Rob Buckingham's Blog

Making Sense of the Old Testament

Ever been confused by the way God is revealed sometimes in the Old Testament compared to how He is shown in the New?  If so, you wouldn’t be the first.  In fact, in the first couple of centuries there was a Christian sect that taught that there were two gods – the god of the old and the god of the new.

Let’s face it. There are some amazing things in the Hebrew Scriptures – what Christians refer to as the Old Testament – but equally there are some things that are puzzling or just plain difficult to grasp.  So how do we make sense of the Old Testament?

In the first half of my life I had 20/20 vision. But things started to change when I entered my 40s and there came a time when my arms were just not long enough anymore!  So, eventually, I succumbed to wearing glasses, and the two lenses helped me to see things so much more clearly.  The same is true when we read the Old Testament.  There are two lenses we need to have securely in place.

The first is The New Testament Lens.  We need to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New.  Theologian C.S. Cowles puts it this way: “There were good reasons why the church fathers, in settling upon the canon of sacred Scripture, separated the Hebrew Scriptures from the Christian and gave to the former the designation “old” and the latter “new.”  In so doing, they were following the precedent set within the New Testament itself. Paul drew a sharp distinction between the “old covenant” embodied in the Torah and the “new covenant” personified in Christ. The former “was fading away,” while the latter is endowed with “ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:7–18). The author of Hebrews goes even further in his assertion that “by calling this covenant ‘new,’ [God] has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (Heb. 8:13).

Looking through Old Testament lenses Martin Luther wrote about “the dark side of God.”  But when we put on the New Testament lens we see more clearly that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).  John goes further to state categorically that “God is love” (4:8; cf. James 1:16-17, John 1:17)

One of Jesus’ biggest challenges was teaching His followers to look at life and people through new lenses.  In Luke chapter 9 we read of one such challenge: “And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans to prepare for Him. But they did not receive Him … when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” Jesus’ disciples had their Old Testament lenses on.  Jesus’ response teaches them their need to look at people differently: “But [Jesus] turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”  In other words, start looking at people differently.  James and John were ready to consign all of Samaria to destruction because of the inhospitality of a few men.

Jesus made it crystal clear that the “manner of spirit” that would exterminate people was totally alien to his heavenly Father’s character. The vengeful spirit that dehumanises, depersonalises and demonises a whole town or nation or type of people is not of God.

The second lens is The Jesus Lens.  John Wesley said, “As the full and final revelation of God, Jesus is the criterion for evaluating Scripture, the prism through which the Hebrew Scriptures must be read.” (See John 14:9; 2 Cor 4:6; Col 1:15, 2:9; Heb 1:1-3)

In the New Testament, God does not define Jesus; rather, Jesus defines God. Jesus is the lens through whom a full, balanced and undistorted view of God’s loving heart and gracious purposes may be seen. Philip Yancey says, “To see what God is like simply look at Jesus.”

No longer should Christians define God as the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6), as important as they were in salvation history, but as the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3).

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches a radical new way to live a life of love – and not just a life that loves the lovable but a life that loves our enemies. He abolished the “eye for eye, life for life” law of the Old Testament and replaced it with the law of love – the only law that now exists for Christians (Romans 13:8-10).

Jesus practised what He preached.  Consider Judas. Jesus loved him to the end. His love was expressed through gentle warnings; by making him the guest of honour at the Last Supper; in offering him first of all the cup of forgiveness; and by greeting him in the garden of betrayal as “friend.”

Consider also how Jesus treated sinners: “neither do I condemn you” He said to the woman caught in adultery, contravening the clear injunctions of the Old Testament calling for adulterers to be put to death. “Go in peace” He said to Mary Magdalene the prostitute.

Unfortunately, church history is blighted because people lived with an Old Testament understanding of God rather than a New Testament revelation. As a result, Christians took up the sword during the crusades against Muslims, Jews and others who were considered infidels. Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other in the “holy wars” that tore Europe apart following the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church tortured, burned, drowned and flayed hundreds of thousands of supposed heretics and witches across more than five centuries of the Inquisition. Christian Europeans not only forcibly seized native lands, but also destroyed 80 percent of North and South America’s native populations by genocide, disease and drunkenness during the colonial era. It was supposedly the most Christianised nation in Europe that systematically shot, gassed and burned six million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust.

It’s this same problem of Christian people looking through Old Testament lenses that has, over the centuries, also justified slavery, the suppression of black people, subjugation of women, persecution of scientists, banning of interracial marriage and unkind treatment of minority groups. Sadly we still have “Christians” around today who are reading the Bible with Old Testament lenses. They blame hurricanes on gay people, bush fires on abortion laws and an earthquake on a two hundred year old “pact with the devil.”

It’s time to get new glasses. Make sure one lens is the New Testament and the other lens is Jesus and start looking at life – and people – in a brand new way!


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