“I’m glad we worship the God of the New Testament rather than the god of the Old,” said one student before Bible class, “because the God of the Old is a God of wrath, while the God of the New is a God of grace.”
I have had many students, in fact, confess that they thought this way before they actually studied the Old Testament. And my educated hunch is that many Christians feel this way whether they admit it or not. The Old Testament, according to popular opinion, is all about law and works, while the New is all about grace and forgiveness.
Sure, we could comb through the New Testament and easily find examples of grace. Jesus hung out with harlots, drunkards, and he touched quite a few lepers during his short ministry on earth. Paul too could hardly talk about Jesus without clothing his message with his fresh understanding of grace. But if you pay attention and read it closely—or read it at all—the Old Testament is one large, impassioned story of God’s grace. Look at any story, any chapter, and you’ll find a story of God’s relentless pursuit of his wayward children. Take grace out of the Old Testament and, like pulling a thread from a sweater, the whole thing will become undone. Every character, every event, every single page from the Old Testament bleeds with grace.
We don’t usually see this because we have been conditioned to read the Old Testament morally. That is, we generally look to the Old Testament as a showcase of moral examples to live by. We need to be like Abraham, live like Jacob, be a leader like Moses, Joshua, or David. We should fight like Samson, flee like Joseph, and stand up for God like Esther.
But the problem with this approach is that it puts the emphasis on people rather than on the main subject, the primary character, in the Old Testament—God. God is the focus of every story in the Old Testament. Human characters play a role, but it’s a supporting role and never the main part. The Old Testament—the whole Bible, really—is fundamentally a story about God, not humankind.
And so I suggest that instead of reading the Bible morally, that we read it theologically. This doesn’t mean that we don’t look for moral examples, nor does it mean that we should mine the text for verses that support our favorite theological doctrine. Rather, reading the Bible theologically means that we look first and foremost at what the passage teaches us about God. What is God doing? How is God revealing Himself? What is God doing to clean up our mess? Theology simply means “the study of God,” and that’s what the focus should be.
Plus, most of the characters of the Old Testament, believe it or not, are not good examples to follow. Abraham was addicted to lying, Jacob was a fearful cheater, Moses was a tongue-tied murderer, Esther never even mentioned God, and Samson was a porn star enslaved to lust and bloodshed. So if we follow our Old Testament “heroes” as the Scripture presents them, we could end up in prison.
So the Old Testament is all about grace. And it provides the rich soil from which Jesus’ gospel of grace blossoms. To understand Jesus, to understand grace, we must soak ourselves in Israel’s story.
I can’t wait to teach Old Testament Survey again this Fall!