Home » Sermons » Old Testament » You Asked For A Sermon On HOW DOES THE OLD(ER) TESTAMENT DIFFER FROM THE NEW(ER)?




Zechariah 8:23 

[1] A two-hundred year old tea-cup is antiquated; it is old, very old, and too fragile for everyday use. A brand new typewriter, on the other hand, while new, is obsolete compared to a word-processor. While the typewriter may be every bit as new as the word processor, no one who has had experience with both prefers the typewriter. Why prefer what is relatively awkward, even primitive?

I am nervous whenever I hear the expression “old testament”. I am nervous because “old” suggests either antiquated or obsolete. To be sure, the older testament is several thousand years old — but does this fact alone make it antiquated and therefore unusable? Again, because the older testament is older than the newer is it thereby obsolete in the same way that the typewriter is obsolete compared to the word-processor? If the “old” testament is antiquated then it is old-fashioned, a museum-piece, something for nostalgia-freaks to enjoy. (And who, after all, isn’t nostalgic about the old stories of Joseph and his coat, Noah and his boat, Ezekiel and his visions?) But nostalgic museum-pieces don’t do anything for us beyond amusing us. On the other hand if the “old” testament really is obsolete then why bother with it at all? Who bothers with a typewriter when a word-processor is ready-to-hand?

When I was asked to preach this sermon, “How does the old testament differ from the new?”, the asker’s assumption was that the old testament does differ from the new, and differs startlingly from the new. But does it? Does it differ as much as is commonly thought, or differ in the manner that is commonly thought? Does it differ in essence from the new? (No doubt you have guessed right here how I am going to answer this last question!)

Before we hastily conclude that the older testament is either antiquated or obsolete and therefore useless for us creatures of modernity let’s consider several matters.


(i) When Jesus is tempted (tempted, tested, tried — the one Greek word has all three English meanings) in the wilderness he sustains himself by quoting the “old” testament; for instance, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”. Plainly he regarded it as neither antiquated nor obsolete. What he had read and absorbed for years from Genesis, from the prophets, from the Psalms was a lifeline to him throughout his ordeal.


(ii) Months later, when our Lord is nose-to-nose with opponents, looking in the eye those men and women who have shrivelled hearts and malevolent spirits, he says to them, “You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God”. “Scriptures” can refer only to the older testament, since not one word of the newer had been penned. Plainly our Lord insists that not to know the “old” testament is to remain unacquainted with the power of God. This is serious!


(iii) All of which brings us to the apostle Paul. He tells Timothy, a young minister, that he should continue with what has meant everything to him since childhood. “From childhood”, says Paul, “you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”. The sacred writings are the “old” testament. Nowhere does the “old” testament mention Jesus Christ by name. Nonetheless the older testament, vivified by God, is able to bring us to faith in that Saviour whose salvation is the all-important issue for any person in any era.


(iv) We could bring forward so many more items like those we have considered in the last minute or two, but I am sure we have brought forward enough to make the point. Before we move on to something else I want to remind you of an apparently small detail which in fact is very large: the only physical description we have of Jesus is that he was circumcised. The apostles don’t tell us whether he was black-haired or brown-eyed, slender or chubby; they don’t tell us this because these features of Jesus have nothing to do with our faith in him. But the fact that he was circumcised has everything to do with our faith in him; it means everything, say the apostles, that Jesus Christ is a son of Israel. Yes, God loves the Hittites and the Amorites, the Philistines, North American Indians, the Chinese and Hottentots. God loves them all, and Jesus Christ is meant for them all. Nevertheless, he himself is a son of Israel, circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with the Torah of Israel. Until she died at seventy-five a woman who helped me much was Clare Heller. Clare Heller was a Hebrew-Christian; that is, someone born Jewish who has embraced our Lord. Clare used to say to me, “Victor, if Jesus isn’t the Messiah of Israel, he’s nothing for a Gentile like you”. If Jesus is going to be all that he is for Gentiles like us then we must learn much about Israel’s Messiah. Where do we learn? There is only one place.


[2] Some of you will want to say that a major difference, surely, between older and newer testaments is the severity of the “old”. Many apparently gruesome verses are close at hand: “The righteous one will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked”, “Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord, and do I not loathe them that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred!”.

