The “Old Testament”—Necessary for Christians Today?
THE Holy Bible is the world’s “best seller.” It has penetrated into every land on the face of the earth and is read by people of all races. In whole or in part the Bible is available today in more than 1,575 languages.
According to the most common division of the Bible’s sixty-six books, over half of them make up what is called the “Old Testament.” This collection of Scriptural writings, produced in Hebrew and Aramaic, was completed about 443 years before the Common Era. Is there need for Christians today to study the Hebrew Scriptures?
If you enjoy reading the Christian Greek Scriptures, usually designated the “New Testament,” likely you have noticed how frequently Christian Bible writers quoted from or alluded to the Hebrew Scriptures. They viewed those writings as of the utmost importance for Christians. Concerning historical accounts of God’s dealings with the ancient Israelites, the apostle Paul wrote: “Now these things went on befalling them as examples, and they were written for a warning to us.”—1 Cor. 10:11.
Besides meaningful history, the Hebrew Scriptures contain hundreds of prophecies of future events. Were these written merely for Jews who lived centuries before the Common Era? By no means. The apostle Peter says of the Hebrew prophets:
“They kept on investigating what particular season or what sort of season the spirit in them was indicating concerning Christ when it was bearing witness beforehand about the sufferings for Christ and about the glories to follow these. It was revealed to them that, not to themselves, but to you, they were ministering the things that have now been announced to you through those who have declared the good news to you with holy spirit sent forth from heaven.”—1 Pet. 1:11, 12.
Among books of the Christian Greek Scriptures especially noted for numerous quotations from the “Old Testament” is the book of Hebrews. Concerning this, Bible scholar B. F. Westcott observes:
“Several reflections at once offer themselves to the student who considers these quotations as a whole. (1) It is assumed that a Divine counsel was wrought out in the course of the life of Israel. We are allowed to see in ‘the people of God’ signs of the purpose of God for humanity. The whole history is prophetic. It is not enough to recognise that the O[ld] T[estament] contains prophecies: the O[ld] T[estament] is one vast prophecy.”
With this in mind it will be instructive to consider how Jesus and writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures quoted from and applied the pre-Christian inspired Bible writings.
“IT IS WRITTEN”
You are probably familiar with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ being “tempted by the Devil.” (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) How did Jesus respond to this trialsome experience? Note his reply to each aspect of the threefold temptation:
“But in reply he said: ‘It is written, “Man must live, not on bread alone, but on every utterance coming forth through Jehovah’s mouth.”’ [Deut. 8:3] . . . Jesus said to him: ‘Again it is written, “You must not put Jehovah your God to the test.”’ [Deut. 6:16] . . . Then Jesus said to him: ‘Go away, Satan! For it is written, “It is Jehovah your God you must worship, and it is to him alone you must render sacred service.”’ [Deut. 6:13].”—Matt. 4:4, 7, 10.
Jesus based his actions solidly on the inspired Hebrew Scriptures, for he knew that these contained God’s viewpoint on matters. Interesting, too, is Jesus’ reasoning when certain Pharisees “took counsel together in order to trap him in his speech”:
“Now while the Pharisees were gathered together Jesus asked them: ‘What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?’ They said to him: ‘David’s.’ He said to them: ‘How, then, is it that David by inspiration calls him “Lord,” saying, “Jehovah said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies beneath your feet’”? [Ps. 109:1, Septuagint (Ps 110:1, Hebrew)] If, therefore, David calls him “Lord,” how is he his son?’ And nobody was able to say a word in reply to him, nor did anyone dare from that day on to question him any further.”—Matt. 22:15, 41-46.
So familiar were Jesus and his disciples with the “Old Testament,” that on occasion they would prove a point of Christian teaching by either quoting from memory or paraphrasing a whole series of Scripture texts. For example, we read, at Romans 3:9-18:
“Above we have made the charge that Jews as well as Greeks are all under sin; just as it is written: ‘There is not a righteous man, not even one; there is no one that has any insight, there is no one that seeks for God. All men have deflected, all of them together have become worthless; there is no one that does kindness, there is not so much as one.’ [Ps. 13:1-3, Septuagint (14:1-3, Hebrew)] ‘Their throat is an opened grave, they have used deceit with their tongues.’ [Ps. 5:9] ‘Poison of asps is behind their lips.’ [Ps. 139:3, Septuagint (140:3, Hebrew)] ‘And their mouth is full of cursing and bitter expression.’ (Ps. 9:27, Septuagint (10:7, Hebrew)] ‘Their feet are speedy to shed blood.’ ‘Ruin and misery are in their ways, and they have not known the way of peace.’ [Isa. 59:7, 8] ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ [Ps. 35:1, Septuagint (36:1, Hebrew)].”—All Septuagint references from Bagster’s Edition.
This usage of Scripture is an excellent example for everyone who desires to please God. The apostle Peter wrote that Christians should be ‘always ready to make a defense before everyone that demands of them a reason for their hope.’ (1 Pet. 3:15) What about your knowledge of the written Word of God? If someone asked about your religious beliefs, could you give a Scriptural “reason” for them?
