What is the value of the Old Testament for the Christian life? It might seem like an obvious question. We read the Old Testament, we draw comfort from the Psalms, and we can read the Ten Commandments. But in this episode of the CCL podcast with Professor Desmond Alexander, we’re going to focus on the first five books of the Old Testament and think about how they help us to understand the person and work of the Lord Jesus, and how they help us to respond appropriately to him.
Links referred to:
- Our October event: The power and pain of perseverance with Mark Thompson (Wednesday 18 October 2023)
- Support the work of the Centre
- Contact the Centre about your ethical questions
Runtime: 25:06 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Peter Orr: What is the value of the Old Testament for the Christian life? It might seem like an obvious question. We read the Old Testament, we draw comfort from the Psalms, and we can read the Ten Commandments. But in today’s podcast episode, we’re going to focus on the first five books of the Old Testament and think about how they help us to understand the person and work of the Lord Jesus, and how they help us to respond appropriately to him.
Recently at Moore College, Professor Desmond Alexander gave a set of lectures—the Annual Moore College Lectures—where he’s helped us to think through precisely those questions. I was privileged to sit down with him at the end of the lecture series and discuss how he can help us to talk about the Christian life and how the first five books of the Bible help us to think about and live the Christian life.
PO: Welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Peter Orr. Chase Kuhn, the regular presenter, is on study leave this semester. He’s probably sunning himself on a beach somewhere. No, he’s not, actually; I know he’s working very hard, writing a book on ethics, and hopefully we’ll be able to chat with him about that soon.
I’m very glad today that we’re joined by Dr Desmond Alexander, senior lecturer in biblical studies at Union Theological College in Belfast. Desi has been here in Sydney, presenting the Annual Moore College Lectures, which have just finished today. It’s been great having you with us, Desi.
I thought we could have a little bit of a chat today about the theme of the lectures, which is the Old Testament—particularly the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible—and their relevance for understanding Jesus. But we might also think a little bit more widely about the Old Testament and the Christian life.
Desmond Alexander’s testimony
PO: I thought I’d start by asking you how you came to know the Lord Jesus yourself.
Desmond Alexander: Peter, thank you for that warm welcome. I came to faith in Christ in my teenage years. I probably was about 16 or 17 at the time. I grew up within a family that had strong Christian convictions, but I grew up in a culture where it wasn’t altogether the norm for individuals to say a great deal about their faith. Faith had to be a very private matter.
But I can recall as a teenager being challenged. Local churches had come together to put on a coffee bar—a Christian bar—and through events that took place then, it forced me to really think about where I stood—to own for myself Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. I remember chatting to someone else, almost looking to persuade them that they needed to become a Christian, and realising in my own heart, that I had not really taken that step myself.
That was the start of a process that led to a much deeper understanding of what it was to become a follower of Jesus. At the time, I can remember reading John Stott’s book, Basic Christianity, and discussing things more deeply with the minister of the church that I attended.
On becoming an Old Testament lecturer
PO: I wonder if you could unfold how you went from there—becoming a Christian to becoming a lecturer in college, and particularly a lecturer specialising in the Old Testament.
DA: Yes. God has a remarkable way of taking us on a journey. He doesn’t always show us the destination when we begin the journey. As I was thinking about my future, about university and about what I might do at university, I had a real sense of being called to go into Christian ministry. That resulted in me applying to become a minister within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The area I grew up in was dominated by Presbyterians: I’m afraid to say for folks in Sydney, Anglicans were rare on the ground. But I then proceeded: I explored the possibility of training to become a Presbyterian minister. I never completed that process, because God had other plans.
I ended up starting to do a primary degree in theology. As a result of that, I felt God’s calling to change and do an Arts degree. There were all kinds of factors that led into this decision. It resulted in me attending or belonging and being part of a small department of Semitic studies. One of the lecturers in that department was Dr Gordon Wenham, an Anglican, who was to have a very profound influence on my life.