But permit me to make again the point that I have made several times from this pulpit. The older testament insists over and over that hatred is sin; vindictiveness is sin; blood-lust is sin; gloating over another’s misfortune, even over the misfortune of one’s enemy, is sin. Animosity toward one’s fellows isn’t even permitted in Israel, never mind encouraged, never mind divinely sanctioned. God’s people are forbidden vengeance of any kind.

What appears to us to be threats and curses aimed at enemies are in fact prayers directed to God; prayers that God will rout his enemies so as to clear God’s name of the slander which his enemies are heaping upon it. The so-called curses of the older testament are not the acidic outpouring of a heart steeped in vindictiveness; they are the anguished plea that God will act so as to restore his reputation in the face of his enemies who are now sneering at his truth and scorning his way and trifling with his patience. The enemies of the psalmist are the psalmist’s enemies only because they are first God’s enemies.

While we are examining the force of severe language we should look more closely at Jesus himself. No-one has ever suggested that our Lord is mean-spirited or vindictive. (He does, after all, give himself up for his enemies.) Nevertheless, he is severe, stark, uncompromising, unyielding. He stares at fierce opponents whose hearts are sin-shrivelled and he says, “You fellows go halfway around the world to make one convert; and when you have finally lassoed him, you make him twice as much a child of hell as you are yourselves.” How much more severe can language become? A construction accident occurs in the village of Siloam, killing eighteen men. The construction accident is dreadful. Everyone is sobered by the mishap and its finality. While villagers are sensitive to the fragility of life and the certainty of judgement Jesus reminds them of the depravity of the human heart. Uncompromisingly he says to them, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

We must never say that the older testament is characteristically severe while the newer is not. This simply is not true.


[3] Because the Ten Commandments are found in the older testament many people assume that “command” is the core of the Hebrew bible. At the same time they assume that something much less rigorous than command is the core of the newer testament. The truth is, the core of both testaments is the same. In both the core is an announcement of God’s mercy-wrought deliverance, together with a summons to give our allegiance to him to whom we plainly owe our salvation. The core is an announcement that God has gone to hell and back for us to do for us what we could never do for ourselves; now we are give him our everlasting gratitude, love and obedience. A declaration of mercy-wrought deliverance is also a declaration of freedom; our glad obedience to God is our affirmation of this freedom. Since God, everywhere in scripture, is characteristically the one who frees from slavery, obedience to him can only be the enjoyment of our freedom.

It’s evident, isn’t it, that virtually everyone misunderstands the Ten Commandments. Virtually everyone looks upon commandment as a freedom-strangling straitjacket. But the faithful Israelite never thinks that the Torah of God is a freedom-strangling straitjacket. Psalm 119 is a sustained outburst of praise to God for Torah. The psalmist thanks God tirelessly for the delight he finds in obeying. He says he loves the commandments of God. They are sweeter than honey; he is consumed with longing for them. (In other words, so enamoured is the psalmist with God’s commandments that he is lovesick for them!) This doesn’t sound like a straitjacket to me! Nor does the psalmist’s God sound like an irascible fellow whom we must placate lest he turn mean.

Think for a minute about the introduction to the Ten Commandments. The introduction is one brief sentence which says it all: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”. Before God asks anything of his people he reminds them that he has already done everything for them. His people know once again that they owe him their gratitude, their love, their obedience, their trust — and they are glad to render it. It’s plain that everywhere in the bible gospel precedes law; God’s deliverance grounds God’s claim; God’s mercy elicits our obedience.

Let’s think for a minute about the commandments themselves. The Israelite who knew herself released from bondage at God’s hand knew too that the commandments marked out the sphere in life where she would continue to enjoy and revel in her God-given freedom. For this she was everlastingly grateful, for she knew just as surely that if she ever wandered into areas of life beyond those marked out by the commandments of God she would find herself plunged into misery all over again. The commandments permitted her to move freely, joyfully, richly through life’s minefields. Stupidly, ungratefully to think she could move beyond the areas they marked out would be to have life blow up in her face, even to have it blow up fatally.

