Learn more about reading and applying the Old Testament from David Murray’s new book, Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament (Thomas Nelson, 2013).
On the basis of my less-than-scientific survey of Christians’ Bible reading habits, I would estimate that the Old Testament forms less than 10 percent of most Christians’ Bible reading. Remove the Psalms and Proverbs, and we’re probably down to less than 5 percent.
“So what?” many say.
“No great loss, is there?” others shrug.
Let me suggest seven reasons to stop shrugging and start studying the other 60 percent of our Bibles.
1. The Old Testament reveals Christ.
The Old Testament doesn’t just “point forward” to Christ; it reveals him. It isn’t merely a series of signposts to Christ; his revealing shadow falls on every page, exciting faith and love in believing hearts.
But why linger in the Old Testament shadows when we have New Testament sunlight?
Have you never found it easier to read and be refreshed in shade? Have you never admired the unique and wondrous beauty of the dawn?
Consider the unparalleled revelation of Christ’s substitutionary atonement in Isaiah 53. And although the Gospels describe Christ’s outer life, the messianic psalms disclose his mysterious inner life, the unfathomably deep emotional and mental struggles of his earthly suffering.
2. The Old Testament is a dictionary of Christian vocabulary.
How do we understand the theological words, phrases, and concepts of the New Testament? If we turn to a modern dictionary, we will import 21st-century Western meaning into ancient Eastern words. Greek lexicons will usually get us closer to the original meaning, but that still assumes the biblical authors were influenced exclusively by Greek culture.
Rather, when we come to a word, phrase, or concept in the New Testament, our first question should be, “What does the Old Testament say?” Remember, the New Testament was originally written by Jews, and much of it was written to Jews. It assumes knowledge of the Old Testament and builds upon it.
3. The Old Testament is a manual for Christian living.
While there is understandable debate over the continuing validity of a small percentage of Old Testament laws, there are 10 clear and unchanging moral principles that God applies in different ways in different contexts: to Israel in the wilderness (Exod. 20), to Israel about to enter the promised land (Deut. 5), and to Israel settled in the land (Proverbs). Jesus and the apostles continue this varied cultural application of these same 10 moral principles for their own generation (e.g. Matt. 5; Eph. 5). All these examples provide models for how to think about and apply these moral principles in our own day.
4. The Old Testament presents doctrine in story form.
God has not only given us laws; he’s given us lives. He’s incarnated his 10 moral principles in the lives of Old Testament characters, providing us with fascinating biographies to inspire and warn (1 Cor. 10:11; Luke 17:32).
We also see New Testament doctrines worked out in Old Testament believers’ lives: through typology we learn most about Christ’s priesthood from Aaron, kingship from David, and prophetic office from Moses. Abraham demonstrates justifying faith, Elijah portrays effectual and fervent prayer, Ruth and Naomi display the communion of saints, Job perseveres through the Lord’s preservation, and David exhibits how forgiveness and chastisement often go together. And it’s all in the vivid Technicolor and Dolby of flesh-and-blood humanity.
5. The Old Testament comforts and encourages us.
As we read the Old Testament narratives, we experience the beautiful comfort and hope that Paul promised would accompany such study (Rom. 15:4). We are comforted with God’s sovereign love, majestic power, and covenant faithfulness in his relationship with Israel.
When we know the Old Testament backgrounds of the “Hall of Faithers” in Hebrews 11, we’re encouraged to follow their Christ-focused faith and spirituality.
In the Psalms, we’re given songs that have comforted and encouraged believers throughout the world and throughout the centuries.
And when we see the way that hundreds of Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in Christ, our faith in God and his Word is strengthened.
6. The Old Testament saves souls.
The apostle Paul had the highest regard for the Old Testament’s origin, nature, power, and purpose (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But the Old Testament wasn’t only helpful for Christian living; it gave Christian life. When Paul assured Timothy that “the Holy Scriptures [are] able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus,” he was speaking of the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3:15). Like the New Testament, the Old Testament also saved (and still saves) souls through faith in the Messiah.
7. The Old Testament makes you appreciate the New Testament more.
For all the Old Testament reveals of Jesus, and of Christian doctrine and experience, we must concede that it also conceals, that there’s a lot of frustrating shadow, that there’s unfulfilled longing and desire, that there’s often something—or rather someone—missing. The more we read it, the more we long for and love the incarnate Christ of the New Testament. The dawn is beautiful, but the sunrise is stunning.