Review: The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church

The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church, Richard E. Averbeck. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A study of for what God intended the law in its original context, how it was fulfilled in Christ, and its continuing relevance for the church today.

Let’s face it. For many in the church, the Old Testament is more or less unknown territory, especially the parts of the Old Testament concerned with the law.

Richard Averbeck has spent much of his life studying the Old Testament as well as other ancient Near East writings and he is persuaded of the continuing relevance of the law to the church, understood through the ministry of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. He contends that this was the scripture Paul asserted to Timothy as being “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” But how is this so for the church today?

Averbeck asserts three theses that he develops throughout the book:

  1. The law is good. It instructed Israel how to live holy lives under God’s covenant love and it may also instruct us in holiness, particularly how to live under the law of Christ, loving God and neighbor.
  2. The law is weak. It does not have the power to transform the heart; only the Holy Spirit can transform our sinful nature and write the law on our hearts.
  3. The law is one unified whole. Averbeck sees no biblical basis for dividing the law into categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial, and while every law is not simply brought over into the life of the church, there are ways under Christ in which the whole law continues to be relevant to the church’s life.

To develop these theses Averbeck begins with an extensive treatment of the context of Old Testament law. First of all, he charts the covenants, of Abraham, of Moses, and David, each under those that precede, and then their fulfillment in the New Covenant. He follows this with looking at the Mosaic law in context, delineating the law collections, discussing the place of the Sinai narrative and the Decalogue, the book of the covenant and the other parallel collections of law, offering a comparative study of debt slavery as a case study, showing transformations even between collections. He shows how holiness, ceremonial, and civil law together shape Israel as a kingdom of priests oriented around the presence of God in their midst. He discusses in detail the significance of the various offerings and sacrifices and how they sustained the holiness and purity of the people.

He turns to how Jesus fulfills the law in life and teaching, as demonstrated in the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount. and in his treatment of questions of purity and sabbath. At the same time, he focuses attention on the law of love for God and neighbor in which the whole law is fulfilled. Then he considers the New Testament church and how this was handled, particularly in the incorporation of Gentiles in which Jewish believers continued to observe the law while Gentiles followed the council of Jerusalem, the moral instruction, and the transforming life of worship pointed to in the Old Testament law, made possible by the Spirit of truth. Averbeck then returns in two chapters to show how the law is good, how it is weak but empowered by the Holy Spirit, and remains a unified whole.

He also includes on Jewish Messianic believers and the Torah, offering one of the best defenses I’ve seen for such groups remaining observant Jews while staying gospel focused, citing the practice of the early church.

I appreciated the careful explanation of the contents of the law collections and the importance of these as well as showing how the law continued to be relevant in Christ. The discussion of the law’s weakness and the ministry of the Holy Spirit is much needed. He also shows the arc between offerings and sacrifices, and our calling as a “kingdom of priests” who are “living sacrifices.” Perhaps more needs to be said about the civil aspects of the law and the parallel being, not the secular state, but the church and how it governs itself. What may be gleaned from the law on how the church is ordered and governed under Christ? And to what degree ought the law shape our pursuit of just, though not theocratic, societies?

That said, this is one of the best studies I have seen of Old Testament law and its continuing relevance. His argument that all of the law continues to be relevant, albeit in altered form because of Christ, is a different approach worth considering that avoids explaining how we have dispensed with some aspects and not others. And his love for the Old Testament may encourage readers to explore what in fact were the scriptures for the early New Testament church.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Liturgy of Creation

liturgy of creation

The Liturgy of CreationMichael LeFebvre, foreword by C. John Collins. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An argument that Genesis 1:1-2:3 should be understood in light of the calendars in the Pentateuch, particularly as instruction for our work and sabbath, rather than for science.

This book examines an area I’ve never studied before: the significance of the calendars of the Pentateuch, and the importance of reading Genesis 1:1-2:3 within this context. Michael LeFebvre is a scholar-pastor who noticed how calendar references run through the Pentateuch, studied these, and became convinced that they offer an important clue to understanding the beginning of Genesis.

The first part of the book looks at Israel’s calendars, and how they are shaped by day, month (lunar) and year. He notes the significance of cycles of seven. Days in the week are fairly obvious. Less obvious but striking for me is that all Israel’s major festivals fall in the first seven months. There are also cycles of seven years, and the seven times seven of Jubilee.

He then studies the different festivals and one of the most significant discussions here is between dates of occurrence and dates of observance (we have this in our own calendar with the observance of Washington’s birthday on President’s Day, which never falls on the day of his actual birthday, February 22. Often, difficulties of chronology arise because of failure to observe this distinction. It also means that because a date of observance may differ from a date of occurrence, this does not mean the occurrence did not happen.

