[Editor’s Note: This post by Dr. Chip McDaniel, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Southeastern, continues our “For the Record” series by Southeastern faculty. In this post Dr. McDaniel addresses the relevance of the Old Testament for cross-cultural Christian mission. He surveyed several current and former missionaries to get their thoughts.]
The study of the Old Testament is important for all Christians everywhere in the world who seek to walk with God, understand His program on earth and interpret the New Testament. There are additional considerations for those who are involved in a mission context. I have asked several friends who have served in missions for their thoughts on this. Together they have over 130 years of cross-cultural experience
With respect to all believers:
- The NT shows the OT’s importance by example. It often uses the OT as proof for its doctrine (e.g., the many times it uses the formula, “that it might be fulfilled”). The “all Scripture” of 2 Timothy 3:16 includes the OT.
- Theologically the message of the NT is clearer with knowledge of the OT. Regarding the “New Covenant” one friend writes, “The ‘New’ Covenant in the NT isn’t really new, in the sense that it is related to Jeremiah’s teaching on the New Covenant in the OT! A tracing of the major covenants through the OT can help put the New Covenant into the context of God’s redemptive program.” [EB] The OT also shows that the Church is not divorced from God’s people and working from the very beginning of time (cf. Hebrew 11).
- The NT makes allusions to OT persons, places and events. The message of the NT is clearer if one knows these references.
- Narrative teaches theology by what it affirms or decries. There are many more lessons from the narratives of the OT than the NT. We are told to remember the wife of Lot (Luke 17:32) and to draw lessons from Job’s patience (James 5:11).
- One of the most beloved sections of Scripture for believers of all ages is the Psalms because it helps us enter into the thinking and emotions of the writers more than other types of biblical literature. When Paul tells of speaking, teaching and admonishing with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, the Psalms are certainly a part of what is in view (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). The NT quotes or alludes to the Psalms more than any other book of the OT.
Practical considerations for missions:
- The educated of other cultures thirst for Western knowledge (especially science) and will be increasingly confronted by a naturalism that ignores God’s part in the origin and maintenance of the earth. Though the NT teaches that Christ made and sustains the world, much of the doctrine of creation is derived from the book of Genesis and passages scattered throughout the OT.
- Some cultures identify better with the social setting of the OT. Tribal and pastoral cultures will be able to identify with the lives of those in the OT. One of my sources writes that when they told the story of Abraham’s seeking a wife for Isaac, the people were more accepting of the Gospel. They said, “Up until now we’ve been debating whether we want to hear more from you, whether your stories will just end up Westernizing us and turning our people into moral retards. But now we know that you’re not importing your Western culture. Everyone knows that people in the West don’t find their wives that way. This is our kind of story from God’s holy book. We are now sure that we want to hear everything you have to tell us [about God].” [DR] Another source tells that many cultural bridges to his people group opened when they were exposed to the teachings of the OT. [DS1]
- The study of the OT plugs all cultures into God’s total program. He is not a Western God. His desire is for a relationship with and praise from His creation. Those who see the Hebrew Bible as just for Jews and the Greek NT just for Christians are confronted in the OT with the view that, as one friend wrote, “The God of the OT is a missionary God with interest in all nations.” [KH] Genesis, the Psalms and Isaiah are especially helpful here.
- The NT is built on the story of God’s solution to the problem but the OT teaches abundantly and clearly what that problem is. It shows the origin of evil and the career of the evil one in society. In this regard one writes, “Sadly, many people we meet see that Gospel as being irrelevant and meaningless because they don’t even begin to have an accurate OT worldview from which to appreciate the power and genius of the Gospel.” [DR]
- The OT has more illustrations of the futility of false worship. Those trapped in idol worship must come to realize that idols “don’t provide the solution that’s being sought or advertised.” This awareness of the vanity of false worship is an important lesson for Gospel messengers to teach in an unreached culture. [DR].
- Liberal theologians are taking to the Two-Thirds World a message of liberation theology with much of the teaching from the OT, particularly the prophets. Some are exporting a prosperity gospel with much of its teaching coming from the OT, particularly Deuteronomy and the book of Proverbs.
- Experience demonstrates the value of a chronological presentation of the stories of the OT leading up to the teachings of the Cross and the Christian life. One friend writes regarding the teaching through the OT narrative, “…the best evangelism (and discipleship) takes place when placing the content of the gospel in the context of God’s total revelation…many of us are now promoting and training our missionaries to do evangelism ‘slower’ by presenting the OT story first and then the NT continuance of that story.” [DS2]
- Some religions of the world derive teachings from the OT, some venerate the OT prophets and some encourage the seeking of truth or wisdom wherever it might be found. Dialog concerning portions of the OT can serve as a bridge to the claims of Christ.
- The knowledge of the OT that historically could be presupposed in the West is not present in many cultures (or in the West anymore for that matter). The significance of the coming of Christ is abundantly displayed in the OT. One friend writes, “I spend much less time debating Jesus vs. [other faiths’ leaders] and more time from the OT showing why Jesus was necessary and how he came to be through the history of the prophets and the people of Abraham.” [RN]
DR, church planting in Asia
DS1, church planting in Central America
DS2, church planting in Europe and South America
EB, theological education in Europe
KH, theological education in Africa
RN, church planting in Africa and Europe