Three Reasons Youth Workers Need to Teach the Old Testament

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If we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes the Old Testament becomes a second-class citizen with respect to our teaching. The Hebrew Scriptures make us uneasy with all the conquests, dietary restrictions, and blood sacrifice. We worry we may not have answers to the questions our students will ask. It can be tempting to stick to the Gospels and Epistles, where Christian teaching appears to be more straightforward. Do we really need the Old Testament anyway?

The controversy over the Old Testament’s place in the Canon of Scripture has been around since the second century, when a priest named Marcion tried to expel the Hebrew Scriptures and all their New Testament references from the Christian Bible. Marcion argued that the God of the Old Testament was an evil god who created an evil world. He saw Jesus as the liberator from this evil creator; thus, he accepted only Luke and Paul’s writings (excluding any Jewish or Old Testament references). The early church condemned Marcion as a heretic and reaffirmed Christian commitment to teaching the whole Canon.

Even those of us who strongly oppose Marcion’s foundational beliefs about God may operate as functional Marcionites, emphasizing the New Testament at the expense of teaching the Old Testament. Here are three reasons youth workers must resist this temptation and faithfully teach the Old Testament to our students.

1.) …because all good stories have a beginning.

Think of the best stories we tell, whether Marvel comics or the latest Kristin Hannah novel. We meet a character in her midlife, but we don’t really get to know her until we’ve learned about her beginnings. The thoughtful storyteller takes us back to her childhood so we can see how she grew up, how her relationships and experiences shaped her. We see the vulnerabilities that threaten to trip her up, the deepest fears of her heart, and the longings that drive her. Her beginning hints at her ultimate destination, so that when we come to the story’s end we sense that it was somehow meant to be this way.

The same is true of the Christian Story. The Bible tells in stunning detail how God created a beautiful world that will one day be beautiful again (Genesis 1 and Revelation 21). The Enemy’s wicked schemes will be no match for the Son of Eve who will one day crush his head (Genesis 3:15). What is good in the Garden will ultimately be redeemed and brought into even greater beauty in the coming kingdom.

Today’s students are longing for beauty and wishing to contribute to it. They look for it in the shallow wells of social media where they create an image for themselves, or in the battle cry for social justice as they try to right the world’s wrongs on their own. How can we point them to God’s good plans for humanity and the cosmos through the finished work of Christ unless we start at the very beginning? The Bible tells us of both our design and our destiny; we cannot speak of one without the other.

2.) …because Jesus was Jewish, and these were his Scriptures.

We have been catechized by the picture books of our childhood Sunday School classrooms and the Renaissance art of our college Gen. Ed. requirements without even knowing it. In spite of our diversity awareness, we still imagine Jesus looks like a hippie white American with luscious blonde hair and milky skin. But Jesus was born into a Middle Eastern family during Israel’s Second Temple Period. He was fully Jewish, and he embraced the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s Holy Word. It would be foolish of us to dismiss the very Scriptures that Jesus himself learned as an adolescent and taught from as an adult. How can we know him apart from the words to which he clung in his temptation, or the commands he reinforced in his teaching? Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.”

Many of our students are working hard to be good enough. Caught in the performance trap of college prep, academic achievement, and excellence in athletics or the arts, they are weary from trying to prove themselves. We have Good News to share with them that Jesus has satisfied the righteous requirements of the Law so that they will never have to perform again. In order to point them to Jesus, then, we must show them the Law and the Prophets he so perfectly fulfilled on their behalf.

3.) …because there is no New Covenant apart from the Old Covenant.

The one-story plot line of the Bible shows how God is setting apart a people for Himself, and how He will not give in. This One True God is a covenant-maker and a covenant-keeper, and we see this first through the Old Testament Scriptures.

Covenant making was commonplace in the ancient world, so Israel’s God was speaking in terms they could understand when He demanded their allegiance in return for His watchful care over them. In this arrangement, God is the Suzerain of the covenant and Israel is the vassal; certain provisions must be upheld by the lesser party in order for the covenant and its blessings to stand.

In a dazzling reversal of this ancient practice, we see again and again, throughout the pages of the Old Testament, how God rescues Israel in spite of her rebellion. At the Abrahamic covenant, God himself passes through the altar in theophanic glory as a sign of the new and better covenant to come. At the height of Israel’s rebellion, Jeremiah speaks the words of God: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-33). There is simply no way to understand this New Covenant Jesus would enact through the shedding of his own blood apart from its Old Testament context. Without the Old Covenant and all its ancient significance, the New Covenant makes no sense.

Our students may be pretending their sin is not such a big deal, or striving to conform to some religious standard in their own strength. The covenantal system of the Old Testament shows the significance of sin and the lengths to which God has gone in order to set us free from its bondage. To understand the glory of the New Covenant, we must understand the gravity of the Old Covenant.

Only when we teach the Old Testament faithfully will we demonstrate to our students the perfect continuity of our God from the beginning of the Story to its end.

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