Why do so many Christians struggle with the relationship with the Old and New Testaments?
First, we can tend to forget there was no New Testament at the time of Jesus. Paul stated: “All scripture is given by the inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Here “Scripture” (graphē) must refer to the Old Testament written Scripture, for that is what the word graphē refers to in every one of its fifty-one occurrences in the New Testament.
Second, many Christians assume the way it is today was the way it was in the first century.
As I have said before, this is the problem of paradigms. As Ronald Timothy says:
” Paradigms can be so strong they act as psychological filters – we quite literally see the world through our paradigms. Any data that exists in the real world (or even in the Bible) that does not fit our paradigm will have a difficult time getting through our filters. We are quite literally unable to perceive the facts right before our eyes. Thus, our greatest strengths can become our greatest weakness by not allowing us to see both the need and the opportunity for change. The people who create new paradigms are usually outsiders. They are not part of the established paradigm community.“– Ronald Timothy, Following Jesus: Our Cruciform Example
Because of the first diagram is sometimes assumed by many Christians, it leads to the problem that is stated by Walter Kaiser:
“God never intended that the two testaments should result in two separate religions: Judaism and Christianity. The Tanach (= OT) was meant to lead directly into the so-called New Testament and thus be the continuation of one plan from creation to consummation. When the divine promise-plan of God is ruptured and divided into two distinct parts, with the climax triumphing over the earlier revelation, then we have introduced a division where God had revealed the fulfillment of what he had revealed in earlier texts! Therefore, we must investigate further how this disparity appeared among the people of God”- Walter Kaiser, Jewish Christianity: Why Believing Jews and Gentiles Parted Ways in the Early Church
In reality, the way it was in the first century was this diagram:
Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century wasn’t seen as a single “way.” There were many “Judaisms”- the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, etc. The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Josephus refers to the “sects” of Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees. The first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of Second Temple Judaism. Even James Dunn says the following:
“Prior to Paul what we now call ‘Christianity’ was no more than a messianic sect within first-century Judaism, or better, within Second Temple Judaism — ‘the sect of the Nazarenes’ (Acts 24.5), the followers of ‘the Way’ (that is, presumably, the way shown by Jesus)”- James Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Gospels, pg 119.
The New Covenant
The only place the words “new covenant” are seen is in the following text:
Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more (Jer. 31: 31-34).
Though Ezekiel never uses the phrase “new covenant,” he does mention a similar theme as Jeremiah:
Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries among which you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.”’ When they come there, they will remove all its detestable things and all its abominations from it. And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God (Ezek. 11: 17-20).
I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God (Ezek. 36: 23-28).
Just like the giving of the Torah (with Moses), the new covenant needs someone to inaugurate it. We just read about the day when God will place his Spirit permanently inside people so they can walk in holiness and love. We can summarize some of the benefits of the new covenant here:
- God promises the forgiveness of sin.
- God pledged the indwelling Ruach Ha Kodesh (The Holy Spirit)
- God promises the knowledge of God.
- God promises His people would obey Him.
- The fulfilling of this covenant was tied to Israel’s future restoration to the land.
Gentiles Participation in the New Covenant
Now that we see the passages in the Jewish Scriptures about the promise of the coming of the new covenant, how can Christians and Messianic believers claim this new covenant was inaugurated if universal forgiveness for sins has not come to Israel? It is abundantly clear that the Lord made the new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah (see Jer. 31:31–34, quoted in Heb. 8:8–12) and not with the nations of the world, which leads us to ask the question: How do Gentiles get to partake in the new covenant? In response, God’s plan for Israel was to be a light to the nations and be a conduit for Gentiles to come to faith in the one true God. The only way Gentiles get to partake in the new covenant is that they grafted in as Paul talks about in Rom. 11: 13-24. But what’s the point? There would be no understanding of the new covenant apart from the Jewish Scriptures.
Did Jesus Come to Bring a New Religion?
Another reason Christians have a problem with bridging the Testaments is because of the fact that many Christians still assume the Old Testament= law (Judaism) and the New Testament=grace (Christianity). This plays out when some assume Jesus came and brought a brand new religion. But as Craig Evans says:
Evans goes onto say:
But we must ask if Paul has created a new institution, a new organization, something that stands over against Israel, something that Jesus himself never anticipated. From time to time learned tomes and popular books have asserted that the Christian church is largely Paul’s creation, that Jesus himself never intended for such a thing to emerge. Frankly, I think the hypothesis of Paul as creator of the church or inventor of Christianity is too simplistic. A solution that is fairer to the sources, both Christian and Jewish, is more complicated. -Evans, Craig A., From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation.
Take a look at both quotes from Evans. From my own experience, most Christians like the current boundaries. In other words, we have two separate religions, Judaism and Christianity. Thus, we don’t care much about how we got to that place. One thing for sure: If we discuss the “imperial Christianity” that was legalized in the fourth century by Constantine and whether Jesus or Paul is the founder of that, the answer is no. By then, the Christianity that existed was so far away from what Jesus and Paul had done, it had morphed into a new and separate religion. Here are a couple of pictures to help summarize where we are today:
“Many “mainstream” Protestant churches today are in fact naively Marcionite in their theology and practice: in their worship services they have no OT reading, or if the OT is read it is rarely preached upon. Judaism is regarded as a legalistic foil from which [Yeshua] has delivered us. (I once had a student say to me in class: “Judaism was a harsh religion that taught people to fear God’s judgment, but Jesus came to teach us to love God with all of our heart and soul and strength.”) This unconscious Marcionite bias has had a disastrous effect on the theological imagination of many Protestant churches, at least in the United States….” – Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco: Baylor University, 2014), 5.
For the record, Marcion believed Jesus was the Son of God, but he rejected the Old Testament and the God of Israel. He also believed the God of the Old Testament was a wrathful God while the God of the New Testament was a God of love and forgiveness. To see more about Marcion, see here:
So is Hays correct? I think he is. So the question becomes how do we correct this? Well, the good news is that Kaiser who is an Old Testament scholar gives us some helpful tips. As Kaiser says:
“The Old Testament was the Bible of the early church. Yet one more objection can be heard from some detractors. “Now that we have the New Testament, should we not go to the New Testament first to form an understanding of the Bible’s teachings and then go backward into the Old Testament, interpreting it in the light of the New Testament?” This approach is advocated so frequently in the church today that it must be faced squarely. This whole approach is wrongheaded historically, logically, and biblically. As we have seen, the first New Testament believers tested what they had heard from Jesus and his disciples against what was written in the Old Testament. They had no other canon or source of help. How, then, were they able to get it right? Thus, from a methodological point of view, reading the Bible backward is incorrect historically as well as procedurally. What is more, the early church knew the Old Testament to be true; therefore, logically, they could not have tested what was established (and true) for them (possessing only the Old Testament) by what was being received as new (the New Testament)! That would be a reversal of the natural, historical, and logical order of things.”
In conclusion, I hope Christians will see the Bible is one continuous story and not divorce the Testaments.