For four years, I studied with him. Hebrew was my main subject. After that, I proceeded to do a doctorate under his guidance. He had a profound influence in shaping my career, particularly helping me understand the Old Testament. If you can imagine someone who does a degree in theology will do Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Systematic Theology, Mission Studies. But for four years, my attention was almost entirely on the Old Testament—on the Hebrew Bible, on learning Hebrew and on engaging with the text of the Bible. That was to have a very profound influence in shaping my future. Having become a Christian, I then was exposed to the Old Testament and was fortunate to come under the guidance of someone who had a love for Jesus Christ and who had an amazing way of opening up the Scriptures and enabling me to benefit from all of that.
Why Christians find the Old Testament hard
PO: Talk a little bit about the Old Testament and the things that you’ve been speaking with us this week here at Moore College. Why do you think, as Christians, we find the Old Testament the part of the Bible that we find harder to read? I imagine in most of our churches, we’d hear more sermons in the New Testament than the Old Testament. What do you think is behind some of that experience?
DA: Perhaps the important thing to appreciate is that I think for a long period of time, the Old Testament has been somewhat neglected. Even the name that’s used of it—to call it the “Old” Testament—gives the impression that it is, in some way, obsolete. You want to focus on what’s new.
Obviously the New Testament is exceptionally important in helping us understand who Jesus Christ is and appreciating how he is our Lord and Saviour. Yet when we come to the New Testament, the writers of the New Testament frequently allude to and quote from the Old Testament. For them, it was their Scriptures, and they found it to be an important witness to Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately in academic scholarship, the study of the Old Testament has largely been divorced from the study of the New Testament. A consequence of that is that many people read the Old Testament or are taught about the Old Testament from a perspective that involves reading it without reference to Jesus Christ. That has, I think, a very strong detrimental effect on how people appreciate the Old Testament. It’s viewed as being pre-Christ and sub-Christ in some ways. That’s unfortunate, because I think when read correctly, the Old Testament is an important witness to who Jesus is.
PO: That’s very helpful. I think that sometimes we think of the Old Testament as predicting Christ: we think that that’s the thing that it does. But what you’ve shown us this week in your lectures is that the Old Testament actually helps us to understand Jesus. It doesn’t just simply predict Jesus, which it does, but it deepens our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.
How the Pentateuch points to Jesus
PO: This week, you’ve been taking us through the first five books of the Bible—the Pentateuch—and showing us how these point to Jesus and witness to Jesus, and helping us understand Jesus. Would you like to give us a little bit of a summary of some of the things that we’ve looked at this week?
DA: I’d love to. We’ve been thinking especially, if I can simplify it, about how Jesus is both our Lord, our King and our Saviour. When we come to the Book of Genesis right at the start of the Bible, we discover that God’s plan for humanity is disrupted by the influence of this mysterious serpent that appears to tempt Adam and Eve. A consequence of that is that the world is transformed. It’s corrupted. Human nature is corrupted. In that situation, God promises that he is going to send someone who will overcome the serpent. As we read through the Book of Genesis, we’re directed towards a future king.
Genesis is often thought of as a book about beginnings. But it’s actually more accurate to think of it as a genealogy. That’s why when we begin to read through Genesis, we encounter these long lists of names that lead us from one person to another. When you understand what’s happening, Genesis is taking us from Adam and Eve forward to a king. Eventually it will lead us beyond Genesis to Jesus Christ.
This king is going to be someone who will overcome or subdue the serpent. The serpent, in a sense, has control of people and is the ruler of this world, and Christ comes to free us from the control of the evil one. So part of Christ’s ministry—part of what he does for us as individuals—is to set us free from the power of Satan.
But being set free from the power of Satan does not necessarily—does not immediately—restore us to a right relationship with God. We also have to appreciate that Jesus Christ has come as our saviour. When we move into the Book of Exodus, we see that the Exodus story is about Israelites who are at a distance from God being brought into God’s presence or being brought near to God.
At the heart of the Exodus story is the Passover. At Passover, we’re provided with a model—an example—of how God restores people to a right relationship with himself. Before Passover, the firstborn Israelites do not belong to God. But after Passover, it’s interesting to observe that they now are God’s: he possesses them.
