One of the areas that often confuses Christians, both newer Christians and lifelong Christians, is the relationship of the Old and the New Testament. Roughly, that equates to the relationship between the old and the new covenants – the agreements between God and his people. There was an old one and a new one. The Old Testament – and testament literally means covenant – and a new one and it describes the new covenant. So Old Testament, New Testament. What is the relationship of these two things? It causes lots of issues because, on the one hand, we do want to say that there’s something new about the new covenant. On the other hand, there’s not that much new about the new covenant.
But if we don’t understand the Old Testament, the old covenant, it can be very difficult to understand the new. We often think the Bible was just written where anyone can just pick it up and understand what’s going on. While there is some truth to that, you can pick up the Bible and read and understand that Jesus died and rose again for sins, and sin is rebellion against God, you can understand those things, if you really want to understand the full narrative and picture of what even the New Testament is saying, you have to understand the Old Testament. The biblical documents were written to a specific group of people who were members of a religious community. They had a background. They had a history. They had a context and a framework from which to then understand the new writings.
The Bible and the documents in the Bible were not written to people with a blank slate, who just picked it up off a shelf like it was in the library and said, “Hm, I’ll read this and understand Mark or James. They were written to people who had a familiarity with the context and a lot of the themes. So that’s really important for us to understand. The New Testament doesn’t just pop out of nowhere on its own. It is very much a continuation of the old in some very real ways, not at all points.
The early church did have a “Bible.” It had the Old Testament. Paul refers to the scriptures that “make you wise for salvation. “He constantly is calling people back to the scriptures. What were those scriptures? The Old Testament: the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. The New Testament church did not get rid of those. They were a part of their continuing worship and study because the Old Testament points to Christ.
Before Jesus ascends, he teaches the disciples how everything written in the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets about him is true, how it all points to him and finds its fulfillment in him. So the Old Testament talks about Jesus and points to it. It reveals God’s transcendent truth and standards of morality. Those didn’t just get chucked out the window when Jesus came and rose from the dead. That’s actually what we’re going to talk about today: the Old Testament foundation for the New Testament’s teaching on morality.
The Old Testament Grounding for New Testament Morality
Now, why are we talking about this? Well, Andy Stanley is a very popular mega church pastor and he often gives controversial talks. Recently, he said that we need to unhitch the Old Testament from the New Testament in order to make our evangelistic appeals easier and more palatable for people to understand and accept. There are many issues with this. I also think that a lot of what’s been said about him goes a little farther than he did or is somewhat uncharitable, but the one thing I want to focus in on is when he made the claim that the New Testament’s understanding of morality, specifically sexual immorality, is not informed by the Old Testament, because this is demonstrably false. That’s what we’re going to look at today.
It’s really important for us to understand, because even though Andy Stanley has not come out saying that same-sex relationships can be holy and God-pleasing, one of the textbook moves of Protestant liberalism is to start to put a division, a stronger division than there needs to be, between the Old and the New Testament. “The New Testament is about love and the Old Testament is about law,” and that is not true. So we’re going to look today at the Old Testament foundations for the New Testament teachings on morality.
Jesus’ Use of the Old Testament for Moral Teaching
Jesus gets asked in Matthew 19 about divorce. As he often does, he calls them back to what was originally written. I can’t count the number of times Jesus gets asked a question and he says, “Have you not read …?” or “As it was written …” He did not divide the Old and the New Testaments. He called people back to the Old Testament as authoritative teaching for what he was going to then say. This is what he says in Matthew 19:3 when he’s asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” He answers, “Have you not read that from the beginning, the creator made them male and female and said,” quoting Genesis, “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and will become one flesh.”
What’s he do there? He quotes Genesis as authoritative teaching on marriage. “That God created the male and female,” that’s a quote, so he’s affirming a literal Adam and Eve, which would be a big stumbling block to many people today from an intellectual standpoint. Then he also affirms that this marriage union is one man and one woman, not just two people, not more than two people, and they come together. A man and his wife, and they become one flesh. That is the teaching on marriage that Jesus gives. It’s exactly the teaching that is from the Old Testament, which were his words since he is God and he inspired the Old Testament also.
