Though most people are familiar with the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” not everyone is real clear about what those designations actually mean. So let’s look at some common assumptions.
The Old Testament is for Jews and the New Testament for Gentiles.
FALSE! Though the writings of the Old Testament books were written down by the ancient Jews and were largely addressed to the specific needs of their community, we believe that God spoke through these writings to address the universal needs of ALL HUMANITY – as He also did through the New Testament writings. Specifically, the writings of the New Testament reveal how the promises of the Messiah (Christ) which are found throughout the Old Testament have been realized in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus of Nazareth. Thus Old Testament and New Testament writings together tell a connected narrative of God’s plan of salvation for all people!
The Old Testament and New Testament are collections of writings.
True AND False! The word ‘testament’ is another word for ‘covenant’ – a mutual promise. The original covenant was made with Abraham when God promised that He would make him the father of a great nation through whom all the people of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3). The new covenant is the revelation of salvation in Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, by whose sacrificial death on the cross the first promise was fulfilled (Luke 22:20). Thus, ‘old testament’ and ‘new testament’ really refer to a pair of linked covenants (promises), not to writings as such. However, it’s been a long-standing Christian practice to identify as ‘Old Testament’ the writings before the time of Christ, which speak of Him in terms of prophecy not yet fulfilled, and ‘New Testament’ for the writings that tell of that prophecy realized in Jesus. So in common usage, “old” and “new” testament are used to refer to both the promises AND the two collections of writings which narrate those promises as their principle focus.
Christians look at the Old Testament as “obsolete.”
FALSE (with a smidgen of truth). It is true that much of the Old Testament is concerned with the way that the Jews (the descendants of Abraham who were the recipients of the first covenant) were to be set apart by obeying specific rules. Some of these rules embodied moral principles (such as the Ten Commandments) whereas others embodied rituals and special practices (such as circumcision and dietary laws) that set them apart as “people of the covenant” (e.g., Genesis 17:1-14). The new covenant is based on obedience of the heart, rather than ritual observance (e.g., Matthew 5:17- 48) and the promise of the covenant was extended to those who lived in the faith of God’s promises, even if they didn’t keep Jewish ritual practices (Acts 11:1-18). However, the moral precepts that God taught in the Old Testament are equally applicable to the children of the new covenant. Similarly, it is very clear even from the very first that it is not the mechanical practice of His laws, but the faith in God’s promises which constitutes true obedience (Genesis 15:6). So, though living under the new covenant we are not required to obey the ritual practices that marked the old, we New Testament believers are graced by the same promises of God’s faithfulness and bound by His will for our faithful living. So it’s really unfortunate if we speak of the “Old” Testament as if it is somehow outdated. As Jesus made clear, the original Hebrew Scriptures are still very relevant to our faith (John 5:39).
The early Christians read the New Testament.
FALSE. OK – this was kind of a trick question! The earliest Christians could obviously not read the New Testament writings, because they weren’t yet written! In fact, the New Testament narrative is a record of what they were living – not what they were reading. Whenever we find a New Testament reference to “Scripture” (e.g., Matthew 22:29) it is referring specifically to the Hebrew Scriptures – the same set of writings we call the “Old Testament.” However the same understandings of being God’s binding Word (e.g., 2 Timothy 3:16) apply to God’s revelations in the New Testament as well. It’s ALL God’s Word!