We get a lot of questions in the inbox about how to interpret the Old Testament as a Christian, trying to understand which promises apply to us and which ones don’t. A podcast listener, Joe from Boston, writes in with this question: “Pastor John, I often struggle to interpret and apply portions of the Old Testament (specifically the prophetic books) where the word of God was being spoken to God’s people as the nation of Israel. How can we discern if warnings or promises directed towards Israel are applicable to other nations, the body of Christ in the global church, or even to ourselves as individuals? What benefit or dangers may there be in carrying over meaning from Israel to these other modern day audiences? 2 Chronicles 7:14 is one such example.”
Let me see if I can simplify some very complex issues and provide a two-step process that enables Joe and the rest of us Christians to appropriate the Old Testament, especially the promises for our use as Christians in the 21st century.
“Christians become the heirs of all the promises in the Old Testament through union with Christ.”
Here is the first step: 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him [Christ]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” Now, I think that means that in union with Christ, the Messiah, Christians become the heirs of all the promises in the Old Testament. And there are different ways to explain why that is, and one is to realize that in spiritual union with the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ, Christians are the messianic people, the true Israel, the heirs of everything promised to the true Israel.
Here is the way Paul puts it in Philippians 3:3. He says, “For we are the circumcision” — and he is talking to his Gentile audience there in Philippi — “we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” And what he means when he says, “we are the circumcision,” is: We Gentiles who are united to the Jewish Messiah Jesus are the true circumcised people, the true Israel of God. And, therefore, all the promises made to the circumcision, the true Israel, belong to us, Jew and Gentile in Christ Jesus.
Now, a side note: This does not exclude a real future for present day ethnic Israel in God’s purposes, because they will one day profess faith in Messiah Jesus and be grafted back in to become part of the true Israel along with all other Christians who are part of Jesus Christ. That is my understanding of Romans 11.
“Even Gentiles who are united to the Jewish Messiah Jesus are the true circumcised people, the true Israel.”
So, that is step one. Christians may rightly embrace the promises of the Old Testament made to Israel, because in union with the Messiah, Jesus, we are Israel, we are the true Israel.
Now here is the second step. The coming of Jesus, the Messiah, into the world and his atoning work on the cross and his resurrection and his reign in heaven and his authoritative teaching — like in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 — all of that together alter the way some of the promises and the teachings of the Old Testament are to be inherited and applied. In other words, when step one says that we are heirs of all the promises, we have to take into account that those promises may be fulfilled differently today because of the changes that have come into history through the words and the work of Jesus.
For example, in his death for sins, Jesus effectively replaces the Old Testament priesthood and the Old Testament sacrifices and all of those ceremonial provisions that surrounded that process of sacrifice. It is all over the book of Hebrews, but here is Hebrews 10:12 and 14: “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. . . . By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” That means that some of the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled differently now than they were then.
“Jesus replaced the Old Testament priesthood and sacrifices when he died on the cross for our sins.”
Here is another example. Leviticus 5:15–16 says if anyone sins, he shall bring an offering, a ram as an offering. “And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering.” And here is the promise. “He shall be forgiven.” So, forgiveness is offered through the offering of a ram, and nowadays — now, since Jesus — he has replaced the work of that priest and the offering of that ram. Does that mean that Leviticus 5:16 doesn’t apply to us? No. It doesn’t mean that. We take the teaching of the New Testament — how Jesus fulfilled the priesthood, how he fulfilled the sacrifice of that ram —we make the necessary adjustments, and we enjoy this promise, which now says something like: All the more will we be forgiven for our sins if we embrace the provision, not of the Old Testament ram and the Old Testament priest, but of the work of Christ and the sacrifice of the high priest Jesus and the offering of his self.
And let me give you one more example, because he asked about it. “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). Now, how do Christians embrace and apply this today? Well, in view of what Christ has done in the New Testament, we make at least two changes.
First, my people — “if my people” — the people are no longer merely the Jewish, ethnic people of God, but the blood-bought people of the Messiah united to him by faith. And, secondly, the reference to their land — cleanse their land; “heal their land” — does not apply to the land of the church, how much less the church in America, referring to the land of America. It doesn’t refer to America, because the church bought by the blood of Jesus is a pilgrim people drawn from all the lands, from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. The church has no homeland except heaven and eventually the new earth.
“The church has no homeland except heaven and eventually the new earth.”
Therefore, the application we make of this verse is not that if Christians will repent God will heal America. We have no such promise in the Bible. Rather, if Christians repent, turn from their wicked ways, humble themselves, and pray to God, he will do a mighty work in and through the church however he please. And I think if Joe takes these two steps and these two illustrations that I have given from Leviticus 5 and 2 Chronicles 7, he will be well on his way of appropriating the Old Testament for good Christian use.