Why Read the Old Testament?
I LOVE the Old Testament – but you probably want a better reason than that to read it, so here are five:
1) The New Testament tells us to.
In 2 Timothy 3, Paul tells Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
At the time he wrote that, ‘all scripture’ was only the OT. Paul didn’t yet know that his letter would be seen as scripture. He didn’t have the Gospels. He and his friends were still writing scripture with their lives.
We should read the OT because it is the word of God to us and for us.
2) It tells us about Jesus.
I think we often lean towards the NT because it is the bit about Jesus, and we like him. But the whole Bible points to him.
After Jesus’ death, two of his disciples, not knowing he had already risen, were walking to Emmaus, feeling sad and bewildered. Jesus appeared beside them and said, effectively, ‘didn’t you see this coming?’
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
(When it says ‘Moses’, it doesn’t mean the burning bush, or even the baby in the bulrushes, but ‘the books of Moses’ which is another name for the first five books of the Bible – so starting with all creation he interpreted the things about himself. It’s all about Jesus.)
3) The New Testament quotes it all the time.
Jesus and his disciples, and the early church, thought the OT was still relevant. So many times when apostles were brought before the courts and asked to defend themselves and the Christian faith, they did so by telling the story of the Old Testament. Jesus said he had come not to abolish it, but to fulfil it. If they thought it was important, we should too.
4) Plus, it really is SOOO GOOD!
I’ve always loved it – there are so many great stories – adventures, battles, highs and lows, disasters and rescues.
Yes, there’s lots that is hard to understand, but the more you dig in, the more beautiful and rich and powerful it is.
And as I come to understand it more, I am more and more amazed at the elegant craftsmanship of it. It is really increasing my confidence in the fact that the Bible isn’t just a collection of random texts written on the whims of different men over hundreds of years, but that there was an absolute master craftsman guiding every hand, and indeed, guiding the events they wrote about.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
A couple of weeks ago, Matt Smethurst tweeted (with an HT to Andrew Wilson):
“In Genesis 40, Joseph has criminals on both sides. He promises death to one and life to another. Then he’s lifted up and given all authority.”
Then Andrew Wilson replied,
“My favourite thing about this is that Joseph is in the pit between a baker (= bread) and a cupbearer (= wine).
A cup becomes the means of reconciliation with his brothers. Bread becomes the gift of life with which he feeds the nations.”
(There was an ‘ooh’ of recognition as I read that tweet out the other weekend, proving the point - this stuff is exciting!)
Those servants could easily have been Pharaoh’s chariot-driver and chamber-pot-emptier, but God orchestrated them to be the symbols that represented Christ’s body and blood, through which we are reconciled to him, and are given life. (Interestingly, the bread in the dream was eaten by birds, which often represent the nations, biblically.)
If you’re feeling very brave or geeky, look up @JamesBejon and @DrPJWilliams on twitter. They write extremely long, detailed, technical, geeky threads about themes in the Bible, which are absolutely fascinating. James turns some of his into papers. This, on Ruth and Boaz, is a particularly wonderful example.
5) And finally, we should read the OT because you can’t fully understand the NT – or the gospel, or the Christian life – without it.
I’m currently studying for a Diploma in Bioethics and Medical Law. I’m on the Medical Law module at the moment, and one thing I’ve learned already is that judges always lean on the laws, and interpretations of those laws, that have gone before. They never assess a case simply on its merits, but look at how other judges have handled similar cases, how Human Rights law has been interpreted in similar situations, what explanatory comments other judges have made when making or interpreting rulings.
Nothing sits on its own; everything rests on what has gone before. And that is the same with our faith – that’s why the NT writers spent so much time quoting the OT – they were showing how what had gone before formed and informed what God was doing now.
It’s how we make sense of difficult teachings of Paul – we go back and look at creation, at the Law given to Moses, at the different commands God gave his people, at who he chose for different tasks, at how he taught people to treat one another, and we interpret the new teachings in light of the old.
Jesus said he had not come to abolish the Law – by which he meant all the teachings of the OT – but to fulfil it (Matt 5:17). He showed what it really meant, and how we should live it.
Or if you’re more artistically minded, think of the OT as the underpainting.
When an artist is starting a painting, he or she begins by doing an underpainting. In this example, the artist is trying to create realistic skin tones. He can’t just mix paint to the right shade of pinky-peach, or the picture will look like a Barbie doll. First he blocks in a darker colour and some rough shadows.
The painting now is like the OT – you can sort of see what it’s going to be, but it’s very rough, and the colours are all wrong.
Then the artist adds the next layers, and the picture comes to life.
Without the NT, the picture is very vague and unclear. Without the OT, the NT picture is fine, it kind of works, it’s much clearer what it is supposed to be, but somehow it is a bit lacking in depth.
With both together, you get a much more accurate picture.
It’s still not perfect – it’s still just a picture, not the real thing – we’ll only truly see that when we get to heaven, but it’s a much closer, richer, more satisfying picture.
So, read your Bible, all of it. It is a precious gift, given to help us grow into the people God created us to be.
Painting images source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7xbMGqLS30
Barbie image source: https://morguefile.com/p/66818