As this has been a subject of some recent discussion, our eye was drawn to this article from 1929. Further proof that the debate is not new—God’s people need all of His Word, not just the New Testament.
The Christian’s Need of the Old Testament
by Rev. John T. Reeve, D.D.
[The Presbyterian 99.44 (31 October 1929): 8-10.]
“Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.”—John 5: 39.
“SEARCH the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye O have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5: 39). There is another verse that should be associated with this, recorded in Luke 24: 27—”And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” These words occur in the conversation between our Lord Jesus and the two disciples on the way to Emmaus on the first Easter afternoon. They were troubled about his death, for they had thought “It had been He which should have redeemed Israel.” But now he was dead and their hopes were all dashed to the ground. You remember how he chided them: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken,” asking them, “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?” Then it says, “And beginning at Moses and the Prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
It is strange that it seems necessary, in view of such words as these, to speak on the subject, “The Christian’s Need of the Old Testament.” But to-day there is a tremendous and increasingly greater tendency on the part of Christians to neglect and even to belittle the Old Testament. I presume this comes about partly from the terribly destructive work done on the Old Testament for the last fifty or seventy-five years. Many who call themselves Christians do not believe that it is the very Word of God, and consequently have lost their reverence and respect for it. But evidently our Lord and his Apostles believed in it and looked upon it as the very Word of God. He said to them, “Search the Scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures, the things concerning himself.” In another place, it says, “Then opened he their understanding that they might understand the Scriptures,” and before that, it says, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me.” How could it be that these words had to be “fulfilled,” unless they had been predictions of events yet to be? How could these things be predicted by ordinary men unless they were inspired by Almighty God himself? Yet you read in the New Testament, again and again, that things ‘‘had to be,” in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.
There are few things that the Christian church needs more than a revival of interest in the Old Testament. It would bring a new vigor into the life of the people, and it would do away with some forms of worship offered to God in Christian churches, which must be an affront to his Holy Being. It would do away with many things that are done in the name of religion because there would be such a new conception of the dignity of the House of God and the place where His honor dwelleth.
Someone has said that the foundation of the Christian religion is in the Old Testament; its republication and explication are found in the New. The only Scriptures that Jesus and the Apostles had were the Old Testament.
The only Scriptures that any of those who wrote the New Testament had were the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Can it be that we are so much better than they, that we may ignore this great body of divine truth, the record of God’s redeeming plan for mankind? Can it be that we may neglect these great writings which tell about Christ’s coming and his redeeming work? Can we neglect all this, and yet properly understand his coming and the meaning of his mission? The modern conception of Jesus Christ, so common to-day, in some quarters, could not be if there were the proper regard for the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament, or alluded to, over 850 times, and if all the indirect allusions in the New Testament to the Old Testament, were recorded, I suppose the number would be much greater. There are 600 actual quotations from the Old Testament in the New. It would be impossible to intelligently understand the New Testament with all these 600 quotations and 850 allusions, without a knowledge of the Old—just as we cannot understand Shakespeare intelligently if we do not know the Bible, or Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” unless we know the Bible and classical history. Let me mention three reasons why I believe that Christians do need the Old Testament.
1. We need it that we may have a proper conception of man’s need and God’s plan for his redemption. The great word throughout the Old Testament is the word “sin,” and we can never have an adequate conception of the heinousness of sin and how God hates it unless we know what he has said about it and what methods he used to deal with it. All those minute laws relating to sacrifices, so minute that we can hardly take the time to read them, were for the purpose of impressing on the minds and hearts of the people how hateful sin was to God and how it brought guilt and pollution and uncleanness. All these laws about sacrifice were for the purpose of impressing on the minds of the people the truth that, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins.” As Paul says, “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” Well, this modern world needs to have this great fact impressed upon it just as much as did the ancient one. Think of the looseness in the luxurious life of to-day. How shall men know the need of a Saviour and his redeeming blood, unless they first know how heinous sin is, and how utterly impossible it is for man himself to provide a remedy that can remove sin’s guilt and wash away its stain.
The late Principal Forsythe, in one of his books, speaks of the famous Dr. Dale talking with him about the loss of the word “grace” from the preaching of their day. And they concluded that the reason for the loss of this great and wonderful word from our language was the lost sense of sin. In other words, if man does not know what sin is (and he cannot fully know what it is unless he knows the Old Testament), he will not flee to God for salvation, but will try to save himself. And unless he does flee to God for salvation, he will never feel that it is “by grace” that he has been saved. He will never be able to sing with all the saints:
“Grace, ‘tis a charming sound,
Harmonious to the ear;
Heav’n with the echo shall resound,
And all the earth shall hear.”
Dr. Forsythe says, “For we have lost the sense of sin, which is the central issue of all ethics, because it turns on the relation of the conscience to the conscience of God. And apart from sin, grace has little meaning. The decay of the sense of sin measures our loss of that central Christian idea; and it is a loss which has only to go on to extinguish Christianity.”
The Old Testament not only reveals to man his sinful and lost condition, but also reveals to him the Saviour whom God has provided. The story of the redemptive purpose of God in Christ runs through the Scriptures from end to end. Moses writes about him in the proto-evangelism and predicts his coming when he foretells, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a law-giver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” David sings about him when he writes in the 110th Psalm, “The Lord said unto my Lord, sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” And our Lord took those words and applied them to himself when he was reasoning with the Jews. So Isaiah foretells his coming and his virgin birth when he says, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”; or again, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty Lord, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Later on in the great 53rd chapter, which the Christian church has always cherished as a clear prediction and delineation, of the Saviour’s sufferings on the Cross, we read, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” Still more clearly through these great prophets we trace the development of the kingdom, Christ’s coming again in power and his glorious reign.
