Accurate Hermeneutics: Interpreting the Bible Correctly (5)
It is probably safe to say that most if not all casual to serious students of the Bible are aware that it is broken down into two basic parts: the Old Testament (Genesis through Malachi) and the New Testament (Matthew through Revelation.) The Old Testament (or covenant) gives us the record of the beginning of this world, the universe, and mankind before turning its primary focus to the history and laws of the nation of Israel from the time of their patriarchs to when they were taken into Babylonian captivity. The New Testament (or covenant) gives us the biography of Jesus Christ, the record of the earliest days of his church, and the writings of his divinely inspired apostles and prophets. Both covenants claim to be Scripture and thus inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf. Rom. 15:4; 2 Pet. 3:15-16), and both contain commandments, examples, and principles by which people were and are to abide.
However, did you know that one was taken out of the way and fulfilled to make way for the other, and thus its laws and precepts are no longer applicable for Christians today? Understanding this fact is a major foundational precept to keep in mind in order to interpret the Bible correctly, which is why I want to write about it today.
The Old Testament continually points to Jesus Christ through numerous prophecies (e.g., Deut. 18:15-19) We know these prophecies are about Jesus because the New Testament proclaims them to fulfilled by him (e.g., Acts 3:18-24). In fact, Jesus declared himself to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17). However, the Old Covenant also foretold of a time when it would be replaced by the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34), something which the New Testament acknowledged as having taken place (Heb. 8:7-13). The New Covenant replaced the Old Covenant at the moment Jesus died on the cross (Heb. 9:15-17; Eph. 2:14-16; Col. 2:13-17).
Unlike the New Testament whose laws apply to everyone (Matt. 28:18; Acts 17:31; John 12:48), the Old Testament declared itself to be written for and applicable solely to the nation of Israel (Deut. 5:1-3; Jer. 31:32). It was done in order to serve as a “guardian”to Israel until Christ came (Gal. 3:24). However, now that Christ and the faith which he brought has come, the Old Covenant’s laws are no longer applicable (Gal. 3:25) and Jewish Christians are now said to be free from it in the same way that a woman is no longer married to her spouse upon his death (Rom. 7:1-6). Those Christians who would attempt to still obey some of the commandments of the Old Covenant (such as circumcision – Gen. 17:10-14) were said to be obliged to obey all of its commandments (Gal. 5:3). More importantly, they were said to have fallen from grace (Gal. 5:4).
This is not to say that the Old Testament has no value to the Christian and should not be studied by the Christian. The New Testament promotes the value of the Old Testament by telling Christians that it instructs, encourages, and provides hope for us (Rom. 15:4). Some might ask how it can instruct us when we do not have to obey the commandments found within it. It instructs us, as well as encourages us and gives us hope, by teaching us about God. For example, it tells us about the awesome power of God as shown through his creation (Ps. 19:1). When we read that the Lord is our shepherd who protects us when we’re in the dark valley of death (Ps. 23), we are encouraged and comforted. When we read of the interactions God had with disobedient Israel in the Old Testament, it serves as an admonishing example for us (1 Cor. 10:1-11) by teaching us how God does not tolerate sin. In these and many other ways, it along with the New Testament is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work”(2 Tim. 3:16-17).
However, proper hermeneutics require that we recognize that the laws given to Israel in the Old Covenant which regulated their theology, their worship, their eating habits, their holy days, etc., do not apply to Christians today unless we read of those same regulations given to us in the New Covenant. For example, all ten of the commandments God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai are also commandments found in the New Testament except the one concerning the Sabbath Day. In like manner, the commandment to love our neighbors the same way in which we love ourselves is found in both testaments (Lev. 19:18; Rom. 13:9). However, while we read of Israelites commanded to worship God through animal sacrifices and instruments of music in the Old Testament (Lev. 1; 2 Chr. 29:25-30), we do not read of Christians being commanded to worship God in the same ways in the New Testament. Rather, Christians are told that Christ is their sacrifice (Heb. 9:26) and that they are to sing praises to God while “plucking the instrument” (the literal definition of the Greek word translated “making melody”) of their heart (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
This brings us to the final major difference between the Old and New Testaments which I’d like to cover in this article. The New Law calls the Old Law “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form”(Heb. 10:1), and the food regulations and holy days of the Old Covenant “a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ”(Col. 2:16-17). If you were to see my shadow, you would be able to tell a few things about me…but not everything, not until you actually saw me in the flesh. In like manner, the people of the Old Testament in many ways were “shadows”or “types”of people in the New Testament (e.g., Adam and Jesus – Rom. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:45-49). The physical emblems, places, and acts of worship in the Old Covenant were “symbolic”of the spiritual worship commanded “in the present age”to the church living under the New Covenant (Heb. 9:1-10; cf. John 4:20-24). The Old Testament’s worship focused on the physical, while the New Testament worship focuses on the spiritual. When we understand that, it helps us to more accurately interpret the Bible when it comes to the type of worship God wants of Christians in the church today.
Interpreting the Bible correctly is a goal which requires constant study (Ps. 1:2; 1 Tim. 4:13, 15-16). One will not come to a proper understanding and application of accurate hermeneutics overnight; in fact, continual study and learning will always be required of us if for no other reason than we will forget some things that we have learned (2 Pet. 3:1-2). These articles I’ve written this week only provide a generalized overview; much more would need to be written in order to “get into the meat” of the matter. However, it is my hope that what has been written this week can serve as a good starting point for all of us in our efforts to obey God’s command to no longer be spiritual children, “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes”(Eph. 4:14). May we all strive to get a good diet of the milk of God’s Word (1 Pet. 2:2) so that we can grow to get into the meat (Heb. 5:12-14) May we work hard to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity”(Heb. 6:1-2). The study and thought required to write these articles helps me to accomplish that, and it is my hope and prayer that these writings help you to reach that goal also. Thanks for reading…