The Church’s One Foundation: Apostolic Preaching on the Old and New Testaments

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Faith and the Message of the Apostles
What was the Message of the Apostles?

Jesus did not come with a blank slate upon which he introduced all new ideas. He bore witness to the historic faith of the people of Israel, and his followers have forever after linked the old and new testaments as Christian Scripture. I have been reflecting on a book that helps explain this development. But before I get into it, I reflect on a key Scriptural truth.

Two Testaments One People

The Christian faith has an organic, natural, or evolving relationship to the message of what we call the Old and New Testaments. Notice how St Paul describes this connection:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh [were] separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . ..

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, . . .. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11,12-13 19-20 & 22).

Paul’s message to the Ephesians in this passage is both Trinitarian and Gospel-centered. He explains our status as Christians by revealing our original separation from God the Father, our historic redemption by Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, and our ongoing reconciliation by the Holy Spirit. He also speaks of the relationship fo the Old and New Testaments.

The People of Two Testaments

Paul’s explanation of the status of Christians expresses itself with references to the old covenant (or Old Testament) promises. It also links to the relationship between God and his Old Testament people Israel. What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments? Note that as Christians, we are “no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” and so partakers in the covenants of promises, having hope, having a relationship with God and being incorporated into commonwealth of Israel, as Christ “has made us both [into] one new man in the place of two” (Ephesians 2:14).

What does all this mean? How are we to understand this link between the Testaments? 

Two Testaments One Message

the Apostolic Fathers were the earliest followers of Jesus, those who lived in the first few generations following the life of the Apostles. They knew the Apostles and the Apostles (or their associates) trained and appointed them to their ministries. They very universally picked up on Paul’s theme of the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament.

Among the earliest leaders in the church was Clement. He was a personal friend of both Paul and Peter, and a pastoral leader in the Church at Rome, who wrote several famous letters to the Church in Corinth. There was also the author (whose name is lost to us) of the Didache, an early church “manual of worship” and Ignatius, who wrote seven letters which have come down to us. Ignatius was for many years the leader of the church in Antioch, the mother church of all Christian missions and the home church of Paul and Silas, Barnabus and Timothy. It was in Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians (cf Acts 11:26).

Early church leaders on the unity of the message of the two testaments

Each of these very early church leaders (and others with them) summarize the message preached to them directly by the apostles as:

nothing less than the various predictions made by the prophets, proclaimed as having been realized in Jesus Christ, [which] means that, on the one hand, the apostolic preaching is both the key to understanding the Old Testament and the confirmation of its fulfillment, while on the other hand, it is the Old Testament which shapes the whole of the Christian revelation of itself (On the Apostolic Preaching (“AP”), Intro p 13).

We can find proof of this fairly easily. Reading the recorded messages of the Apostles in the book of Acts, or studying Peter’s letters, the Book of Hebrews, or passages from Paul’s letters, as the one from Ephesians 2, which we began with readily show the belief of each New Testament author that in the Revelation of Christ:

we have the prophetic word (the Old Testament) more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation (2 Peter 1:19-20).

Two Testaments One Summary

The Apostles’ proclaimed the message of Jesus as the Messiah (the Christ); the confirmation and fulfillment of Scripture. They got this message from Christ himself, both during the years in which they were “with him” (Mark 3:14), and in the forty days after his resurrection when, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3) Acts of course continues Luke’s narrative from his Gospel (cf Acts 1:1). The Gospel ends with a summary of what these 40 days would have looked like.

Jesus summarizes his message and the unity of both old and new testaments

The disciples’ failed to grasp the hope and meaning of his death and resurrection. Jesus attributed as a failure to “believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:26). Then, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27). The disciples report that their hearts “burned within [them] while he opened to [them] the Scriptures” (Luke 24:32). The next day this continued with the whole group of the Apostles and their closest associates:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44–49)

Jesus referenced the threefold structure of the Old Testament (the Law of Moses; the Major and Minor prophets; and the Writings). The Hebrew language anacronym for these three divisions forms the name of the modern editions of the Hebrew Scriptures—the TeNaK.

Two Testaments One Tradition

Under the superintending of the Holy Spirit, the promised “power from on high” (Luke 24:49), the Apostles would preach and teach the message delivered to them by Jesus. The Apostle Paul called on the church to maintain this teaching, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). One commentator on this passage reminds us:

The terms for tradition (παραδόσις), the passing on of tradition (παραδιδόναι), and the reception of tradition (παραλαμβόνειν) recur on several occasions in Paul’s letters and demonstrate that the communication of tradition was a regular feature in Paul’s missionary activity. (Charles A. Wanamaker. The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990, 268.)

The Second century was a time of great importance in the early church. Michael Kruger has written a very important book, called Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (Amazon;.co.uk;.ca). He reminds us that the second century was a time fraught with both danger and opportunity for the infant church. It was by no means certain that the movement would survive.  Kruger explains, “it possessed very little cultural influence, was weak and frail, and found itself fighting for its life.” This church faced internal dissent and external challenges from the greatest minds of the age. “On top of all of this,” he adds, “Christianity was, for the first time, moving forward without the guidance of living apostles and still did not have a fully formed New Testament canon.” (from the Introduction to Christianity at the Crossroads).

Irenaeus and the unity of the two Testaments

In this critical moment of time, Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote a very important book. This book was a reflection on how the CHristain message was expresed in both Testaments. He called this teaching tool a κεφαλαιωδὴςὑπόμημα, or “a summary memorandum” of “the body of truth” which the Apostolic Fathers had passed on and his generation had “received” (para 1). History knows Irenaeus’ summary memorandum, as the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching(Amazon; .co.uk;.ca). For Irenaeus and his contemporaries, what was “received” was the tradition known as “the rule of faith,” a summary of teaching all believers needed to “have a true comprehension of,” which must be kept “unswervingly” (para 3).

What exactly did the Lord Jesus teach his disciples after the resurrection? How did Moses and all the prophets write of him? How did Jesus “make the prophetic word more sure”? What is the rule of faith that was received by the earliest believers? This is what Irenaeus sets out to answer and I summarize in On the Apostolic Preaching (part 2).

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