Finally, he argues that the creation week is a calendar narrative. The struggles, for example, to explain evening and morning before the creation of the sun and moon on the fourth day is not a problem if we understand this narrative as a calendar narrative having a liturgical purpose rather than describing an actual chronology.  LeFebvre admits that this may be frustrating for those who have worked out apologetic systems to reconcile the narrative with known science, but his contention is that science was not the point but rather the worship of the God who works six days and rests, establishing a model for his creatures to follow in their work and rest as the fourth commandment indicates. He contends this makes good sense in reading Genesis as part of the Pentateuch, where sabbath is a weekly feast observance, a break of rest and celebration in the people’s rhythm of work. It is consonant with the rest of Pentateuch, and evident to any reader of the text without extensive theological and ancient cultural background, or apologetic expertise. As a corollary to this, he contends for the removal of this text for use in controversy in science and that it be used as Paul commends in 2 Timothy 3:16 for training in righteousness–in this case the proper rhythm of work and rest modeled after the first great worker–God.

No doubt, those who have made an intellectual, or even a remunerative occupation of defending a particular position with regard to Genesis 1 and scientific accounts of origins, LeFebvre’s account is inadequate. LeFebvre does distinguish between idolatrous naturalism, and the carefully delimited practice of science, which may be done by both believers and non-believers apart from philosophical or theological commitments. He remains somewhat agnostic about scientific accounts of origins, while affirming the important of scientific engagements in the study of evolution and cosmology so long as the conclusions affirmed are physical and not metaphysical. He just doesn’t believe Genesis is intended to give an account of origins reconcilable with science. That is not what it’s for. Thus, he does not incline here toward any of the apologetic models of origins on offer. None, he thinks, read the text literally enough.

LeFebvre’s book is important for understanding the calendar of Israel, the significance of festival observance dates, and so forth. His charts of all this are very helpful. Most of all, to pay close attention to the sanctity of work, a creation made to be fruitful and to foster the flourishing of God’s creatures, and the vital practice of sabbath and rhythms of work and rest–all of this offers much for Christians in their worship, practice, and rhythms of daily life. With so much of worth, why press these texts to answer and teach things they were not intended to teach?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The God Who Makes Himself Known

The God Who Makes Himself Known

The God Who Makes Himself Known (New Studies in Biblical Theology), W. Ross Blackburn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: A study of the theology of the book of Exodus contending that it reflects God’s missionary purpose to make himself known to the nations through Israel.

The God Who Makes Himself Known typifies the purpose of the New Studies in Biblical Theology of which it is a part. It both articulates the theological themes arising from the book of Exodus, and connects that to the theology of the Bible as a whole. In this case, Ross Blackburn explores how God’s concern to make himself known to the nations, which Blackburn describes as “missionary” is reflected in God’s dealings with Moses and the people of Israel in this book.

The organization of the book follows the biblical text of Exodus. I will highlight the key idea Blackburn elucidates in each portion:

Exodus 1:1-15:21. In the first part of Exodus, centering around 6:3, the focus is on the declaration, “I am the LORD” and what this means in the light of the deliverance from Egypt showing both the supremacy and redeeming character of God to the nations.

Exodus 15:22-18:27. This section focuses on the training of Israel in the wilderness, that they would “learn obedience” by which they reflect God’s supremacy in daily life, and their dependence upon the redeeming God to sustain them.

Exodus 19-24. These passages are concerned with the giving of the law. Blackburn reflects upon how Gospel precedes Law and how the Law is given to flesh out Israel’s calling to make known the name of the Lord to the nations in how they live, and what this reveals of the greatness and goodness of God.

Exodus 25-31. Blackburn looks at the instructions for the Tabernacle, showing the progression in the quality of the materials as one approaches the Holy of Holies, the parallel between Eden and Tabernacle that reveals God’s redemptive purpose, and God’s intention to dwell in the midst of his people.

Exodus 32-34. I found this section the highlight of Blackburn’s discussion as he explores the idolatry of the people, even while God is in the midst of giving instructions for his dwelling place in their midst. He highlights how Moses intercession is heard on the basis not of his attempt to substitute for the people’s sin but on the basis of God’s name and purpose, and how this will be jeopardized should God’s presence depart from them.

Exodus 35-40. Blackburn explores why we have this second description of the Tabernacle, downplayed by many commentators. He argues that the canonical order of this text after Israel’s sin shows how the Lord responds to sin, and how God restores a repentant people and so reveals his glory, greatness, and redeeming character to the nations as he indwells the Tabernacle.

The biggest question that may be raised is whether Blackburn is reading New Testament perspectives into Exodus. Certainly, he is reading Exodus in a New Testament light, but his argument of concerning the missionary heart of God revealed through Israel’s deliverance and wilderness encounters with God is one rooted in both the data of the text and a discussion of the canonical structure of Exodus. What Blackburn does is make an argument for the coherence of Exodus as a whole, as well as for its place within the canon.

This work strikes me as a helpful adjunct to exegetical study of Exodus, offering a larger framework useful for teaching or preaching the book as Christian scripture. While interacting with scholars discussing the meaning of texts like Exodus 34:6-7 and how God both forgives and punishes sin, Blackburn also offers insights into the lavish greatness and goodness of God that leads us into worship, and the life of faithful obedience against God’s gospel purposes for the nations. Like other monographs in this series, Blackburn exemplifies how scholarly rigor and devotional warmth may walk hand in hand.