Reading the Old Testament
What should be the Christian’s approach to the Old Testament? Is it important to study, are its commands valid today in light of the coming of Jesus, or is it more appropriate to spend time reading and studying the New Testament in order to live a faithful Christian life?
I have had conversations with Christians about the Old Testament that have included these and other questions, and while I cannot make sense of every passage, there are a couple of important guidelines that will help offer Christians guidance when reading the ancient scriptures of the Jewish people.
The Old Testament Moves Toward Jesus
Jesus himself tells his contemporaries that if they miss seeing him in their study of scriptures then they miss the very thing for which they seek (John 5:39). The movement of the Old Testament is an onward march toward the great climax of history that is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. When we read the Old Testament, it then becomes important that we ask, “How does this passage move me toward Jesus?”
There are passages where this is easy to see, passages that clearly point to Jesus like Isaiah 53:5.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
How does the rest of the Old Testament though, point toward Jesus? Take a verse like Leviticus 19:27.
Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.
How does the command for a man to not cut his hair or trim his beard point us to Jesus? Well remember, that we must put passages into their context, and Levitical laws must be put within the narrative context of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is telling the story of God establishing his people through whom he will reveal his own character, and ultimately his means for salvation and restoration for creation. We find in this command then, part of what set the people of God apart from the surrounding cultures and made this possible.
Jesus Fills-Out the Law and the Prophets
The Old Testament not only points us to Jesus, but Jesus tells us that he came to fill-out the commands and promises of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17). What does Jesus mean by this? Imagine the Old Testament as a bucket that Jesus then fills up, completes and makes whole. As we read the Old Testament, we must do so knowing that in order to fully understand its meaning we must read it through the lens of Jesus.
Returning to our verse in Leviticus, did Jesus simply fulfill this verse by having long hair and a beard. If the function of this command was to mark out the people of God as being holy, being separate, from the surrounding cultures, then it seems that Jesus fulfills it in a richer way. Jesus was truly holy. As the revelation of the one, true, holy God, Jesus shows us what it means to be holy and makes it possible for us to live as holy people through his Spirit. Leviticus 19:27, then, does not continue to be a binding commandment for our definition of holiness, but becomes a sign-post that reminds us that as Christians we ought to find our self-understanding and our reality in God alone. In doing so, just as the Jewish people stuck out from their surrounding cultures through dress, worship practices, and moral codes, we ought to stand out by looking like our Lord and Savior, Jesus.
Try it – what passage have you read and been perplexed by in the past?
Go back to that passage and ask how does this point to Jesus and how does Jesus change the way I understand this passage? Comment below and how it helps (or how it does not) in your understanding of the passage.