Passover itself is often not well understood. But when we see what it’s about, it’s actually about making the firstborn Israelite males holy. They go through a process that involves being ransomed from death: they’re under a death threat. Blood is put on the doorframes of the houses, and this has some kind of purifying or cleansing effect. Then they also participate in a meal. The meal—eating the sacrificial meat—imparts holiness to the firstborn males. The Passover illustrates how people who are unholy—estranged from God—are made holy and enabled to belong to God.
That’s what Jesus does: when we think of how Jesus is portrayed as being put on the cross at the time when the Passover sacrifice is being made, we’re meant to see how he is the one who ransoms us from death due to our sin. He’s the one who purifies us and cleanses us, and he’s the one who sanctifies us—makes us holy that we may belong to God.
PO: We’re going to take a break from our program so that I can tell you about our next in-person event, which is also online if you can’t make it in person to Moore College. On 18th October starting at 7:30pm, Mark Thompson, Principal of Moore College, will be talking about perseverance. This whole year, we’ve been thinking about Christian virtues, and the virtue that Mark will help us to think about is the virtue of perseverance.
Christians can often be caught off-guard by how difficult life can be. There are all sorts of difficulties—grief, relationship problems, hostilities from friends or colleagues because we’re Christians. It’s tempting to give up as a Christian or to doubt God’s goodness. Yet the Bible encourages us to keep going in the midst of hardship. The Bible reminds us that suffering is not a sign of God’s absence or of his displeasure, but of his good presence. The Bible affirms that the storms of life we weather serve to refine our faith as we hope in his promises.
Mark is going to help us to think through the idea of perseverance, what it means to keep going as a Christian and what resources the Bible gives us to keep going as a Christian. It would be great to see you at the event. If you can’t make it, as I said, it will be online. The details are all on the CCL website. I look forward to engaging with you in person or online.
Now let’s get back to our program.
How Leviticus helps us understand who Jesus is
PO: I imagine that one of the books that Christians find hardest to read in the Old Testament is the Book of Leviticus. I know many people who have started a Read the Bible in a Year plan, they get to Leviticus and they find it difficult. It is a book that seems so different to our experiences as Christians. It’s so much about sacrifice that doesn’t seem to apply to us anymore.
But I was struck in your lecture on Leviticus: that was, perhaps, the one where you pointed us to Jesus most clearly, which might have been a surprise for some people. Would you like to say briefly how Leviticus helps us understand who Jesus is and what he’s done?
DA: When we think about the Book of Leviticus, we have to appreciate that something remarkable has happened in the story of God coming to rescue the Israelites from Egypt. He brings them to Mount Sinai, he enters into a covenant relationship with them, and he instructs them there to build a sanctuary—a tabernacle—a place where God himself is going to come and dwell among the people.
As part of this sanctuary, God also gives instructions for the making of clothing that will be put on a high priest. A lot of attention is given to the work of the high priest within the tabernacle sanctuary. Interestingly, the tabernacle that’s made in the Old Testament, according to the author of Hebrews, is modelled on the heavenly sanctuary (Heb 8:5). What happens on earth is meant to mirror what happens in heaven.
Among the instructions that we have particularly in Leviticus, there are lots of instructions that have to do with the offering of sacrifices. One of the things I was trying to draw out this week in my lectures was that the high priest is intimately connected to the incense altar that stands inside the tent. The incense altar is a miniature of the bronze altar that stands outside the tent. Whenever a sacrifice is made outside the tent, at the same time, the high priest goes inside and burns incense on the incense altar. He is replicating what’s happening outside the tent. This process of burning incense close to God’s presence in the Most Holy place, or the Holy of Holies—this process of burning incense is the high priest’s way of presenting the offering that will atone for the sin of the worshipper.
This is really important because when we think about Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, we have to also think of how Jesus subsequently ascends to heaven and enters into the heavenly sanctuary. When he does so, he then presents his self as an offering. He is both the perfect offering and also the perfect high priest. Jesus presents his self-offering to God in the heavenly sanctuary. It’s this process of the offering being made on earth, but then being presented in the heavenly sanctuary, that brings about the atonement of the worshippers.
