A recent sermon from a famous pastor has gained attention for saying:
[First Century] Church leaders unhitched the church from the worldview, value system, and regulations of the Jewish scriptures. Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.
Jesus’ new covenant, His covenant with the nations, His covenant with you, His covenant with us, can stand on its own two nail-scarred resurrection feet. It does not need propping up by the Jewish scriptures.
While I give grace upon grace upon grace to pastors – especially those that preach multiple times in one week – for momentary slip-ups and misspeaks (I once attributed 1 Peter to Paul, after all), I’m concerned with the fact that this type of language is increasingly becoming a trend in Evangelical circles. The desire to “unhitch” or explain away 77% of the Holy Scriptures because they contain difficult passages is an easy desire to fall into – especially in an era in which people are increasingly critical of Christian faith and tradition – but, point blank, it’s dangerous.
At best, failing to incorporate the Old Testament into our modern faith is intellectual dishonesty. At worst, it’s spiritual malpractice.
The Old Testament is a story of the people of God who are trying (and failing) to live as set-apart people. The Old Testament, at is core, tells us of a God who desires relationship and a people who are in desperate need of salvation. I often tell people that the Psalms tell me that it’s okay to be human – but perhaps this is true of the entire Old Testament. When I read the Old Testament, I see solidarity with my humanity and the consistent character of God is my missteps and mistakes.
But, this is easy enough to say of the easy parts of the Old Testament: Creation, the Garden, the Exodus, Jonah, David (and Bathsheeba, if you’re at a youth conference), the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Jeremiah (but just the prophecies of Christ). What to do with the difficult passages – the ones where God seems angry or vengeful, where children are struck down for calling a prophet “baldy,” the pages of rules in Leviticus, and the endless genealogies of Chronicles?
When it comes to these passages, I think that we often miss the point because we read them from our context, not theirs. And so, we read a vengeful God when the passage is meant to demonstrate Him as a God who desires His people to be set apart. We read boring chronologies when we’re meant to pick up on the imperfect people who are a part of God’s plan. We read stories of chaos and destruction when we’re meant to see faithfulness and deliverance. And we read boring, hard, outdated passages when we’re meant to see a beautiful story of our own solidarity with generations and God’s faithfulness to us all.
If you’re looking for practical ways to incorporate the Old Testament into your preaching, here are a few practices that I’ve found to be helpful:
- Whenever I preach, I try to touch on the story of God’s people in the Old and New Testament as a way of showing spiritual solidarity across ages. If you watch some of my sermons, you’ll see that it is sometimes very explicit; I’ll say phrases such as “and this issue we face is not an old one. Since the beginning of time, God’s people have…” and then will note various stories from Genesis and beyond.
- When I preach on Jesus’ words or New Testament letters, I’ll look for the story behind the story: what is the Jewish Torah understanding that has led to this idea? This is often most obvious with Jesus’ parables or the Sermon on the Mount (i.e., “You have heard it said… (Torah), but I say… (Jesus’ deeper take), but takes more work in other passages. The New Testament writers had a deep understanding of the Old Testament theology and practice as they wrote – we should, too.
- I don’t shy away from hard conversations about the Old Testament. Throughout this past year, I’ve had numerous conversations about God’s hard words in Old Testament prophecy (have you ever read Amos with teenagers?) and the genre of the creation story in light of scientific advancement. We can’t not address the Old Testament and expect questions, unfamiliarity, and uncomfortability to fade away.
Whether you’re a pastor, a lay leader, or just someone seeking to grow in your understanding of scripture, here are some resources that have been incredibly useful for me:
- How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a great book for literary context, and its accessible language makes it an easy read for armchair theologians and ivory tower academics alike.
- God Has a Name by John Mark Comer. There are about three books that I find myself consistently recommending to people – this is one of them. It’s a great exposition on God’s self-revelation in Exodus.
- Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey. This book was recommended to me my first year of seminary by a fellow student, and it’s now a consistent commentary that I use when I read or preach on the Gospels. Bailey incorporates Jesus’ context – including Old Testament understanding and His Jewish heritage – in a way that’s readable and transformative.
- What is the Bible? by Rob Bell. Before I catch flack for putting a Rob Bell book on this list, this book has come highly recommended to me by people who wouldn’t otherwise pick up a book about biblical context. It’s a great primer if you’ve already lost your love of the Old Testament. Rob wrote this book because he was confronted after preaching one day about missed Jewish context, and this provides a reminder of the basic context of the Old Testament writings.
- Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Greg Boyd (shorter companion: Cross Vision). If nothing else, this book is one way to reconcile the depictions of God in the Old and New Testaments. I attended Boyd’s Cross Vision conference this past fall, and since then I’ve been even more committed to a full teaching of the Old and New Testament.
- A good commentary set. To be honest, I don’t have a singular recommendation here – if you visit my office, you’ll see a hodge podge of various commentaries (which is also because I just buy my commentaries cheap from Thrift Books and retiring professors #poorgradstudent). Find a commentary by someone you trust (John Oswalt, Gordon Fee, David Howard, and others are my go-to) and read it for the deep insight of experts into difficult passages.
Ultimately, if you’ve struggled with your personal faith, your pastoral care, or preaching because of the Old Testament, I hope that these resources and my thoughts can help you to rehitch yourself to the messy work of being people of God and the entire scripture. Have further thoughts or questions? Drop me a line via my contact form or via Twitter – my handle is @StenersonMN!