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How Does Discipleship Show Up in the Old Testament? Part 1

We cannot simply read the Old or New Testaments in isolation and think that we will get a complete picture of God. Without a complete picture, we can be sure we will not offer a comprehensive witness. The Old Testament is crucial to our discipleship.

President of The D. L. Moody Center
Updated Oct 17, 2023
How Does Discipleship Show Up in the Old Testament? Part 1

Our discipleship is incomplete if we do not understand the Old Testament scriptures. As Carl Trueman notes, “As our reading, our sermons, and our times of corporate worship neglect and, sometimes, simply ignore the Old Testament, we can expect a general impoverishment of church life and, finally, a total collapse of evangelical Christendom.”

While such a statement may seem to exaggerate the importance of the OT to our faith, Christ’s resurrection was intelligible to the apostles because they came to understand the OT.

The whole shape of the gospel is informed and given nuance by the OT, even as it is rooted in the bodily resurrection of Christ.

Beyond the New Testament’s continuity with the OT, the OT is important as a discrete portion of God’s revelation. The two are inseparably connected; however, the OT continues to offer a unique testimony.

We can think of this in the same way we might think about Matthew and Luke. Both tell the story of Jesus. Each makes a distinct contribution. As part of a unified corpus, there is a sense in which Matthew and Luke speak with one voice.

As separate books, each lends its own unique emphases to that unified voice. In this way, it is not unlike a choir with baritones, sopranos, and basses. Each individual sort of singer makes a unique contribution to the whole. 

When it comes to the OT, we may identify three relatively fundamental mistakes:

1. Drawing too sharp a distinction between “old” and the “new.”

2. Misunderstanding the nature of the covenant in the OT (or conflating the OT with the old covenant).

3. Neglecting the OT’s revelatory character.

These are not the only mistakes we can make when we approach the OT; however, if we get these wrong, we dismiss the OT as not just “old” but antiquated.

In this first of three articles, I’ll focus on the mistake of drawing too sharp a distinction between “old” and “new.” In parts two and three, we will address the other two mistakes.

The Biblical Plotline

This first mistake tends to neglect the Bible’s plotline. The NT is a continuation of the OT story.  It consistently refers back to the OT as a means of authorizing its claims. For instance, consider Matthew’s use of the OT.

While all of the gospels portray Jesus as fulfilling various prophecies, Matthew places an emphasis on fulfillment through a repeated formula that references an OT passage or prophet, utilizes the verb translated “fulfill,” and identifies Jesus or some event in Jesus’ life as the fulfillment of the prophecy sited.

This formula occurs at least 10 times in the Book of Matthew in 1:22-23, 2:15, 2:17-18, 2:23, 4:14-16, 8:17, 12:17-21; 13:35, 21:4-5, and 27:9-10. “Fulfill” occurs in other passages in Matthew, though without all three of the formulaic elements.

For instance, after Peter cut the ear off one of the servants of the high priest, Jesus says the following in Matthew 26:52-54:

“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

The use of “fulfilled” in verse 54 points to Jesus and, in particular, his crucifixion as a fulfillment of the scriptures. However, in 26:54, the reference is more general than specific and, as such, does not fit the formula Matthew uses elsewhere.

Still, Matthew 26:54 and other verses, such as Matthew 5:17, in which Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, work with the more formulaic expressions to reinforce Matthew’s notion that Jesus is the fulfillment of the scriptures.

The Israelites have waited for God to deliver them and to re-establish an independent Israel free from the Gentiles. Now, according to Matthew, they should recognize that, in Jesus, the prophecies of old are being fulfilled.

Jesus is continuing, amplifying, and becoming the pinnacle of what the OT anticipated. Jesus (and the rest of the NT) do not relegate the OT to obscurity, nor should the use of the OT in the gospels suggest that the OT is only valuable because it makes Jesus intelligible. The OT also offers its own witness.

The New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament

There is an entire field within biblical scholarship dedicated to examining the various ways the NT uses the OT. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that the NT draws on the OT as an authoritative text through direct quotations and allusions of various sorts.

That the NT consistently draws from the OT not simply to highlight connections between prophecies and their fulfillments but to guide disciples and shape their behavior suggests that we do the same.

The OT is not slowly being pushed aside by the NT writers. They are not creating something “new” but extending a faith that began with creation, proceeded through the previous covenants, and was further revealed in Jesus Christ.

Still, some may suggest that the seemingly drastic changes ushered in by Jesus make the OT Law, if not the whole of the OT, obsolete. Acknowledging that concrete practices were changed in the NT should not suggest that the OT was being ignored.

