There is a great deal of confusion about the Bible.
Satan, the great deceiver, likes it that way, and is always working to this end. When people know and understand the truth, they are much harder for him to deceive, so he has a strong tendency to promote confusion.
He keeps bringing back two major points of confusion, which present as "new" ideas, but in reality are very old heresies.
Heresy #1: We don't need the Bible. We only need Jesus.
Heresy #2: Christians only need the part of the Bible that is about Jesus, and that is the New Testament. We don't need the Old Testament; it is irrelevant.
First, let's tackle the idea that we don't need the Bible, we only need Jesus.
This idea sounds like it might be all right, because Jesus is, indeed, the centerpiece of our faith. These days, this idea usually comes to us via catchy or guilt-inducing phrases such as:
"It's not about a book, it's about a person!"
"Our faith is not based on a book, it's based on an event!" (Meaning the resurrection. Not the crucifixion, mind you. The resurrection.)
"If you love your Bible so much, you are making it an idol. Don't idolize and worship your Bible! Worship Jesus!"
But tell me, how can I worship Jesus, if I do not know Him? And how can I know Jesus, or know anything about His purpose, His origin (or whether He actually has an origin), or the events of His life, unless there is an account of these things? And what is the Bible, except an account of the history of God's redemptive work through Jesus Christ?
We need the Bible, because it is a long, continuous, miraculous thread of historical revelation that points us to Christ. Without the Bible, we would have no knowledge of Christ.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him, nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. . . The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. (John 1:1-4, 14)
Jesus Himself is the Word of God.
Let's think about that for a minute. Jesus is the Word of God. What are words for? Words are for communicating, for sharing information, ideally for sharing truth, and for forging relationship through understanding. Jesus is all these things. Jesus is God's communication to us, His revelation of Himself.
The Bible, the Holy Scripture, is also God's revelation to us of Himself. God has revealed Himself to us so that we can know Him. Love Him. Worship Him. As God presented Moses with the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai amidst fire and cloud, so God presented the disciples with Jesus on a different mountain, in a great cloud, and transfigured Him with dazzling light to reveal His divine glory and authority, in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:1-5, Mark 9:2-7, Luke 9:28-35). Jesus is God's message to us, the completion of all His great and perfect promises.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20), the completion of the promises (2 Corinthians 1:20).
We have arrived at Heresy #2 (above). If Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (who spoke God's promises), then how could we possibly think that we don't need to study the Old Testament? How could the exact thing that Jesus came to fulfill be irrelevant?
Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law. Some people misunderstand what this means. They like to say, "Jesus fulfilled the Law, so I don't have to." Their assumption seems to be that Jesus did all the difficult, good things that God required, and then laid down His life as the perfect sacrifice to pay for sin, so now the rest of us are free to participate in as much sin as we please, since Jesus bought our way in to this new "freedom" ("Freedom in Christ," they say, missing the point entirely). This makes absolutely no sense, and it rises out of ignorance of both the Law and the New Testament (see Romans 6:1-15; we aren't freed to participate in sin, we are freed from the bondage of sin).
Since I'm defending the Old Testament, let's look at what we need to know about the Law:
The Law contains two parts. When you read it--in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy--you will notice that there are two different categories of things the Law addresses.
The Law explains that God wants to dwell among His people (Exodus 25:8-9). It gives detailed instructions for how the Israelites should construct a tabernacle, set up a priesthood, and offer sacrifices to facilitate this co-dwelling. The problem is that sin had entered the world through Adam and Eve, so there was a blockage in accessibility between Holy God and fallen man. This part of the Law enabled people (those who would obey) to gain access to God, while they waited for the promised Messiah to come with the real solution. Messiah would complete the restoration of the God-man relationship through perfect forgiveness of sins that would be possible after His freely offered self-sacrifice (see Hebrews 9:22-28). Since Jesus, the Messiah, has completed His mission, we no longer need to offer sacrifices for sin. This effectually makes the sacrifices, the priesthood and the temple obsolete. In fact, instead of dwelling in a hidden, holy chamber at the center of a temple, God now dwells in every believer, through His Spirit. Each one of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). We are forgiven in Christ and indwelt by His Holy Spirit in our very bodies.
