Reading Old and New Testaments together (1): People, Covenant, Law

Why should Christians bother to read the Old Testament? Why should we have passages from Hebrew Scripture read in services of Christian worship. And why should anyone bother to preach on an Old Testament text in a service of Christian worship?

I have already suggested that the church, as a whole, needs these books, and values these scriptures. See

Now, I want to explain in some detail exactly how the 39 books of the Old Testament shape, inform, and enrich our lives as Christians.

There are a number of key themes in the books of the Old Testament that resonate strongly within the pages of the New Testament. Take away any one of these key themes, and the New Testament would be impoverished, and our Christian faith would be less enriched. We need these Old Testament themes from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and sages, the prophets and kings, to make sense of the story of Jesus and the early church!

An understanding of the People of God is the first key theme of the Old Testament. The whole saga that is told in the historical narratives derives from the promise of God to Abraham (Gen 12:1–3), to make of him a people, to gift him with many descendants, and to give them a land (from which we get the phrase “the promised land”).

The people remain as a focus right through the long-running saga that is told in the sequence of narrative books, from Genesis through to Ezra—Nehemiah. Israel is assured that the whole nation is a “chosen people” (Deut 7:6–8, 14:2; Ps 33:12; Isa 41:8–10, 65:9), set apart as “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Exod 19:4–6), called to be “a light to the nations” (Isa 42:6, 49:6).

The notion of Christians as “the people of God” is picked up in the New Testament (Rom 9:25–26; 1 Pet 2:9–10; Heb 4:9, 11:25; Rev 21:3). In particular, Paul grapples with this matter in three long chapters in his letter to the Romans (chs. 9–11), concluding that Jews are joined by the Gentiles, “grafted on” to the existing branches (Rom 11:11–24) to form the continuation of “the people of God”.

The language of being “God’s people” and “a holy nation” is mirrored in 1 Peter 2:9–10, whilst the imagery of the “light to the nations” resonates in Acts (13:47, 26:23; and see Luke 2:32). The sense of being God’s people continues in “the people of the way” (Acts 18:25, 19:23, 24:22) and in various letters (Rom 9:25–26; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 1:13–14; Heb 4:9–10, 8:10; and Rev 22:1–4).

The people of God enter into relationship with God through the Covenant that is offered to them. This is the second key theme of the Old Testament books: a commitment to Covenant. The Covenant provides an understanding of the deep and abiding relationship between God and God’s people. The Covenant is offered initially to Noah, and to all living creatures (Gen 9), before it is subsequently renewed (and reshaped) by being offered to Abraham (Gen 15, 17), to Jacob (Israel) (Gen 35), to Moses and the whole people (Exod 19), and later to the people again through Jeremiah (Jer 31).

Renewing the Covenant, of course, is the way that various New Testament writers understand the purpose of Jesus’ life and death (Mark 14:24; Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:1–6; Heb 7:22, 8:10–13, 12:24). And the very title ‘New Testament’ is itself a variant of ‘New Covenant’ (the same Greek word can be translated as covenant or testament).

Underlying the Covenant is the clear understanding that God is a loving God, filled with steadfast love. A regular refrain in the Hebrew Scriptures is this clear affirmation: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6–8; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17b; Ps 145:8–9; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; see also 2 Kings 13:23; 2 Chron 30:9).

The Lord affirms to Moses, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exod 33:19), and Moses offers Aaron and his sons the prayer, “the Lord bless you and keep you … and be gracious to you” (Num 6:22–27)—a ancient prayer which lives on in Christian spirituality and liturgy! The Psalmist knows that graciousness is a key characteristic of God, for there are regular calls throughout this book for God to demonstrate divine graciousness (Ps 4:1, 6:2, 9:13, 25:16, 31:9, 41:10, 56:1, 67:1, and many more times).

However, the juxtaposition of punishment and steadfast love is clearly stated (Exod 20:5–6), signalling that the complexity of God’s nature is clearly understood. The offer of divine graciousness and the demands of divine justice co-exist within the Lord God. And that will be the focus in the next blog post.

Flowing out as a consequence of the Covenant is a further key theme, that of the Law. For Israel, the Law provides clear practical guidance to faithful people, setting out the various ways they are to maintain their obedience to God and thereby uphold the Covenant. The Covenant is not an idealised or abstract idea; it is known and expressed in each of the 613 laws contained within the Hebrew Scriptures. So the Law was considered to be a gift to the people, to be celebrated and valued as much as to be kept (Ps 19:7–11, 40:8, 119:97–104, 169–176).

Paul reveals great angst about the Law in Rom 7, and his words in Rom 10:4 are cited as a proof—texting argument that the Law was rendered obsolete. However, he ultimately can’t let go of the Law. He continues to claim that Israel is part of God’s people (Rom 9–11), and he maintains that “love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Rom 13:10). Christians have all too often seized on the passages which provide a negative perspective on the Law, but the actual situation in scripture is more complex and nuanced.

The mission of Jesus was to fulfil the Law (Matt 5:17–20), to reach into the very heart of the Law and apply it in a completely radical way (Matt 5:21–48), to focus primarily on renewing Israel (Matt 10:5–6, 15:24). With that fundamental commitment, Jesus often disputes vigorously with those who interpreted and applied the Law in ways that he saw as contrary to God’s intentions (Matt 23:1–10; Mark 2:23–28, 7:1–23).

The bottom line for Jesus, however, is that the Law sits as the bedrock of his ethical outlook. His central commandment of love–to “love one another” (John 13:34), to “love your neighbour” (Matt 19:19), even to “love your enemies” (Matt 5:43; Luke 6:27)–rests firmly on “the two greatest commandments” from the Law. With this clarity drawn from his Jewish faith, he urges his followers to “love God” (Deut 6:4–5) and to “love your neighbour” (Lev 19:18).

So, in the ways that the people of God is described, in God’s covenant relationship with that people, and in the ways that God’s graciousness is offered in the gift of the Law, we see clear lines of continuity and connection between Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament texts.