Sunday, April 1, 2012

Can Old Testament Principles Guide a New Testament Christian?

What role does the Old Testament play for a New Testament Christian?
After readingFreedom of Religion Doesn’t Mean What Some Want It to Mean,” (Msg-2-Mar-2012) a Tennessee subscriber wrote and asked: “A difficult question to answer is how we should treat Hebrew Scripture.  I'd appreciate your thoughts on that.”
It is a very relevant question in today’s virulent political/religious atmosphere, where biblical literalists believe they can quote any verse from anywhere in the Bible without any reference to its context and original audience.
As a Christian, the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) teaches me two primary things:
1) God and History: The importance of the role of history in comprehending the continual presence of God in my life, and the comprehension of the tension created when my Ego desires to formalize the process of knowing the Spirit of the Lord.
2) An Appreciation for Understanding the Clarion Message of Jesus the Christ: “John [the Baptist], who was in prison, heard what Christ was doing, and sent his own disciples to him with this message: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect some other?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go, and tell John what your hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news – and happy is the man who does not find me a stumbling block.’” [Matthew 11: 2-6].  
God and History
The Old Testament teaches me to view God in history, just like the Israelites who could not separate their God from their history. As I stated in Chapter 5 of my book (How the Bible became the Bible, ISBN 978-0-7414-2993-3):
“The Hebrews could not conceive of their history without thinking of their God. Neither could they conceive of their God without thinking of their history. The history that revealed God was the religion of Israel. From this collection of tribal roots came a loose cultic confederation of related tribes. During the Exodus they were forged into an idea of one people under one common God. God’s name was YHWH. That is their history. That is their religion.
In that gray area between the reporting of the history and the interpreting of that history the Israelites came to define (and redefine) God, as well as define (and redefine) themselves. The Old Testament account concerns the revelation of God—but it is in the concrete affairs and relationships of people that God makes himself known. God is not an abstract idea, some primeval “first cause” consisting of abstract ideas about him. The faith of the Old Testament is fundamentally historical in nature. Old Testament doctrines are events and historical realities—not abstract values and ideas existing in some sort of timeless realm. God’s revelation did not come like a bolt out of the blue. It came through the crises and affairs of human life, interactions with other cultures, and the persons who perceived the divine dimension in those events. For example, no external historical study can demonstrate that the Exodus was an act of God. But to Israel, the “political” event was the medium through which God’s presence and purpose were disclosed” [pp 97-98]
What does this mean for me? To see God at work today I read the newspaper and look for incidences where the lame are healed, the blind see, the deaf hear, the infirmed are made whole – in general 21st Century terms – where the weak are cared for and protected, whuch is how Jesus described Himself. Why would I believe that has changed?
I’m also aware of the importance of the constant tension between the whispers of the Spirit of the Lord and my desire to formalize the occurrence of my version of these whispers. This is the tension between the Prophets and the Priesthood that I also discussed in Chapter 5 under the headings of Ritualized Righteousness and Religious Exclusivity.
I discussed (pp. 99-100) how there was a
“…repeated desire to ‘go back’ to a more familiar, more ‘cut-and-dried’ form of religion—the certainty of a simple reward-and-punishment approach in dealing with Yahweh. But the prophets kept telling us: Righteousness or faithfulness is not a question of saying the correct prayer or offering the correct sacrifice at the correct time while wearing the correct clothes. Again, in twenty-first-century terms: It’s not a question of supporting the perceived “correct” things—America, free enterprise, prayer in school, constitutional amendments for the definition of a marriage—in order to defend God’s honor. It’s not a question of condemning the perceived “correct” things—gays, nudity, abortion, stem cell research, communism, right-to-die advocates. God doesn’t care about your causes. He wants your heart and mind and attitude, the prophets told us. All along, the prophets kept telling Israel: God doesn’t want ritual. He wants in your heart His sense of justice for the little guy….”
[There was also the danger of exclusivity espoused by the formal Priesthood – the …” desire to build cultural and spiritual walls around themselves—designed to keep outsiders “out” and to keep the “favored” people “in.” That way Yahweh couldn’t miss where he was to impart his blessings. He would always know where to find his people: Look for those that are circumcised; look for those that honor me with their tithes and first fruits; look for those that can invoke the Torah; look for those that wouldn’t miss a festival at the temple if their lives depended on it. Of course, the prophets were telling the Hebrews that Yahweh wasn’t looking for those things. He was looking for those that … do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with him”.
For me, in these two aspects of the Old Testament the Christian’s heritage within the roots of Judaism is strong, respected and clear.
The Clarion Message of Jesus the Christ  
However, knowledge and respect for the Old Testament’s focus on the little guy also enables me to fully appreciate Jesus’ statement when He said, “I am the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.” (Note: He did not say He was the fulfillment of the formal Jewish Priesthood customs, rites, and rituals).  We believe Jesus was sinless in the eyes of God – not so He could to save us from His Father’s legal wrath – but to put Him in a position to alter the existing Hebrew Law and its significance. He did just that, giving us His three great commandments:
(1) Love the Lord with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind, and (2) Love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev. 19: 16-18, 33-34; Mark 12: 28-34)
(3) Love each other as I have loved and served you (John 13: 12-17; I John 3: 21-23 He also said, in John 14:15, “…if you love me you will obey my commandments.”
The Old Testament scriptures describe a society that was very patriarchal, cut and dried, ritualistic, and not un-similar to existing Semitic forms of Islam and Old Testament-bound Christian fundamentalist groups. There are certainly times in my life today when I am drawn to adopt a straightforward ritualized approach to morality or my sense of righteousness. Whenever that occurs, e.g., “so-and-so deserved what s/he got, after all it’s an eye for an eye,” I know that my Ego is trying to get me to ignore the commandments the Lord gave me. I know my Ego is trying to get me back to a simple reward-and-punishment approach to deal with my perception of God.
Love the Lord with all my being, Love all as myself, and Love and serve others as He did. After all, these are His commandments for me. For me to concentrate or venerate Old Testament approaches to living my life, e.g., using the Ten Commandments, diminishes much of Jesus’ life and message.
Thanks for listening and feel free to share this message with family, friends or acquaintances.

#1 April, 2012

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