Late last week an article was making the rounds concerning comments about the Old Testament by Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in the Atlanta area. In an article in Relevant Magazine, he argued that Christians sometimes place too much emphasis on the Old Testament, particularly the Ten Commandments, and that they should instead focus on the New Testament and Jesus.
The context of Stanley’s remarks concerned various monuments to the Ten Commandments erected throughout the nation. Stanley said, “[I]f we’re going to create a monument to stand as a testament to our faith, shouldn’t it at least be a monument of something that actually applies to us? … Participants in the new covenant (that’s Christians) are not required to obey any of the commandments found in the first part of their Bibles.” Later, he writes, “… church leaders essentially kidnapped the Jewish Scriptures and claimed them as their own.”
In the spirit of Christian charity, I won’t go through Stanley’s article line-by-line, but will instead focus on a few questions and points.
Why is the Old Testament Important?
Why even bother with the Old Testament? Is it just a set of Jewish Scriptures that has little to no relevance for Christians today? There have been attempts throughout Christian history to separate the two Testaments. Most famous, perhaps, is that of Marcion in the 2nd Century who completely rejected the Old Testament. Less extreme examples, however, are more prevalent, such as when people view God as dealing with His people in one way in the Old Testament (through the Law) and in a different way in the New Testament (through the Gospel).
However, God’s promises of salvation for the sake of Christ are found throughout the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis 3:15 directly after the Fall of Adam and Eve. He then gathers together a people around this promise, which is the “people of the promise.” A short-hand way to think about this is that those who believe in God’s promises are the Church. The Old Testament Church therefore begins with Adam and Eve and includes all those who believe that God will redeem and restore the world through the one He anointed for this purpose (i.e. the Christ or Messiah). Thus, the Church began with Adam and Eve, continues through their son Seth, through to Noah, through to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Jacob is renamed Israel by God, and the Church was then known by that name in the Old Testament, but all those who had faith were part of Israel, even those not descended from Abraham/Isaac/Jacob, just as some of these descendants were not part of the Church (cf. Romans 9:6-8). This is seen most visibly in the incorporation of Ruth, a Moabite, and Rahab, a prostitute of Canaan, not only into the covenant of the Church, but also ancestors of Jesus the Christ himself. Likewise, the fact that God sent the prophet Jonah to the Assyrians and then the Assyrian Naaman to Elisha for healing (and many similar events) illustrate the fact that God’s promise of the Christ in the Old Testament was meant for all people. The mission of the people of Israel, the Church, was to be witnesses to this promise to all nations (i.e. the Gentiles); it remains the mission of the New Testament Church today, the new Israel (cf. Galatians 6:11-16).
So, the Old Testament is still important and relevant precisely because it is the account of God’s promises of salvation and the people who believed Him; it is the story of the Church. The Old Testament Church looked forward to Christ’s coming as well as his return for the final judgment, just as the New Testament Church looks back to Christ’s incarnation as well as forward yet again.
The Old Testament Scriptures, therefore, served to orient people to the coming of the Christ. The tabernacle, the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the ceremonial laws (all ordained by God and designed by him) served to give the people a glimpse of what He was doing through Christ. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament brings out this point beautifully: Christ is the true High Priest who sacrificed himself and presents his holy blood before the Father to atone for our sins so that God may dwell directly again with us, as it was in the beginning before the Fall. After the future resurrection of our bodies, then, we will live directly with God in a world without sin, evil, or death – as God intended and as it was in Eden. We in the New Testament Church therefore have the same faith as those in the Old Testament Church, just in a clearer way due to the incarnation of Christ (cf. Hebrews 11:1ff).
What is the Relevance of the Ten Commandments for Christians?
I mentioned that the Church began in Genesis 3:15, after the Fall, when God promised a Savior and Adam and Eve believed him. Something else began after the Fall as well: civil government. Just as humanity needed salvation, provided by Christ and witnessed to by the Church, so too does it need a way to keep order in the world among sinful, fallen people. This order and enforcement of peace and justice is provided by government, even if it fails at times in its task or oversteps its bounds.
Related to this is the concept of Natural Law. God intends for the world to operate a certain way and for people to relate to one another in a certain way. This He has written on all our hearts as Natural Law, so that all people have an innate sense of right and wrong (Romans 2:14-15). Thus, throughout history we see attempts at codifying this Natural Law, most famously perhaps in the Code of Hammurabi. It is often pointed to by non-Christians to try to make the case that the Ten Commandments are not so special.
Well, in a way, perhaps they are correct, to some extent at least. The Ten Commandments are reflections of the Natural Law that God has instilled in all of us. However, they are unique, because in them God Himself is making His Natural Law clear to us; things like the Code of Hammurabi were also expressions of this Law, yet filtered through fallen humanity.
The Ten Commandments, therefore, are qualitatively different from the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament; those served to mark the Church Israel out from the surrounding nations, to make them unique so that people could see them as a distinctive witness to the One True God (we have similar things in the New Testament today through the Sacraments and Liturgy). The Ten Commandments, however, as clear elucidations of Natural Law, apply to all people of all times, because they represent God’s good will for our lives as humans.
It is true that Christians are justified before God due to our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, and his sacrifice. Yet, the Ten Commandments still remain as expressions of God’s will for our lives. If we want to live as His children in a way that is pleasing to Him, then we can look to His Commandments are our guide. Indeed, the promise of God is that He will increasingly conform us to the image of Christ, rather than to the fallen image of Adam in which we were born, so that we will be restored to the image in which He originally created humanity (cf. Colossians 1:15ff).
Yet, as I mentioned, the Commandments, as an expression of Natural Law, also apply and are relevant to all people. Ask yourself a question: would our lives be improved by breaking the Commandments? Are things better when we do so? Look at all the hurt and pain caused in the world by rejecting God, cheating on our spouses, stealing, coveting, lying, etc… God knows what He is doing with the Commandments: they serve to keep order in the world and enable us to live in peace with each other. And even if people reject them or do not know them, they are still written on their hearts as Natural Law and we feel them through the pangs of conscience.
It is for this reason, then, that our Founders and people today often erect monuments to the Commandments at courthouses (even if they number them incorrectly :- ) ). It is because they reflect the Natural Law that applies to all people and also because civil government is charged by God to keep order, enforce justice, and punish evildoers.
A Final Plea
My closing encouragement for Christians is to read the Old Testament with an eye towards Christ. Look at the big picture and try to see the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, as a unified whole that is centered around Christ. The Old Testament is yours as well, for it tells of God’s promises and of His people who believed in His promises, with whom you are connected through Christ and will be joined with in person at the coming resurrection. So, look for the One promised in pages of the Old Testament, because He is there (cf. John 12:41, Isaiah 6:1ff), just as he showed the disciples on the way to Emmaus:
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)