Episode 189 - Did Early Christians Regard the Old Testament as Authoritative?

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A few weeks ago, we talked about if the New Testament writers viewed what they were writing as scripture, and if the early church viewed the writings of the New Testament as scripture, also. But there's another question that perhaps is more pressing today, and that is: did early Christians, and even the New Testament writers themselves, view the Old Testament as authoritative scripture? Now, some of you might not even have a category in your mind for this question. Of course, the Old Testament was viewed as scripture. But there is an increasing confusion about this today. There's a related confusion, which deals with what's the place of the law, the Old Testament, in the Christian life. That's obviously related to how authoritative it is, how much scripture is it.

But, there have been those like Andy Stanley and others who have said, "We need to unhitch from the Old Testament," that the Old Testament didn't inform a New Testament conception of sexual ethics and sexual immorality, and on and on and on. But so, I don't want to focus too much on Andy Stanley and what he said today, but I do want to generally talk about this question of if the early Christians regarded the Old Testament as authoritative. And we're going to look at a lot of passages today, and we're going to move pretty quickly, and I am not going to pretend that the time that we're going to take is going to do this topic justice, but hopefully it starts to paint a picture, and gives you a doorway to an answer.

And we're not going to be able to talk very much about the place of the Law, specifically, in the Christian's life. Do we need to keep the Law? Do we not keep the Law? Do we keep it because of grace? Do we keep it because of earning merit, which is certainly excluded? But the tensions and nuance there are important. We're just not going to be able to get into them very much today.

So, let's look at some passages that speak to the Old Testament as is viewed by the New Testament writers. In Romans, Paul is making an argument. In Romans 3, he says, "What advantage does the Jew have, or of what value is circumcision?" Actually there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. He's referring to the Old Testament, the words of God. He actually calls them oracles, revelations, high and lofty things that they didn't need to have revealed to them. God had no obligation to reveal, but nonetheless, God did reveal to them. He calls it the oracles of God. They were entrusted to them. In order for something to be entrusted to you, it needs to be a defined sort of thing, so we see presupposed here that they knew what the Old Testament was, they knew what the scriptures were, because at the time, those were the only scriptures for the Jews. And so, Paul continues to have this high view of the Old Testament because it was the Bible, practically speaking, though that word doesn't technically apply, for Old Testament believers in God. So he calls it the oracles. He has a high view of it.

And when we just zoom out a second, what we see is that there are hundreds of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. There are hundreds more allusions to the Old Testament, where the Old Testament is alluded to, it's leveraged to make a point. There are another hundred or so possible allusions. If you add all of that up, there are about a thousand references, explicit, or in allusions, to the Old Testament. And many of these are used in teaching passages, that are teaching doctrine straight from or leveraging, or based on the Old Testament. So there is a strong linkage there.

Some modern Bible translations in recent years have started listing Old Testament quotations when they appear in the New Testament in bold or italics. The Christian Standard Bible does this. The New English Translation does this. It's really helpful. There are some books of the Bible where you can't look at a page without it being almost entirely bold, where the author is just leveraging and quoting as authoritative, the Old Testament. So there are about a thousand or so quotations or allusions to the Old Testament.

Let's look at another passage that has been a part of this conversation on does the Old Testament apply, does it not apply? It's Acts 15. That's where the Jerusalem Council is trying to figure out what do we do with the Gentiles, who are not Jewish, who are coming to faith in Christ. This is what's said starting in Acts 15 verse 28, "For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us, not to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rules," and he goes on to list them, "that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well."

Now, this can't be all that New Testament Christians are expected to do because there are many other places in the New Testament that give much more teaching than this, but this is a snapshot. It hits the high points. And so, some have said that, "See, they said nothing about the Old Testament." And in fact, the Old Testament has nothing to do with what's spoken here, but there are a few points that should come to mind. One, why would they need to stay away from idols? How do we know what an idol is? Are there any biblical passages that maybe tell us about idols? Oh yeah, like the 10 Commandments. And a lot of the Law in the Old Testament talks about abstaining from idols. The Old Testament also talks about staying away from animals that have been strangled with their blood still in them. And perhaps ... I don't think what's happening here is that the Jerusalem Council is saying it's actually wrong for a Gentile to eat an animal with blood in it, it's saying this so they don't offend their Jewish neighbors, and maybe the Jews that have since come to Christ. I think that's important.

