June 21, 2018

The Proper Use of the Old Testament

By James E. Cooper

"For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scripture we m i g h t have hope" (Rom. 15: 4). This statement is a parenthetical comment by Paul on quoting Psalm 69:9. It suggests a tremendous lesson regarding t h e use of the Old Testament for New Testament Christians.

Old and New Distinguished

The first suggestion this text calls to mind is that there is a distinction between the "things written aforetime" and the writings of the New Testament. The failure of many religious instructors to recognize that there is a distinction has caused confusion and mis-instruction among religious peoples. Then, on the other hand, some of us who have learned this principle have gone to the other extreme and feel that the study of the Old Testament is a waste of time and energy. Both attitudes toward the Old Testament are wrong.

The "things written aforetime" refers to the canonical writings of the Old Testament, which contain the record of God's dealings with men, and especially with the children of Israel. The central feature of the entire Old Testament was the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai.

Old Covenant Given to Israel

When one reads the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), he will observe the development of the people of Israel. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are introductory to this theme. Beginning with the call of Abraham (Gen. 12:1), the story of God's dealings with his people is developed. God here makes his covenant with Abraham that through his seed all nations of the earth would be blessed. The record continues with the story of Abraham's journey to and sojourn in the land of Canaan. The rest of the book of Genesis is devoted to the family of Abraham, and the beginning of the people called Israel. In his old age Abraham begets Isaac, who in turn becomes the father of Jacob. Jacob's name is changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28). He is the father of twelve sons of Israel (Gen. 35:23). Joseph, because of jealousy, is sold by his brothers into slavery, and through God's providence rises in prominence in Egypt until he is second only to Pharaoh. This becomes the means by which the entire family is saved from a famine in Canaan.

Sometime after the entire family has move to Egypt, a Pharaoh arises who "knew not Joseph" (Ex. 1:8), and because he fears the rapidly multiplying Israelites then in the land, places them under harsh taskmasters as slaves. But, God is preparing Moses who delivers the people of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.

When the people of Israel come to Mt. Sinai, God gives them the Law (Ex. 20). It had been 430 years since God's promise was made to Abraham (cf. Gal. 3:17), but this Covenant given at Mt. Sinai (called the Old Covenant, 2 Cor. 3:14) did not change God's original purpose to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham. Paul points out that the particular seed to which the promise referred was Christ (Gal. 3:16). He further tells us that the Law was "added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise hath been made" (Gal. 3:19).

Hence, the Old Covenant was given to the children of Israel, and only to the children of Israel. It was not given to Gentiles, for only the children of Israel were delivered from Egypt, and only Israelites were present at Mt. Sinai (read Ex. 20:2 and Deut. 5: 1-5). Paul called it "the Jews' religion" (Gal. 1:13-14). Gentiles were never under the covenant.

Israel Not Under it Now

In Gal. 3:19, Paul tells us that the Law was added, "till the seed should come to whom the promise hath been made." Since he has already established that the seed is Christ (Gal. 3:16), we must conclude with Paul that the Law only lasted until Christ. In Gal. 3:23-24, he tells us that the Law served the Jew as a "schoolmaster to bring us to Christ." Hence, when Christ came, it had served its purpose, and was no longer needed. So, those who had once been under the Old Covenant were released from it. Paul said that the Jews had become "dead to the law" (Rom. 7:4) that they might be joined unto Christ.

About halfway in point of time between the giving of The Law at Mt. Sinai and the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross of Calvary, God had foretold through Jeremiah that the Old Covenant would be replaced with a New Covenant. The prophecy is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and is incorporated into an argument in Hebrews 8:7-13. The apostle argues from a 600-year-old prophecy that God had intended all the time to remove the faulty Old Covenant and to establish a faultless New Covenant. This New Covenant became effective after the death of Christ (Heb. 9:16-17), after the first Covenant was taken away (Heb. 10:9-10). When Jesus died on the cross, two things were accomplished: (1) the Old Covenant was abolished, and (2) the New Covenant was established. Since the Old Covenant has been abolished, the Jews cannot be under it now as a covenant with God.

Ten Commandments Abolished

That the Old Covenant was abolished, and that the ten commandments were included in that which was taken away, is clearly perceived by a careful reading of 2 Cor. 3:6-16. The time that Moses' face shined as described in these verses was on the occasion of his descending from Mt. Sinai with the table of stone as recorded in Exodus 34:27-33. Notice that 2 Cor. 3:6-16 contrasts the New Covenant with the Old Covenant, and that four times in these eleven verses Paul says that the old was abolished, or taken away.

That this occurred at the crucifixion of Christ is seen from reading Eph. 2:14-16 and Col. 2-13-14. By dying on the cross, Christ destroyed the enmity and made it possible for both Jew and Gentile to be reconciled in one body. This enmity is defined as "even the law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Eph. 2:14). The Old Covenant was "blotted out," "taken away," and "nailed" to the cross (Col. 2:14).- Since it has been taken away, it can serve no longer as the authority by which God's people are to abide. It is not the authority for God's people under Jesus Christ.

Are We Under No Law?

We now come to the fork in the road, and too many take the left fork rather than the right one. The right fork is to understand that there is a proper and scriptural use of the Old Testament Scriptures by New Testament Christians. The left fork is the path of error, and has two lanes itself. One lane is to throw up our hands in "holy horror" and exclaim, "If the Ten Commandments have been annulled and abolished, then we have no law!" That this is an absurd attitude is evident to anyone who knows anything about the New Testament scriptures. To say that we have been freed from the Law of Moses does not contend that the law of Christ does not bind us.

Today we hear people protest one's speaking of laws in the New Testament. They detest laws, for law tends toward a legalism, we are told. But, regardless of such protests, we must speak as do the "oracles of God." Paul refers to "the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus" in Rom. 8:2. He says, "love therefore is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10). He further says to "fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2), and refers to "a law of faith" in Rom. 3:27. So, there are laws in Christianity, and by them we live, not under the Law of the Old Covenant.

Too many members of the church take the second lane to the left. They reason that since the Old Testament does not bind us, we may as well tear it out of our Bibles and forget that it was ever written. It is because of this attitude that many members of the church neglect a study of the Old Testament, and that concentrated study of it is left out of the teaching program of many congregations.


In this study we have noted that the proper use of the Old Testament is not for authority in Christianity. Neither is it proper to neglect it altogether. Paul said that the "things written aforetime" were written for our learning. In our next article, we shall discuss the right use of the Old Testament by New Testament Christians.

Truth Magazine VIII: 7, pp. 16-17, 24
April 1964