The Old Testament has run into some hard times as of late. It’s seen by many as a curmudgeonly, legalistic, violent, confusing, and, maybe most of all, boring sort of book. As the atheist Richard Dawkins famously opined, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction.”
On top of these sorts of complaints are questions about the historical veracity of the Old Testament. Are we really supposed to believe in a literal Adam and Eve? A global flood? Sodom and Gomorrah? People struggle to believe these sorts of things really happened.
Sadly, however, the critiques don’t come from just non-Christians. Even believers, if we’re honest, sometimes have those squirm-in-your-seat reservations about what we are reading in the Old Testament. And that sentiment isn’t helped when popular evangelical leaders suggest the OT doesn’t matter much anyway.
So, in the midst of such bad press, it may be timely to ask what Jesus thought about the Old Testament. If Jesus is who he claims to be, then surely his opinion should be very influential in shaping our own (see prior post on this subject here). Would he agree with concerns above? Should we bail on the Old Testament?
Not at all. Here are three things that Jesus believed about the Old Testament:
1. The Old Testament was historical. Generally speaking, Jesus viewed the Old Testament as telling about people that really existed and events that really happened. Sure, there are poetic portions (e.g., the Psalms) and apocalyptic portions which are highly symbolic (e.g., Ezekiel), but Jesus understood the historical portions to be, well, historical.
As a sampling, Jesus refers to Adam and Eve, Abel, Noah (and the flood), Abraham, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, manna in the desert, serpent in wilderness, David eating holy bread, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Zechariah, and more.
2. The Old Testament was authoritative. In all of Jesus’ disputes and debates (and there were many), the highest court of appeal was always what Scripture had to say. Curiously, this was even an agreed-upon reality with Jesus’ enemies. Despite all their theological disagreements, they never disagreed about the role of Scripture as the ultimate authority.
For example, when asked by the Sadducees, “who’s wife will she be?” (no doubt, what they deemed to be their toughest theological question bound to “stump” Jesus publicly), Jesus responded with the simple, “Have you not read…?” followed by a quote from Exodus (Matt 22:28-32).
Indeed, this pattern of relying on the Old Testament Scripture was a defining feature of Jesus’ ministry. Even in his own temptation in the wilderness, he depends not on his own wisdom, but consistently appeals to the wisdom and authority of Scripture (Matt 4:1-11).
3. The Old Testament was inspired. On top of this, Jesus affirmed most plainly that the Old Testament contains the words of God himself. When it speaks, God speaks. Take, for example, Matt 19:4: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother…”
In this passage, Jesus is clearly citing Genesis 2:24. But what is often missed is that he attributes the words of Genesis 2:24 to God himself even though God is not speaking in that passage! It is merely the “narrator.” Thus, in Jesus’ mind, all the words in Scripture are God’s words.
This is why Jesus can say things like, “Scripture cannot be broken,” (John 10:35), and “heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass away from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). The Old Testament was clearly a divine book.
So, what do we do with Jesus’ testimony? Well, most critically, it should make us rethink our disposition toward the Old Testament. Rather than reading it while holding our noses, in a just-take-your-medicine sort of way, we need to recognize that Jesus viewed it as the wonderful, life-giving Word of God.
Remember, it was the Old Testament that Jesus spoke of when he said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4; Deut 8:3).
Simply put, if he loved God’s law then so should we.