The newer testament has the same core, exemplifies the same pattern, and breathes the same spirit: a declaration of what God has paid to rescue us, together with a summons to render him the very life that we owe him. Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, “You were bought with a price”. This is a declaration of their deliverance at measureless cost to God. “You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” This is the summons to yield to God the glad obedience they owe him. The pattern of both testaments is identical.

To deny that God is a nasty fellow with a hair-trigger temper is not to deny that his anger is real. To deny that God is mean-spirited is not to deny that God is a just judge. And yet in both testaments his anger is not the last word about him; his mercy is. In both testaments his judging isn’t the final truth about him; his parenting is.

I am moved every time I read the book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea’s wife was unfaithful to him and prostituted herself. She had several children by men whose names she never bothered to learn. Hosea’s heartbreak over his wife’s unfaithfulness to him imprinted itself upon him as but the merest shadow of God’s heartbreak over Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. The names which Hosea gave to his wife’s children born of harlotry — Lo-Ammi (“Not my people”), Lo-Ruchamah (“Not wanted”) — these names describe God’s attitude to the people of Israel. Then the day came when God said to Hosea, “I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy.” Whereupon Hosea renamed his wife’s children “Ammi, Ruchamah” (“My people, Wanted”). Does any of this, coming as it does from the older testament, suggest a psychopathic deity whose personality is villainous? What about Jeremiah’s conviction concerning the nature of God, born of the most intimate acquaintance with God? Listen to the prophet Jeremiah: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” Having spoken thus of God, Jeremiah adds a line to tell us what it all means for Jeremiah himself: “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will hope in him.”

I am almost fifty years old. I have been reading scripture seriously for decades. I can only conclude that the core of older and newer testaments is identical. The Holy One of Israel is the principal actor in both. To be sure, in the older he acts so as to do something at that time while also pointing to a future fulfilment of what he is doing. In the newer he acts in such a way as to fulfil what he had promised to his older people. Were it any different there would have to be two gods. Were it any different you and I would have to decide which of these contradictory deities we were going to bother with (if we were going to bother at all). The Holy One of Israel remains the subject of both testaments. And for this reason the older testament must never be neglected on the grounds that it is antiquated or obsolete. It is nothing of the sort.


[4] How important is it, then to saturate ourselves in the older testament? It couldn’t be more important.


(A) In the first place, if the older testament is ignored we shall never know Jesus Christ. If it is ignored Jesus is nothing more than a plasticine toy whom we can bend into any shape we choose.

When existential philosophy appeared Jesus was hailed as the great existentialist inasmuch as he magnified the cruciality of decision as he summoned people to choose authentic existence over against inauthentic drifting or copy-catting. Yes, our Lord did summon people to decision; but he summoned people to repent. Repentance is that unique turning which is always a returning to the God we have forsaken.

When Karl Marx appeared Jesus was hailed as the great Marxist. Why, Jesus said so very much about money. He certainly did. But Jesus always insisted money to be a spiritual threat; Marxists, thoroughgoing materialists that they are, don’t admit the realm of the spiritual at all, and therefore will never agree that money is uniquely a spiritual threat.

When psychotherapy came along Jesus was hailed as the great psychotherapist. Didn’t he speak of inner conflicts and the bubbling up of what is deep inside people? Yes he did, even though he was most concerned not with intrapsychic conflict but with that conflict between his Father and the evil one, which conflict courses through every human heart. A considerable part of present-day psychotherapy Jesus would consider fluff, so shallow is it, while a larger part he would consider narcissistic, so readily does it addict people to themselves. He would never question the importance of psychological integration; he would, however, expose the inadequacy of anything that is content to leave people psychologically integrated in their sinnership.

Several years ago some enterprising Americans published a book, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The book brought Jesus “up to date” (supposedly) and decked him out in a businessman’s suit. It was felt that Jesus, throughout his teachings, expounded sure-fire principles of business success. Really? When he admitted that he had nowhere to lay his head? If he hadn’t even made provision for the coming night’s sleep can you imagine anyone trusting him with an investment portfolio or an RSP? When he died all he owned was a soggy loin-cloth!

And then the nazis appeared. Julius Streicher, a notorious Jew-baiter, exclaimed, “Jesus is the greatest anti-semite of all time.” After all, Jesus spoke severely of the religious leaders in Israel, didn’t he? Yes he did. But remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon: the only physical description we have of Jesus is that he was circumcised. We are never to forget that he is a son of Israel.

