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The Old Testament and Spiritual Formation, Part 2

Updated: Feb 6



(Today, we are continuing our series on Spiritual Formation. In Part 2, we find that spiritual formation isn't just something monks made up...it's actually ancient! It's in the history of the Israelites in the Old Testament.)


While much time was spent in the introduction explaining how the advent of Jesus began the great re-formation of God’s image in individuals through Jesus, it would be a mistake not to recognize God moving impressively amongst Israel in the Hebrew Bible. We make a grave theological error in glossing over much of the Tanakh as if it doesn’t apply to us. The first-century heretic Maricon “argued for the removal of any historical or theological link with Judaism.”[1] Maricon believed “The god of the Old Testament was a war-god, who had nothing to do with the Christian god.”[2] He may have been the most severe critic of Yahweh, but anti-Jewish Christianity became dominant even among Christians who embraced the Hebrew God.[3]


In early Church Father Irenaeus’s summation of the Bible’s unity, he goes straight from the fall of Adam to Jesus without even mentioning God’s dealings with Israel for 2,000 years. R. Kendall Soulen rhetorically asks how Irenaeus sees the relationship between the OT and the NT Testament.


The Old Testament anticipates these events in a prophetic, preparatory, and typological way, while the New Testament testifies to them in an apostolic, definitive, and archetypical way. In Irenaeus’s influential formulation, the Testaments have the same substance and differ only in their outer form.[4]

In other words, “the exclusive purpose of preparing for Christ’s advent” has been fulfilled, and now “God’s covenant with the Jewish people naturally and [has] fittingly expired.”[5] This is economic supersessionism—the idea that the church has replaced Israel. Punitive supersessionism is more severe, as it claims God has not only replaced Israel but for her many sins, not the least of which is the rejection of Jesus, but has rejected her forever.[6] Such a view skews our ability to appreciate the people of God in the OT.


How can we see the celebration of Torah (Ps 119) as God’s way of life for Israel (Lev 23), only to conclude that the NT—as punishment or simply because this way of life is obsolete—rejects it? Hebrews 8:13 uses the word palaioō, “obsolete,” but is it referring to the Torah (Paul’s Bible)? There is evidence he is speaking of the end of the sacrificial system as a means of atonement, not the end of the Torah that James and the apostles embraced as believing Jews (Acts 15, 21). Just a few years after Hebrews 8:13 was written, the Temple, not the very words of Yahweh, quite literally disappeared in the Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE) [7] and became palaioō.


Formation in Ancient Israel

With this understanding that God’s dealings with Israel were authentic, we want to look at how God interacted with his ancient people of Israel. Unlike in the NT era, the Israelites did not have an idea of faith expression apart from the people of Israel. While we do not want to minimize the importance of community in the NT, Dr. Stephen Lowe says there is more individual expression in the NT and more corporate expression in the OT.[8] Ancient Judaism was centered around one ethnic people, its tabernacle/temple, its calendar, and its way of life that included both moral law and ritual acts, called Torah, “instruction.”[9] Referring to the work of German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, Gordon Johnstone explains the difference between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). “Gemeinschaft is a community to which individuals are oriented as much if not more than to their own self-interest.”[10] This is ancient Israel.


God gave Israel three primary feasts, where “males appear before the Lord” (Exod 23:14-17). He gave them agricultural rules, including sabbath years for the land (Exod 23:10–11). The book of Leviticus describes in detail how to make atonement through sacrifice, whereby priests and sacred facilities for ritualistic worship were needed. While great expressions of joy regarding God’s Torah are abundant in the OT (Ps 119:97), Israel often embraced the form without a heart for God (Is 5:12), a danger amongst NT believers, as well.


God vs. gods

Every ancient culture had its own set of gods and festivals. Israel was unique because their God was One (Deut 6:4); he was personal and could not be fashioned into an idol (Exod 20:4–6). Israel’s God was real—he had genuine interactions with his people (Ex. 19). He parted seas and sent plagues. Yahweh was seen in a cloud by day and a fire by night. The fictitious gods of the nations had to be appeased to receive rain or victory in war; they were finicky and temperamental.


In the ancient Near East, gods were not known for their consistency. Worshipers were left to guess what might please their god or displease him, and this could change from day to day. That doubt and uncertainty led to constant confusion, and one could only guess whether he or she was in favor or out of favor by evaluating one’s daily fortune.[11]

Israel’s God revealed himself on Sinai in otherworldly means. Elijah's confrontation reveals that the gods of Baal and Ashtoreth were not gods at all—only Yahweh could answer by fire. The ancient gods had no moral compass to pass down, unlike Yahweh, who gave Israel the Decalogue (Ten Commandments). 


