The thing that hit me most was that even senior leaders sometimes struggled with principles for applying the Old Testament. I have seen it in the UK too. I discovered a temptation to circumvent the single biggest Old Testament application principle which is that Jesus Christ is the New Covenant between Humankind and God, and that Jesus Christ is the New Israel of God.
The temptation is to take the Old Testament text and say either that the New Testament equivalent of national Israel is the Church, or that it is the current nation state in Palestine. And therefore to take whatever is written in the Old Testament about the people of God and apply it directly to one or other of those. But Old Testament and New Testament alike are clear: the Israel of God is Jesus Christ, God's King, God's only true obedient person, the true worshipper. When Jesus is called "Son of God" that is a job title (quite different from "God the Son"). And the job title means "King of Israel", the new, sinless, eternal King on David's throne.
My favourite Old Testament place to see this is in the Servant Songs of Isaiah 40-55. The character of the Servant of the Lord is introduced, who is God's answer to the sin of His people, His rescuer from judgement and the person who will end the Exile. Of the Servant we learn:
- He is the chosen one of God (42:1)
- He becomes the New Covenant with God (42:6). Unlike Moses who merely relayed a covenant, this servant is the covenant in himself, which is whay Jesus proclaims a new covenant in his blood
- He will finally bring in God's promise to Abraham that the nations will be blessed, not just Israel (426)
- He will accomplish the job by his word (49:2)
- MOST CRUCIALLY he is named Israel! (49:3) and this isn't the nation because this new Israel is given the task of rescuing the nation of Israel (49:6-7)
No wonder then that at the start of all four Gospels we have John the Baptist identifying Himself in words from Isaiah 40 as the one who will prepare the way for this rescuer and King. No wonder the gospel writers are at such pains to point out how Jesus fulfils all the expectations of the Old Covenant. Have you ever seen how many fulfilments there are in John's gospel? In the fist 7 chapters alone Jesus is the fulfilment of:
- Creation (1:1)
- The Old Testament presence of God (1:14)
- The promise of a rescuer (1:23)
- The passover lamb (1:29)
- Heaven (Jacob's ladder 1:51)
- Ceremonial covenant stipulations (2:1-11)
- The temple (2:13f)
- The OT promises of the new covenant in the Spirit (ch3)
- The place where God is worshipped (4:23)
- The Sabbath (ch5)
- The one who speaks with true authority form God (5:19f)
- God's wilderness provision and parting of the Red Sea (Ch6)
So the great principle for Old Testament application is always "how does this part of the Old Testament apply to Christ?" He said it all points to him. He is the end of the plotline (Luke 24). Why then do we struggle to avoid the merely moralistic "people behaved like this in the OT so we should" (or shouldn't, depending on the example) (PS we can do this on the basis of 1 Cor. 10, but it isn't the first application we should make). Or the overly-simplistic "God commanded Old Testament nation-state Israel to do this, so he is commanding us to do this".
Instead we have to ask "How does this or that stipulation or example under the Old Covenant, relate to our New Covenant, Jesus Christ. And subsequently to all those who are in him." If we don't we will always be tempted to teach law not grace, works not faith, behaviour rather than life in the Spirit, regulation rather than freedom. The antidote to all these is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.