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How Does Discipleship Show Up in the Old Testament? Part 2

The Old Testament reveals who God is. Its laws, stories, poetry, and wisdom teach us who God is, who we are in relation to Him, and how God’s active presence in the world changes the way we are able to (and called to) act within it.

President of The D. L. Moody Center
Updated Nov 08, 2023
How Does Discipleship Show Up in the Old Testament? Part 2

In Part 1 of this series of articles, I addressed the mistake of drawing too sharp a distinction between “old” and “new.” In this piece, I’ll address some misunderstandings about the nature of covenants in the Old Testament and the conflation of the Old Testament with the old covenant.

If, as I suggested in Part 1, there is not a sharp distinction between “old” and “new,” we need to think about the Old Testament covenants, not as strange foreign entities but as helpful precursors to our current standing in the new covenant.

Old Testament Covenants and the Reality of God

While some interpreters have sought to identify a creation covenant, the Hebrew word translated as “covenant” does not appear in the Bible until Genesis 6:17-18.

It seems clear that various elements included in and highlighted by the creation narratives are described within the context of the covenant and the law.

Suggesting that the creation narrative reflects the later context of covenant and law does not deny the narrative’s historicity.

Rather, it reflects the nature of historiography more generally. As historian Johan Huizinga writes, “History is always an imposition of form upon the past and cannot claim to be more.”

As an imposition of form, the Old Testament texts frame the past in terms of Israel’s relationship with God. That relationship was forged through covenant because the covenant is fundamentally the means by which Israel comes to know God.

This perspective on the covenant is similar to that suggested by Old Testament scholar John Walton, who notes, “The covenant is revelatory, and this program of revelation eventuates in…salvation.”

God makes a covenant with Israel to make himself known and to make know the ways those committed to Him are to live.

To put it differently, by revealing the structure of reality over which he sits as Sovereign, God gives Israel the opportunity to know him not only through his own declarations but through lived experience.

When God gives Israel the Law, he also gives them a program for experiencing his blessing or lack thereof. Deuteronomy 30:19-20 reflects this structure:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” 

In this passage, we notice two crucial connections that are part of the covenant program.

First, we see that the covenant does not guarantee blessing. Blessing is contingent. It may be tempting to see the relationship established in the covenant in quid pro quo terms. For instance, Andy Stanley has suggested,

“Under the old covenant, why was answered with an eye to the sky. Israel obeyed to fulfill their part of their old covenant contract with God. They obeyed to be blessed. They obeyed to be protected and prospered…Israel obeyed old covenant rules and restrictions for their own sake.”

The trouble with this view is twofold: First, it assumes a transactional relationship between Israel and God viewed in terms of obedience and blessing, and second, it neglects the notion of love, which will be discussed below.

Viewing the relationship between Israel and God as transactional is both unnecessary and incorrect. God is not bartering blessings in exchange for obedience. He is revealing Himself and the way to experience His blessing presence to Israel.

Rather than being transactional, the relationship is revelatory. To the extent that Israel chooses to obey, they live into the truth of God’s active presence among them. When they disobey, they functionally (if not formally) deny God and experience the consequences of that denial.

Returning to Deuteronomy 30:19-20, there is a second connection that is crucial to the covenant program that Stanley’s treatment of the old covenant (and others like it) tends to minimize: the connection between love and obedience.

Loving God is expressed through obedience. It is the natural result and response of loving God.  As I noted in a separate article, love “is not simply a subjective feeling about God but a commitment to Him that shapes the ways we see the world and determine to act within it.”  

Obeying “for their own sake” would have been a distorted sort of obedience because it would distance itself from God when Israel was to “hold fast” or “cleave” (cf. Genesis 2:24) to the Lord.

The old covenant instituted a program with elements similar to those we find in the new covenant. For instance, John writes, “By this, we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 John 5:2).

That the covenant functions in this manner is also suggested by Paul’s quotation of Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16 in Ephesians 6:2: “‘Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you in the land.’”

In reiterating the command and the promise, Paul is not telling new covenant Christians to revert to a quid pro quo program. Instead, he is suggesting that the old covenant functions similarly to the new covenant in (at least certain respects).

Covenant and Faith

If we view the covenant as revelatory and that salvation is one of the results that might come from such revelation, we can begin to understand one’s inclusion in the old covenant apart from salvation.

Being a member of the old covenant did not guarantee justification any more than it guaranteed blessing. Faith was the standard for justification then, as it is now.

While he does not reference the covenant specifically, John the Baptist addresses the misconception that being a descendent of Abraham was sufficient to preclude repentance.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, John calls them to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8).

John wants them to demonstrate their commitment to God through their way of life. He goes on to warn them not to “presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8).

The implication is that one’s genealogy does not excuse any way of life one may choose. Even the decedents of Abraham must reform their behavior and demonstrate their faithfulness to the Lord.