Importantly, whereas in the Old Testament, the high priest did this on a daily basis, morning and evening, Jesus only does it once. There’s only one sacrifice: it’s a perfect sacrifice. Jesus enters into the heavenly sanctuary once and he remains there, having presented himself as the offering that atones for sin.
So the Levitical material is important because it gives us an insight. We can see on earth modelled what happens in the heavenly sanctuary, which we can’t see into.
PO: That’s very helpful.
How the Old Testament helps us to live as Christians in the world
PO: I was wondering if we could just step back and think about the Old Testament more generally. It’s the part of the Bible that you’ve worked in extensively. Thinking about the Christian life and the encouragement to live the Christian life, I imagine that when we think about the Christian life, we might go to Paul’s letters and see how he unfolds the Christian life, or we might go to the Sermon on the Mount or different parts of the New Testament. But in terms of the Old Testament as a sort of God-given resource for us, as we live as Christians in the world—and obviously you’ve touched on understanding Jesus, but in terms of what it means to live as a Christian in the world, I wonder if you have any thoughts on that in your own experience or in your own research and writing.
DA: There are different ways in which I think the Old Testament helps inform and nurture our Christian lives. Obviously understanding the overarching story of God’s plan of salvation is important. The Old Testament enables us to see the direction of that plan.
I think it’s particularly important to appreciate that Jesus Christ’s coming is not just something that happens unexpectedly, but is the fulfilment of something that has been promised and prepared for over a long period of time.
Old Testament books can sometimes help us have insights into God’s purposes for the future—even beyond the time of Jesus. I’m thinking especially of a book like Isaiah: Isaiah is one of those wonderful books that helps us see something of God’s plan and gives us hope with regards to the future. It’s interesting: the book begins by focusing on a very corrupt Jerusalem, a place that has turned its back on God. Yet the Book of Isaiah ends by focusing on a new Jerusalem, a Jerusalem where people will enjoy life in all its fullness in God’s presence.
Interestingly, Isaiah ends with a vision of Jerusalem that’s like the New Jerusalem that you read at the end of Revelation. What’s interesting for me is that as you read through the Book of Isaiah, you see how a transformation takes place: Jerusalem that’s corrupt at the beginning becomes a new Jerusalem at the end. That process of transformation comes about especially through the promise of a king—a king who will be descended from King David. We see it also in the suffering servant, who’s mentioned in Isaiah 53.
I think the Book of Isaiah offers us hope with regards to the future in that Christ comes, yes, to make us holy and to transform us in the present. But Isaiah also reminds us that there is a life to come—a life where we will, after this life, enjoy God’s presence on a new earth, experiencing life in all its fullness.
I recall in particular that passage in Isaiah 35 where it talks about the returning of the exiles: we see that the lame will walk, the blind will see, and they will return to Jerusalem with singing, and everlasting joy will be their experience (Isa 35:5-6). So when we see in the Gospels Jesus healing the blind and making the lame to walk, we see there’s something—an anticipation—a foretaste of what’s going to happen when we enter into the new Jerusalem and experience life beyond this life. The Old Testament provides us with some kind of insight into that. It’s not just a case of waiting until you get to the Book of Revelation to get a sense of the future.
PO: Wonderful. Well, thank you very much, Desi, for your time with us on the podcast, but especially for your time with us this week. Listeners who are interested in digging a little bit deeper, the lectures will be available on the Moore College website at a future date, and you can listen and have your understanding of the Old Testament deepened as it points you to the Lord Jesus. Thank you for listening and thank you again, Desi, for being with us.
DA: Thank you!
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you’ll find a host of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our live events and articles published through the Centre. We’d love for you to subscribe to our podcast and for you to leave us a review so more people can discover our resources.
On our website, we also have an opportunity for you to make a tax deductible donation to support the ongoing work of the Centre.
We always benefit from receiving questions and feedback from our listeners, so if you’d like to get in touch, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, I would like to thank Moore College for its support of the Centre for Christian Living, and to thank to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for her work in editing and transcribing the episodes. The music for our podcast was generously provided by James West.
Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.