All Christians should be reading the Old Testament. Here are 5 must reasons why you should.
All those who claim to be Christians also claim – or certainly should claim – to take the Bible seriously. Christians should be people of the book. They should have a high view of Scripture and should, on a regular basis, be imbibing of its riches and truths.
But the question is, how many Christians actually treat the Word of God with the devotion, care, reverence and daily attendance that they should? At best, many Christians will flick through the New Testament, while basically ignoring the Old.
While I am not a betting man, I would wager that if you went to most churches in the West today and asked for a show of hands as to all those who have read through all of the OT – at least once – maybe only 10 to 20 per cent max might raise their hand.
I hope I am wrong, but I think my fears may be well-grounded. And it sure does not help matters when we actually have evangelical pastors pooh-poohing the OT. Last year I wrote about one such church leader who did just that: Georgian pastor Andy Stanley actually said that Christians need to “unhitch” themselves from the OT. My reply to him is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/05/12/one-bible-two-testaments/
So it is time to raise the flag for the Old Testament. Let me offer five main reasons why no Christian can ignore it. Other reasons could be offered, but these will do for a start:
The OT is the Word of God. This of course should be the most important reason of all. Because it is God’s revelation to his people, we must be committed to reading it and studying it. No one who says he is a follower of Jesus Christ can ignore this great gift of God to his people.
And bear in mind this important fact: the OT makes up three-quarters of our entire Bible – 77 per cent to be exact! Imagine getting a novel by a beloved writer of fiction and reading only the last quarter of it. No one would do that – it would be foolish in the extreme. It is just the same here.
The OT is the Bible Jesus read. It is quite easy to forget this fact, but we must bear in mind that there was no New Testament in Jesus’ day. The 27 NT books that we have in our Bibles today were written between about 45AD and 95 AD. So the earliest bits of the NT first appeared over a decade after Jesus had died. And it was not finally all put together until several centuries later.
So when Jesus quoted from the Scriptures, spoke highly of the Scriptures, and referred people to the Scriptures, he had only one thing in mind: the Old Testament. There was nothing else he could appeal to. Thus when he rebuked Satan in the wilderness, he three times quoted Scripture – that is, the OT.
When he spoke about Scripture being fulfilled, he had only one thing in mind: the 39 books of what we now refer to as the Old Testament. When he quoted from the Word of God, it was from the Hebrew Scriptures. When his detractors used Scripture against him, they were drawing from the OT.
We are commanded to read the OT. The New Testament of course often speaks about the importance of the word of God, and we find there various commands to believers to study it, read it, share it, and grow by it. As just mentioned, that meant the OT, as the NT was only just coming into existence then.
As Paul commanded in 2 Timothy 4:2–4: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passion, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
Paul also said this in Romans 15:4, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us.” And as he told Timothy in 2 Tim. 3:14-17:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Without the OT the New Testament makes little sense. Everything we find in the NT flows straight out of the OT, and the OT prepares the way for what we find in the New. Indeed, while the Bible is made up of many books, it tells us one grand story from cover to cover.
If the New Testament is the story of Jesus, so is the Old. We need to interpret the OT in the light of Jesus, for everything in it leads up to and points to the person and work of Christ. As Jesus explained to two disciples on the road to Emmaus:
“He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” Luke 24:25-27.
Or as Jesus told the eleven in Luke 24:44-45, “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”
The OT tells the story which Jesus completed. So the NT makes little sense at all if we do not know the OT. The NT depends upon the OT. It also gives focus to all those OT events, promises, covenants and prophecies. For example, when Paul says that Jesus is the second Adam, we need to know something about the first Adam.
Mark Dever rightly puts it this way: “If you don’t get what the Old Testament teaches, you’ll never get Christ. Our God does not waste words. Each Testament needs the other. You will best be able to comprehend Christ’s cross if you first understand the question left unanswered by the Old Testament. The cross is the answer. How well do you know the question?”
The OT shows us who God is. While many believers today wrongly think that the two Testaments give us two different Gods, or at least two conflicting pictures of God (an angry, vengeful and judgmental OT God vs a loving, gracious, and forgiving Jesus in the NT), the truth is just the opposite.
The entire Bible gives us a portrait of one unchanging God. The very same God who is holy and just and righteous and implacably opposed to sin in the OT is also just the same in the NT. The very same God who is loving and merciful and gracious and forgiving in the NT is also just the same in the OT.
We see all the glorious attributes of God fully on display in both Testaments. Any attempt to pit God against himself, or to pit the Testaments against each other, just will not work. It cannot work since God is forever the same, and while some revelations of himself may develop over time, his essence and attributes remain the same.
Bonus reason. OK, I said I would offer five, but if you made it this far, you deserve a little treat, so here is a sixth reason worth bearing in mind. I often tell my students when discussing the OT that one very practical reason for reading it is this:
When we make it to heaven and have spent so many years worshipping our Lord, eventually we will bump into some OT character, be it Moses or Jeremiah or Hosea. When we get into a conversation with them, they might well ask us, ‘So, what did you think of my book?’ We might bow our head in shame and say, ‘Um, well, actually I never did get around to reading it’. To avoid that embarrassment then, why not start reading their books now?
In sum, the Old Testament is invaluable for all Christians. As Augustine put it, “The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed.” Or again, “the New is in the Old contained, the Old is in the New explained”. One might as well try to read a new book in an unknown language as try to read the NT without its OT foundation.
For those who want to be pointed to some helpful books on understanding the OT, here is a list I put together last year: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/09/16/bible-study-helps-the-old-testament/
And in this group of articles you will find helpful Bible study helps for all of the OT books: https://billmuehlenberg.com/category/theology/bible-study-tools/