The other part of the Law is not specifically about how to approach God. These directions are practical (maybe even pragmatic) instructions for how people can best survive in a fallen world cursed by the effects of sin. God explained how people should treat one another, so they could live peacefully together. He gave Israel beautiful principles of justice that would help them mitigate the violence that sin inflicts on humanity. He taught them to eat the meat of the least disease-prone organisms (no bottom feeders or carrion scavengers!). He taught them how to wash their hands to promote personal hygiene, for goodness sake, thousands of years before germ theory was discovered. He taught them to quarantine the sick to prevent the spread of disease. He even taught them to rest the land every seven years (an alternative to crop rotation). And yes (I know this is increasingly unpopular these days), He gave them instructions for how to cultivate the healthiest possible family structure through sexual relationships defined by faithfulness and judiciousness. When Jesus came, He did not overturn any of these things. He expanded them (Matthew 5-7). He knew that once His followers were indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they would have more, not less, aptitude for following--and loving--the ways of God.
The part of the Law that deals with tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifice is sometimes called, "The Ceremonial Law." This part of the Law was made obsolete after the finished work of Christ, although we can still learn much about the heart of God and the beauty of His redemptive plan if we will study it. On the other side, the practical, day-to-day directives in the Law include, "The Moral Law." The Moral Law is something like the Laws of Nature or the Laws of Science. It's the way things work, which you can learn through experience (usually painful) or through study. God created both the physical and the spiritual universe, the visible and the invisible. Within His laws, we find both physical and moral principles for the way things work, shortcuts which God revealed to His people to save them pain and trouble, if only they would obey (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). The book of Proverbs has a good deal of moral law in it, as well.
We love the Old Testament because it reveals God to us. It shows us how much He loves us, and tells us of His mighty works and miracles. I recently heard a famous preacher declare that the God of the Old Testament was not full of grace, and I wanted to tear my hair out. God has always been full of grace. The Old Testament shows how lovingly our gracious God bore with people who failed to obey Him again and again. He always responded to their cries for help when they became desperate. Even near the close of the Old Testament, when God had to punish His people during the captivity, He had graciously given them prophesies since the days of Moses, and all through the centuries, promising that He would gather them back as His people after seventy years. His anger never lasts, and He always provides hope. Every single book of the Old Testament points to the promise of the coming Messiah, the grace of God that would appear in human flesh to sympathize with us, relate to us, save us and bring us home.
We love the Law because it reveals the way of righteousness to us. It helps us learn to live in love, joy and peace, as God desires for us. The Law is good! (Romans 7:12, 1 Timothy 1:8) The Law explains how we can live lives that are holy and pleasing to God.
The big confusion comes from mixing the idea of obedience to the Law with the idea of salvation by grace. Please let me clarify, because it really isn't that hard:
Nobody can ever be saved through obedience to the Law. Obedience to the Law does not produce salvation.
Salvation is a gift from God, and it comes only by faith in Jesus Christ, faith which God graciously awakens in us. This faith enables us to believe that Jesus died and shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. The only way to be saved is to understand our sinful state, hate it, turn from it, and cast ourselves on the mercy of God, who promises to forgive and cleanse us by the blood of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. His death atoned for our sins and justified us before God. His resurrection demonstrated the power of the Holy Spirit that raised Him up from under the cumulative sins of all humanity, and also raises us to a new life of living righteously through the Holy Spirit's power (Ephesians 1:17-23, 5:8-10).
Obedience to the Law
can never produce salvation,
but salvation and the indwelling Holy Spirit
will always produce obedience to God's ways--
not merely producing outward obedience to the Law,
but producing hearts that actively seek righteousness.
It is impossible to understand the New Testament if you do not understand the Old Testament. The Old Testament tells us that there is a God who is the source of all life and goodness, and that we live separated from Him because of a rift caused by the original sin. The Old Testament tells us all about God's plan to fix this problem. Why is there even a nation called Israel, and why are there people called Jews? The Old Testament explains this, too. Israel exists because God planned to send Jesus as a human person, with genetics and a family background (Romans 9:5). God chose Abraham to be the father of the nation that would eventually beget Jesus for the blessing of all nations (Genesis 12:3). This is the whole point of Israel and Judaism, and it is the reason why God protected and preserved the documentation of their history: It's Jesus' history!
It's all about Jesus, and of course Jesus is the most important part. Without the Bible we wouldn't know anything about Jesus, and in effect, we wouldn't have Him. We need the Bible in order to know Jesus. The more we know and understand the Bible, the better we are able to know and understand Jesus.
Jesus Himself said, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,'" (Matthew 4:4).