How to Continue the Old Testament Story Today

This is the third and final post in our series on important things the church needs to know about the Old Testament. In the first post I touched on what makes it relevant as Scripture. We saw how Christ and the Apostles used it as a basis for God’s new revelation in Jesus Christ. In the second post I touched on how the Old Testament should be read. We also saw why it is important for every Christian to know the basic history and geography of ancient Israel. We now move to the third important thing the Church needs to know about the Old Testament, and that is how to continue the Old Testament story today.

In order to continue the story the Church must understand how the Old Testament tells God’s redemptive plot. The story of the relationship between God and God’s people is told through the use of different motifs that permeate the entire Old Testament. Technically defined, a motif is a distinct feature or dominant idea in a literary composition. Motifs such as creation, election, covenant and redemption all serve to infuse meaning into the story of God. These are not necessarily attached to a specific literary style or time of history. The same motif can be found in myths, poetry, prophecy and historical accounts, such as the book of Judges. By identifying these motifs and extracting their meaning in light of the Old Testament, the Church is able to paint a more comprehensive landscape of God’s story which continues in the New Testament and today.

Motifs work as re-presentations of God’s missiological intent. In doing so, they tell the story of God but also call the reader to partake in the mission. For example, in Genesis 12 we find that God elects Abram so that through him all families of the earth would be blessed. Following his election, God then establishes a covenant with Abram in Genesis 15 promising the land of Canaan as his possession. Whereas the covenant set the terms of the relationship, the election set its purpose. Therefore election works with covenant to reveal God’s missiological intent. The covenant motif actually predates Abraham. It is present in the beginning in Creation all the way through Revelation.

In creation God is shown as completely transcendent and sovereign over chaos (Gen 1:2), but God nonetheless establishes a covenant relationship with humankind for the purpose of tending after God’s creation (Gen 1:26). This motif shows that regardless of one’s interpretation of Genesis 1, literal or not, the message and meaning stays the same. The message is that God does not need humans, but invites them to partake in God’s creative and re-creative mission through covenant. Covenant is a pivotal motif. It is a root metaphor, through which God reveals Godself in both the Old and New Testaments.  A missiological hermeneutic of the Old Testament that identifies and extracts meaning of such motifs can help the Church give continuity to God’s story of redemption in the world today.

The Apostle Paul understood this hermeneutical principle when applying the motif of missiological covenant is his own communities. For example, Corinth was a vibrant and diverse city in the days of Paul. The city consisted of Romans, Greeks, barbarians and Jews among other nationalities. There were free men and slaves, merchants, artists, politicians and all kinds of flourishing businesses due to Corinth’s important seaport. The cultural and economic diversity of Corinth was apparent to all who walked its streets. In the same manner, the church planted by Paul reflected the diversity of the city around it. There were men and women, free people and slaves in the church, all of whom enjoyed equal fellowship because of their faith in Christ. Notwithstanding, the social class system of Corinth had made their way into the church.

In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 we find the Apostle Paul admonishing the church in Corinth for having violated the Lord’s Table, the re-presentation of Old Testament covenant. Paul immediately identifies the problem by pointing out to “divisions among them” (v.18), which were a matter of pride to show which of them had “God’s approval” (v.19). The Greek word applied by Paul was σχίσμα (schisms), which alluded specifically to a social divide. These divisions were highlighting the social differences among them (v.21) and “humiliating those who had nothing” (v.22). The practice of the Corinthian church was the antithesis of the missiological covenant modeled by Christ. Paul instantly refers back to Christ’s re-presentation of covenant (v.23) as he looks to restore its meaning in that church. Paul interpretation of Christ’s re-presentation of covenant meant that the church was for everyone, especially the outcasts of society.

Paul’s understanding and application of Christ’s re-presentation of covenant through the Holy Communion, which was itself a re-presentation of the Jewish Passover, implied that its message had meaning and purpose in the Corinthian society of his day. Paul then gives continuity to the story of God that liberated the oppressed Israelites out of Egypt in the Old Testament. For Paul, God was now writing a story of liberation among the oppressed in Corinth. In the same way, the church today can identify these motifs and apply them to various contexts thus giving continuity to God’s story in the world.

In sum, the Old Testament should inform how we understand God’s mission as the New Testament Church. At the same time, the New Testament that it is not entirely “new”, but a continuation of the First, which tells the complete story of God’s missiological intent until the end of times. By identifying God’s the re-presentations of God’s missiological intent in the Old Testament, the Church can give continuity to its story in the world today.