On Scrapping the Old Testament
(Ecc.15:15-20; 1Cor.2:6-10; Mt.5:17-37)
In Roman times, a wealthy ship owner named Marcion (85-160AD) demanded that the Old Testament be scrapped. He said it was dangerous and unnecessary, and he insisted that the Scriptures should only focus on Jesus and love.
So he produced a Bible he liked. He dropped the Old Testament, he discarded some of St Paul’s letters, and he shortened St Luke’s Gospel. In this way, he tailored for himself a Christianity that was all about God’s goodness and love, but without any unsettling references to right and wrong, or hell or Judgment Day.
Many people think like Marcion today. They like Jesus’ words about love, but they really don’t want to hear anything else that God might have to say about their lives.
This is called cherry-picking. But would Jesus approve?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘I’ve come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to complete them’. What does he mean by that? He’s saying that the Old Testament is fundamental to his mission, and he’s come to finish the job.
There are three ways to understand the Old Testament. It’s a history book, it’s a collection of promises and it’s a set of laws. [i]
As a history, the Old Testament tells the story of God’s Creation and his action in the life Israel over 1000 years. It’s the story of a family and a people, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob down to Joseph who was enslaved in Egypt.
It’s the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt. It’s the story of the Jewish kings, both good and bad, the forced exile of the Jews to Babylon, and their eventual return home.
Jesus’ mission is to complete this story. As the Son of God and as a descendant of King David, his job is to lead his people to eternal life in heaven.
So we can’t scrap the Old Testament. It explains far too much about life.
The Old Testament is also a record of all the promises God made to Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, and the promises he made through the prophets.
He has promised us a new heart (Ez.36:26), forgiveness (Ps.103:12; Mic.7:19), healing (Jer.30:17), peace (Is.26:3) and eternal life (Is.49:25). And he promised to send us a saviour, his Son Jesus Christ (Is.53:1-12). Someone once counted the number of God’s promises in the Bible, and found 3,573. [ii] How will they be completed?
Only through Jesus Christ. So, again, we can’t scrap the Old Testament.
And finally, the Old Testament is about laws. There are 613 of them in the Torah – the first five books of the Bible. ‘Torah’ means ‘law’, ‘guidance’ or ‘instruction’. It contains the Law of Moses and it covers everything from ceremonial to civil and moral law (including our Ten Commandments). There are 365 negative laws, and 248 positive laws. Now, what’s their purpose?
Their purpose was to organise those unruly Jewish slaves after their Exodus from Egypt. God was annoyed when they worshipped a golden calf in the Sinai desert. He wanted them to live as his people, so through Moses God gave them some laws to shape their lives.
By the time Jesus was born, however, many of these people (including the Scribes and Pharisees) had forgotten the purpose of these laws. They only paid them lip-service; they were only interested in external appearances.
That’s why Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as the new Moses delivering the new divine law: The Beatitudes. Jesus didn’t scrap the old law – he raised it to a higher level. He said it’s not enough to be seen to do the right thing; we must be genuine about it. We must use our hearts as well as our heads.
And Jesus gives us some examples. He says it’s not enough to avoid murder. Rather, we must convert our anger and our resentment into love. And it’s not enough to merely avoid adultery. Instead, we must avoid any impure and sinful thoughts. And when we make any promises, we must be genuine about them.
So what happened to Marcion? In 144 AD he was denounced as a heretic and excommunicated.
Jesus didn’t come to scrap the Old Testament. He couldn’t, because it’s the very foundation of his work and it’s the source of our hope.
The Old Testament, then, is a history book, and Jesus’ mission is to complete this story by leading us all to heaven.
It’s also a collection of promises, and Jesus’ mission is to fulfil them all for us.
And it’s a set of laws, and Jesus’ mission is to complete the Law by teaching us all to use our hearts as well as our heads.
the point: we really can’t understand the
goodness and love of Jesus Christ if we ignore the very foundation of his
mission – the Old Testament.
[i] Gumbel, N. The Jesus Lifestyle. London: Alpha International, 2010:40-41.