In my last blog entry I made clear that the Old Testament was not made irrelevant by Jesus, and then proceeded to point out some passages in which he directly referenced it. This of course does not really answer the main question, though, as the Christian who claims that the Old Testament is no longer relevant due to the presence of Jesus is perhaps not referring primarily to his teaching, but more to his death and resurrection. Didn’t he die for our sins and set us free from the law? Well, yes, He absolutely did, but you will only fully understand what this means if you make the Old Testament as central to your life as the New. You see, the entire Bible really only has One theme (God’s grace), is only about One person (Jesus), with One purpose (renewing our relationship with God the Father) achieved through One victory (defeat of sin on the cross).
In Luke 4: 17-19, Jesus is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, unrolls it and finds the place where it is written ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. Then he sits back down in the synagogue and says that today, he has fulfilled this piece of scripture. He is speaking of Isaiah 61: 1-2 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn’.
Isaiah is one of a number of Old Testament books that look ahead to the coming Messiah, the anointed man who would set the captives free. It was these prophecies that made the Jewish people expectant of their saviour’s arrival in the first place; if this had not been the case, no such fuss would have been made about Jesus claiming such a status for Himself. If it had not been the case, his crucifixion would not have taken place: it was Jewish anger at the prophecy not being fulfilled in the way they wanted it to be that brought about the very accusations of blasphemy against Christ; and if He had indeed came to destroy their enemies, then those enemies would not have been a threat to Him anyway. But Jesus let His enemies take Him to torture and crucifixion like a lamb to the slaughter or, as we prefer to say it, a sacrificial lamb. Let’s make no mistake about it, though. It was brutal; it was a slaughter indeed.
Ultimately, despite what they had been told by the prophets, many failed to grasp who Jesus was and why exactly He came here to dwell with us. It was not to win any earthly war, because the battle that Jesus had come to win was bigger than we could imagine. It was a conflict that had been raging since the very beginning of creation and will continue on to the end of it. Yet Christ’s victory was final, absolute and eternal. It meant that even though the battle would continue, the chance of any side other than Jesus winning was zero. But how is this possible, and why did it need to happen? I would understand that question. In fact it’s the question that any sane person should ask, because at first glance, unless you don’t much care for the process of things, it doesn’t make sense.
It’s a question that can only be answered when we look to the author of the piece, the one God whom our Bible was inspired by. God is perfectly just, perfectly holy. Everything we have, we have because He has given it. Our characteristics and strengths, at their best, are in some small way representative of Him. In the beginning, all of God’s creation was good, except for man: he was ‘very good’ (Genesis 1: 31), having been made in God’s ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ (1: 26). Man was God’s finest creation, and God showed it by giving him dominion over the earth. But God would manage to better even that. Because you see, while man was God’s finest creation at that point, man was still not perfect. Man was still not the best that God could do. It was, and is, after all, possible for us to fall short of God’s standard, and so we did. We made a decision to go against His wishes, that decision in itself being an unworthy gift that God had given us.
Let me pause there, and highlight that point further. Do you see how God’s grace was working in creation, even before there was any mention of a Messiah? The free will we had been given was a gift that we ourselves highlighted was undeserving of us. Yet God in His goodness gave it to us, knowing how undeserving we would then turn out to be. We were inherently flawed (in being susceptible to sin) and were given a gift worthy of the angels.
Of course, the story does not end there. After giving us a gift worthy of angels, God has since given us one that even the angels are not worthy of. Having sinned, we had fallen desperately short of God’s perfect standard…
Notice, as well, that in my using the word perfect, you may find yourself feeling slightly offended. How can God possibly expect us to be perfect, you may ask, before concluding that it is surely unreasonable of Him. That feeling, question and subsequent conclusion is quite natural, and it is the very point I have been trying to make. When God created us, we were indeed the finest, but we are by no means perfect. Our knowledge of what has come since is evidence of that, and no amount of blaming our inherent sinfulness is really going to satisfy the feeling that even at the beginning of creation, before sin, perfection was still an unreasonable expectation for God to have of us.