So his teaching on marriage and sexuality where we get this definition of marriage – one man and one woman becoming one flesh for one lifetime – is found in the Old Testament. Jesus just simply says that the Old Testament’s teaching there, stands. What happens when he’s talking about murder? What does he quote there in Matthew 5? He says, “You’ve heard it said in an older generation, do not murder,” and he quotes the Ten Commandments. He goes on to not get rid of that, but say that the commandment actually was also saying something about the state of your heart, because being angry with your brother, a sinful type of anger, is almost like murdering him. He puts that extreme on it. If you’ve been angry with your brother, you’ve committed murder in your heart.
I think the reason he says this is because often when we are angry with someone, if there were no consequences, if are on an island and no one knew, we would probably murder that person, except for the grace of God. That’s what he’s getting at there. The heart state between murder and anger often is extremely close, but he is still affirming the Old Testament teaching on not murdering.
A few verses later, he says, “You have heard it said, do not commit adultery.” Well, where have they heard that? In the Old Testament. He goes on not to get rid of that, but leaves that in place and then take it up another step and say, “Well, I say if you look at a woman to lust after her, you’ve committed adultery with her in your heart.” Why is that? Well, it’s parallel, I believe, to the murder passage. If there weren’t social consequences, let’s say, and you did lust after someone and they consented, well, you will probably have an adulterous affair with that person because the heart state is the same. He wants something that is not yours.
So, he doesn’t get rid of the murder prohibition. He doesn’t get rid of the adultery prohibition. What is adultery? Well, he assumes they know because he expects them to know their Old Testament, because its moral teachings are authoritative. So we’ve seen him address divorce and marriage and murder and adultery.
Paul uses the OT in 1 Corinthians 6. Some people say Paul did not have an Old Testament foundation for his view on sexual immorality, and that’s just false and we’ll see that here. So in 1 Corinthians 6, starting in verse 9, he says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived.” That is so key today. “The sexual immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy drunkard, the verbally abusive swindlers will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”
Now, that’s quite the list there, and some people want to say that hits all of us. Don’t you, sometimes, use harsh language to someone? Aren’t you verbally abusive? Do you use Facebook while you’re at work and steal from your employer’s time, so you’re a thief? That’s not the type of thing Paul is getting at here. He is describing an unrepentant pattern of practice, not just desires, but a behavior that indicates that someone is not a part of the Kingdom of God, so not everyone finds them self in this passage. Now, everyone at some point in their life has found them self in this passage. For instance, before before Christ, but nonetheless, this isn’t just applying to every single person at this point in time.
But let’s talk about this term that is translated “practicing homosexuals,” or sometimes just stated homosexuals. Why do I say that this term actually means that Paul had an Old Testament foundation for morality? The New Testament was written in Greek, and the word Paul uses here is “arsenokoitai.” It’s a word he made up. You may be thinking, “Well, he made up a word. How can we know what it means?” He made it up out of two other words. It’s a compound word. He took the word for man and he took the word for bed, and he put them together. So the word he made here is “man bedder” or someone who “man beds”, someone “a man who takes another man to bed.” That’s extremely clear.
Now why do I say that that is an Old Testament reference? Well, because Paul often quotes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Even though the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, he often quotes from the Green translation. It’s interesting, in Leviticus 18 and other places, when it has a prohibition against homosexuality, it says, “Do not go to bed with a man as one goes to bed with a woman.” In other words, do not take a man to bed. No man bedding.
So that’s how I know this came from the Old Testament. It’s using those same words, put together to make a new term in Greek that’s extremely self-explanatory but that links his moral teaching to the Old Testament.
In fact, eve the command to love your neighbor comes from the Old Testament. People often think, “Well, that’s the new thing that Jesus brought.” No, love your neighbor as yourself, love God, those are not new commands in the New Testament. They are from the Old Testament in Leviticus. That God loved all people groups; that comes from the Old Testament.
So if we get rid of our Old Testament, even its moral teaching, we can’t make sense of where things “pop” up into existence in the New Testament. That’s really important for us. Paul expects that they have the Old Testament foundation to then understand the newness that Christ brings, which does not just wholesale get rid of everything, but it does reframe it. So when Paul goes into the synagogues and reasons with people sabbath after sabbath, what is he reasoning with them from when it says he reasoned with them from the scriptures? From the Old Testament. But Jesus had already come. Jesus had already risen from the dead. Yeah, he’s still reasoning with them from the Old Testament because it’s still authoritative. It’s still the Word of God.