But the last part here is what I want to focus on. The Council tells these Gentile converts to Christianity to stay away from sexual immorality. How would they know what that is? That term is not defined in the New Testament. So, how would these new Christians know what sexual immorality was? How would Jews know what sexual immorality is, if, as some have said, it has no linkage to the Old Testament? Well, what's interesting is they would have known what it means because the Bible presupposed your familiarity with the Bible. In other words, when these documents are written in the New Testament, it presupposes that the people reading them know the kind of biblical worldview, that they know other biblical documents, that they actually know the Old Testament, because there are many places in the New Testament that leverage Leviticus 18, which contains a lot of laws and regulations dealing with sex and sexual issues and sexual immorality. That's where we get a picture of what God understands sexual immorality to be. It's where we see that you shouldn't commit adultery. It's where we see that you shouldn't have sex with animals. You shouldn't have sex with your father's wife. You shouldn't have sex with your sister. The list goes on and on and on.

So, when the Jerusalem Council says, "Abstain from sexual immorality," when Jews are saying sexual immorality, that is totally informed by what the Old Testament taught about sexual immorality. And that's how Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5 can condemn something he calls sexual immorality, and expects them to know it was wrong. Let's look at that passage. "It's actually reported that sexual immorality exists among you, the kind of immorality that's not even permitted among the Gentiles, because someone is cohabitating with his father's wife." There's some sort of incestuous relationship happening here. "And you're proud. Don't you know that you should've been deeply sorrowful and removed the one from among you?" He expected them to know that this sort of incestuous relationship, even if it's his stepmom that this person is having a relationship with, that they should've removed that person, and that that activity is wrong. And he uses the term here, "Sexual immorality exists among you." Well, how would they know what that is? Leviticus 18. That's how he can judge this church in Corinth for not taking appropriate action because their conception of sexual immorality was very clear. It should've been coming from the Old Testament.

Well, let's go to a chapter in 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 6 starting in verse 9. He says, "Don't you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. The sexual immoral," there's that term, "idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy drunkards, the verbally abusive, swindlers, will not inherit the kingdom of God. Some of you used to live this way, but you were washed, you were sanctified, and you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of our God."

Isn't it interesting he starts out here with somewhat of a rhetorical question. "Don't you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?" Well, how would they know that? Because the Old Testament says it, because Jesus taught it. Well, how would they know what sexual immorality is in this list? Because of the Old Testament. How would they know that practicing homosexuals are in this category? Well, because of the Old Testament. Leviticus 18:22 literally says, "A man should not go to bed with a man like he goes to bed with a woman." And Paul makes up a word here that we translate practicing homosexuals. Now some people say, "We can't know what it means. Paul made it up." We actually can know what it means. He takes the word for man and he takes the word for bed and he puts them together. He is saying that this type of person who goes to bed with a man, who is a man-bedder, is one of the types of categories that will not inherit the kingdom of God. Those are the exact words used in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22.

Paul is leveraging Leviticus 18, the Old Testament, to define his moral categories, and more specifically to define specific behaviors that are not allowed in the kingdom of God. Jesus does the same thing in Matthew 19. "When the Pharisees come to him and test him, they asked, 'Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?' And he answers, 'Have you not read ...?'" Well, wait a second. Have you not read what? The Old Testament. That's what he's calling them back to. He does this time and time again in the Gospels. He says, "Have you not read that from the beginning, the creator made them male and female and said ..." He's quoting now, explicitly, Old Testament scripture. "For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother, and will be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." Jesus is giving the answer to the Pharisees and not saying, "Well, the Old Testament and its sexual ethic, it doesn't apply today." No, he's quoting it explicitly and saying, "The issue is you've gotten away from that." The issue is not the original prescription God gave. The issue is you're not following that prescription. You're actually breaking his law with your man-made laws."

Well, what about Jesus and love? Don't we talk about love so much today, and say, "Well the Old Testament was about law, and the New Testament is about love." And so this whole idea of loving your neighbor, that's New Testament. Well is it? In Mark 12:29, Jesus gets asked about what the most important commandment is. Here's what he says, "The most important is, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself." These sound new to us, but they're quotations from the Old Testament. There's nothing new in Jesus' answer here.

