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Why Read the Old Testament? Part I

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

It seems to be accepted in many Christian circles today that we get all of our understanding of God and His ways from the New Testament, and that the Old Testament is no longer relevant, or only good for things like character studies and Psalms. Is this true?

I will agree that we get our fullest understanding of the things of God by the truth revealed and mysteries explained in the New Testament. "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they" (Hebrews 1:1-4). Following immediately after this wonderful ascription of divine glory to Jesus, the writer of Hebrews enlists seven verses of Scripture to illustrate his point—seven verses from the Old Testament.

When Jesus appeared incognito to the pair of disciples on the Emmaus road shortly after His resurrection, those disciples expressed doubt to Him about the things they had just witnessed and experienced. Jesus' response to them was, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?" (Luke 24:25-26). The very next verse reports, "And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself." All the Scriptures they possessed at that time were from the Old Testament—and Jesus said they were about Him.

Earlier, when Jesus was describing the purpose for His ministry to His disciples, He had declared, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matthew 5:17-18). The Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Jesus, who fills all of the Old prophecies and promises with the fullness of their ultimate reality. Likewise, the New Testament cannot be witnessed to have fulfilled anything in particular without a knowledge of the Old Testament promises.

But the God of the Old Testament, you may say, is so different from God in the New Testament. The Old God was angry and judgmental, vindictive and fierce, whereas the New Testament God is so gentle and good and kind. This is a misrepresentation of God as revealed in both halves of the Book. In the Old Testament God says of Himself, "I am the Lord, I do not change" (Malachi 3:6), and in the New, Jesus Christ is described as "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).

Besides that, anyone who believes in a "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" and gives no space for His righteous anger has apparently never read about His scene in the temple courtyard, complete with whip in hand and overturned tables spilling their coins at his feet (John 2:15), or noticed His furious tirade against the Pharisees in Matthew 23. Similarly, it is in the Old Testament where we learn of God's remarkable patience with His people, being merciful year after year while sending prophets to warn of His impending justice should the people refuse to turn from their wicked ways. And there also we learn of God's tender love toward His chosen people: "Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands" (Isaiah 49:15-16). When we read the Old Testament, we find that the imprint of sin in the heart of man is unrelenting; there is no protagonist in those pages who obeys God's rule perfectly—in fact, nearly every hero depicted in the narrative shows himself to be tragically flawed. That's a lesson we need to learn, which Paul encapsulates in the concise phrase, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). It is summarized by Paul, but in the Old Testament it is portrayed in the entire panoply of the recorded history of the ancient world. Abraham, Jacob, Noah, David, Solomon, Elijah—all of them, with doubts and stumblings, and occasional exhibitions of outright wickedness—yet chosen by God, forgiven and received.

I'll have more to say about these things in Part II of this article.

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