Thursday, June 16, 2011

Old Testament Versus New Testament Prayer

Last night during our mid-week Bible study, the auditorium adult class discussed the nature of prayer in the Old and New Testament.  I've been teaching the teens on Wednesday nights, so it was sort of a treat to be able to sit in on the adult class.  Some of the class discussion revolved around whether God answers prayers the same way now as he did in the Old Testament.  We discussed the purpose behind prayer.  After all, if God knows everything you need, why pray for it?  We also discussed the nature of the prayers themselves.  In other words, did people pray about different things in the Old Testament than in the New Testament.  The general consensus of the class was that yes, there is a difference.  The class decided that in the New Testament, Jesus taught his disciples to pray for their enemies, to pray for God's kingdom to come to earth.  In comparison, in the Old Testament people asked God to smite their enemies.  People were only worried about their own kingdoms.  Something disturbed me about this last night.  I disagreed, but I couldn't quite figure out how to voice why.  So, this post is my attempt to express my disagreement.

First, I sometimes wonder if by ignoring differences in genre we assume differences in message.  For example, in the Gospels, Jesus tells people to love their neighbor as themselves.  In the Torah, God tells his people not to covet their neighbors property.  Jesus's words come down to us through the genre of gospel, whereas God's words to Moses come to us through law.  Of course, they sound different.  Jesus sounds much less legalistic, but is the New Testament (here Jesus) actually telling us anything new from the Old Testament (here Moses)?  Well, no.  In fact, what we think of as Jesus's golden rule, "Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love you neighbor as yourself," is, in fact, just a mass-up of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Because of the genre, those verses tend to get overlooked in the Torah, they're just other "rules," whereas they stand out in the Gospels, but Jesus wasn't telling the Jews something they didn't already know.  He was, however, re-framing it in another genre so they could hear it with fresh ears.

This leads me to the second thing that bothered me about last night's discussion.  Many Christians tend to be anti-Old Testaments.  Isn't the Old Testament old, after all?  We Christians don't live under that covenant, so why do we need to read it?  It's outdated.  There are a number of parts that are troubling, and the New Testament is kinder.  God in the New Testament is a loving God, whereas God in the Old Testament is an angry God.

There are a whole host of issues with this attitude.  First, that's pretty much the attitude of Marcion, a Christian Bishop from the 2nd century.  He believed the Old Testament was inferior to the New Testament, or at least parts of the New Testament.  He also thought the God of the Old Testament was angry and vengeful.  He came up with an easy solution: rewrite the Bible.  When he put his own Bible together, he simply did away with the Old Testament.  However, much of the New Testament sounded too Jewish to him also.  By the time he was done editing, his Bible consisted of eleven books: two-thirds of the Gospel of Luke, a short version of Galatians and Romans, I and II Corinthians, I and II Thessalonians, Ephesians, Philippians, Philemon and Colossians.  What frightens me about this is that many Christians I've known, and know, have done the same thing, but there's a reason the early Church called Marcion a heretic.  The problem with Marcion's view of God and Jesus wasn't in the Bible, it was in him.  How Marcion treated the Bible only showed his own flaws.

Another issue I have with the attitude that there is no place for the Old Testament in Christian life is that, let's be honest, most Christians aren't familiar with the Old Testament.  They don't actually know what it says.  Their judgment call is based off of rumor, speculation, and hearsay.  Yes, without a doubt the ban is troubling.  Yes, the Old Testament can be violent.  Welcome to life, past, present, and future.  It just might be that the violence of the Old Testament has more to do with the violence of the people writing the books than the God they worship.  Christians have committed atrocities in the name of Jesus.  Does that automatically mean Jesus is a blood thirsty Lord?  Of course not.  A person can't read the prophets without acknowledging that God is a god of love and forgiveness, a God who shows mercy when he doesn't have to, a God concerned for the needs of the poor and oppressed.  The Old Testament God is a God who rescues and protects and saves.  If you don't believe me, go read the Old Testament.  Familiarize yourself with it, then tell me what it does or does not say.

So in the end, confusion over the nature of prayer in Old Testament is actually confusion over the nature of God in the Old Testament.  Yes, there are differences in how things are said between the Old and New Testaments, but does that really show a difference in what things are said?  I don't think so.  Jesus's prayer that "God's kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" is not a new prayer.  Granted, there were people in the Old Testament who wanted that to just be a physical blessing for themselves and Israel, but there were a whole host of people in the Old Testament who longed for that the same way as Jesus did.  Abraham, Moses, the Prophets...if we really wanted to take the time to go through the Old Testament and find people who wanted to see a day of righteousness and peace come to earth, I bet it would be a surprisingly long list.

