Here at First Baptist Church we have a new initiative for 2019 called the Old Testament Challenge. The idea is for church members to read the entire Old Testament over the next 12 months. As Baptists, we have long held that individual Christians can read the Bible on their own and interpret it prayerfully and profitably with the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
It might help, though, to have a basic framework for how to interpret what we are reading. While Jesus endorses the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-20), he does not say we are to take every individual passage at face value. In fact, he’s quite clear that some passages are weightier than others, and that certain principles are to shape our interpretation.
In Matthew 7:12, he says the law and the prophets are summarized in the golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We know our biblical interpretation is on the right track when it inspires us to treat others as we wish to be treated.
In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus is asked which of the 613 commandments in the Old Testament law is the greatest. He responds that all the law and the prophets hang on two commandments: love God and love your neighbor. We know our biblical interpretation is on the right track when it reflects and produces love for God and neighbor.
In Matthew 23:23, Jesus says the weightier matters of the law are justice, mercy, and faith, and these should not be compromised for the sake of other ideas derived from scripture. We know our biblical interpretation is on the right track when it fosters justice, mercy, and faith.
Yet perhaps the most important thing is to recognize that Jesus is the fulfiller of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:17). He highlighted the ways in which the Old Testament points to himself (Luke 24:27).
For example, Deuteronomy 18:18 says there would come a prophet like Moses. That was Jesus. Just as Moses gave God’s law on a mountain in Exodus 20 (the 10 Commandments), Jesus gives God’s law on a mountain in Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount).
Zechariah 9:9 says that the King, the Messiah, would come riding on a donkey. That was Jesus. Matthew 21 says he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Isaiah 53 says there would come a suffering servant who would bear the sins of the people, and by his wounds we would be healed. That was Jesus. He fulfilled this prophecy when he died on the cross for our sins (1 Peter 2:24).
Not only is Jesus the fulfiller of the Old Testament, he is Lord of the Scriptures. If someone had asked Jesus point blank, “Do you think you’re above the law?” he could have legitimately said, “Yep.” That’s why he healed on the Sabbath and stated that he was Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6). That’s why he said several times in Matthew 5, “You have heard that it was said...” and gives an Old Testament quotation, “but I say to you…” and gives his own teaching.
The authoritative scriptures answer to his authority. The Holy Scriptures bow before his holiness. While the Scriptures are the written word of God, Jesus is the living word of God. The law and the prophets will not pass away until everything is accomplished, but Jesus’ words will never pass away (Matthew 5:18/24:35).
From a Christian perspective, therefore, the Old Testament is indispensable, but it’s not ultimate. It’s crucial, but it’s not the final authority. The Old Testament is to be read in light of the New Testament. More specifically, as the 1963 version of The Baptist Faith and Message states, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
Jesus is not under the Old Testament’s authority. The Old Testament is under his. Every word of the Old Testament bends toward him. He is our framework for understanding it.
Pastor Noel Schoonmaker
First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN