WANTED: The Old Testament – dead… or alive?
So that this doesn’t turn into a faith vs. works discussion – please see my thread on that subject, if this thread should ever trigger the opening of the “faith vs. works” file in your brain.
I have observed some poetic use of the phrase “dead letter” here at ILP and wanted to clear up some possible confusion about Paul’s view of the oldness of the letter (Rom 7:6). There are two senses of the word “letter” when New Testament authors use it in a negative context.
In one sense, they are referring to “going through the motions” (externally following the letter – sometimes just traditions of men and not the Law itself) in an effort to earn God’s favor, as opposed to being indwelt by the Spirit of grace in acceptance of His freely-given, un-earnable love (empowering us to follow the spirit of the law because we love God, rather than “following the letter” because we think that’s how to earn God’s love… which demonstrably can’t be earned). Following the spirit of the law, rather than the letter of the law, does not result in going crazy in sin – as seen in Matthew 5:17-48, the standard is raised when you follow the spirit of the law. Jesus wants the law to penetrate all the way into the deepest parts of our being. He does not want an outward show for the sake of appearance.
In another sense, the term “letter” is also used to refer to the fact that the law by itself can only show us our error, whereas it is God’s grace (unearned love) that makes us right with Him … not by getting rid of the law… but by writing it on our hearts (kinda like burning it into our memory, but better) with a demonstration of freely-given love in Jesus’ death and resurrection (loving us the way the law expects us to love) (Gal 5:14).
When the phrase “dead letter” (not found in the New Testament) was used poetically in ILP – the author was referring to the Old Testament in its entirety… as if God’s Word is not “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12) and needed some artistic freshening-up. The New Testament writers did not consider the writings of “The Law and the Prophets” to be “dead letter” – here’s how they did feel about it…
Jesus and the Old Testament
Jesus’ Bible was the Old Testament. He quoted it frequently (at least 40 direct quotations are found in the Gospels) and more often referred indirectly to its stories and teaching (some 70 clear allusions in the Gospels). His quotations often came with the simple but decisive introduction ‘It is written’. Sometimes He spoke more directly about its importance:
* ‘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’ (Matthew 5:17-18).
* ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44).
* ‘The Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35).
Some of His harshest words were reserved for those who tried to evade the plain commands of God in the Old Testament by means of human traditions, however venerable (Mark 7:1-13). [Ichthus: note on Matthew 23, also from Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible: “Jesus launches into a scathing attack on Israel’s legalistic, but much-respected religious leaders. The man who cared so deeply and had such patience with ordinary people – even the wicked, the weak-willed and the stupid – could not stomach the religious sham, the self-righteous pride, the hair-splitting pedantry He saw in these Pharisees and scribes.” Note on Mark 7:1-23, ibid: “…it is possible for the observance of ‘tradition’ to empty God’s plain command of all meaning (v.13). Jesus points out that humanity’s real problem is not dirty hands but the deep-down pollution of mind, heart and will, which no amount of washing can clean. The concept is so radical (the idea of clean and unclean foods is so much part of Jewish thinking) that even the disciples need further explanation.”]
The authority of the Old Testament
In controversy Jesus regularly used a quotation from the Old Testament to settle the argument (see, for instance, Matthew 12:3-4, 5-7; 21:13, 16; 22:31-32, 43-44). It was an effective method, since other Jews also accepted the authority of the Old Testament, but this was no mere public stance to meet people on their own grounds. Even in private the Old Testament was the basis of His life. When tempted in the wilderness, it was the Old Testament that He turned for guidance (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10), and even in His final agony on the cross it was words form the Old Testament that He uttered (Mark 15:34; Luke 23:46, quoting Psalms 22:1; 31:5).
In teaching His disciples, Jesus was always using Old Testament language, sometimes by direct quotation, but often simply weaving familiar Old Testament words into His sayings. For instance, His mysterious prediction of future events in Matthew 24:29-31 draws on no fewer than seven Old Testament passages in just three verses (Isaiah 13:10; 34:4; Daniel 7:13; Zechariah 12:12; Isaiah 27:13; Deuteronomy 30:4; Zechariah 2:6).
