Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
One day, a colleague of mine asked me (out of curiosity) how Christians are able to reconcile the message of the Gospel with that of the Old Testament. That is to say, how can the God who commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20:16, “However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes” also teach in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another”? My colleague suggested that they are in fact two very separate religions. However, as someone who actually reads the Bible I know that the Old and New Testaments are inseparable. But really, how do we come to terms with the Law when looking at the Gospel? This is what the Holy Spirit discussed with me a few days later.
Paul is not known for saying nice things about the Law of Moses. He noted,
I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death (Romans 7:10-11).
He wrote that the reason for this was because the Law actually awoke sin him that he didn’t even know about; we read,
What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead (Romans 7:7-8).
The Law presents us with a list of taboos and rules, which then end up awakening our sinful nature to move contrary to God. It is hard for one to rebel when there are no rules to rebel to; but where there is law, there is rebellion close behind. This same problem exists when we read the Law; as by nature we are driven to rebel. However, James 1:13-15 sings a slightly different tune as to where the blame rests:
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
According to James, the blame is not on God or his Law but the sin that is at work in us. Paul explains it like this,
Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful (Romans 7:13).
We need the Law to fully recognize sin, but our sinful nature delights in rebelling against God so we are drawn into the sins we learn about; but that very act helps us to recognize just how powerful and devastating the sin is- so the Law is not bad; but is holy- we’re just not good at using it.
The Lord actually tried to love the Israelites in a New Testament way during the Old Testament days. For example, Jesus (in the New Testament) taught,
So do not worry, saying “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly father knows that you need them (Matthew 6:31-32).
But the Old Testament recounts how the Lord took care of his people when they were in the desert,
In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them (Nehemiah 9:15).
The problem was that the Israelites continued to rebel against the Lord. After granting his people freedom from slavery in Egypt and leading them across the desert to the land he had promised to give them what did the Israelites do? They complained. Scripture records,
That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Number 14:1-4).
And later, even though God had been taking care of his people, we read,
While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them (Numbers 25:1-3).
Since this is how his people responded to his kindness; the Lord got serious. Clearly they couldn’t handle being around other peoples, which is why he had already told them at the beginning,
Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you (Exodus 23:32-33).
And even before Joshua died, he warned the Israelites (now living in Canaan) again; saying,
But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, then you may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you (Joshua 23:12-13).
The Lord warned the Israelites over and over not to mingle with their neighbors. However, the people rebelled and did exactly that; so God allowed them to see first had the error of their ways. We can see the Lord’s response in Judges 2:1-3,
The angel of the Lord went up from Gigal to Bokim and said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.’ Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you” (Judges 2:1-3).
Now, keep in mind that the nations in Canaan had already been given the chance to repent; so we shouldn’t feel too sorry that God has completely shut them out and told Israel to do likewise. Amos 9:7-8 gives us a hint to this:
“Are not you Israelites
The same to me as the Cushites?” declares the Lord.
“Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt,
The Philistines from Caphtor
And the Arameans from Kir?
Surely the eyes of the Sovereign Lord
Are on the sinful kingdom.
I will destroy it
From the face of the earth-
Yet I will not totally destroy
The house of Jacob,” declares the Lord.
And God explains that the reason for his language in the Old Testament was because it was the only thing the Israelites would listen to:
“Who is it he is trying to teach?
To whom is he explaining his message?
To children weaned from their milk,
To those just taken from the breast?
For it is:
Do and do, do and do,
Rule on rule, rule on rule;
A little here, and little there.”
Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
God will speak to this people,
To whom he said,
“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”’
And, “This is the place of repose”-
But they would not listen.
So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:
Do and do, do and do,
Rule on rule, rule on rule;
A little here, and little there-
So that they will go and fall backward,
Be injured and snared and captured (Isaiah 28:9-13).
The ultimate goal was to snap Israel out of their arrogance and disobedience and into a loving, dependent relationship with their Lord. He explains as much in Hosea 2:13-18,
“I will punish her for the days
She burned incense to the Baals;
She decked herself with rings and jewelry,
And went after her lovers,
But me she forgot,”
Declares the Lord.
