What is the Ongoing Purpose of the Old Testament?
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Romans 15:4-6, ESV
Some Christians have no use for the Old Testament. I even heard of a pastor being fired by his church because he preached from the Old Testament. That kind of aversion to the Old Testament is thankfully quite rare, but what isn't rare is for a Christian to honestly wonder what is the purpose of reading and studying about life before Jesus now that Jesus has come. After all, who needs the promise once the promise had already been fulfilled?
The early church struggled with what to do with the Torah. The church was often divided along Jewish-Gentile lines. The Jewish believers read and studied Torah and some even continued to keep the ceremonial laws by eating kosher, wearing traditional Jewish clothing, observing Sabbath days, etc. For them, the Torah remained a guide for holy living, and they could easily look down on their Gentile-background brothers who weren't even circumcised and who ate pork and shellfish.
On the other side of the divide, the Gentile-background believers could easily feel slighted by their Jewish brothers. They could come to resent Torah and too see no point in a bunch of rules they weren't required to keep, much less a bunch of stories about a people they did not consider to be their own.
Paul corrects both Jewish and Gentile Christians throughout Romans, but especially here in Romans 15, where he commands them to accept each other and love each other. Then, in the context of this division and the need for unity, he states concisely the purpose of the Old Testament for Christians: "whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."
All of God's word is valuable. All of it can instruct all believers and give us hope. Several years ago, I wrote a short booklet about the Law of Moses in the Life of the Christian, and there I explained how the Law helps us see Jesus more clearly and know God's will, even as the ceremonial and civil aspects of it are not binding on believers anymore. Overall, though, we get great benefit from the Old Testament:
1. The Psalms give us language for prayer and praise and help us see the heart of Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the Psalms.
2. The history shows us God's faithfulness to His covenant promises despite His people's continual sin.
3. The anointed offices of Israel help us understand how Jesus our Messiah functions as our Great Prophet, our Eternal High Priest and the King of kings.
4. The moral law shows us God's righteousness, Jesus' perfect character and God's will for our life.
5. The prophets show the need for Jesus and foretell His coming in a way that continues to expose our need for Him to save us from our ongoing idolatry and injustice.
Far from being the old story of a long-gone people, the Old Testament is the living story of the living God and His relationship with His people, my people. From it, we draw encouragement, correction and Gospel hope!