Today’s question I can relate to. I read my Bible in the morning. I come across a promise or a text in the Old Testament. I write it out in a notebook. I take that text or promise into my day. But later in the day, when I return to the text, I’m left wondering if I lifted the verse out of context. Maybe it doesn’t really apply to my life like I first thought it did. Many texts feel more and more remote to me as the day goes on. Has that happened to you?
Well, it has certainly happened to me, and it has happened to Maureen. She writes in to say, “Pastor John, thank you for the Ask Pastor John podcast! How do I know which Old Testament verses are for me, as a Christian today? Sometimes I select a verse that is meaningful to me from my Bible reading in the morning. But then later in the day, as I further reflect on it, it feels like I’ve lifted the verse out of context and misapplied it to myself. How do I know which Old Testament promises are for me?”
Even though I know it’s an oversimplification, I’m tempted to say, “All of it. All of it is for you. All of the Old Testament is for Christians.” Romans 15:4 says, “Whatever [underline that word] was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” All of it.
Then there’s 2 Corinthians 1:20, “All the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ].” And Jesus said in Matthew 5:17–18, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” So, even though it’s an oversimplification, it’s true, in a wonderful way, that all of the Old Testament is for those who are in Christ Jesus.
He came to confirm and fulfill all of it for his people. Second Timothy 3:16–17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable [that’s important — it’s all profitable] for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” It’s practical and profitable.
From Israel to the Church
But the reason it’s an oversimplification to say that it’s all for us is that some profound changes in the way we use the Old Testament Scripture took place when Jesus came into the world, was rejected by Israel, established a new covenant by his blood (which was different from the old covenant, the Mosaic covenant), and said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). He did not say, “I will restore Israel.”
Maybe what would be helpful for Maureen, for me, and hopefully for others too is to list the differences between the people of God (the church) today and the people of God (Israel) in the Old Testament, as well as how God relates differently to each. These points can then function as a kind of filter.
At least, this is the way I function as I read the Old Testament. I have a filter, and I put things through this filter to know how I should embrace them, how I should apply them in my life. This is what I hope will happen now as I walk through these points of difference between Israel and the church. Because we are the church, we need a filter to know how to make proper use of Old Testament teachings.
1. Israel was an earthly nation.
Israel was an earthly, political nation-state among other political nation-states, but the church is not. It is a people whose citizenship is in heaven and who are sojourners and exiles here, scattered among all the nation-states. Christians are not first citizens of earthly nation-states, but only secondarily citizens of nation-states. We are more closely related to Christians of other political countries than we are unbelieving fellow citizens in our own earthly country.
2. Israel was a theocracy.
Israel was an earthly government authorized by God as a theocracy to carry out God’s punishments for those who broke his law, including capital punishment for idolatry and various other sins. The church is not a civil government and is not authorized as a church to carry out God’s punishments. Excommunication from the church through church discipline replaces execution through the judicial processes.
3. Israel was one ethnicity.
Israel was basically one ethnicity, the Jewish people, but the church is made up of all ethnicities. The kinds of practices that were designed to separate Israel from the surrounding peoples and ethnicities, like food laws and circumcision, have been done away with as requirements for God’s people.
4. Geography mattered for Israel.
Israel had defined geographic borders and a geographic religious center where the tabernacle or the temple was. The church has no geographic borders or religious center. Where the people of God are gathered in the name of Jesus, there is the center. There is Christ in the midst.
5. People were born Jewish.
People were born into the Jewish people, but people are born again into the church. The new covenant is entered by the miracle of God’s forgiving sins through faith and through God’s writing the law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33–34). That’s the new covenant.
6. The Great Commission came later.
The Old Testament religion was mainly a “come and see” religion, while the New Testament religion is mainly a “go and tell” religion. There was no Great Commission to go reach the nations in the Old Testament. God’s focus was on blessing Israel among the nations, so that the queen of the South came and had her breath taken away by Solomon’s wealth (1 Kings 10:4–5). God never said to Solomon, “Use your wealth to evangelize the nations,” but that is precisely what he says to us in the New Testament.
7. Israel used a sacrificial system.
The people of Israel maintained their fellowship with God by regular sacrifices, ministered by a select, Levitical priesthood, but that entire system was done away with when Jesus fulfilled it by becoming the final sacrifice and by acting as the final High Priest. In the new-covenant people, we get right with God and maintain our fellowship with God by trusting the substitutionary work of Christ and by depending on his daily intercession for us in heaven.
8. The Holy Spirit had yet to come.
Finally, though the people of God in the Old Testament did experience the working of the Spirit of God, they did not experience or know the Spirit as the indwelling Spirit of the risen Christ. Today, we know the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. He works in his church, therefore, in a way that he did not work in the Old Testament because the church is his body, the body of the risen Christ.
Every Text Ours in Christ
My hope for Maureen and for all of us is that with this filter, with these eight points, we can take any text in the Old Testament and make it our own by treating it as fulfilled in Christ, with the necessary changes implied by these points.
For example, consider the end of Psalm 51. It’s a surprising end to a psalm that we love — until we get to the last paragraph, which goes like this:
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar. (Psalm 51:18–19)
So, we come to the end of Psalm 51 saying, “This is exalting. This is mine, and this is mine!” And then we read those words and say, “What? What am I supposed to do?” What do we do with that? How are we to embrace that text as ours?
Zion was the geographic center of God’s people, standing for the presence of God among his people. Today, we would embrace that commitment of God to his people and say, “Do good to your church, O Lord, wherever it is gathered in your holy name. Build up the body of Christ, and make your presence felt everywhere that your people are centered on you.”
Then we would come to the end, and we would conclude by praying, “Oh, how I delight in the one, great, final sacrifice for sin that your Son offered. We glory with you in that final fulfillment of every bull that was ever offered on your altar, and we give ourselves to you as a living sacrifice for your glory.”