Do you find yourself reading the New Testament more than the Old Testament? Why is it important for Christians to read the Old Testament? What are some tips for reading the Old Testament? Annabel Robinson shares some insightful thoughts.
Let me put you on the spot. You have probably heard of these characters in the Old Testament. Can you put them in chronological order? (The answer is at the end of this post.)
David, Moses, Joseph, Adam, Isaiah, Abraham?
The Old Testament is Critical to Understanding God.
Do you ever read the Old Testament? Do you ever hear it read in church?
What we call the “New Testament” is the story of Jesus being born, living and dying among us, and the story of his first followers. But there’s a long back story that’s very important. Without the back story, we won’t understand who Jesus is or what God is like.
You may have heard people quote 2 Timothy 3:16 and stress the importance of reading the Bible “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.”
The New Testament hadn’t been written when Paul wrote that to Timothy. By “Scripture,” he meant what we call the Old Testament.
Why we Need to Read the Old Testament.
Here are some reasons why every Christian needs to know the Old Testament:
There is some critical teaching in the Old Testament that isn’t in the New Testament. The story of Creation is top of the list (Genesis 1 and 2). Here we read not only that God created the world but also that he is the Creator, and we are his creatures. Everything that he made was good.
The New Testament assumes knowledge of the Old.
From beginning to end, the New Testament assumes knowledge of the Old Testament. Without it, you won’t understand, or worse, you’ll misunderstand, the story of Jesus.
The Old Testament reveals the character of God.
From the Old Testament, we learn about the character of God, that he is not only just, but also compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness (Exodus 34:6-7). Who would have guessed? These descriptions are rich Hebrew words and underlie their Greek counterparts in the New Testament. We won’t understand God’s love, or indeed what real love is, until we see it played out in his actions in the Old Testament.
To understand when the New Testament quotes it.
The New Testament writers frequently quote from the Old Testament, and when they do that, they have in mind the whole passage from which they may only mention a few verses.
To understand God’s covenant faithfulness.
In the Old Testament, God made several “covenants” with his people. The word “testament” means covenant. A covenant was an unbreakable promise. The Israelites broke their side of the covenant, but God remained faithful. When Jesus died on the cross, he made a new covenant with his followers. Understanding this is the foundation of our faith.
Tips to Reading the Old Testament.
None of this is to say that the Old Testament always makes for easy reading. You’ll need some reading skills. Here are a few:
- Know when to skim and when to read carefully.
- Notice the different “genres” in the Old Testament. You’ll find narrative, poetry, proverbs and “wisdom literature,” and prophecy. The Creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 are a genre all their own. I’ve written separate blog entries on these different genres. Different genres require different reading.
- There is an overarching theme in the Old Testament. Don’t lose sight of it in all the details.
- Remember that the Old Testament was written for you but not to you. It is the story, family album, legal documents, words of wisdom, stories and poetry of other people who lived far away and long ago in a world far different from ours. It’s not just that they didn’t have cars or computers and didn’t eat pizza. They thought differently. To understand the Old Testament, you will need frequent explanations of their culture.
- Don’t ever “proof-text” from the Old Testament. It’s far more important to get the big picture of how God spoke to, led, disciplined and guided these people for himself. It wasn’t written for “proof-texting.” (neither was the New Testament, for that matter).
I haven’t even mentioned the Psalms here. They’re in a category all their own. I’ve written a separate blog entry on reading the Psalms.
How to Start Reading the Old Testament.
If all that seems intimidating, here are some suggestions:
- Get a good study Bible with footnotes. Recommended: Cultural Backgrounds NIV Study Bible.
- Try reading a few selected parts to get the big picture.
For example: Read Genesis 1-50; Exodus 1-20, 32-34; Deuteronomy 1-8; 2 Samuel 7, 11:1-12:25; 2 Chronicles 36; Isaiah 40-66.
Scripture Union Canada has published an introduction to the Bible, available free online, called Taste and See. It includes five passages from the Old Testament, some background, and questions to get you started.
- Take about nine months to read the whole OT with friends. (Download a free Old Testament Reading Plan). Meet once a week to discuss what you’ve read. Feel free to skim the parts. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything. Just keep going. I’ve done this twice with a group of friends. We had such a good time that we wanted to start again when we got to the end. And we did.
- Sign up for Scripture Union’s theStory and read a passage from the Bible every day. TheStory includes readings from the Old Testament and explains them as you go.
Answer to quiz: Adam, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Isaiah.