In a church that I pastored years ago, one of the church leaders expressed surprise when I gave sermons based on Old Testament texts. He had pretty much written off the Old Testament — at least, from what he knew of it — and I hadn’t. In fact, I enjoy preaching from an Old Testament story or text.
I’m pretty open that I do not expound on the Old Testament the way a Jewish rabbi would. Yes, I try to understand the Old Testament in its historical context. But, for me that is just a beginning point. I also want to understand it (for the purposes of Christian preaching) in light of what God has revealed to us in Christ.
But, the Old Testament is a great source of instruction and illustration — that is too often sadly neglected in the church of our day.
We forget that the Old Testament was the Bible of the early Church. When the New Testament speaks of the Scriptures it refers to the Old Testament. In fact, in the days of the early Church the Old Testament was available in a modern translation — the Septuagint. This was a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures — plus (an added bonus) some additional books written in Greek like the books of the Maccabees, the Wisdom of Solomon, Susanna, Judith, Tobit, etc. — which Protestants now generally call the Apocrypha. We know the earliest Church used the Septuagint translation because the New Testament writings often quote from the Septuagint.
So, in an early Christian gathering the “Scripture Reading” would have been from (what we call) the Old Testament. They would have just called it the Scriptures. I would have been read in a language the people could understand. Yes, the apostles wrote letters which were to be read publicly. Yes, the stories of Jesus were recounted — but all of this was read and remembered in a context of thinking which was very much shaped by the Old Testament. We lose so much when we no longer understand the original context in which the stories of Jesus were told.
In his Letter and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
By the way, I notice more and more how much I am thinking and perceiving things in line with the Old Testament; thus in recent months I have been reading much more the Old than the New Testament. Only when one knows that the name of God may not be uttered may one sometimes speak the name of Jesus Christ. Only when one loves life and the earth so much that with it everything seems to be lost and at its end may one believe in the resurrection of the dead and a new world. Only when one accepts the law of God as binding for oneself may one perhaps speak of grace. And only when the wrath and vengeance of God against God’s enemies are allowed to stand can something of forgiveness and the love of enemies touch our hearts. Whoever wishes to be and perceive things too quickly and too directly in New Testament ways is to my mind no Christian. We have already, of course, discussed this a few times, and every day confirms for me that it is right. One can and must not speak the ultimate word prior to the penultimate. We are living in the penultimate and believe the ultimate, isn’t that so?
These words resonate well with my own approach to the Old Testament. It is important not to write it off, not to dismiss it, but to see it as an important part of the larger Story — a Story that focuses on Jesus the Christ.
The Bible is a progressive revelation. The Old Testament finds its completion and fulfillment in Christ. Yes. But, there is another side to this — only as we understand the Old Testament foundations, can we come to appreciate its fulfillment.