“Therefore I am not going to allure her;
I will lead her into the desert
And speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
And I will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth,
As in the day she came up out of Egypt.
In that day,” declares the Lord,
“You will call me ‘my husband’;
You will no longer call me ‘my master.’
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
No longer will their names be invoked.
In that day I will make a covenant for them
With the beasts of the field and the birds of the air
And the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
So that all may lie down in safety.”
You see, the message from the Lord has always been the same, no matter how he said it:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge him,
And he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
This message, as we already read, is now considered a New Testament teaching; but God’s been saying it since the start.
Alright, now comes Jesus. You know the story; Jesus shed his blood and now all believers can be saved. Paul puts it most eloquently in Romans 10:9-10,
…That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
The thing is though, that’s not a new message. Back in the Old Testament Joel taught,
And everyone who calls
On the name of the lord will be saved;
For on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
There will be deliverance,
As the Lord has said,
Among the survivors
Whom the Lord calls (Joel 2:32).
Even Jesus’ message of love towards others isn’t new. 2 John 1:5-6 tells us,
And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
On the topic of where Christ stood on the greatest commandments Matthew 22:37-40 records,
Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
But these commands were nothing new to the Israelites. Jesus was actually quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18- y’know, the Law. Even Jesus himself isn’t a new concept only introduced in the New Testament. John 1:1-3 tells us,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
This passage establishes that Jesus (called “the Word”) was with God from the start and is a part of God. Interestingly enough though, Genesis 1:26 backs this up by reading,
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So from that we can see at the very least that in the beginning the Lord wasn’t alone in the creation; giving John’s passage credence. What’s really interesting though, is when the Lord visited Abraham. History records,
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground (Genesis 18:1-2).
When God came to Abraham, he did so as three people, this was a physical representation (if not manifestation) of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) – again, a New Testament concept proven to not be so new. But that shouldn’t be surprising; as the Lord never changes. In fact, much like every other message, the Lord’s unchanging nature is repeated throughout both Testaments. Malachi 3:6- “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” Hebrews 13:8- “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” James 1:17- “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” We should be able to feel some relief knowing that our God stands by his convictions and doesn’t change the rules in the middle of the game. But if that’s the case, then why did Jesus show up in the middle of the game? Jesus came to die late enough so that people would be willing to accept him and believe on him and ultimately be saved. Had he come earlier, he would have been treated as a legend or possibly a myth; but by time Jesus showed up, history was being recorded with more diligence so that even today we can read of his time on earth. And by reading of him and believe on him we come to rely on the Lord; thus completing God’s ultimate goal of establishing a loving and dependent relationship with us.
Therefore Paul wrote,
Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? (2 Corinthians 3:7-8)
The Old Testament is wonderful and is filled with God’s touch; but now as the spirit abounds in the new church, how much more glorious it is! Paul continued,
If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts! (2 Corinthians 3:9-11)
New Testament belief isn’t a separate religion from that of the Old Testament and the Law; it is a glorious revival of it. It is written,
We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away (2 Corinthians 3:13-14).
The veil represents the misunderstanding of God in the Old Testament (both then and even today) “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Corinthians 3:16). And so Paul wrapped it up by writing, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). With the clarity of the Gospel Scriptures (which also clarify the Old Testament Scriptures) our misunderstanding of God is removed and our relationship with the Lord is greatly strengthened.
However, not everyone understands all this. We read,
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
Unbelievers have a very skewed understanding of God (often as vengeful and strict) so they refuse to trust in him. To this Paul wrote,
For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:5-6).
Jesus helps us build that bridge as we remove the veil from the faces of those who don’t understand and helps us bring them into a relationship with God. But you can’t do that if your own face is veiled with misunderstanding and confusion. Therefore, read your Bible, both the Old and New Testaments; rip off your veil and radiate God’s glory to the world!