Have you ever picked up your Bible, turned to a passage in the Old Testament and wondered, “How does this connect with me?” or “Why do I need to read this, can’t I just read the New Testament and get everything I need?”. If you have, you’re not alone.It is a common frustration for Bible-believing Christians everywhere. Some Christian traditions have become so frustrated over the issue that they’ve tried to functionally do away with the Old Testament altogether – deeming it old hat or irrelevant. However, if we are going to take the New Testament seriously, we have to take Jesus at his word when he says He didn’t come to abolish the Law (the Old Testament) but to fulfill it. What’s more, to really understand anything that happened in the New Testament, we have to confront the underlying context for the New Testament writers: the world of the Old Testament. If we try and undermine the historical and cultural backdrop of the New Testament simply because we can’t wrap our minds around it, we will inevitably read the Bible in a way it wasn’t meant to be read and we will miss the crucial truths God is speaking to us in His living word. We need the Old Testament to understand the New Testament, and, as I will try and explain, vice versa.
The Bible as One Big Story
Before we look at a couple of practical ways to read the Old Testament, we have to establish one important point. The Bible was written and organized to be read as one big story. Because of the culture we live in, it is often tempting to read the Bible like an owner’s manual. Maybe you’ve even heard the acronym for the Bible, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. It is my conviction that this view of the Bible is quite unhelpful. How we read the Bible (in theological circles this is called “hermeneutics”) is significantly influenced by what type of book we think it is and what type of “lens” we use. If we think the Bible is an instruction manual, we will miss a lot of important aspects of who God is. God didn’t drop a list of bullet points or a systematic theology out of the sky. He told us about Himself through a story. To understand the Bible as one big story means that the Old Testament and New Testament are not two separate accounts of what people did back then and what we are supposed to do now. There is a strong degree of organic connection between them; they are telling the same story. The Old and New Testaments are speaking about the same God and revealing his plan for the world progressively. It’s like the slow unrolling of a scroll. We are given hints of what God is up to in Genesis, Exodus and the Law, the story intensifies in the Prophets, and then Jesus shows up as the climax of God’s big story; He’s the point that the whole story is leading up to. What makes this story so impactful is that we aren’t detached from it. We’re not reading fiction, we’re reading the true story of the whole world. We are characters in this story. The reason Abraham and Moses are relevant to us is because we are all in the same storyline, we are just in a different chapter of the story. What’s dangerous about reading the Bible any other way is that it makes the Bible about us. We are minor characters in the major drama of Scripture. It’s a story about God and His mission to redeem the whole world. We are merely swept up into that story. So, how do we read the Old Testament this way? I want to offer two practical suggestions.
- Ask yourself, “How would the original audience have heard this?”
It’s important when we read a passage in the Old Testament to do what is often called a “first reading”. A first reading involves asking yourself how the original audience would’ve understood the passage. For example, when we read the Exodus story, we have to consider how the ancient Israelites would’ve understood what was happening to them. Questions like, “How would Israel have felt knowing the God of their ancestors was finally returning to save them?” or “How did the Israelites think of themselves now that they were free from slavery to Egypt?” or “How does what’s happening to them connect to God’s promises in previous parts of the story (Abraham, Noah, etc)?”. Sometimes doing this involves a little work. One thing that is super helpful is a biblical commentary or concordance. Doing a little leg work to understand the historical background of a passage goes a long way. Once we understand a little bit of the background for our first reading, we have to move to the second reading which helps us make sense of the whole story.
- Ask yourself, “How does this passage make sense in light of Jesus?”
Once we understand a little bit of the historical background of the passage, we have to ask ourselves how Jesus helps makes sense of the passage in a new way. For example, “How is what God is doing for the Israelites in Exodus connected to what He has done for us in Jesus?” or “How does this passage reveal hints at God’s plan for redemption?”. We have to ask these questions because the whole point of God’s story is Jesus. He is the point at which the hidden plan of God is revealed in fullness. The Law and the Prophets were all pointing to Jesus. One of the reasons it’s really important to ask this question second is because asking it first is like reading the story the wrong way. It’s akin to watching a movie a second time. Now that we know how the story ends, we are able to understand how there were hints of the ending in earlier parts of the story. We can see how the beginning was written with the end in mind, with redemption in mind. We see how the arrival of Jesus was written into the pages of the Old Testament, and when we grasp this, our individual life stories make more sense as a part of the one true Story of the world.