Reflections on Andy Stanley's View of the Old Testament

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In a previous blog post I mentioned that I’ve been listening to Andy Stanley’s sermons where he’s advocating that we “unhitch” the Old Testament from the Christian church. I wanted to pick up on one idea that is worth unpacking further—the question of whether or not the Old Testament was exclusively Jewish.

Stanley contrasts the old worldview found in the Old Testament with the new worldview found in the New Testament, especially in relation to the inclusion of the Gentiles (a term used for non-Jewish people) in Acts 15. According to Stanley, the old worldview was exclusive, whereas the new worldview is inclusive, open to all. In the old worldview God loved one people group more than anyone else, in the new worldview his love is for everybody. Because the “new” has arrived, which is now open to all, the church needs to throw off the old, that is, the Old Testament, and embrace the new. 

In this blog I simply want to pick up on one point for now—Stanley’s assumption that the open door to the Gentiles is completely new, for this is one of the reasons why Stanley thinks we need to set aside the old, by which he means, the Old Testament. 

But was the old so exclusive? Did God only show his love for Israel, or are there indications that even in the old, God’s love for the nations was in view?   

Seven key points noted below highlight that God’s plan from the beginning was that the nations would be part of the people of God. To be sure, the execution of the plan would not take place until the coming of Jesus, for he is the “seed” to whom the promise had been made. Nevertheless, it was God’s plan from the beginning that the people of God would be multi-ethnic. This is an “old worldview” perspective. What takes place in the “new” is a fulfillment of promises given in the Old Testament. 

The first point to note is that God promised Abraham that all the “nations” (a term translated as “Gentiles” in the New Testament) would be blessed in him and in his descendants (Gen 12:3). God’s plan for the salvation of the nations is an important promise that runs through Genesis (Gen 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). These are the nations represented in the Table of Nations (Gen 10:1-32)—God has a plan for all the families of the earth. This means that from the very beginning, in the first book of the Bible, God reveals his plan to bless the nations so that they become part of the people of God. This plan is ultimately fulfilled through Jesus, the “seed” to whom the promise had been given (Gal 3:8). The inclusion of the Gentiles in the New Testament, as recounted in Acts 15, is the fulfillment of this promise, as people from all nations put their faith in Jesus, the “seed” of Abraham. That God’s promise is given in the first book of the Old Testament underscores that God had a plan for the salvation of the nations from the very beginning. This promise was given 2,000 years before the New Testament was written.

The second point to note is that when God first appeared to Abraham, the God of glory appeared to him in the pagan city of Ur. I have written on this topic in an earlier blog, and I will be giving a lecture this week on the missional context of the call of Abraham at Regent College in Vancouver, which will be live-streamed here on Wednesday, July 11, at 7:30pm (Pacific Time). I simply note here that when God promised Abraham that all the nations would be blessed in him (Gen 12:3), Paul rightly understands that the gospel was being proclaimed to Abraham. This is what Paul says: “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations will be blessed in you’” (Gal 3:3). This means that the gospel has its origin in the Old Testament, and this gospel message was for all nations, not simply for Israel.  

The third point is that God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a “multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4-5). God changes his name from Abram to Abraham to recall this promise, since Abraham is a play on the Hebrew word for “multitude.” This promise of a multi-ethnic Abrahamic family is another indication that God has the nations in view from the very beginning of the Old Testament. Paul picks up this promise in Rom 4, noting that both Jew and Gentile are part of the people of God through faith in Christ, which is in fulfilment of what God had promised Abraham. He affirms that Abraham is the “father of us all,” that is, he is the father of both Jews and Gentiles. This multi-ethnic people of God was promised to Abraham in the Old Testament, over 2,000 years before Jesus was born.

Third, as the Israelites leave Egypt, it is important to bear in mind that they were not exclusively Israelite (or Jewish, to use a later term), but rather, a “mixed multitude” leaves Egypt (NIV, “many other people,” Exod 12:38). Rahab is another example of a non-Israelite (“Gentile”) who becomes part of the people of God, which she does by faith (Josh 2). James recognizes this when he refers to her faith and obedience as an example for others (Jas 2:25; cf. Heb 11:31). Another important non-Israelite is Ruth, who is a foreigner from the land of Moab. She not only becomes part of the people of God, but she is given a place of prominence in Israel’s story, for King David will come through her line (Ruth 4:18-22). This means that David’s genealogy is not exclusively Jewish—it includes women from the nations who adopt Israel’s God, Yahweh. Matthew’s genealogy is a reminder that foreign Gentile women have been incorporated into the people of God (Matt 1:5), and this took place some 1,000 years before the coming of Christ.