However, God’s plan for Israel was never strictly insular. He expected them to reach the nations, not just to be one ethnic family. In his self-revelation to Abraham, he says, “[I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed [emphasis added].” (Gen 12:3). The psalmist reveals that God’s goal in touching Israel is so “[God’s] way may be known on earth, [his] saving power among all nations (Ps 67:2). Hill and Walton note:


[Israel’s] divine election and the divine covenant made the Israelites the people of God only in a revelatory sense. By this, we mean that God chose them as his instrument of revelation. God revealed himself to the world through Israel—through the law he gave to them; through their history.[12]

This is confirmed in Isaiah’s words, recorded twice, that Israel is called to be a “light for the nations” (Is 42:6, 49:6). Johnston understands that Israel’s community was to lead to unity among the nations under the rule of Yahweh. The promise on Sinai was that they would be a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6) and “thus draw other nations to worship him.”[13]


Psalms and Formation

While the NT brings us a more profound revelation of the nature of God through Jesus (Heb 1:1–3), no book of the Bible speaks to spiritual formation more than the Book of Psalms. Bonhoeffer calls the Psalms “a priceless treasure” and a “divine prayer book” in his The Prayer Book of the Bible.[14] “The psalms speak often of a desire to be in God’s presence in the temple and of the delight to be found in the law that provides a guideline for being in relationship with God.”[15] David longs for God’s presence, “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps 27:4). The discipline of silence is emphasized: “For God alone, my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation” (Ps 62:1). “The Christian practice of self-examination,” found in Psalm 139:3­­­­–4, “fosters the kind of self-knowledge that leads to transformation.”[16]


The Psalms are also brutally honest. Walter Brueggemann boldly reveals the uncomfortable reality of the disorientation that the psalmist experiences. “Life is also savagely marked by incoherence, a loss of balance, and unrelieved asymmetry.”[17] David often feels abandoned by God (Ps 13:1) and deals with depression (Ps 42:5a) but ultimately learns how to trust in God (Ps 45:5b). As we see in the life of Joseph and David, spiritual formation also means “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23:4) so we can grow in character for the tasks to which God has called us.


Brueggemann notes that, despite our disorientation, believers continue to “sing songs of orientation.”[18] But he sees this less as an act of faith amid life’s contractions “and much more a frightened, numb denial, and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life.”[19] In many Christian circles, arguing with God, dealing with depression, and acknowledging life’s curveballs are strongly discouraged, if not forbidden. The Psalmist knows no other faith. And neither did Paul, as we will see in the next section.


 

As part of our ongoing series from my tour of Kibbutz Zikim, one of the security forces on the Kibbutz shows me the devastating REALITY of what happens when a missile launched from Gaza slips by the Iron Dome.


Contrary to what the media might tell you, it can be deadly.


Watch this short video to see for yourself.





 

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Christian History (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 3. Kindle.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] See Michael Brown, Our Hands are Stained with Blood (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 2019).

[4] R. Kendall Soulen, Irrevocable (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2022) 10, Kindle.

[5] Ibid., 12.

[6] Ibid., 11.

[7] Allen argues that the writer of Hebrews writes as if the Temple is standing. “Otherwise, would [sacrifices] not have ceased to be offered” (Heb 10:2). If the Temple had already been destroyed before the writing, certainly the writer would have mentioned this monumental event and fulfillment of Jesus’s prophecy in Matthew 24:2.. David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2010), 76.

[8] Stephen Lowe, “Old Testament Theology of Spiritual Formation,” Liberty University, accessed January 28, 2024, https://canvas.liberty.edu/courses/581417/pages/watch-old-testament-theology-of-spiritual-formation?module_item_id=61391178.

[9] The Hebrew word Torah is often interpreted as law, but, in fact, it comes from the verb l’horot, to “instruct.” It’s where we get the word mo’reh, “teacher.”

[10] Gordon Johnston, “Old Testament Community and Spiritual Formation,” in Foundations of Spiritual Formation, ed. Paul Pettit (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2008), 73.

[11] Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic) 175, Kindle.

[12] Hill and Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 91.

[13] Johnston, “Old Testament Community and Spiritual Formation,” 77.

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1974), 27. 

[15] Hill and Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 419.

[16] Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey, 53.

[17] Walter Brueggemann, The Spirituality of Psalms, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 25.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 26.

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