Why Bother with the Old Testament?

When we look at the Old Testament, we love to pick out the classic Bible stories, find solace in the Psalms, and run far away from Levitical law. Most of it is outdated anyway, right? When Jesus came and died, he paid the penalty for our sins and ended the old covenant (covenant means “contract,” or “agreement”). So Levitical law no longer binds us; the stipulations of that contract were fulfilled by Jesus and he formed a “new covenant” with us (John 19:30, Hebrews 9:15). So why should we care about Leviticus? I believe that knowing what God wanted from the Israelites tells us about who God is and what He values. And God never changes (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8 to name a few…).

What do we learn about God’s character from the Old Testament law? He is a jealous God. First and foremost, he wants, even demands, to be #1 in our lives (Exodus 34:14, Deuteronomy 6:15). Jesus affirms this as well, in Matthew 22, when he says “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind” is the “greatest commandment” and that all the law and prophets hang on this and the second great commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.” All of human history, the very foundation of the Jewish faith and the Christian faith, the air we breathe and the beating of our hearts is founded on loving God with everything we are and loving others with the same automatic, instinctual protectiveness with which we love ourselves (and don’t get confused here about self-esteem, loving yourself is not ego or warm fuzzies. It’s fighting for air, water, and nourishment. [Ephesians 5:29] Faith is not the icing on the cake of your life, it’s not warm feelings or Santa Claus, faith is daily bread and living water.) God’s requirement that you put Him first in your life did not expire with the new covenant.

Nor did God’s requirement that you “love your neighbor as yourself.” The New and Old Testaments are both overflowing with commands that we provide for widows, orphans, and the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10, Leviticus 23:22, Proverbs 28:27, James 1:27, James 2 – this list could get long. I literally have a notebook page FULL of just the references for verses about helping the poor). Loving others starts with the very basic ideas of meeting people’s physical needs and treating others with respect. We are told to share food, clothing, and money, and also to speak up for those who are mistreated and need to be defended. Loving others really and truly starts with opening your eyes and taking responsibility for what you see.

Right here I want to throw something in that is semi-related but important. God is not a Republican. He is not a Democrat. He is not an American. His primary concern is not securing American borders. God cares about the physical and spiritual needs of Syrian refugees as much as he does about our own. Obviously we need to be careful, I’m not suggesting we just throw open the doors. But people need to stop tying God to their politics and national security concerns. God is not the God of nations and places. He is the God of people. All people.

But I digress… Much of the Levitical law is the plan for worship and sacrifice – a hands-on manual for the practice of the Jewish faith. I’m not going to say a lot about this, but note two things: First, the payment for sin requires blood. Literal blood. The Israelites used animals. We have Jesus. He made the ultimate sacrifice and shed the ultimate, perfect, sinless blood of God’s own son. So the animal sacrifice portion of our worship has passed. The blood has already been shed for you and me. (Thank God, because Jesus is amazing and I appreciate what he did for us, but also because I’m a spoiled, modern American and having to go through that ritual sounds yucky to me…)

Second (and this is something we like to ignore), God is very exacting. He gave very specific directions about the materials and dimensions of the tabernacle and how things were to be handled and managed. And He wasn’t messing around. There is a story in 2 Samuel 6 about King David and his people moving the Ark of the Covenant. At one point the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and one of David’s men, Uzzah, reflexively reached out to steady the ark. And God struck him dead on the spot. This kind of flies in the face of our ideas about God being merciful! Touching the ark was a big no-no and everyone knew it. What if God had let him off? It was an accident, an instinct, right? But it reveals Uzzah’s heart, that he didn’t have the proper reverence toward the ark. In verse 7, God calls it an “irreverent act.” If He didn’t follow through with the promised punishment, how many other Israelites would have wavered in their faith, wondered if God was real, etc.? I think these days we want God to be a God of mercy, and we forget that He is also a God of wrath, and that he has exacting standards. He’s not a God of checklists, but He is the God of “heart issues,” Proverbs 27:19 says, “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.” Reaching out to grab the ark was not a reflex, it was a reflection of a heart that wasn’t paying attention. Likewise, failing to notice a problem or opportunity is not an excuse, it is a reflection of a heart that isn’t looking out for others. This is the “commission” vs. “omission” setup. There are sins we commit, like lying, cheating, stealing, etc. and there are sins of omission, things we are called to do but neglect. Both are sin, and God doesn’t differentiate between little sins and big sins like the justice system does (James 2:10, Matthew 5:27-28). All sins – little or big, committed or omitted, separate us from God.

The other thing we see in Leviticus is the practical application of physical life rules. Things like waste disposal, infectious disease control, and dealing with mold are all covered in Leviticus and the Old Testament law. Much of this is not applicable to us because we live in a different climate, we’re not nomadic tent dwellers, and modern science has changed how we deal with these things. But even here there is something for us to learn. God cares about the physical well-being of his people; he wants them safe, clean, and healthy. Second, things that are “unclean” are required to be physically removed from the camp so they don’t hurt others. There is an object lesson there for some of us. We think we can carry around our sin, hide it, minimize it, control it. But what we really need to do is banish it. We become embarrassed that we struggle in certain areas, and we don’t want others to know, so we try to control our sin instead of eradicating it. This is a trick the enemy uses to keep us close to our sin so we can fail again and again. Some people cannot drink at all, because a social drink becomes a bender. Some people cannot watch certain movies because a questionable scene draws them back to porn. When we allow ourselves to be ashamed of our struggles we keep them close at hand, where they can trip us up over and over. Get hardcore. Create a safe margin, a buffer zone, between you and your sin.

As you can see, there is a lot that we can learn about the heart of God by reading the old covenant He made with the Israelites. What other aspects of God’s character do you see there?

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