Thus we see how necessary it is that the Christian of to-day be familiar with the Old Testament as well as with the New if he is to have an adequate conception of our Lord and his redeeming work. That was the reason that he himself, in explaining to the two disciples on the Emmaus road the meaning of his death, went back to the Old Testament, “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
II. A better knowledge of the Old Testament would renew the moral vigor of the church and of the nation.
As we have said, there is a great deal of looseness in the luxurious life of to-day. Much of this has crept into the church. The great Alexander Maclaren wrote before he died, “Especially does that crash of Jerusalem’s fall thunder the lesson to all the churches that their life and prosperity are inseparably connected with faithful obedience and turning away from all worldliness, which is idolatry. Our very privileges call us to beware. The warning is needed to-day:for worldliness is rampant in the church.” In recent months the word came from our President that the dominant issue before the American people was the enforcement of and obedience to the laws of the United States, both Federal and State. He warned us that we are threatened with a breakdown in the moral sentiment of the country by reason of wide-spread disobedience to law. Think what it must have cost him to admit such a situation before the world! Think what it means—the “breakdown of the moral sentiment of the country!” How have we come to such a pass? How is it that there are 12,000 murders a year in our land—fifty times more than in Great Britain? How is it that there are 30,000 criminals at large in New York, and 10,000 in Chicago, as told us by the crime commissioner of the American Bar Association? Because we have disregarded the law of God. It is only a short step to disregard of the laws of the home, the church and the nation. A return to the faithful reading of the Old Testament, with such ringing words as those of David: “O how I love thy law, it is my meditation all the day,” would bring us back again to a new recognition of the sanctity of all law.
Wrong begins in a small way, but it goes from person to person like an epidemic. You would think it would take a thousand years for a community to become contaminated, but you are mistaken. It is like a disease. When one falls in error, another immediately falls, and so on, and it spreads through the people. If you read the Old Testament, you will see that that is the way it is. Take the awful sin of the Children of Israel at Baal-Peor, when Moses went up to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. When he came down, the whole nation was contaminated with the awful sin of licentiousness. It was necessary to train the people to see the difference between clean and unclean. And one of the greatest needs of our day is the revival of the power of discrimination between the clean and the unclean, between right and wrong, between that which is moral and that which is immoral.
So the Christian needs the Old Testament, in order to have an adequate conception of right and wrong, of moral and immoral, of clean and unclean. A return to its mighty Scriptures would restore some of that moral and spiritual vigor which made our fathers great. The plow-share of the law of God needs to tear through the hardened crust of many of these ruthless and wicked hearts, of whom our President speaks, and awaken them to the evil of their ways that they may turn from them and repent.
III. The Christian needs the Old Testament because Christ and the Apostles felt their need of it. Christ never recognized any other authority on earth but the Scriptures of the Old Testament. He proved everything by them, he referred everything to them, and if things did not measure up to the Old Testament standard of truth, then they were cast aside.
Of course, in some instances, he went on and added to the Revelation given through Moses since he was God’s latest revelation to man. But in all the critical and important issues of his life, he went back to the Scriptures that he had learned at his mother’s knee and in the synagogue, for his guiding principles. It is interesting to note that in answer to all the queries put to him by the devil during the temptation in the wilderness, our Saviour used the very words of the Old Testament. He in whom were all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge refused to rely on his own mind, but met the tempter with the very Word of God. It is significant to note that in all three instances, the answer came from Deuteronomy, once from the eighth chapter, and twice from the sixth.
Or take the instance when the young lawyer asked our Lord what he should do to inherit eternal life. Christ could have given him some very sound and helpful advice surely from his own fund of knowledge. But, instead, he referred him to the Scriptures and repeated to him those two great verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, which in another place he referred to as the first and greatest commandment.
If, as some would have us believe, we do not need to lean so heavily on the Old Testament, but can very well ignore it in these days, why did our Lord feel the necessity of quoting it verbatim on all these occasions ?
Take the occasion to which we referred in the beginning when the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were so puzzled about the events that had just taken place in Jerusalem in connection with the crucifixion. One would think that Christ could have just talked to them in a brotherly way and have shown them the reasonableness of it all—how it was necessary that he should die. But, instead, it says: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Why was it that Jesus did not stop on the road and say: “My brethren, it is this way,” and tell them why it happened that he was crucified and how he rose again? Why did he not tell them in his own words? Why did he not draw out from his own wealth of knowledge, for he knew all philosophy and all wisdom? The only answer we can give is that for him there was no higher authority than the Scriptures of the Old Testament, for they were the Word of God.
Even as he hung upon the Cross and uttered that great word that no human mind can fully understand, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” he was quoting from the twenty-second Psalm. And the very last word of all, according to Luke, when he said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” was a quotation, the words of Psalm 31: 5.
Surety, in view of all this, it is clear that we poor, faltering, ignorant creatures, with our finite knowledge, cannot afford to ignore this great wealth of inspired truth. “Just as necessary as a question is to the answer and an answer is to the question, so necessary is the Old Testament to the New and the New to the Old.” Let us search the Scriptures, for in them we think that we have Eternal Life and they are they that testify of Christ. The Christian to-day needs the Old Testament as well as the New. Let us to the law and to the testimony, for the entrance of God’s Word giveth light.