In fact, there are instances in which the OT law itself anticipates changing social and political arrangements that would necessitate changes to the law itself (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

While the NT and the early church do not push for a return to the original life setting of Israel so that God’s people could follow all the laws in the same way that Israel was intended to follow them, the Law and Prophets were not being abolished but fulfilled (Matthew 5:17).

Perhaps we see this most clearly in Jesus’ response to the expert in the law found in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34 and in his interaction with the lawyer in Luke 10:25-28. In each of these passages, Jesus “sums up” the law in two great commandments.

The first is drawn from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second from Leviticus 19:18. In addition, the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 likely has Leviticus 19:34, which expands the scope of those whom the Israelites were to love to “the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you.”

The lawyer who questions Jesus seems to be asking how far his love for his neighbor must extend. Jesus provides a picture of neighborliness through the Good Samaritan.

What we see is that Jesus is not reinventing the Law based on a new way of life previously unrevealed by God. Instead, he is living out the way of life already revealed in the law.

The Old and New Covenant

The new covenant was different than the old covenant. As Jeremiah proclaims, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…” (Jeremiah 31:31-32).

In Jeremiah 31:33-34, we find out how this covenant will be different: 

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, form the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

In the previous covenant, the law was given on tablets of stone. In the new covenant, the law will be written on the hearts of God’s people. It would not be abolished altogether.

God’s requirements have not changed from the old covenant to the new. We are still to love him with all we are and have and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As Richard Averbeck notes, “…the accumulated effect of the promises and obligations of all three of these [Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic] previous covenants come to fruition in the new covenant in one way or another.”

Whereas some individuals suggest a sharp distinction between the old covenant and the new, the new covenant, while new in certain respects, does not break with the previous covenant.

The Old Testament and Discipleship

As I suggested in Trajectories, “Respecting and studying the discrete witness of the Old Testament cannot be separated from the canonical task of describing the Triune God as he is presented in both the Old and New Testament.”

We cannot simply read the Old or New Testaments in isolation and think that we will get a complete picture of God. Without a complete picture, we can be sure we will not offer a comprehensive witness. To put it another way, the Old Testament is crucial to our discipleship.

How does the preceding conversation inform our understanding of the Old Testament and discipleship? First, it should be clear that the law and, by extension, the rest of the Old Testament has not been rendered obsolete by the new covenant.

The various covenants in Scripture are different. The Davidic covenant, for instance, institutes a royal dynasty that was not in mind at the time of the Abrahamic covenant and only contemplated in the law more generally (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

However, to assume the Davidic covenant abolishes the previous covenants neglects texts like 2 Kings 22-23, in which Josiah, the king of Judah at the time, read “all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord” to “all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great” (23:2). Obviously, the Davidic covenant saw keeping the law as crucial to Israel’s national reform (23:3).

Second, we can see that the new covenant is made more intelligible by the old covenant. The various themes and language used after the institution of the new covenant in the New Testament are drawn from the old covenant.

The contexts in which God’s people live change, but the underlying reality of God’s order doesn’t. Our discipleship occurs within a given context, but it is informed by the full testimony of God’s Word and the example of past believers.

As we read the Old Testament, we will begin to learn from the good and bad examples of those portrayed within its pages.

Hebrews 11 is, perhaps, the most difficult passage for those who wish to unhitch from the Old Testament because they believe there is a sharp distinction between the old and new covenants.

All of the people mentioned in Hebrews 11 would have been part of the old covenant. Yet, they are put forward as people of faith.

They looked beyond the day-to-day challenges or the potential tragedies they were facing and focused on the promises of God. They refused to be guided by sight rather than faith.

It would be difficult to understand how these people could be examples for us if the old covenant is obsolete. They, like us, sought to walk by faith in their time and under the guidance of the revelation God had given them.

As we look back on their lives, we do so with Hebrews 12:1-2 in mind: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

For further reading:

Why the Church Needs to Get Serious about Discipleship

What Does it Mean to Be a Disciple of Christ?

What Is the Davidic Covenant?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/RapidEye

James SpencerJames Spencer earned his Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He believes discipleship will open up opportunities beyond anything God’s people could accomplish through their own wisdom. James has published multiple works, including Christian Resistance: Learning to Defy the World and Follow Christ, Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody, Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind, and Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology to help believers look with eyes that see and listen with ears that hear as they consider, question, and revise assumptions hindering Christians from conforming more closely to the image of Christ. In addition to serving as the president of the D. L. Moody Center, James is the host of “Useful to God,” a weekly radio broadcast and podcast, a member of the faculty at Right On Mission, and an adjunct instructor with the Wheaton College Graduate School. Listen and subscribe to James's podcast, Thinking Christian, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or LifeAudio! 

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