Andy Stanley made news recently by saying that Christians should “unhitch the Old Testament from the New Testament,” and that the Jewish Scriptures are simply the “backstory for the main story,” that is, the story of Jesus and the church. Stanley clarified his point in a follow-up interview with Relevant magazine, saying he does not mean Christians should not read the Old Testament or understand it in the context of the whole Bible. Sadly, many Christians already approach the Bible in ways that Stanley describes: they practically dismiss the Old Testament by not reading it, especially after hearing unhelpful and misleading comments like Stanley’s.
How Should We Understand the Role of the Old Testament?
We know that Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) and that Christians are no longer under the Mosaic law (Galatians 5:18). But that doesn’t mean we need to follow Stanley’s advice. Here are five reasons why we need to reject the false view that Christians should unhitch Christ from the Old Testament.
1. Jesus grounded the truth about his person and work in the Jewish Scriptures.
The Old Testament is the shadow, and Jesus the substance and reality (Colossians 2:16–17). But Jesus’ person and work only makes sense when grounded in the Old Testament. Consider that the two disciples on the Emmaus road are rebuked as “foolish” and “slow of heart.” They did not believe that the Old Testament testified to the person and work of Jesus (Luke 24:25-27). I often warn people about going too far in “finding Jesus in the Old Testament.” Yet there is still something comprehensive about Jesus’ rebuke. He says that we should believe and accepted all the prophets that spoke about him. As well as, that all the Prophets, beginning with Moses, have something to say about him. Indeed, his purpose is in all the Scriptures.
We should not detach the Old Testament from Jesus. “The great Lord Jesus came from outside and voluntarily and deliberately attached himself to the Old Testament, affirmed it to be the word of God and set himself, at cost, to fulfill it (Matt 26:51–54).”
2. The apostles understood their purposes to be in line with God’s purposes from all creation.
Every semester I teach the Bible survey class for a local Christian university. On the first day of class, I always ask my students the same questions. What is the Bible about? How would you describe the message of the Bible?
Then I take them to Acts 28 where the apostle Paul is in Rome in the final days of his life, under house arrest, but still preaching the gospel. His words are instructive, especially for answering the question of the message of the Bible. “From morning till evening [Paul] expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23). And then a few verses later, it says that for two whole years Paul proclaims “the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (31).
The message of the Bible Paul wanted to communicate most at the end of his life was a message that can be distilled into two main things: 1) the kingdom of God and 2) Jesus. And Paul gets these interrelated themes from the Old Testament, for he appealed to “the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (23). God’s plan from Creation to New Creation is to build his kingdom, a kingdom that centers around his Son. This is the message of the whole Bible, not just the New Testament.
God spoke to our fathers by the prophets. In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Hebrews 1:1-2).
All of the Old Testament moves toward fulfillment in Christ. We should see that it was written not only for Israel but also for Christians (Romans 15:4).
3. When the New Testament authors talk about the “Scriptures,” they’re talking about the Old Testament.
Paul says that the Old Testament is the foundation of his gospel (Romans 1:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The gospel was not unforeseen but promised beforehand. But we shouldn’t stop with Paul. Matthew (Matt 26:56), Mark (Mark 1:1-3), Luke (Luke 24:27, 32, 45), John (John 5:39), Peter (2 Pet 1:20-21; 3:16), and others (Acts 17:11; 18:24, 28), all connect their message of the gospel to the Old Testament.
4. The apostles repeat the Ten Commandments in the New Testament as a summary of God’s ethical intentions.
Paul says that believers are no longer under the condemnation of the law and are now children of God apart from works (Romans 8:1–16). Our righteousness is based on the imputed righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). But he also says that believers should obey Jesus and obey the Ten Commandments. In fact, Paul and others repeat the commands throughout the New Testament, saying with Jesus that the commandments are summed up in the law of love (Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 22:34-40). In other words, obeying the law of love means obeying the Ten Commandments, which summarize God’s ethical instructions for His people. If we love Jesus, then we must keep His commands (John 14:23), including the Ten Commandments.
5. The unchangeable character of God is evident in both testaments.
One of the dangers of Stanley’s view (see above) is its potential to rekindle an ancient heresy that was rejected by the early church. This heresy, advocated by a man named Marcion, argued that the God of the Old Testament was full of wrath and vengeance. A God who is fundamentally different from the God of the New Testament who, through Christ, is full of mercy and love. Some Christians today have, perhaps unknowingly, adopted a Marcion-like view of the Old Testament. While they affirm that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, it has little to no effect on their life. The New Testament God of love now trumps the Old Testament God of wrath.
The early church rightly rejected this depiction of God. We do not have a full picture of the triune God without both testaments. God reveals His character in the Old Testament as He reveals His glory to Moses, identifying Himself as “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
The God who in the Old Testament created the world by the Spirit through the Son is the God of the New Testament who loved the world. The God who gave his Son to redeem sinners and grant them eternal life (John 3:16). And the God who judges righteously in the Old Testament. The God that does not let the guilty go unpunished (Exodus 34:7), is the same God who is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29) in the New Testament. And whose righteous judgment brings fear into the hearts of men (Hebrews 10:31).