Why bother with the Old Testament?

The Christian faith is based on the understanding that Jesus Christ fulfils the Law of the Old Testament. And a new covenant with God is created through Christ – which replaces the Old.

In his letter to the Romans (Chapter 7.1-6), Paul makes an analogy from marriage. He says that once a woman’s husband has died, she is free - under the Law - to remarry. And, in the same way, the Law of Moses is now dead, so that followers of Christ are free to ‘belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead.’

So do we still need the Old Testament? Why should we bother with it?

Especially since it is so difficult to understand and has some passages in it that, to say the least, make us feel uncomfortable.

For example, did Noah really live to 950? Did God really destroy the world by sending a giant flood?
And what about all the wars? Is Richard Dawkins right when he says, ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction’?
In the 2nd century, the early Christian teacher Marcion took the same view as Dawkins and rejected the Old Testament in its entirety, because he believed the God of the Old Testament was wrathful and vengeful, and could not have anything to do with the loving and all forgiving God of the New Testament.
But Marcion found that, if you rejected the Old Testament, you also had to reject a lot of the New Testament as well. He ended up rejecting all the apostles, except Paul. He kept ten of Paul’s letters but he had them radically cut down to remove all Old Testament references. He also rejected all the Gospels expect for Luke, which again he cut down.
One of the consequences of Marcion’s proposed canon was that it helped to push the early church to develop its own authoritative list of inspired writings, which ultimately led to the formation of the canon of the New Testament as we have it today.
So here are four reasons why I believe we should not only keep the Old Testament but we should read it and trust God to speak to us through it.

  1. The Old Testament is full of great stories

Nearly half of the Old Testament is narrative. And the stories of the Old Testament are beautifully written – with wonderful repetition that makes them perfect for reading aloud. This is because the stories were originally composed to be told aloud and heard and passed down from generation to generation.
They also have really strong and powerful characters and plots. And are full of direction and meaning.
It’s always worth asking ourselves, as we read the Old Testament stories, why these stories were so important to their original hearers. And why they were preserved and passed down.
If we got rid of the Old Testament, we would be losing some of the greatest and most exiting literature in the world. For example the creation story, the story of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Ruth, Samson, David, Daniel and Jonah - to name just a few. Some of the most beautiful poetry in the world is contained in the Psalms and the Song of Songs. And we have some of the greatest wisdom of the world in Ecclesiastes and the book of Proverbs. And then there is the teaching of the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Elisha, and Hosea.
Also in the Old Testament we find some of the most beautiful and wonderful descriptions of God and his love for us found anywhere in the Bible. ‘For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ (Ps 103:11-12)

  1. The Old Testament is inspired by God

2 Timothy 3:16 states, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. When we read this quote, we might think ‘Scripture’ refers to the Bible as we have it today. But remember that 2 Timothy was written before many of the books of the New Testament were written and long before they were brought together into the canon we know today.
Therefore ‘the God-breathed Scripture’ referred to in 2 Timothy is in fact the Old Testament. And we see that the Old Testament is an important tool for teaching us about God.
What we see, as we read the Old Testament, is God’s love and concern for humanity, and how God often uses deeply flawed, weak, ordinary people to achieve his mighty purposes. People like Samson, a very controversial character, who would have benefited from attending an anger management course and relationship counselling, and yet we are told the spirit of God was on him. Or David, who is described in 1 Samuel 13:14 as a man after God’s own heart, and yet seduced and made another man’s wife pregnant, and then to cover up the pregnancy arranged for this man to be killed in battle. Or Moses, who despite having killed a man, and then fled into the desert, is called by God to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

The Old Testament has much to teach us and challenge us. We see in it what happens when God’s people walk in faithful obedience to God’s will, and what happens when they forsake God. But, above all, we see God’s heart for his people. How, despite the fact that they reject God again and again, God never gives up on his people. His love remains steadfast.

  1. The Old Testament was the Bible Jesus read

One of the strongest arguments for reading the Old Testament is because it is the Bible that Jesus himself read, loved and used. And in Jesus’ preaching and teaching, he refers to the Old Testament again and again. To understand the teachings of Jesus, you need to have some understanding of the Old Testament.

For example, when Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by Satan he responds by quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy.

If Jesus felt it was important to know the Old Testament, then it is also important for us to know it.

  1. The Old Testament contains important Messianic prophecies

Furthermore, Jesus not only knew the Old Testament, he came to fulfil it. Jesus said "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)

The Old Testament looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, who would bring salvation to the world. For example 700 years before Christ was born, Isaiah 53 talked about a suffering servant, a man of sorrows, despised and rejected by men, who was ‘pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:5) Here is a prophecy about how Jesus would die on the cross for us.

There are some 300 references to the coming Messiah in the Old Testament that were fulfilled by Jesus, including twenty-nine major prophecies fulfilled in a single day – the day he died.

Jesus is the one who was prophesied about in the Old Testament, he is the fulfilment of Scripture. That is why he said ‘You study the Scriptures diligently [the Old Testament] because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.’ (John 5:39) And when the risen Jesus met the two disciples on the Emmaus road ‘ beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ (Luke 24:27)

So how do we read the Old Testament?

Most people attempt to read the Old Testament from start to finish, sailing through Genesis, Exodus, but then finding things get a lot harder in Leviticus – with all those instructions about grain offerings, burnt offerings and cleansing from infectious skin diseases.

The best advice for reading the Old Testament is to start with the easy bits. It’s like a crossword puzzle, you start with the easy parts first, which help you fill in the harder parts. The more we get to know and understand the Old Testament, the more we find we understand.

But the main key to understanding the Old Testament is to know Jesus, because it is through the lens of Jesus that we read the Old Testament.

Jesus fulfils God’s story, history is HIS story. Right from the beginning of the Old Testament you see Jesus’ identity and mission begin to be revealed through the characters and teaching of the Old Testament. For example, right at the beginning of the Bible we see how in the Garden of Eden, the first Adam disobeyed God, and chaos followed. And how in the New, Jesus, who is described as the second Adam, obeyed God, and made it possible for order to be restored.

And when Abraham took his son Isaac to be offered as a sacrifice, here we have a picture of a God who is willing to give up everything that was most important to him, for you and for me, and it foreshadows Jesus’ own death on the cross.

In Exodus we see a God who wants to set us free from slavery, and how the Israelites were saved by the blood of the lamb, again foreshadowing Jesus, the Lamb of God, through whom we are saved by the shedding of his blood.

The deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus.

So be encouraged and give it a try.

Posted by Martine Oborne