It is without doubt a mixed blessing that whatever Christian leaders say in public nowadays often gets distributed immediately and very widely via social media and YouTube – and once it is “out there,” it is difficult to get it back. I wonder if Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, would like to “get back” some of the words he used in a sermon recently concerning the Old Testament.1
If this had been a sermon about the need for Christians to read Old Testament Scripture well rather than badly, and even about the necessity of churches devoting far more resources than they currently do to helping their members to achieve this, I’m sure that many people would have applauded; certainly I would have done so. But what Andy actually urged Christians to do was to “unhitch” the Old Testament from their Christian faith.
He acknowledged that these “Jewish scriptures,” as he called them, are certainly an important “back story” for “the main story” of Christian Scripture – they represent a divinely inspired description of “God on the move through an ancient, ancient time.” However, the Old Testament – “or the Law and the Prophets as they called it” – was not regarded in the early Church as “the go-to source regarding any [his emphasis] behavior in the church.” Those early Church leaders “unhitched the church from the worldview, the value system, and the regulations of the Jewish Scriptures,” including the Ten Commandments; “they unhitched the church from the entire thing … everything’s different, everything’s new.” And we should follow their example: “Jesus’ new covenant, His covenant with the nations, His covenant with you, His covenant with us, can stand on its own two nail-scarred resurrection feet. It does not need propping up by the Jewish scriptures.”
Andy acknowledged in this sermon that his comments might be considered “a little disturbing” by some listeners, and judging by the reaction on social media, he was quite right. Significant numbers did not applaud. In many ways, however, it is a mistake to focus simply on this sermon, for in doing so we run the risk of getting distracted from a larger and more important reality: that the kind of position Andy has articulated is not unusual in the contemporary church worldwide.
And it is this fact, rather than the words of one preacher in one sermon, that we ought to find truly disturbing. For to regard the Old Testament (OT) as anything less than actively relevant Christian Scripture, in precisely the same sense that the New Testament (NT) is Christian Scripture, is to step outside the bounds of historic, orthodox Christian faith. It is to step aside from following Christ. And many Christians appear not to realise that this is so.
Jesus and the Old Testament
Long before there was a Church, there was already a Scripture.2 Its prior existence is indicated in the Gospels in what Jesus himself names on a number of occasions as “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g., Luke 16:16) or close variants (like “Moses and the prophets”) – selected human words recognized as representing at the same time the word of God, and as such preserved for posterity. That is to say, they were recognized as prophetic, in the broad sense; they were recognized as “inspired.” It is this canonical collection of Law and Prophets that in Jesus’ own lifetime and in the history of the earliest Church “was viewed as a privileged, stable witness against which the claims of the gospel were tested and shown to have been established from of old”3 – was understood, indeed, as “the very words of God” (Rom. 3:2). In Matthew 5:17-20, for example, Jesus tells his hearers:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
In line with this, we find Jesus again and again in the Gospels basing his teaching or arguments on the OT, sometimes prefacing what he is about to say with phrases like “it is written that” (e.g., Mk. 14:27; Mt. 11:10) and thereby drawing people’s attention to the authority upon which he rests his case. After the resurrection, Jesus rebukes two of his confused and downhearted disciples precisely for failing to take these same Scriptures sufficiently seriously when trying to understand their present experience:
How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christhave to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
The central importance of the OT Scriptures is emphasized again shortly afterwards, in Luke 24:44, when Jesus advises all the core disciples and others that “[e]verything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” If the disciples, after the resurrection, want to understand what is going on in the world and in their lives, they must attend to these OT Scriptures. Jesus himself sends them there.
The Apostles and the Old Testament
The remainder of the NT reveals that the earliest Church took this advice very seriously; we would of course expect this of disciples of Jesus. This comes to expression clearly in the famous words of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV): “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
The primary reference here is of course to the OT, since the NT does not yet exist; and we notice immediately how impossible is any idea that these “Jewish scriptures” are merely “divinely inspired backstory” but not at the same time a “go-to source regarding … behavior in the church.” The OT is inspired Scripture designed precisely so that it is useful to the Church in “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” It is the very canon (or measuring-stick) of Christian faith and practice in the first century AD.
We see this played out in the book of Acts, where Christians are described as sharing with Jews a commitment to hearing what “the Law and the Prophets” have to say (Acts 13:15) and to believing it: “I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets,” affirms the Apostle Paul to Felix in Acts 24:14. Various of his letters to the Christian churches of the first-century Roman world illustrate the seriousness with which he took this idea. Everywhere in this correspondence he grounds his teaching in the pre-existing Scriptures.
For example (and this is important especially in the light of Andy Stanley’s advice that Christians should not obey the Ten Commandments), Paul applies the Ten Commandments to the various ethical situations with which he is confronted in the emerging churches (Rom. 7:7, 13:9, Eph. 6:2-3). For Paul and the other apostles, it was impossible to speak of Christ without speaking of him ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ of Israel that already existed – Scriptures that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21) – which the Church at its origin received … as the sole authoritative witness … These Scriptures taught the church what to believe about God: who God was; how to understand God’s relationship to creation, Israel, and the nations; how to worship God; and what manner of life was enjoined in grace and in judgment.4
Indeed, the apostles largely spoke of Christ only in relation to the OT, as Martin Luther once astutely observed, noting “how little Paul and Peter report the individual acts of Jesus in their letters: Paul wrote gospel by making mighty sermons out of a very few passages of the Old Testament.”5
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Source: Christian Post