Some of Jesus’ most central ethical teaching comes directly from the Law of Moses (see Matthew 19:18-19, drawing on the Ten Commandments, and Matthew 22:37-40 drawing on Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18). His Sermon on the Mount contains a striking sequence of examples where He examines Old Testament texts and themes, and explains how they should be applied to practical Christian living (Matthew 5:21-48).
His complain about other Jewish teachers was that they did not explore the full implications of these divine commands; their superficial and wooden interpretations missed the point, and prevented them from discovering the revealed will of God.
The fulfillment of the Old Testament
Jesus cam to ‘fulfill’ the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17). In His teaching we soon discover that this did not mean merely reinforcing its teaching. Indeed sometimes He offered quite daring new insights, as, for example, His pronouncement that ‘What goes into your mouth does not make you unclean, but what comes out of your mouth, that is what makes you unclean’ (Matthew 15:11; contrast the food laws in Leviticus 11). It was more by His own life, and supremely His death, that He brought its fulfillment.
So He often talked about His own role in the light of Old Testament models. As Jesus walked with two disciples after His resurrection, Luke tells us tat ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said concerning Himself in all the Scriptures’ (Luke 24:27). But this was merely the climax of the way He had been teaching them all through His ministry.
Sometimes H referred to the Old Testament people or events as ‘foreshadowings’ of his own life (e.g. Matthew 12:40-42); sometimes He quoted explicit predictions of one who was to come (e.g. Luke 4:17-21; 22:37). Again and again He insisted that He must suffer and die, because this was what had been written about Him (e.g. Mark 8:31; 9:12-13; Luke 18:31; Mark 14:21, 27; Matthew 26:54; Luke 24:44-47).
He had come to ‘fulfill’, and there was a divine compulsion about what was written. It must be fulfilled.
The Old Testament was for Jesus not just a book of interesting historical records, but the authoritative word of God. He believed its statements, endorsed its teaching, obeyed its commands, and set Himself to fulfill the pattern of redemption which it had laid down.
His uncompromising acceptance of the Old Testament as the Word of God set the pattern for His followers, including the writers of the New Testament books, who delighted to trace the connections between Jesus and the Old Testament, and fully shared His conviction of its authority. The Old Testament has rightly been described as ‘the sub-structure of New Testament theology’. Without the Old Testament you will never understand the New – indeed you will never make sense of Jesus.
–pp. 569-570, Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible, 1999.
The Old Testament in the New Testament
The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus (see above), and the writers of the New Testament books continued to appeal to its authority. There are something like 250 direct quotations from the Old Testament in the New, and around 1,000 clear allusions.
The early Christians were so steeped in the Old Testament that its language came naturally to them.
To take two examples:
*The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) do not actually quote from the Old Testament, but verses 3-4 are obviously modeled on Isaiah 61:1-3 and verse 5 on Psalm 37:11 – and practically every phrase can be roughly paralleled in the Old Testament.
*The Book of Revelation contains no formal quotation, but it is modeled throughout on Old Testament passages, particularly from Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah.
Sometimes, no doubt, they used familiar scriptural language just because it was a part of their normal vocabulary. Sometimes they quoted legal and ethical texts as continuing guides for the life of the people of God. But often when they quoted or echoed the Old Testament they had a more deliberate theological purpose. They believed, as Jesus Himself had made clear, that He had come to fulfill what had gone before, and they delighted to trace the connections.
Fulfillment of scripture
Often the New Testament writers point out how the predictions of the Old Testament prophets have come true in the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and continue to be fulfilled in the growth of His church.
Matthew includes in his Gospel a dozen quotations with introductions such as ‘all this happened to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet’ (Matthew 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23, etc.).
The records of early Christian sermons in Acts are full of claims for the fulfillment of scripture (e.g. Acts 2:25-36; 3:22-26; 13:32-41).
