After sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, God began the work of putting things right. This work begins most significantly through Abraham.
Now, in my childhood, I was taught that there are three dispensations: Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Christian. And in Church of Christ theology, a large emphasis is placed on the repeal of the Law of Moses. A favorite prooftext is —
(Col 2:13-14) When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.
This has traditionally been interpreted as saying that the Law of Moses has been nailed to the cross — in the sense of being repealed. But if you look at bit more closely, you see that this “nailing” took place when we were saved — when we were dead in our sins and God made us alive with Christ, forgiving our sins. The law was nailed to the cross when we were baptized.
Now, Paul is also speaking of 33 AD or so, when Jesus was in fact crucified. He combines the two events as though they occur at once — because when we are baptized, we are crucified with Jesus —
(Rom 6:3-4) Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
And so the point of Col 2:13-14 isn’t that God has repealed the Law of Moses; rather, the point is that the law not longer condemns us despite our failure to obey.
With that in mind, let’s study a part of Galatians 3 —
(Gal 3:6-14) Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
The gospel predates Jesus’ crucifixion. The good news is that our faith will be credited as righteousness and that this blessing is for all nations. This promise goes all the way back to Genesis.
10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.”
The curse of the law is the same curse that was announced in Genesis 3. We will surely die because we have all sinned. In fact, the Law of Moses is much like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The law tells us God’s will and so condemns us — because we can’t obey it.
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
Christ, however, suffered the curse so we don’t have to. But notice this. The change Paul emphasizes is not a change from works-based salvation to faith-based salvation. It’s a change from salvation for just the Jews to salvation for all nations through Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.
(Rev 22:3) No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.
The conclusion of it all is the lifting of the curse — so that we may serve God.
Now, of course the rituals of the Law are long gone. And the moral precepts remain. But the key thought is that the underlying covenant with Abraham remains even today. Our salvation has roots that go all the back to Abraham.
As Paul explains —
(Rom 11:16-25) If … the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.
Israel — the Jews — are the root. We Gentiles are the wild branch grafted in. God could have thrown away the roots, too, but he saved them because the roots are needed to nourish and grow the branches.
19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
Faith save; unbelief damns — for both Jews and Gentiles.
Every place the New Testament speaks of the “scriptures,” it is speaking primarily of the Old Testament.
(2 Tim 3:14-17) But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Paul is telling Timothy that he should know the Old Testament, because it speaks of Jesus and can equip us for good work. Is that how we think of the Old Testament?
Let’s consider some major themes of the Old Testament we often overlook.
When God began setting things right through Abraham, he chose to work through a community of believers. Having a personal relationship with God was important — as the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and Moses all demonstrate — but those individual stories only matter because they are part of the community God was forming.
This is especially obvious in the case of Moses, who left his people to be a shepherd in the wilderness. God called him to rescue God’s people from slavery. Moses is important because of his work within God’s covenant community.
(Exo 19:4-6) ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
God has chosen the people, and therefore they are to obey his commands.
(Deu 7:6-9) For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 7 The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.
Israel was a nation chosen by God — as a community. And he formed the community around the tabernacle and, later, the temple, so that the Israelites had to live close to the altar. We wanted them living on their land surrounding the temple, so they’d be a single people.
Blessing the nations
God promised Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him. We tend to immediately declare that God was speaking of Jesus. And he was. But not just Jesus. The nations were blessed by Israel long before Jesus. Rather, Jesus is the culmination, the completion of the blessing.
When God parted the Jordan River, Joshua declared,
(Josh 4:23-24) For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan just what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.”
When David slew Goliath, he said,
(1 Sam 17:46) This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.
David understood as a child God’s purpose for Israel to be witness of God to the world.
When Solomon dedicated the temple, he declared,
(1 Ki 8:41-43) “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name– 42 for men will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm–when he comes and prays toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.
When Elijah battled the prophets of Baal, he prayed,
(1 Ki 18:36-37) At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
When Uzziah prayed to be delivered from Sennacharib, he asked God,
(2 Ki 19:19) Now, O LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O LORD, are God.”
And Isaiah prophesies of the Messiah,
(Isa 52:8-10) Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. 9 Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.
What God did among the Israelites was not only for them, but to persuade all the nations that God is God.
And we know this work was begun long before Jesus before there were many God-fearers among the Gentiles before the time of the apostles. The temple had a court for the Gentiles to come and pray. And when the apostles traveled to convert Gentiles, they began with the God-fearers among the Gentiles.
Cornelius was a God fearer (Acts 10:2). The converts in Thessalonica were as well (Acts 17:4). And Paul tried to convert God-fearting Greeks in Athens (Acts 17:17). God’s work through Israel to show his glory to all nations paved the way for Christianity.
God’s covenant with Abraham was that his faith would be counted as righteousness.
Thus, Habakuk declares,
(Hab 2:4) “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright– but the righteous will live by his faith–
Many misunderstand the Law of Moses, seeing that it’s all about externals. But God taught Israel a religion of the heart —
(Deu 6:5-6) Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.
(Deu 30:6) The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
The scriptures repeatedly teach compassion for others as a sign of love for God —
(Deu 10:16-22) Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. 20 Fear the LORD your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. 22 Your forefathers who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky.
God defines himself not only by the mighty miracles he performed, but also by his compassion for those in need: widows, orphans, and aliens. The essence of being like God is to show no partiality.
We could spend the rest of the quarter tracing Old Testament themes that help shape our relationship with God. Over and over again, we see in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets a declaration of who God is and the relationship he desires with his people and what he expects from those that he chooses.