I need say nothing more on this point. Only the older testament can tell us who Jesus is. Apart from it Jesus Christ, so-called, is a plasticine figure which we can shape as fancifully as we like. Apart from it Jesus of Nazareth is nothing more than an artificial support for our favourite agenda, our pet peeve, or our self-serving preoccupation.


(B) In the second place, if the older testament is ignored we shall quickly fall into that wickedness which has unleashed measureless misery on its victims: anti-semitism. If the older testament is deemed expendable because antiquated or obsolete then very soon Jewish people themselves are deemed expendable because antiquated or obsolete. (After all, what is old or useless we take to the dump, don’t we?) Since Jesus Christ is not who he is apart from his people, I cannot embrace him without embracing them. Since he is the Messiah of Israel (either the Messiah of Israel or nothing to a gentile like me, as Clare Heller frequently reminded me) I cannot cherish the Messiah without cherishing Israel.

When Paul writes the church in Rome he tells the Christians there that to Israel belong (present tense! — there continues to belong) the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of Torah, the worship and the promises. Paul reminds the gentile Christians in Ephesus that until they met Jesus Christ they were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world”. Conversely, when gentiles meet Israel’s greater son, they have a place in the commonwealth of Israel and the covenants of promise. Since all Christians are honourary Jews; since all Christians are guests in the house of Israel, shouldn’t we — mustn’t we — treasure our inheritance and probe it zealously? That church which doesn’t will soon be found pouring gasoline on the fires of anti-semitism.

You have heard me mention the name of Emil Fackenheim, Jewish thinker, many times from this pulpit. Fackenheim was one of my philosophy professors during my undergraduate and graduate days; he has had the single largest influence on me since my teenage years. When I was his student I spent little of our private time together talking philosophy; I spent much time listening, simply listening, as he immersed me in the commonwealth of Israel. Through my friendship with this wonderful man I learned that while God is spirit God is the densest, most concrete, weightiest substance; that God can be fled but never escaped; that God alone exposes the world’s self-delusion for what it is; that the characteristic feature of God is that he speaks; that the entire Judaeo-Christian enterprise would be invalidated if prayer were not heard; that the prophet whom God has seized can have no other credential than that flaming word which has seared him; that God is irreducibly God — not a projection of human emotional deprivation nor the rationalization of a human project — God is that undeflectable, inescapable luminous opacity who is inscrutable yet knowable, gracious yet untameable. Fackenheim exposed this gentile philosophy student to the commonwealth of Israel. Only an undiscerning fool would fail to venture in it, cherish it and thank God everlastingly for its riches and its splendour.


[5] I still haven’t answered the question which precipitated this sermon; namely, “How does the old(er) testament differ from the new(er)?” I hinted at the answer several minutes ago. The newer testifies that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of God’s struggle with Israel for 1300 years. The despised, rejected servant of God is now become the Son of God himself whose suffering is the turning point of the world’s restoration; the lamb offered in the temple is now become the self-offering of God himself; the incorporation of gentiles into the people of God fulfils Israel’s vocation to be a light to the nations; the dawning of the Messianic Age appears as the contradiction of the Messianic Age is overturned (namely, the deadly, deadening power of death). The older testament is related to the newer as promise to fulfilment, as expectation to vindication, as longing to satisfaction.

At the same time God never gives us the fulfilment in such a way that we can say,”Now that we have the fulfilment, who needs the promise? Now that we have the vindication, who needs the expectation? Now that we have the Messiah, who needs Israel?” God will not permit this. For we don’t “have” the Messiah; we gentile Christians have been brought to the Messiah of Israel.

Centuries ago the prophet Zechariah heard God say, “In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’.” (Zechariah 8:23) As Christians you and I have taken hold of the robe of one Jew in particular. And of the robe of this one son of Israel we must never, ever let go.



Victor A. Shepherd


Mark 12:24
2 Timothy 3:15-16
Luke 13:4
Psalm 119:127,103
Hosea 11:9
Lamentations of Jeremiah 3:22-24
Romans 9:4
Ephesians 2:11
Zechariah 8:23