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Fear Not the Old Testament

We must embrace and teach the first two-thirds of the Bible

Finding Threads

Because it was the Bible they read, Jesus and the New Testament writers often quoted the Old Testament. A seemingly ordinary passage can come alive when we understand their method.

This morning I read Matthew 4:13-14, "He went first to Nazareth, then left there and moved to Capernaum, beside the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This fulfilled what God said through the prophet Isaiah…" Following these verses, Matthew quotes a short passage from Isaiah 9.

Quoting one little bit of a Scripture was a first-century Jew's way of referring to its context. Matthew's quote is a shorthand reference for all of Isaiah 9, a famous prophesy that includes, in verse 6, "For a child is born to us, a son is given to us."

Matthew was not just telling us where Jesus decided to live. First, he was hinting at a unique mission: Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, moved into a Gentile neighborhood. Second, Matthew was making the case that Jesus is the Messiah, simply by saying he "moved to Capernaum."

Encourage those you lead to look for threads in the big story. This can begin with the simple exercise of noticing the footnotes that refer to the Old Testament verses quoted within the New Testament. Direct those you lead to actually look up those references and study them.

Faith in Action

These techniques can help us teach and interpret. But the Bible itself calls us to more than just intellectual understanding.

One of the big ideas of the Old Testament is that God can use imperfect people to accomplish his purposes. Noah was considered righteous, but after nearly a year on the ark, he came home and got drunk. David was called a man after God's own heart, but he committed murder and adultery. Jeremiah was charged with calling God's people to repentance, failed to accomplish that mission, but did not fail to be obedient. Jonah ran away from God, then accomplished his mission but got angry and pouty about his own success.

The Old Testament judges people's faith not by what they assent to intellectually, but by the way they live out their faith—however imperfectly. Do they do what God asks? Do they trust him? Their activist faith offers us a model for putting our faith into action (see Hebrews 11).

Today the church is beginning to embrace a "whole gospel" in which we both preach the good news and work for the justice it demands. Although this may feel new from our limited perspective, this is an Old Testament type of faith. As Jesus said, quoting the Old Testament, "I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices" (Matthew 9:13, and Hosea 6:6).

January18, 2012 at 3:12 PM

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