How are Christians supposed to reconcile the Old and New Testament? What I mean is this: people often dismiss the OT practices (such as multiple wives, owning slaves, or men keeping their hair a certain length) by stating that Jesus' coming in the NT brought new laws. So if we disregard the ancient laws and practices regarding animal sacrifices, having a high preist, and polygamy, should we also disregard the ancient laws concerning homosexuality (Lev 18:22)? If we accept the theories of war from the OT, can we also accept their views on polygamy? If we rigidly follow the 10 commandments, must we also rigidly follow the laws regarding bodily discharges in Leviticus 15? Who's deciding what parts of the OT to keep and what parts we should still obey? Seems to me that if we say that we don't have to obey some parts, we don't have to follow any of it. Some of my favorite questions from a half-sarcastic, half-serious email that reflect this confusion are these:**"Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?"**"I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?"**"I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?"Thanks for your input!
Thanks, Ginger, for your question, a serious and important one. Some thoughts:
Some biblical scholars use the phrase “progressive revelation” to refer to what we see as a development in the principles and emphases as we move through the Old into the New Testament. It can be likened to the difference between what one is taught in primary school, high school, and university. Not that what is taught in primary school is wrong, but the older we get the new is built on, fills out, and supersedes the former.
Thus we see how God led His people out of slavery in Egypt and put great emphasis on the Law to give them helpful principles to live by and also to show Himself as a God of justice, all in the cultural context of the day. As Paul underscores in Galatians, this Law prepared his people and also us to appreciate His mercy and grace.
As we move into the New Testament, Jesus notes that He had not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it, and introduced a greater emphasis on grace and love, preparing His followers to live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), as well as the whole book of Galations, points up the relationship between the ritual Law of the Old Testament and the new life of grace in Christ. The key symbol and illustration was the rite of circumcision. Peter and Paul show that Gentiles can become Christians without having to keep the Jewish ritual law, which the Council accepted. This was a hard pill for Jews to swallow, as we see in the struggle that both Peter and Barnabus had in fully accepting its importance on at least one occasion.
- Polygamy was not an uncommon practice in the time of the Old Testament. Although some men sought multiple wives for personal reasons, it had a sociological benefit in providing security for women who wanted a husband but weren’t chosen at first. Although God did not pronounce against polygamy per se, we see in Genesis that the principle of one man and one woman in marriage is foundational. Also God gave His people legislation to assure the humane treatment of all the wives. Faithfulness was also expected. (Note that David was not censured for taking another wife, but for taking another man’s wife, something that pagan kings did all the time.) Interestingly enough, all incidents of plural wives include tension and conflict.
In the New Testament, though no pronouncement is made against polygamy, Paul indicates that a requirement of spiritual leaders is that they have only one wife. His teaching on marriage brings relationship between spouses to a higher level. He also makes reference to the Genesis pattern of creation of one man and one woman united in marriage.
- Homosexuality: Though some exegetes may disagree, there is equal teaching on this matter in the New Testament as there is in the Old. Indeed, one can find references to all the 10 Commandments in the New Testament.
- Animal Sacrifices: It is clear that the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were a symbol and a graphic preparation for the sacrifice of Jesus. Note John the Baptist’s announcement, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” as well as the figure of a “lamb that was slain” in the Book of Revelation.
- Priests (Prophets and Kings): Through the establishment of the Tabernacle and then the Temple, the figures of Prophet, Priests, and King became part of Jewish culture. These prepare us to appreciate the life and work of Jesus. In Hebrews, Jesus is called our High Priest, opening the way for us into the “Holy of Holies,” the very presence of God the Father. He is our Prophet, revealing God to us through both His Word and His very being. He is our King, calling us into His Kingdom and speaking of His future reign over all.
- Slavery: Slavery has been common in many cultures for most of the history of the world. In the Old Testament there was careful legislation protecting the health and welfare of slaves. They were not to be mistreated nor abused sexually. Jews were not to take other Jews as slaves, unless an individual sold himself to an owner, and then for only 7 years. In the New Testament we note that slavery is also very much a part of the Roman culture. Paul and Peter call slaves to submission, even to cruel masters. However, in the book of Philemon, Paul gives the death knell to slavery when he calls Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother…welcome him as you would welcome me.” As the Church grew in its understanding of Christian love, believers came to see that slavery had no place in the Christian community.
- Sabbath: The concept of a Day of Rest was totally new in the Old Testament world. Such an unusual concept would be very hard for people to take seriously. In situations like this, God as a serious “Father” of His people, saw the need to make sure that people took His law seriously. He did the same in Acts 5 when Ananias and Safira introduced duplicity into the Christian fellowship.
As one looks even more deeply into the Old Testament, however, one discovers that the character of God has not changed. He is just (holy) and loving (merciful). He makes many promises which are fulfilled in the New. And as Jesus said to the men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), the Old Testament is full of references (however hidden) to Him.
It has been fascinating for me to discover in a repeated study of the life of Abraham how many of the principles of the New Testament we can find buried there.
I trust these introductory remarks will be helpful to you.