Some passages seem to have been special favourites and are quoted repeatedly (e.g. Psalm 110:1; 118:22; Isaiah 53; Daniel 7:13-14). These were passages which Jesus Himself had used to explain His mission, and His followers continued to draw on them in preaching and debate.
But sometimes the New Testament writers appealed to passages which were not in themselves predictions of the future, but which they nonetheless believed to have been ‘fulfilled’ in the coming of Christ.
Jesus had made many such claims (e.g. Matthew 12:3-6, 40-42; 13:13-14; mark 7:6-7), but the fullest use of this method is found in Hebrews, where the writer goes through the most important people and institutions of Old Testament Israel, especially the ritual of worship in the Tabernacle, and shows how they find their fulfillment in Jesus, as the true high priest and the perfect, final sacrifice.
This principle is known as ‘typology’. Persons, institutions and events of the Old Testament are understood as ‘types’ (models, prefigurements) of the decisive work of God which was to take place with the coming of Christ. The aim of typology is to show how Jesus fulfills not only the explicit predictions of the Old Testament, but its whole fabric, to establish His coming as the final, complete embodiment of God’s saving work through the ages.
Sources and use of quotations
Quite often the words quoted in the New Testament are not the same as we find in our Old Testament text. Usually the differences are insignificant, but sometimes they are quite striking (e.g. Matthew 27:9-10 compared with Zechariah 11:12-13).
Often the difference is due to the fact that the New Testament writers are using a different text from the one now found in our Old Testament. Most New Testament quotations reflect the Greek Septuagint text, which quite often differs from the Hebrew. Sometimes they seem to be quoting other forms of the text, such as we can now find in the Aramaic targums (paraphrases).
But sometimes the explanation is that the New Testament writers were not reluctant to adapt the wording themselves, in order to bring out the interpretation and the application of the text as they saw it. The purpose was not to change the meaning, but to bring it out more clearly for their readers, sometimes by incorporating the interpretation into the wording of the quotation, just as a modern preacher will often paraphrase a biblical text in order to ‘get the message across’ and to help those who listen to see how it applies to their circumstances.
Once the first Christians had understood that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament, they came to read it not simply for its own sake but in the light of that fulfillment. So they were able to find pointers to Jesus in places where other Jews would not see them, and were willing to exercise freedom in interpretation from which we might shrink in order to give full expression to their conviction that, as Jesus Himself put it, Moses (and the other Old Testament writers) ‘wrote about me’ (John 5:46).
–pp. 742-743, Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible, 1999
As for the reference to the Old Testament as “dead letter” – I tell you this… if you like reading Tolkein… which is reading fiction… you will be a million times more impressed with the non-fiction events recorded in the Bible, which have a similar flavor to what Tolkein was trying to do. If you like movies like Indiana Jones and National Treasure (minus the Masons malarkey), which are steeped in history and relics and artifacts and what-not (though they are, indeed, fiction) – you will love researching what you find in the Bible. My Zondervan’s Handbook to the Bible has all sorts of pictures of old artifacts and references to ancient literature – and if you have money, you can go see them for yourself.
I don’t think the Old Testament needs any artistic freshening up – I think you just need to do a little digging and uncover its myriad hidden treasures… then go write a poem about it or something. I recommend “The Message” on XM radio… but that’s just me.
Speaking of writing a poem about it… here’s one:
Straightway Swept Away
To: my King
I came to You broken with fear and trembling
You stretched out Your hand and mastered my ascending
Plucked from the fire, chosen before the beginning
Resurrected by the finger of God, dancing
Done with spineless speculating, with pretending
Everything else in my life all foreshadowing
Found understanding in the shadow of Your wing
The mire Your incorruptible love transcending
In indelible ink, in Your own blood writing
To suffer death for friends, Son of God descending
The narrow path Your Word ever enlightening
Spongy mirror of my heart Your will reflecting
By You my soul walking, for Your return waiting
“Something so amazing, in a heart so dark and dim, when the walls fall down, and the light comes in” – Sara Groves, Something Changed