“The law and the prophets were in force until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is urged to enter it.” (Luke 16:16 NET)
We kind-of know it. Instinctively we understand that Old Testament Scripture does not apply to us in the same way that it applied to God’s old-covenant people; the nation of Israel.
Yet Jesus continues: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tiny stroke of a letter in the law to become void.” (vs 17)
So we rightly affirm that: “All [Old Testament] Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”. And Jesus himself clearly viewed the Old Testament as carrying God’s authority.
But – equally clearly – he did not handle it in the same way as the Jewish religious teachers.
So in what sense is the Old Testament ‘authoritative’ for us? (And keep in mind that many of the divisions among Jesus followers, both past and present, centre precisely on how we answer this.)
Try thinking about it using this analogy:
The journey is long and demanding, and comprises two quite distinct sections. The first part is a wilderness trek on foot; the second stage is a voyage across open ocean aboard a sailing vessel.
The situations faced are often difficult and ‘The Travel Guide’ – covering the whole expedition – is utterly essential. It is filled with vital information to enable the explorers to find the correct route and to safely negotiate the challenges they encounter. The guide is reliable, wide-ranging and authoritative. But it is crucial to refer to the correct section.
We are now pilgrims on the second stage of the journey. There are many key principles and crucial insights to be drawn from the first part of the travel guide; orientation and guidance that is relevant to all travellers and all forms of travel. However, many of the detailed instructions for traversing a wilderness simply do not apply when that part of the journey is left behind. Hence, while knowing how to use a compass is vital in both situations, instructions for the most appropriate footwear are quite different. Trying to follow every directive given for the desert trek makes no sense when on board a ship, and to attempt to do so could even prove dangerous.
This analogy does not resolve every question we have concerning how we, as new covenant people, should rightly understand and apply OT Scripture. But it can help establish a framework for our questions. To repeat: we are pilgrims on the second stage of the journey, and so we look to the second section of our travel guide – what we know as the New Testament – for authoritative direction. Quote: “This is… the new covenant documentation which gives the foundation charter and the characteristic direction and identity to the people of God…”1 for this stage of our pilgrimage. Part one contains much that is useful for us, but we need to understand that it was written for a different part of the journey.
And while it can be unwise to press any analogy too far, we could add that on our leg of the journey the Author of the travel guide Himself is our companion.