Why did Jesus read the Old Testament?
This article was first published in The Melbourne Anglican Newspaper, October 2014, No 530
Some years ago, a student of mine shocked our class by announcing that he had been in an Anglican church for 33 years and had never heard a sermon on the Old Testament. It is tempting to think that the first three quarters of the Christian Bible is no longer needed now that Jesus has come. But is that an attitude that Jesus would endorse? How did he regard the Old Testament?
Luke 24 sheds light on this. During the time after his resurrection and prior to his ascension, Jesus equipped the leaders of the fledgling church for their future ministry. His death and resurrection had already shown that he was the son of God, so he could clearly speak with proven authority. However, when seeking to explain the meaning of these momentous events to the couple on the road to Emmaus, and to the disciples in the upper room, he appealed to the Old Testament. He gave them an Old Testament bible study, showing them from the (OT) scriptures “the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, 44). Even thought he had just revealed his authority, he still refers to the OT in order to explain the significance of what had happened. Jesus has a high view of the place of the OT. If we want to be a Jesus person, we need to adopt his view of the OT.
The OT also clarified for Jesus the direction of his calling. At his baptism, Jesus hears the words, “This my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17). These words fuse together a psalm that speaks of the messianic king (Psalm 2) and a servant song from Isaiah (Isa 42:1)). Jesus’ ministry was to be the messiah promised in the OT, shaped through being a suffering servant. This is precisely what is tested as he is driven into the wilderness and tempted by Satan (Matt 4; Luke 4). He refuses the tempting offer of an easier kingship, and so becomes the true Israel, succeeding where Israel failed. In the wilderness, Jesus relies on the OT to give him strength. Since he was already soaked in scripture, his mind went to the book of Deuteronomy, when Israel was in the desert. When Satan urged him to take shortcuts, he replied on three occasions with quotations from Deuteronomy (Deut 8:3; 6:16; 6:13). The OT scriptures gave him strength and wisdom.
He understood his life in the light of the OT, and referred to it in his minsitry. When asked a question about the resurrection, he rebuked the Sadducees for knowing neither the (OT) scriptures nor the power of God (Matt 22:29) and settled the matter by asking ‘have you not read what was to you by God’? At the moment of his death, he commends himself to God in the words of Psalm 31:5 (Luke 23;46). Hanging on the cross, he cries out in the words of Psalm 22:1 (Matt 27:46).
Many other examples could be given, but it is clear that Jesus read and applied the OT for theological and practical reasons. He viewed it as the reliable, authoritative word of God (a theological reason), and he used it because it clarified daily life and ministry (a practical reason). I am convinced that Jesus got it right, and that we would be much poorer (spiritually) if we did not have the riches of the OT.
What would we miss if we did not have the OT?
The OT grounds the God-sized view of God that is sometimes missing today. People find in Jesus a God they can draw close to—and that is crucial. Yet we also need to have our frameworks contoured by the grand majesty of God seen in Genesis 1, Isaiah 40:12-26 and Job 38-41. We need this understanding to put everything else in perspective, and it is found in the OT.
Our understanding of humanity needs to be shaped by the mandate in creation (Genesis 1-2) and our subsequent rebellion (Genesis 3). As we study the OT we find crucial insights about our purpose, our strengths and our weaknesses. All of this is vital as we seek to become the people God designed us to be. In an increasingly fragile creation, we need to think theologically (i.e. through God’s eyes) at the physical world, and most of this material is in the OT not the NT. If we wish to care for the creation as followers of Jesus, the OT is indispensable.
The OT contains many vital insights not mirrored in the NT. We can think of the positive view of sexuality in Song of Songs; the insights into daily life found in Proverbs; the struggles and questions of Job and Ecclesiastes; the riches of praise and the agony of lament in the book of Psalms. The outline of hope in the OT prophets helps us to see how the Bible hangs together as promise and fulfillment. Christian attitudes towards refugees need to be informed by the generosity of books like Deuteronomy. There were good reasons for Jesus to read the OT. There are just as many for us.
The OT is not discarded once Jesus comes along. If we want to understand the sequel, we need to look at the prequel. The many alllusions and quotations made by NT writers establishes that they saw themselves both defined by and continuing the OT scriptures. Even after the coming of Jesus, the OT still has value, and was used in theological argument, and preaching and teaching. The NT writers kept on using the OT because it was scripture, and valued as such by Jesus. Yet, they also continued to be shaped by it because it actually illuminated the gospel events surrounding Jesus, and enabled them to see how they could respond to the living God.
To Jesus, the OT was true, authoritative, and helpful. To him, the God of the OT was the living God, and the teaching of the OT was the teaching of the living God. Of course, we need to learn how to use it well, but we do not need to ask whether we should use it. On the question of reading the OT, Jesus’ answer is both clear and convincing.