"Listen O Israel, hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." That's the Shema, Deuteronomy 6. And then when he says that you should love your neighbor as yourself, that's from Leviticus 19. That's one chapter over from where we just saw homosexuality being talked about, and adultery, and bestiality, and other forms of sexual immorality. Jesus is quoting the Old Testament again and again and again, saying, "Have you not read? Have you not heard? Have you not heard what was spoken to you by God?", he actually says in one place. And he's going to the Old Testament.

That's a passage we don't have time to look at today, but I love when the Sadducees in Matthew come and question Jesus on if marriage will persist in heaven, trying to catch him in another trap like they're always doing, he actually says to them, "Have you not read what was spoken to you by God?" He's referring to, and goes on to quote, the Old Testament, and he says it's the words of God. God spoke that to them. That's the same language Paul picks up in 2 Timothy 3:16, which we'll look at in a minute. But all of this to say Jesus views the Old Testament as authoritative. He affirms a literal Adam and Eve. He uses it to answer questions on sexual immorality and sexual morals.

But, let's go look at Paul in 2 Timothy 3:14, and here's what he says to Timothy, "You, Timothy, however must continue in the things you have learned and are confident about. You know who taught you and how, from infancy, you have known the holy writings which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work." He says that the holy writings gave Timothy wisdom for salvation. He's referring to the Old Testament. Remember there was not a completed New Testament at this time. Timothy was made wise for salvation by being taught the Old Testament. Paul even says explicitly that this salvation was through faith in Jesus Christ. The Old Testament can teach us about faith in Jesus Christ. That was Timothy's view. That was Jesus' view before his ascension when he says that he opened the minds of his disciples and taught them how everything about him in the law and the prophets was true, and how they pointed to him.

But, it's not just the holy writings here that Paul is saying were what made Timothy wise. He uses a different term. He actually says, "Scripture is inspired by God." There's a parallelism here with holy writings in scripture, and when the New Testament often uses the term scripture, it's referring to the Old Testament. Now yes, we can make an argument for how what Paul says here actually applies to the New Testament, too, and we did that a couple of weeks ago. But Paul is talking about the Old Testament being what's inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof and for correction, and for training in righteousness. In other words, it tells us how to be right with God. It tells us how to live. That's what the Old Testament does according to Paul.

And then, lastly, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10, when speaking of the events described in the Old Testament, not just the moral teaching, the actual events and people. He says, "These things happened to them as examples and were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the age have come. So let the one who thinks he is standing, be careful that he does not fall." The things in the Old Testament, Paul says were written for the instruction of New Testament Christians, also. That's very similar to what he writes to Timothy, that scripture is for our correction and our training and our equipping. In other words, it's for our instruction. Now, we have to understand it in its context. We can't just rip things out and insert our names where the text says "you" and "your" and "us" and things like that. But nonetheless, when we understand the Old Testament in its context, it is very much for our benefit also, not exclusively, but also.

Now, it does matter that we understand the audience and the context. So if God made an agreement specifically with Israel, or specifically with David, or Moses, I can't just say that that applies to me, all things equal. I've got to do some work to understand the principle that was only for them, and how that may apply to me, and it may not. It may just simply be for my edification to learn how God's faithfulness works through the ages, which is part of Paul's point, not his only point, but part of it, in 1 Corinthians 10.

But through all of this, and we've only scratched the surface, what is hopefully clear is that the Old Testament was viewed as authoritative by Jesus, and Paul, and the other New Testament writers, that Jesus consistently answers questions leveraging and pointing people back to the Old Testament, that the conception of sexual immorality in the New Testament is explicitly founded on what is in the Old Testament, not only in Leviticus 18, but certainly not less than what's in Leviticus 18.

So, let's not have a Bible that's just half the Bible. Right? Only the last 27 books. We have 66 books in our Bible. All of them are authoritative. All of them are inspired. All of them are inerrant. All of them are able to make us wise for salvation. So let's not artificially truncate or shorten our Bible or our canon, and let's not have a view of the Old Testament that even Jesus wouldn't hold.