Jesus appears to distinguish who is or is not a child of Abraham based on behavior. After Zacchaeus announces that he will give half of his goods to the poor and repay those he has cheated fourfold (Luke 19:8), Jesus proclaims, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

Jesus is not referring to Zacchaeus’s ethnic background but to the behaviors that mark him out as a son of Abraham. As Joel Green notes,

“Luke has repeatedly indicated that one’s birthright is no grounds for any particular privilege in the divine economy. Rather, since the Lukan narrative has redefined status as a ‘child of Abraham’ with reference to lowly position and faithful practices, Jesus’s assertion vindicates Zacchaeus as one who embodies the qualities of those fit for the kingdom of God.”

Other New Testament writers appear to affirm this perspective as well. In Romans 4, Paul cites Genesis 15:6 to highlight Abraham’s justification by faith (4:3).

James also references Genesis 15:6 in conjunction with Genesis 22, which tells the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac.

While James is seeking to make a slightly different point than Paul, it is clear that Abraham is justified by a particular sort of faith that is demonstrated by works (James 2:24).

Neither author sees Abraham’s membership in the covenant alone as sufficient for or even particularly connected to salvation. James’ reference to Rahab, who was not an Israelite, in 2:25, suggests that covenant membership was not a prerequisite for justification.

While these New Testament references dispel certain misconceptions about the old covenant’s function, we should not conclude that one’s inclusion in the covenant was without value.

In Romans 3, Paul explains the Jewish advantage in revelatory terms, noting, “…the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2).

The “value of circumcision,” which is a reference to old covenant membership (3:1), lies not in the physical act of circumcision or simply being viewed as a member of the old covenant.

The advantage was related to the “oracles of God” (3:2). Those in the old covenant were privy to knowledge (and to an experience of God that knowledge allowed) that those outside the covenant were not.

For Paul, the advantage of being a Jew and, thus, a member of the old covenant did not give Jews any special standing with regard to righteousness. As he notes, “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (3:9).

The old covenant did nothing to resolve the issue of sin and, thus, could do nothing to bring salvation. Instead, the Jewish advantage was a matter of having access to the “oracles of God” (3:2).

The old covenant was not a vehicle for salvation, though the revelation of God could certainly result in salvation.

Instead, the covenant gave Israel a unique view into the reality of God in the world that other nations would begin to see as they witnessed the success and prosperity of Israel.

As some would suggest, the old covenant was far from a transactional system. Instead, the covenant set forth the ways Israel could live with God and experience his blessing presence.

The covenant was certainly an agreement between two parties, but it was an agreement rooted in love demonstrated through obedience.

Covenant and Testament

The words “testament” and “covenant” are synonyms. While they can be used interchangeably, like the rest of language, context tends to limit when they are interchangeable.

“Old Testament,” for instance, has come to refer to the collection of books included in the first portion of our English Bibles.

Within Old Testament scholarship, it is uncommon to see the word “testament,” or the phrase “Old Testament” refer to the covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, or David. These are normally referred to as “covenants.”

While this distinction may seem somewhat trivial, misunderstanding the way these terms are used can be problematic. Again, Andy Stanley offers a helpful example of how collapsing these terms together can create misinterpretations.

Speaking about the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament), Stanley notes, “The fact that someone chose to publish the old covenant with the new covenant in a genuine leather binding doesn’t mean we should treat them or apply them the same way. The Bible is all God’s Word…to somebody. But it’s not all God’s word to everybody.”

Stanley uses “covenant” and “testament” interchangeably in a context in which they are not really interchangeable. As such, he makes a statement about the Old Testament that, at best, flirts with the ancient heresy of Marcionism.

We are no longer under the old covenant. We have entered the new covenant through faith in Christ. Physical circumcision is nothing (Galatians 5:6; 6:15), yet “we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3; cf. Colossians 2:11).

We are no longer required to offer animal sacrifices. Instead, we are living sacrifices (Romans 12:1). The old covenant provisions have been transformed in the new covenant (Hebrews 8:5; 10:1).

The fact that we are members of the new covenant, however, does not mean that we are to jettison the Old Testament. The old covenant has been fulfilled, but the Old Testament is still the inspired Word of God.

It is still “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Discipleship and the Old Testament

When we approach the Old Testament, we are reading God’s revelation. Do we need to adhere to all of the Old Testament laws? No, and yes. In Deuteronomy 25:4, we find the command, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out grain.”

I don’t own oxen. I have no grain fields. In that very straightforward sense, this command doesn’t have any bearing on my life. When Paul refers to Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthian 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18, he doesn’t limit the passage to oxen.

Rather, he asks, “Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” Paul’s point in both passages is that a worker should not be deprived of the fruits of his or her labor.

The Old Testament reveals who God is. Its laws, stories, poetry, and wisdom teach us who God is, who we are in relation to Him, and how God’s active presence in the world changes the way we are able to (and called to) act within it.

The old covenant has a number of continuities with the new covenant. As such, we can learn a great deal about what a God-fearing life looks like by reading about the women and men who lived prior to the institution of the new covenant.

Discipleship involves a deep commitment (expressed in baptism) and a process of learning to observe all Christ commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). We will be in a far better position to learn obedience if we don’t pick and choose the scriptures we read.

For further reading:

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

Why the Church Needs to Get Serious about Discipleship

What Does it Mean to Be a Disciple of Christ?

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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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