Now, when this argument comes up, some people will say, “Yeah, well, you wear shirts with multiple fabrics, right, and the Old Testament says not to do that.” This shows a misunderstanding of the types of laws and context in the Old Testament. We’ve talked about this before, but just briefly, the Old Testament law contains what we would say looking back, are about three types of laws because it was written to a very special group of people. It was written to the people of God, just broadly speaking, and as such, it contains moral prescriptions, things we are to do that are binding on us as people.
So there’s a moral law component, like don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t have sex with a man as you would with a woman. Don’t go to bed with a man as you would with a woman. But it also contains laws for Israel as a nation, civil and judicial laws. So these might be things like if someone has discovered doing this, and these people were present and they testified this way, then you should do this thing. This is how you know if the person is guilty or not. So there are actually laws in there for governing a society and those don’t apply to us today. We are not Israel in that way, so the civil law, while it can teach us some good principles, it doesn’t apply wholesale, just picked up and ported to our context today. Though every individual law can teach us something about God and God’s holy standard of morality, which is grounded in his holy character.
So we’ve got moral laws, we have judicial/civil laws, and there are ceremonial laws, dealing with how Israel was supposed to worship God in their daily practice and what was supposed to keep them pure and set apart from the other nations. So things like keeping the sabbath is actually a ceremonial law that doesn’t apply to us today. Issues of what fabrics we wear and where we plant crops, do we plant multiple seeds in one field? Those are areas I would say of the civil or most likely, more likely the ceremonial law that dealt with having daily reminders in every area of life that Israel was not supposed to mix with its pagan neighbors. They were supposed to remain separate.
So even the types of clothing they were to wear was to remind them of how God had called them out, had brought them out of Egyptian captivity and slavery to be a separate, separated people, from their neighbors, a beacon on a hill shining, holy. Now, they didn’t do that very well, but nonetheless, the ceremonial law was supposed to help keep Israel weird. The civil law was to govern how it functioned as a society, and the moral law, dealing with sexuality, with violence, and many other areas, like do not lie, do not covet. But those express the unchanging moral character of God. As such, they don’t change. So the Old Testament does teach us transcendently true, timelessly true truths about morality. That’s why the New Testament doesn’t change that. It relies upon it. It doesn’t get rid of it. It doesn’t abrogate it. It leverages it to continue to make the same points or to make them even more strongly in Jesus’ case like on the Sermon on the Mount.
Yes, adultery is still wrong. Marriage is between one man and one woman for one lifetime. Murder is wrong. Lying, coveting is wrong. Greed is wrong. Where do we know those things? The Old Testament. So we must, as Christians, have a full orbed view of God’s revelation. We shouldn’t set up tiers or what might actually be like a canon within a canon. We understand that all of scripture is what is sufficient for teaching us and instructing us and equipping us for every good work. We can’t just get rid of part of it. Yes, we must understand them in their context, but the Old Testament is foundational for understanding the New Testament. We can’t get rid of that.
We must be equipped to show that the morality that’s in the New Testament doesn’t just get created with Jesus. It’s not a hard left turn from the Old Testament. It’s a continuation of it, seen in the fullness of the kingdom coming and in light of the redemptive work that Christ has done on the cross, and it calls us to a higher level but not without getting rid of what was originally there.
Well, I hope this has been helpful and I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.
2 thoughts on “Episode 160 – What’s New About New Testament Morality?”
Very helpful Brian! Will you explain the Scripture regarding marriage/divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and Jesus’ teaching on marriage/divorce in Matthew 19:1-9?
Bless your heart,
Hi Ms. Gladys!
That’s a really good question. Deu. 24:1 reads differently in some translations compared to others. Some, like the CSB, say
"If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something improper about her, he may write her a divorce certificate…"
Others like the ESV and NASB say something like:
"When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce…"
The first says that if his wife displeases him, he “may” write her a certificate of divorce. It seems to give permission The other (more literal translations) don’t say he should/may, it describes it it as an event that simply happened and does not say it should/shouldn’t have.
I think the moral literal translation is accurate here. God wasn’t saying divorce could happen if the husband wasn’t pleased with the wife. He was saying, “if it happened, here are some regulations,” which then follow.
With that being the case, Jesus doesn’t overturn this in Matthew 19, but he does say this civil/moral command was given because their hearts were hard. But it is still the case that if someone is divorced, then marries someone else, then gets divorced, it would be wrong to go back to their first spouse.
Does that help?