Fourth, lest we think that David’s kingdom was exclusively Israelite, in addition to Ruth, there are already indications that the nations were being incorporated into his kingdom. As noted by Old Testament scholar Scott Hahn in his comments on Chronicles, people from “Canaanites, Ishmaelites, Arameans, Egyptians, Moabites, Calebites, Midianites, Jerahmeelites, Maacathites, Qenizzites, and Qenites” were part of Judah (David’s tribe), hinting that “Israel’s mission to bless the nations has already begun: sojourners and strangers have already begun identifying themselves with Israel’s God—through intermarriage and through their worship of Israel’s God” (S. Hahn, The Kingdom of God as Liturgical Empire, 34-35). Since the Davidic throne is identified with the kingdom of God in Chronicles (1 Chron 17:12-14; 28:5), this foreshadows the multi-ethnic nature of the kingdom that will be realized with the coming of the Messiah. The “old worldview” of the kingdom is far from exclusive.

Fifth, the prophet Isaiah’s message resounds with a compelling vision for the nations (Isa 1:23-25; 19:23-25). God announces that Egyptians and Assyrians will worship him alongside Israel—this is a vision for the multi-ethnic people of God. Isaiah announces that the Servant will be a light to the nations, with the goal that God’s salvation will reach to the ends of earth (Isa 42:6; 49:6), a hope that is realized through Jesus (cf. Luke 2:32). Jesus identifies himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:17-21). His ministry begins in “Galilee of the Gentiles” in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Matt 4:13-17; cf. Isa 9:4), and his healings testify that he is the one promised by Isaiah (Luke 7:22; cf. Isa 35:5; 61:1). His sacrificial death in accordance with Isaiah 53 is the means by which this salvation to the Gentiles will take place.  

This vision of Isaiah, that God’s servant would be a light to the nations, will be taken up by the Apostle Paul as he proclaims the gospel to all nations (Acts 9:15; 13:47; 26:16-18). In other words, the inclusion of the Gentiles—the matter that is taken up in Acts 15—comes about in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies given in the Old Testament. This multi-ethnic vision is an important aspect of the “old” worldview.  

The point to note here is that the prophet Isaiah, who ministers hundreds of years before Christ, announced that the nations would become part of the people of God. No exclusive worldview here.

Sixth, God’s plan for the nations is further seen in the call of the prophet Jonah, a contemporary of Isaiah. God called Jonah to proclaim his word to the Assyrians at Nineveh. He was to announce that God would bring judgment against the notorious Assyrians (their behavior is later catalogued in the book of Nahum) if they didn’t repent. A theme that runs through this book is that God cares for the nations, a view that Jonah himself does not share. Yet the story underscores that God cares for non-Israelites, even those in the boat with Jonah, and he has compassion on the Assyrians at Nineveh. Jonah thinks that only Israel has the right to God’s love, but God rebukes the prophet, making it quite clear he has compassion on the Assyrians. 

Seventh, when the prophet Daniel has a vision of the heavenly throne room, what he sees is people from all nations worshipping God at the enthronement of the Son of Man (Dan 7:9-14). This vision of God’s kingdom, which comes after four successive earthly kingdoms, underscores that God has a plan to save people from all nations—this is where his plan of redemption is heading, and this vision is given in the Old Testament, 600 years before Christ. When Jesus announces that the “kingdom of God is at hand,” this is the kingdom that is in view, and it is not surprising, therefore, that the kingdom includes both Jews and Gentiles. This belongs to the old worldview that is fulfilled in the new.  

A brief survey of these passages, and many more could be noted, indicates that there are not two distinct worldviews—one exclusive in the Old Testament, and one open to all in the New Testament. This dualistic view of the nations in the Old and New Testaments is missing the continuity of God’s overarching plan for the nations that runs through the entire Bible. To be sure, Jesus is the climactic fulfillment of the promises given to Abraham, and as such, his death, resurrection, and sending of the Holy Spirit ushers in a missionary movement that includes the wide-scale incorporation of the Gentiles. Yet this decisive and climatic moment in history is not in contrast to the worldview of the Old Testament but is in fulfillment of it. In other words, the old worldview had a vision for the nations, and there are glimpses of this in Israel’s story, but the vision is ultimately fulfilled through Israel’s Messiah, the “seed” to whom the promise had been given. 

The incarnational God, who first appeared to Abraham in Ur and proclaimed the gospel to him, is bringing this promise to fulfillment by sending his Son into the world.  

This is the storyline of the entire Bible—God had a plan from the beginning to bring his salvation to the nations.

Dr. Carol M. Kaminski

Photo credit: Tanner Mardis on Unsplash

Dr. Carol Kaminski