The difference between the Old and New Testament, and therefore the prayers of the Old and New Testament, is not in what is said.  The difference is that in the Old Testament the hope was future oriented.  God's kingdom had not come to earth.  In the New Testament the timeline of the hope changed.  In Jesus, the Kingdom of God was seen, moving and functioning among humanity.  One of the significant facts the resurrection shows us is that the Kingdom of heaven on earth still has a king, Jesus, and that king is still at work defeating all the powers that rage against him.  Yes, Christian hope, New Testament hope, is still future oriented in part.  We live in the "here but not yet" times of God's kingdom here on earth.  But at the same time, the hope has been realized in the empty grave Jesus left behind.  For a brief moment, the Kingdom of God burst into this realm, and humanity caught a glimpse of what is to come.  Christian hope is past, present, and future.  That is the difference between Old and New Testament.  New Testament hope has been realized.

So what does all this have to do with prayer?  Well, first it means that the longings of the Old Testament and the longings of the New Testament, and therefore what their prayers are about, are not as different as we might think.  Second, there is no God of the Old Testament and God of the New Testament.  His saving, sacrificial work for humanity and creation is the same.  And finally (and this just popped in my head), we modern Christians aren't superior to our Old Testament, Jewish counterparts.  God loves us all the same.

Sorry if this all seems disconnected and rambling.  Like I said, this was just my attempt to get my thoughts out.  I'll be out for the rest of this week for my grandfather's funeral, but I'll be back next week.

Stopping point: Psalms 20


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with what you've said but this still leaves a question about the nature of prayer. While the prophets had special insight the Jews themselves were largely ignorant of God's purpose. The question I have is, why did the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray (like John had taught his disciples)? Apart from the obvious, there must have been conventions established after the Babylonian exile which were fundamentally different from the way John and Jesus prayed.

  2. Spoonful,

    Thank you for the comment! I'm sorry it's taken me a few days to respond. Your question made me very curious about forms of prayer in the inter-testimental period, but I'm afraid I don't have very many resources available to check that out. It also got me thinking about Messianic hope during the inter-testimental period. I'd recommend The New Testament and The People of God by NT Wright if you want to dive into that. It strikes me that the beginning of the Jesus's prayer (Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven) falls right in line with the messianic expectations of his time.

    All that having been said, your actual question was, "Why did the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray?" I don't have a definitive answer for that, other than that it would have been expected for Rabbis to teach their students how to pray. If I come across anything regarding typical prayers after the Babylonian exile, I'll be sure to let you know.

  3. ""For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. "But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words ?" John 5:46-47

    Jesus seems to come dangerously close to saying, "You'd better understand Moses if you want to understand me."

  4. Thanks for your comment. I'd go so far as to say that Jesus blatantly says, "You can't understand me unless you understand Moses." Scot McKnight wrote a great book called "The King Jesus Gospel." One of the points he makes in the book is that Jesus is the fulfillment, the climax, of Israel's story. If that's the case (and I agree with Scot that it is), we can't understand what God was up to in Jesus unless we first see what God was up to in Israel, and therefore, Moses.

  5. True. I just thought it was a pretty strong endorsement of Moses, and it definitely made me want to dig back into the "Old" testament to better understand Jesus. Furthermore, it is so common for people to think that the OT and NT don't match up -- so finding the harmony is always a worthwhile pursuit.

    1. Amen to that. Thanks again for your comment.

  6. This is completely off topic but what a beautiful looking blog you have.

  7. The prayers in the Old Testament was more detailed and persistent. Jesus taught us to seek God and all will be given to us (according to His divine will). In our prayers, we must find rest for our soul in Him, to be still and know that He is God who is in control. We must give allowance for Him for His divine purpose that work things out for our good. I thank God that He didn't give us power to change our circumstances lest we will do it according to our own ways and it's not perfect. God's ways and thoughts are higher than ours. Amen. (Josephine -email

  8. Just the information I was looking for. Thank you.

  9. So can we ask God as new testament Christians to smite our enemy's. That is hit them hard, knock them back from their ongoing destructive actions. Go to google and type in Synthetic telepathy and you will understand what I am speaking of.

  10. What about the Holy Spirit living inside of us? Doesn't this make a difference in our prayer?