Sunday, 30 March 2014

What is the Old Testament About?

I suppose if we were to take a sample poll and ask the question, ‘What is the Old Testament about?’, several answers could be given. For example, some might say that the Old Testament describes the past and future of the Israelites, and that answer would be a common view today. What would the apostles have made of that answer? Of course, they would have accepted that the Old Testament mentions important historical details of Israel’s past, but I suspect they would have disagreed that the Old Testament, in its prophetic passages, is mainly concerned with the future of the Israelites. We can read what Peter thought about this in 1 Peter 1:10-12 – he makes it very clear that the prophecies of the Old Testament are concerned with Peter’s readers. Imagine how his readers would have responded when they heard his words. I think they would have searched the Old Testament with great desire.

Another answer that is sometimes given with regard to the Old Testament is that it is about law whereas the New Testament is about grace. Would Peter have accepted such a distinction? He would have accepted that some parts of the Old Testament were concerned with legal matters, such as various details of the Mosaic ceremonial and civil laws. But he would not have accepted that the Old Testament had a legalistic message, and he states very clearly in verse 10 that its message was concerned with the grace that was going to come to his readers.

What is grace? It is God’s merciful attitude to the undeserving. Peter’s readers would have agreed that they were unworthy of the salvation they had received. They knew that only a few years prior to Peter sending them his letter they were living in pagan darkness, worshipping the non-existent deities in the temples connected to their names. They would indeed confess, ‘We are so unworthy. We know that we had not heard the gospel. Still we could look up to the heavens and recognise the handiwork of a great Creator. But instead of worshipping him as the Creator we chose to give the credit to an image that we created. In doing so, we demeaned in our estimation the greatness of God and revealed that we were so unworthy of his blessings. Nevertheless, the great Creator sent the gospel to us. That is real grace.’

A third answer as to what is the message of the Old Testament is that it is about a God of judgement as against the claim that the New Testament is about the God of love. Often those who argue this suggestion depict the prophets as fierce ranters who delighted in describing a God determined to punish. Of course, such a summary is a gross distortion. We only have to read some of the plaintive words spoken by God through these prophets to realise that their message was marked by compassion.

Peter would have also said that the message of the Old Testament is not only about judgement. He would have admitted that divine judgement was part of its message, but he would have also pointed out that there was much more, and he summarises that much more in verse 11 when he says that the message was about ‘the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories’. We can easily see from that phrase  that there is more to the Old Testament than judgement.

A fourth answer that is sometimes given is that there was little of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Now it is true that a great change occurred in the church’s experience when the Day of Pentecost occurred. The Spirit came in a manner that was unknown previously. But his coming in that way should not make us conclude that he was not present with the messengers of the Old Testament. Peter reminds us that the Spirit was in the Old Testament prophets and that he spoke through them about Jesus.

What effect did the presence of the Spirit have on these Old Testament prophets? It had the same effect as it had on the New Testament apostles, which was that they wanted to know more about Jesus. Look at how Peter describes the response of these prophets: they ‘searched and inquired carefully’ about the promised Saviour. I suppose the searching refers to how they used the Old Testament portions they had, and inquiring refers to the way they prayed for understanding. True, they did not discover as much as can be known through the apostles, but the inability was not in their messages. The messages of the Old Testament prophets were full of Christ.

So the Old Testament is far from being unsuitable for us. Peter makes it obvious that the Old Testament is actually God’s provision for his people, prepared for them long before they were born. How thankful they should be to God for thinking so kindly about them when their forefathers were living in spiritual darkness. Peter tells his readers that Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles join hands in providing God’s people with the gospel.

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