set of writings-the Hebrew Scriptures-for the Israelites living from Moses' time to Christ's birth, and then provide another set in the first century, with that set intended for everyone else?
Does the Bible itself have anything to say about this idea? Would one part of the Bible reject the other?
Let's see exactly what the Bible itself has to say about the Old Testament. We will see whether God gave us two different sets of writings-or one continuous inspired set of teachings and instruction.
Let's begin with the terms Old Testament and New Testament . The general view is that the Old Testament was old-and thus obsolete or worn out-and that it has been replaced by the New Testament. Is this view found in the Bible? No, it isn't. The terms Old Testament and New Testament are found in a few places in some Bible translations, but the word translated "testament" is actually the word for "covenant." Those scriptures simply talk about the old and new covenants-not about books of the Bible.
If you had been around to ask the apostles John, Peter or Paul about the "Old Testament" or the "New Testament," they would have had no idea what you meant. The terms Old Testament and New Testament were coined by men long after the books of the Bible were written. The first use of the term New Testament is found in the writings of the early theologian Tertullian (ca. A.D. 155-220), a century or more after the deaths of the apostles.
Some surprising facts
Let's consider a few statistics to show how the writers of what is known as the New Testament viewed the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament today. These are very revealing.
How many times do the writers of the New Testament quote the Old Testament? An index in the Jewish New Testament catalogs 695 separate quotations from the books of the Old Testament in the New (Jewish New Testament Publications, Jerusalem, 1989). There are many other passages where the Old Testament is referred to , as in cases where an Old Testament figure is mentioned, but no specific scripture is quoted. Depending on which scholar's work you examine, the number of quotations and references in the New Testament to the Old may be as high as 4,105 (Roger Nicole, The Expositor's Bible Commentary , Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1979, Vol. I, p. 617).
Compare those figures to the number of times other writers are quoted in the New Testament: four . The apostles quoted the Old Testament 695 times , but other writers only four times . Yet some people insist that the teaching of the New Testament is that the Old is obsolete, only valid for a specific people during a limited time in history.
Consider a few more statistics. Of the 27 books and letters forming the New Testament, 21 quote the Old. The only ones that don't directly quote the Old Testament are the six shortest-Titus, Philemon, 1, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. However, Titus, 1 John, 3 John and Jude allude to Old Testament personalities or passages.
Let's look at it the other way around too. The way modern Bibles are organized, there are 39 books in the Old Testament. Of these 39 books, only nine are not quoted in the New Testament. However, since the Hebrew Bible has long organized these books differently than they appear in modern Bibles, and some of these nine were originally combined with and part of other books, in reality only five of the Old Testament books are not quoted in the New Testament.
Some assume that the five books of Moses are obsolete, as they focus so heavily on laws supposedly annulled by Jesus Christ. However, these same five books are quoted at least 245 times and referred to many more. Paul, the apostle who some believe taught that the law contained in these five books is done away, quoted from those books between 70 and 110 times -more than any other New Testament figure. Jesus Christ quoted from these same books about 60 times.
Paul's view of the Hebrew Scriptures
With that background, let's consider some passages in the New Testament that directly discuss the Hebrew Scriptures.
Paul made his view of the Old Testament clear in 2 Timothy, a letter filled with instruction for a younger minister. He wrote that "from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures" (2 Timothy 3:15, emphasis added throughout).
What are the "Holy Scriptures" Paul refers to? At the time this was written, about A.D. 66, there was no "New Testament"-some of what has since then been called the New Testament hadn't even been written at that point. Paul is referring very clearly to the Old Testament; those were the Holy Scriptures Timothy had been taught since childhood by his Jewish mother (Acts 16:1-3).
Though it may be surprising to some, Paul clearly states that these same Scriptures "are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). Salvation was available under the Old Testament Scriptures. And how was it available? "Through faith which is in Christ Jesus." Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, Daniel, David and others who are promised eternal life elsewhere in the Scriptures received salvation the same way we do-through faith in Jesus Christ, through faith and belief in a promised Messiah who would redeem them from their sins.
Jesus Christ did not die only for those who have lived since His death. He died for all the men, women and children who have ever lived, both before and after His physical life on earth.
