For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope
For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the Patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy
Last night I helped out with a Bible training session at our church. My part was to give some reflections on how to apply passages from the Old Testament - the Old Covenant - to New Covenant disciples of Jesus. Plus a brief overview about what the Bible teaches about slavery.
It is normal (and correct and helpful) to hear two New Testament ways of teaching the Old Testament for today:
1. A Luke 24:27 approach, following Jesus’ own explanation to the disciples on the Emmaus Road, that everything written there concerns him. That is, he is the goal of the Old Testament. The fulfilment of it’s plotline, if you like
2. A 1 Corinthians 10:6 & 11 approach, that Old Testament episodes are written as examples and warnings for us on whom the fulfilment of the ages (ie Jesus) has come
I believe it’s most helpful to combine these, but usually more helpful to do the first one first. If we fail to see how a passage leads finally to Jesus, the fulfilment of the ages, then it is harder insightfully to apply it as example and warning to people in Jesus. It tends to end up as merely moral example but devoid of consideration of why or how to do it, or where the power comes from to live in Jesus, by the Holy Spirit.
But as I was preparing for last night's session Romans 15 jumped out at me. It teaches not so much the “how” to apply what is written in the Old Testament but the “why”: so that we will be encouraged and have hope and will thereby endure (with a spirit of unity, Romans 15:5).
It doesn’t hurt any preacher or Bible study leader coming to an Old Testament passage to have this question in mind: how was this passage intended by God to encourage us and help us be people of unshakable hope?
I find Paul’s reasoning about how this works fascinating and profound. Just follow through Romans 15:8 to see what he is arguing:
1. Jesus came as a servant of the Jews
2. On behalf of God’s truth
3. The way he serves them in God’s truth is by confirming the promises God made to the patriarchs which vindicates God’s truthfulness and the reliability of the promises he made way back near the start of the Bible. That is, Jesus shows God’s truthfulness (and by extension the truthfulness of the Old Testament)
We might paraphrase it something like: Jesus came to display the glory of God’s truthfulness through confirming to the Jews the reliability of his promises
But here is the humdinger:
4. By serving the Jews in this way Jesus is also proclaiming and manifesting the glory and mercy of God for Gentiles. In order that non-Jews may glorify God for that mercy as well.
How does Jesus serving the Jews help Gentiles glorify God? First by confirming the promise to Abraham that he would be the Father of many nations. By becoming believers in Jesus we are heirs of the promise. Second by affirming that God can be trusted and doesn’t change his mind or go back on his promises. Third by demonstrating the mercy of God to sinners.
Gentiles like me are meant to read the Old Testament therefore with delight that Jesus has come to fulfil it, gratitude that we are included in the promise and glory to God rising in our hearts for his mercy. It is too easy to reduce the good news to mere forgiveness of sins. It is certainly that. But in Romans 15 it is more - that we have been included in the promises, are recipients of infinite mercy and have a God who is truthful, reliable and became Emmanuel, incarnate with us to confirm the promises of God.
If, like me, you find it easy to teach a Bible overview in a Luke 24 way but for it to be a little dry and technical, or if you find it easy (also like me) to do a 1 Cor 10 thing and just leave it as moral example, Romans 15 is a great help in both cases. It tells us that the point of a Bible overview is people glorying in God (not merely intellectually knowing the plotline) and the point of the moral example is to flee evil by setting our hearts on the infinite mercy of God displayed throughout history and laid out in his word.
(P.S. if you are after a great book on how the New Testament uses the Old Testament the IVP Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament is weighty but fabulous. An unmissable reference book)