Don’t think, either, that God himself does not know this. At first, it was us who were not aware of it; God set out the Old Testament laws to show us just how imperfect we were. It is in knowing God would be unreasonable to ask perfection of you that you are also acknowledging your own unworthiness.
…and it is here that we finally get to the twist. I hope I have reinforced the point enough; that even at our best, we would not be worthy of God’s love, and it is totally unreasonable for God to expect us to reach that level of worthiness, which is perfection, in our own efforts. We also know that God knows this. Therefore, one is forced to conclude that even in creating us at the beginning, He still had something better up His metaphorical sleeve. That something was delivered in the form of Jesus on the cross. Let there be no misunderstanding; Jesus was not God’s perfect creation, because Jesus is fully God and is eternal along with Him. It is the very fact of this, of Jesus’ divinity, that is the key to our answer. Where else should we look for the perfection that would raise us to God’s standard than to God himself? And how else would God raise man to his standard than in doing the one thing man couldn’t: crossing that border.
Only then do we realise what Jesus becoming man really means. You will have heard that he came to ‘forgive our sins’, and may have wondered why that is such a big deal. In truth, that is merely the simplest way of putting it. If all Jesus came to do was ‘forgive sins’ then we would merely go back to how we were before, when we nonetheless still felt the inclination to sin. But as we’ve realised, that alone would not be good enough to meet God’s perfect standard, for it is the inclination that was originally our downfall, and it would be again. So Jesus came to do something more, something that is highlighted in 2 Corinthians 5: 17 – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Jesus handed his identity to us and took ours; the punishment of the cross. You may ask how that works. How does the cross represent the identity we had before following Jesus and becoming Christian? Moreover, how exactly does Jesus ‘hand his identity’ to us? Well, Jesus dies on the cross. When sin entered the world, it began to decay God’s creation. Sin brought death to us; so it also brings death to Jesus. But Jesus did not sin. Therefore it cannot make sense. If Jesus did not sin but died a sinner’s death, it must follow that there has somehow been a mistake along the line. And in a sense, there has been, but it was always intentional. In punishing Jesus for our sins on the cross, God looked at Him and intentionally mistook Him for us. Likewise, once you become a Christian, God sees the new identity that you have been given, the Christ-like essence you will have gained as a result of the sinless life that was lived on your behalf. It covers who you once were. Now, when God looks at you, what He sees is the life lived by His righteous Son.
You may argue that it is impossible for God to make such a mistake; that in His perfection, surely He can see through the facade? In one sense He does see through it and it doesn’t change anything. His grace means that this gift is for you despite your sins. In another sense… well, I think it best to go to a better theologian than I for some kind of explanation: “In a sense you might say that it is God who does the pretending. The Three-personal God, so to speak, sees before Him in fact a self-centred, greedy, grumbling, rebellious human animal. But He says ‘Let us pretend that this is not a mere creature, but our Son. It is like Christ in so far as it is Man, for He became Man. Let us pretend that it is also like Him in Spirit. Let us treat it as if it were what in fact it is not. Let us pretend in order to make the pretence into a reality’. God looks at you as if you were a little Christ: Christ stands beside you to turn you into one.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
Considering it this way, you see now how the new creation is better than the old? We are no longer simply ‘man’, but something more. The person who complains about the Christian idea of having to be perfect to dwell with God has missed the point, for while he is right, he has left out the crucial part of the tale. We need a perfectly white, squeaky clean, guilt-free identity; Jesus has one ‘ready-made’ for us. We are who He was, providing we are ready to believe a very simple thing: that what Jesus said, and what He did (beating death; walking from the tomb), was true. We must believe that He is indeed ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14: 6). Beyond that, there really isn’t any need for us to do anything at all.
Thus, we have the point that the entire Bible is making; the idea that it stands for. In being the final word of God, it should be obvious to us that there is nothing more to add. This applies not only to the book but to what God sees when He looks at our lives as Christians. Do not be fooled into thinking that means it’s all about us. In fact, it is about only One person, and we are with Him.