What else does Paul say about these Holy Scriptures known as the Old Testament? "
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God ..." Paul described Scripture with the term theopneustos . The first part of this word, Theo , means "God." The second part is pneustos , meaning "breathed." Paul says, as some translations put it, that "all Scripture is God-breathed ," meaning it came directly from God . In other words, the Hebrew Scriptures, said Paul, came directly from the very breath and Spirit of God!
Continuing, Paul tells Timothy that Scripture "is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (verses 16-17).
Consider another point about this passage. This letter was written about A.D. 66-only about a year before Paul was executed. This is Paul's last surviving letter before he died. And in it he tells another minister that the Old Testament Scriptures, rather than being obsolete, are inspired by God and "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness," that Christians may be "complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."
Paul's teaching and practice
How did Paul himself preach and teach? We've already noted that he quoted the five books of Moses more than any other New Testament writer did. But are his letters the only time he quoted from the Old Testament?
Acts 28 describes Paul's arrival in Rome and the conditions of his confinement there while awaiting trial. He could not leave, but he could receive visitors. "So when they had appointed him a day, many [of the Jewish leaders in Rome] came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets , from morning till evening" (Acts 28:23-24).
Here Paul, in about 63, almost 30 years after he had been called and converted, explained and persuaded a group of fellow Jews from "both the Law of Moses and the Prophets"-two of the major divisions of the Old Testament. He did not tell them that they no longer needed to heed the Hebrew Scriptures, but rather taught Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God from them-strange actions if you believe that Paul tried to turn people away from the Old Testament.
Peter's closing comments
How did other apostles view the Old Testament?
Peter's second epistle is his last surviving letter, written in prison shortly before his death. He knew he was going to die soon: "Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease" (2 Peter 1:15).
What were "these things" that Peter wanted others to remember after his death? This epistle contains his last words to the Church, so we should pay close attention to all of it. But what does he discuss immediately after mentioning he wanted them to remember "these things"?
In the next few verses Peter talks about the reality of Jesus Christ . He talks about the transfiguration of Christ when he, James and John saw Christ transfigured in His glory (verses 16-18; Matthew 17:1-9). He said that Christ wasn't a myth, He wasn't a "cunningly devised fable," but He was real -real enough for Peter to give his life for Him. Then Peter adds, "And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts" (verse 19).
What is this "prophetic word"? He is referring to the return of Jesus Christ, which will happen when "the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." This also ties in with the transfiguration, when Peter saw Jesus Christ in His glorified state as He will appear when He returns.
Peter seems to be saying that the vision he, James and John shared-of the glorified Jesus Christ-is the same kind of experience that the prophets of the Old Testament had when they saw and recorded their visions of the LORD and the coming Messiah. Peter confirms that what the prophets wrote is true . They wrote of a Messiah who would bring God's Kingdom. And Peter, James and John saw the same things when they saw Jesus Christ in His majesty.
Then Peter adds, "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (verses 20-21).
What "prophecy" and what "Scripture" is Peter discussing? From the context, we see that he's talking about the prophecies that spoke of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. What is Peter's point? That the prophets of the Old Testament were right. They were "holy men of God" who spoke and wrote God's words . The men who wrote the Old Testament did so under the inspiration of God's Spirit.
Jesus Christ's teaching
What about Jesus Christ? How did He view the writings forming the Old Testament? Let's examine what Jesus Christ had to say about its validity.
If ever Jesus Christ wanted to convey the idea that the Old Testament was obsolete, surely He would have done so during His ministry or after His resurrection. But did He?
Luke 24 describes events following His resurrection. On that same day, Jesus met two of His followers, neither of whom recognized Him, and walked with them. They related the astounding events of the last few days, including Christ's execution and the disappearance of His body from the tomb (verses 13-24).
Notice Christ's reaction: "Then He said to them, 'O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ [the Messiah] to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?' And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets , He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself" (verses 25-27).
What did Jesus Christ do immediately after His resurrection? He asked two of His followers, "Why is it so hard for you to believe what the prophets said would happen to the Messiah?" And then, from the five books of Moses and the writings of the prophets, He showed how everything that had happened was prophesied to happen. He confirmed the validity of the Scriptures.
