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Old or New Testament?

In the bible, which do you prefer; old or new testament? My guess would be that the majority prefer the new testament.
In many ways, that is as it should be. It is the message of the new testament derived from the evangelists and apostles which enables us to be Christians. If you received a bible when you were at school or joined the armed forces, it was more likely to be just the new testament along with the psalms rather than the whole bible. Those of you with longer memories of the original book of common prayer or the slim blue volume which replaced it in Wales in the 1960’s will remember that the ‘propers’, the scriptural readings set for the communion service, contained just an epistle and a gospel, no old testament lesson. Old testament readings at communion did not appear until the 1984 ‘green book’. That happened because people had stopped attending matins and evensong where the old testament was read.
The familiar stories of the new testament speak to the very heart of our faith and belief. Jesus’ moral teachings continue to be highly regarded. The great events of Holy Week and Easter are the basis for our Christian hope as good triumphs evil, light shines in the darkness. We can identify with the stories in the Acts of the Apostles as the gospel message is taken into the market place and churches are established across the Mediterranean world sometimes in the face of stiff opposition. While we may struggle with some of Paul’s writings, passages such as the poem to love in 1 Corinthians 13 or the exaltation to put on the whole armour of God in Ephesians 6 are well loved. May be the new testament seems a little bit closer to our own culture than some of the things we read about in the old.
My sense is also that for many people, even those of us who are regular in church and have listened to many bible readings, that the God of the old testament is some way different from the one in the new. The impression is that in the old testament, God arrives with thunder claps on dark brooding mountains or threatens judgement through the prophets by plague and fire. Worst still, this old testament God calls for the total annihilation of his people’s enemies, ethnic cleansing if you like. By contrast, the new testament God appears as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes; the carpenter’s son who welcomes the children and commends love even to enemies. Is it any wonder that the new testament is preferred? It can be tempting to write the old testament off as no more than a collection of writings and to think that reading them in church is unnecessary.
What we then forget is that for Jesus, the old testament was important. For Jesus, the old testament was his bible. The new testament would not even start to be written down until at least thirty years after his ascension. Not only for Jesus. His disciples, the crowds he addressed, and the various Jewish religious leaders relied on the old testament alone, the law, the prophets and the psalms to learn about God.
How then did Jesus regard the old testament? As outdated and needing revision? Did Jesus ever suggest that the portrayal of God in the scriptures of his day was somehow flawed and not the God that he had come to proclaim? I can’t find any evidence for that. Instead, Jesus always has the greatest respect for the old testament. Many times, he quotes from it must notably when he is being tempted by the devil in the wilderness or foretelling his death and resurrection. Strikingly, Jesus has these words in the sermon on the mount: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5.17-18)
The key thing to remember is that the people around Jesus would have relied on the writings of the old testament to determine the truth about Jesus’ identity. This comes out clearly in today’s gospel reading. (Luke 24.36-48) Jesus has appeared to his disciples again. Understandably, they think he is ghost, but Jesus is concerned to show them that he is no apparition. Not only does he allow them to them to touch him and to see the scars of the cross, but he eats broiled fish in their presence. Once they are convinced that he is alive again, Jesus begins to discuss what has happened to him since they were last together at the last supper. The betrayal, arrest and trial, the crucifixion and resurrection had all served to fulfil words of the old testament. While various debates take place in scholarly circles about prophecies of Jesus in the old testament, there are many references which have been understood by the church since earliest times to refer to Jesus. Taken together, they are compelling and certainly would have been for Jesus’ disciples as he ‘opened their minds to understand the scriptures. (Luke 24.45)
As Jesus spoke about his role in the old testament that evening with his disciples, he may well have drawn their attention to the references to mysterious visitors like the priest, Melchizedek, with no reference given to his family tree who appears to Abraham. (Genesis 14) Other occasions might include Abraham conversing with the Lord over Sodom after angels have left him to go to the city (Genesis 18.22-33) or Moses being face to face with God ‘as one speaks with a friend.’ (Exodus 33.11) There is the curious Hebrew word used in parts of the old testament for God: Elohim which is plural and sometimes leads the English translation to refer to God as ‘us’ rather than ‘he’. All of this points to the idea of God having a human presence on occasions on earth long before the incarnation of Jesus. It speaks of a Messiah who is pre-existent, playing a role in the old testament and not just the new.
While this argument may be convincing, we might still be tempted to dismiss the old testament claiming that it has little to say in the contemporary world. It is true that many with whom we might share our faith put little store by the old testament, but for Jews it remains their bible as it was for Jesus and his disciples. In the reading from the Acts, we see Peter after the healing of the man at the gate beautiful urging Jews to understand that Jesus has fulfilled their scriptures. (Acts 3.18) Muslims, who base their faith on the Quran are also familiar with old testament figures such as Abraham and Moses. If we acknowledge the importance of the old testament to our faith, it becomes a means of dialogue between us and them. If a Muslim becomes convinced the old testament scriptures point to Jesus as God in flesh and Messiah, he is not far from becoming a Christian.
The old testament anticipates the coming of Jesus, his ministry death and resurrection. It also speaks of his presence long before the events of Bethlehem. The God of the old testament is therefore clearly the same one who is incarnate in Christ in the new testament. A God without beginning and end who is to be worshipped as the creator, not the created as in the case of the idols. A God of perfect holiness who can only accept total purity. He is revealed in both testaments of scripture through many writers and forms of literature as a God of justice contending for what is right as well as showing himself as a God of infinite love and mercy. We see both great qualities which we all yearn for meeting in Jesus especially in the mystery of his cross. It is more of a challenge for our generation to see how they play out in some old testament passages which seem harsh or violent. Yet, if we can hold them together in tension and see this great God as a unity in the whole of the bible, then we begin to share the same wonders that Jesus revealed to the disciples on the evening of the resurrection and are in a stronger position to both grow our faith and share it with others.
Easter 3. 15.04.2018

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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