“IF YOU HAD UNDERSTOOD”
While the first five books of the Bible contain the Mosaic law with its hundreds of ordinances, the Hebrew Scriptures are far more than simply a set of “do’s” and “don’ts.” Careful study of these pre-Christian Scriptures can help persons to mold their thinking patterns to those of the Creator. Consider the following experience of Jesus:
“At that season Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath. His disciples got hungry and started to pluck heads of grain and to eat. At seeing this the Pharisees said to him: ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what it is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ He said to them: ‘Have you not read what David did when he and the men with him got hungry? How he entered into the house of God and they ate the loaves of presentation, something that it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests only? [1 Sam. 21:1-6] Or, have you not read in the Law that on the sabbaths the priests in the temple treat the sabbath as not sacred and continue guiltless? [Num. 28:8-10]”—Matt. 12:1-5.
Here Jesus used to good advantage his knowledge that the Scriptures did not condemn David for eating bread that under normal circumstances would have been lawful only for priests. Jesus’ disciples were even less blameworthy, since their actions violated, not Scriptural, but merely rabbinical regulations.a
Pointing to an important aspect of God’s thinking, Jesus concluded his argument with another meaningful quote from the Hebrew Scriptures: “If you had understood what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless ones. [Hos. 6:6]”—Matt. 12:7.
‘THAT IT MIGHT BE FULFILLED’
Hebrew Scripture prophecies, even though they were written many centuries before Jesus came to earth, are alive with meaning for Christians. Frequently Christian Bible writers introduce Scriptural quotations by phrases such as, “that there might be fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet.” (Matt. 13:35) At times such a phrase indicates direct fulfillment of a prediction. (Matt. 2:5, 6; 11:10-15) But often the indication is otherwise. How so?
Concerning his future betrayal by Judas Iscariot, Jesus stated: “It is in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘He that used to feed on my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’” ([Ps. 41:9] John 13:18) In this instance Jesus quoted what David had written about an intimate friend (perhaps David’s respected counselor, Ahithophel) who had turned against him. God knew that Jesus would undergo similar treachery from an intimate companion. Therefore God had David’s experience recorded under inspiration as prophetically foreshadowing this.
Similar is a quotation that Matthew makes after relating a series of parables that Jesus gave. “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds by illustrations. Indeed, without an illustration he would not speak to them; that there might be fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet who said: ‘I will open my mouth with illustrations, I will publish things hidden since the founding.’” ([Ps. 78:2] Matt. 13:34, 35) Asaph, the writer of Psalm 78, recounted in illustrative language much of the history of God’s dealings with the nation of Israel. Similarly, Jesus used parabolic language in giving many illustrations that affected the spiritual “Israel of God.”—Gal. 6:16; Matt. 13:1-33, 36-50.
‘A GREATER DELIVERANCE’
The Christian Greek Scriptures often record fulfillment in the first century C.E. of prophecies that initially applied to the return of the nation of Israel from Babylonian captivity in 537 B.C.E. Thus, the activity of John the Baptizer is said to fulfill the prophecy at Isaiah 40:3 about “someone . . . calling out in the wilderness.” (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23) And the apostle Paul, when counseling Christians at Corinth to separate themselves from pagan practices, drew upon Isaiah 52:11 as follows: “‘Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing.’” (2 Cor. 6:17) As to the application of such prophecies, Bible commentator Albert Barnes explains:
“The last chapters of Isaiah, from the fortieth chapter, foretell the return of the Jews from Babylon; and every circumstance mentioned occurred in their return. But the language is more expanded and sublime than was necessary to express their return. It will also express appropriately a much more important and magnificent deliverance—that of the redeemed under the Messiah, and the return of the people of God to him, and the universal spread of the gospel; and therefore it may be said to be fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, and the spread of the gospel.”
Not only do the Christian Scriptures apply such prophecies to the first century C.E., but they extend their application into the then distant future. For instance, according to Isaiah 65:17, God foretold: “Here I am creating new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be called to mind, neither will they come up into the heart.” This attained an initial fulfillment when the Jews returned from captivity to Babylon in 537 B.C.E. Under the governorship of Zerubbabel, aided by High Priest Joshua, as a symbolic “new heavens,” those repatriated Israelites constituted a “new earth,” or a new society subject to the new, righteous government.—Hag. 1:1, 14.
But note how Christian Bible writers use this prophecy: “There are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.” (2 Pet. 3:13) “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away.” (Rev. 21:1) Also, since true Christians have been brought into a glorious paradise of spiritual enlightenment, the Scriptures warrant applying to this “time of the end” of the present system of things the marvelous descriptions of earthly blessings found in prophecies that originally foretold the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity.—Dan. 12:4.
The “Old Testament” is indeed meaningful for Christians. Its vast storehouse of principles, prophecies and prophetic history are as necessary for true worship today as when they were first written. Truly “all Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial.”—2 Tim. 3:16.
a The code of Jewish traditional law known as the Mishnah specifies 39 major categories of work forbidden on the sabbath, along with numerous sub-categories. Among the forbidden activities were sifting, threshing, grinding and winnowing. (Tractate Shabbath 7:2) The Palestinian Talmud gives one rabbinical opinion of such forbidden work: ‘In case a woman rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is considered as sifting; if she rubs the heads of wheat, it is regarded as threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she bruises the ears, it is grinding; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing.’