Imagine you are a serious and devoted student of The Chronicles of Narnia. I mean you eat these books up. You virtually inhabit this rich and textured narrative world.
Yet when you talk to people about C. S. Lewis and his stories, folks sometimes say the weirdest things. Someone once remarked, “Aslan? Wasn’t he that mean and bloodthirsty wolf?” On another occasion, someone said, “Oh, yes, the wardrobe. I remember that. A strange piece of furniture for a witch to have.”
You would be taken aback. “Wait, what? No, no, that’s the wrong idea altogether!” Then you'd try to set the record straight.
Welcome to the world of the student and teacher of the Old Testament. That’s frequently how we feel when we talk with others about these ancient writings (yes, even those who have long been part of the church).
Wrongheaded notions about this holy book sprout up like weeds in springtime.
Now, I get it. I really do. The Old Testament is a long, strange book that’s not so easy for modern readers to understand. What is understandable, therefore, is that people can get lost and confused when studying it (or hearing caricatures about it).
So, here are three of the most popular ideas about the Old Testament that I have encountered—ideas that are wrong and in need of correction. But not only wrong factually, but also wrong in that they lead to wrong perceptions of God, salvation, and other weighty matters.
#1 The Old Testament is all fire and brimstone and the New Testament is all grace and love.
The biblical story, from its beginnings in Genesis until its end in Revelation, describes God’s dealings with humanity. Sometimes, yes, the Lord does act as a so-called fire-and-brimstone judge. He condemns evil behavior, either by speech or action.
But this is by no means isolated to the Old Testament. Jesus himself gave the Pharisees an unforgettable tongue-lashing for their hypocrisy (Matthew 23). Two early churchgoers named Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead because they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). And Revelation is full of fierce and fiery descriptions of judgments that will befall those who reject the Lord.
There’s plenty of “fire and brimstone” in the New Testament as well. Why? Because the Lord never stops condemning evil and threatening punishment to those who refuse to repent.
Yet, just as God acts as judge in both the Old and New Testaments, he also acts as Redeemer, Friend, Father, and Savior in all parts of the Bible. Right after Adam and Eve rebelled, the Lord clothed them and gave them the promise of the coming Savior (Genesis 3). He rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt (Exodus) and gave them the promised land (Joshua). He dealt mercifully with back-stabbed Joseph, diseased Naaman, forlorn Naomi, persecuted David, and countless others.
In fact, one of the most striking descriptions of the Lord’s grace and love is not from the Gospels or Romans but from the Old Testament: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” (Exodus 34). He whom the Apostle John says is “Love” shows that love repeatedly in the Bible, from Genesis onward.
#2 In the Old Testament, people were saved by following the law, but in the New Testament we are saved by faith.
The Lord did indeed give lots of laws in the Old Testament, most notably the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). The traditional Jewish numbering of all the laws in the Torah computes to 613.
Of these commands, God never said, “Follow them to the best of your ability” or “Give these laws your best shot.” Like a husband who would never be satisfied with a wife who promised, “I’ll be 95% faithful to you,” the divine Husband of Israel demanded 100% fidelity from his bride, the people of Israel.
Of course, that kind of perfection was never, not once, forthcoming. If peace with God, a right relationship with him, and membership in his holy community were based on keeping the law with 100% fidelity, then no one would have made it. All would have been lost.
Rather, as in the New Testament, so in the Old Testament, the Lord called his people to faith in him, as Abraham believed in the Lord and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15). He gave them sacrifices and other means of purification, that their sins might be forgiven by his merciful provision. Every year, on the Day of Atonement, a substitute goat was sacrificed to atone for the sins of the nation (Leviticus 16).
In all this, the Lord showed Israel (and us) what kind of God he is: one who forgives sins, provides the sacrifice, atones for wrongdoing, establishes peace with his people, and calls them to trust in him as their Redeemer.
As such, the Old Testament is in concert with the New Testament, which proclaims that Jesus the Messiah gives us forgiveness, peace, and cleansing by his cross and resurrection. Salvation is not by keeping the law but by faith in the Lord who provides the salvation we could never provide on our own.
#3 The Old Testament rarely, if ever, says anything about God’s Son. That’s the focus of the New Testament.
Already in the opening page of the Bible, we are introduced to the God who is one, to be sure, but not simplistically one. There is complexity within his unity. In the second verse of the Bible, for instance, we are told of the “Spirit of God,” who reappears all over the pages of the Old Testament.
As we read on, we encounter the Messenger of the Lord, who speaks and acts with full divine authority, and who is called both God and Lord (e.g., Exodus 3). Later, in Proverbs 8, we encounter Wisdom, who likewise is beside the Creator. In Daniel 7, we meet “one like a Son of Man” who receives a throne alongside the Ancient of Days. Elsewhere, we read of the Lord’s Messiah, who is called his Son (Psalm 2); the Servant who will save God’s people by the sacrifice of himself (Isaiah 53); the Word who comes from God and touches the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1).
The God of the Old Testament is therefore one but that unity is complex. We read of God. We read of the Spirit of God. We read of his Son or Servant. Of course, in the New Testament this divine complexity is more fully revealed as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (e.g. Matthew 28:19), but God didn’t somehow “evolve” into that. God has always been three persons who share one nature (see this video for more on the Trinity in the Old Testament).
Therefore, the Old Testament talks about the Son of God all over the place, just as the New Testament does. The designations are diverse (e.g., Messenger, Wisdom, Son of Man, Word, Glory, and so forth) but the designee is the same: the Son of the Father who, in the fulness of time, came as the Word made flesh to dwell among us, to show us his glory, and to take away the sins of the world (John 1).
If you’d like to learn more about the Old Testament and these kinds of questions, here are three resources:
“A Field Guide to the Bible.” In this sixteen-episode podcast (less than 8 hours), we walk through the entire history of the Old Testament. You will get the big picture of the history, an explanation of the main themes, and much more. This is designed especially those who are new to the Bible.
“40 Minutes in the Old Testament.” For the last 5+ years, we have been walking, chapter by chapter, through the Old Testament. As of now, we have covered all the material from Genesis to the middle of 2 Samuel. Jump into the conversation where we are now or go back to the beginning. Whichever you prefer. We focus especially on bringing out the themes of law, Gospel, and Christ as we work our way through the chapters.
The Christ Key: Unlocking the Centrality of Christ in the Old Testament. My most recent work is basically a book-length answer to misconception #3. Each chapter demonstrates how the Son of God is present, prefigured, and foretold in the Old Testament.