Later He appeared to the 11 disciples and other followers. "Then He said to them, 'These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.' And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (verses 44-45). Christ did not do away with "the Scriptures"-the Hebrew Bible-but helped His followers to better understand and comprehend them.
Similarly, the apostle Paul cited passages from all three sections of the Old Testament-the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms-in describing Christ's mission (Romans 15:7-13; Psalm 18:49; 117:1; Deuteronomy 32:43; Isaiah 11:1, 10). Why would Paul do this if he thought the Old Testament had become invalid, as some suppose?
Such examples make it clear that one function of the Old Testament Scriptures was to correctly identify the Messiah-the Anointed One-Jesus of Nazareth. But later Paul wrote that these same Old Testament Scriptures were also "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), making us "wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (verse 15). Christ Himself showed us how to use the Hebrew Bible as a very effective spiritual sword in combating the wiles of Satan.
Christ's consistent approach
Christ's view of the Scriptures was the same throughout His ministry. In Matthew 4 we see what Jesus Christ said about the Old Testament at the very beginning of His earthly ministry.
"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, 'If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.' But [Christ] answered and said, 'It is written, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God"'" (verses 1-4).
What was Christ's response to Satan's temptation? He quoted the Old Testament, specifically Deuteronomy 8:3. What words had proceeded out of the mouth of God at that point? The Old Testament. The first book of the New Testament wouldn't be written for another 15 to 20 years. Man is not to live by either the Old Testament or the New Testament, "but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."
Satan continued his efforts to tempt Jesus, who responded again by quoting the Old Testament-Deuteronomy 6:16, 6:13 and 10:20. Satan had to recognize the authority of that Scripture and of Jesus Christ Himself, and he slunk away in defeat.
Christ's explicit words
Immediately after this, Jesus began His earthly ministry. The "Sermon on the Mount" is one of the first recorded examples of His teaching, and what does He say? "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets [the Old Testament]. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17).
Despite these clear words, some people still think Christ came to abolish the law revealed in the Old Testament. Christ told His followers not to think that He came to destroy the Law or the Prophets-yet many people think that's exactly what He taught.
Jesus said He "did not come to destroy but to fulfill." The word fulfill in this verse means simply "to fill up." This same word is used of filling up nets with fish (Matthew 13:48). When you fill up a net with fish, you don't throw the net away and say you don't need it anymore. Yet many distort Christ's words to say this is what He taught.
Jesus Christ fulfilled numerous prophecies of the Old Testament-but there are many more that He didn't fulfill in His first coming. He fulfilled the Law in the sense that He showed its spiritual intent-He showed how we will be living if we truly live by God's law.
Lest anybody get the wrong idea about what He was saying, Jesus clarified His teaching even more: "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments , and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:18-19).
Sadly, some believe that the Old Testament is only of human origin-a collection of good and helpful ideas, but nonetheless humanly devised. Some also apply this thinking to the laws revealed in the Old Testament. Did Jesus Christ have anything to say about this notion?
Matthew 15 records a confrontation between Jesus Christ and a group of scribes and Pharisees. It is easy to read through this and miss a vital point in Christ's words. "Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 'Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.' He answered and said to them, 'Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded , saying, "Honor your father and your mother"; and, "He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death"'" (verses 1-4).
Here Jesus quotes the Fifth Commandment, to honor one's parents, and Exodus 21:17, which directed that one who curses his father or mother was to be put to death for his insolence and rebellion. But did you notice how Jesus quoted it? He didn't say, "For Moses commanded ..."-He said "God commanded" this. Three times in verses 3 through 6 He says that these are God's commandments, not the commandments of any man.
When we examine the words and actions of Jesus Christ and the apostles, we can only conclude with them that the Old Testament is the inspired Word of God, inspired by God Himself and written through human instruments. The writers of the New Testament believed and taught that it was valid in their time and gave no clue that it was abolished or annulled by Jesus Christ. They read the Old Testament Scriptures and applied them as God's divine instruction for all humanity for all time.