As a New Testament lecturer, I frequently hear folks saying things like “I prefer the New Testament over the Old Testament.” And, “the God of the Old Testament is angry, whereas the God of the New Testament is love.” A popular mega-church pastor in the United States made the claim recently that we should ‘unhitch’ Christianity from the Old, because the Old Testament presents so many impediments to belief for contemporary people.
When I hear this sort of thing, I have to confess: I’m perplexed. Perhaps, my head-scratching confusion comes from the fact that the church through the ages and across denominations has never conceived of the Christian faith as one that focuses on a de-Judaized Jesus or an anti-Old Testament Gospel. As the great theologian Augustine once said about Holy Scripture: “In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed.” The canon of Scripture is not meant to be approached like a television series: “I liked season 6 of The Office better than season 2.” The story of God’s grace through his people Israel to bring salvation to the world as the light of the world is a story that began, not with the “in the beginning” of John 1 in the New Testament but with the “in the beginning” of Genesis 1 in the Old Testament. In fact, when John begins his Gospel with those words (“in the beginning was the Word”) he is intentionally echoing the creation account of Genesis. Through Jesus, the good creation that God began in Genesis is being transformed into a new creation by means of a new exodus led by a new Moses who brings us not out merely out of slavery in Egypt, but out of the slavery of sin, satan, and death. Jesus is a new Adam, who recapitulates, resets, and recalibrates humanity from a trajectory of decay and death toward the path of redemption, reconciliation, and eternal life.
Without the Old, we cannot understand the New, and without the New, we have an incomplete understanding of the Old. The Old Covenant is like a gripping, powerful epic movie eternally set on pause without its climax and culmination in the Christ. And, the New Covenant is incomprehensible apart from what preceded it. The Old is in the New Revealed, the New is in the Old Concealed.
I have the privilege of lecturing the Gospel of John in semester 2 at Trinity, and I am really looking forward to seeing the shadows of the Son in the Old and the fulfillment of the Old in the suffering and glory of the Christ in the New. You know: there’s a little line in John 1:16 that really brings out this theme of the coherence of God’s covenantal grace from Old to New, from Genesis to Revelation. There John writes of Jesus that “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” This is a beautiful line as-is, but the original Greek reveals an even deeper meaning. By stating that we receive “grace upon grace” through Jesus Christ, John is not trying to communicate that we receive heaps of grace, so to speak, in Jesus, unlike in the Old Testament where we received little or no grace. No! The original language here is charin anti charitos which literally means “grace instead of grace” or “grace in the place of grace.” What preceded the Gospel was not an inferior grace-less religion, but a covenant of grace yearning for its completion in Christ Jesus. The Old is not the negative foil for the New; the New is the fulfillment of the Old. The God of grace has been fighting for us from the beginning, running into the fray with us, so that through his people Israel, grace could extend to all nations through Israel-in-person Jesus Christ, the completion and perfection of God’s covenantal love and grace for life of the world.
Dr John Frederick
Lecturer in New Testament at Trinity College Queensland