Some Pointers on Faithfully Reading the Old Testament
SOME POINTERS ON FAITHFULLY READING THE OLD TESTAMENT
A Midweek Lesson
By Pastor Brian Wilbur
Date: March 7, 2019
Note: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In our midweek lessons we have been working through Exodus 20:1-17, which is that well-known portion of Scripture that sets forth “The Ten Commandments.” So far we have looked at the important introductory comment (v. 1), the prologue (v. 2), the first commandment (v. 3), the second commandment (v. 4-6), and the third commandment (v. 7). Next up is the fourth commandment (v. 8-11) about keeping the Sabbath day holy. Before looking at this instruction, which Lord-willing we will do next week, I want to devote a midweek lesson to giving some pointers on faithfully reading the Old Testament.
There are some Christians who actually give very little attention to the Old Testament. There are a number of possible reasons for this lack of attention. On the one end of things, some might view the Old Testament as unfamiliar, intimidating, and difficult to understand. On the other end, other people might view the Old Testament as unnecessary or even irrelevant to “New Testament” Christianity. Such people might see Old Testament instruction as outdated and obsolete, and therefore neither binding nor truly instructive for people who follow Jesus.
Another way to mishandle the Old Testament is to approach it merely as background information to New Testament doctrine, or to treat it merely as a collection of morality tales. But people who handle the Old Testament in these ways are not taking it seriously as authoritative and transformational instruction to which the church must pay careful and obedient attention (see 2 Peter 1:19-21).
In light of these various mishandlings, this midweek lesson is an effort to get us thinking in biblically faithful ways about the Old Testament and its vital role in the life of the church. In particular, let me offer six pointers on faithfully reading the Old Testament, followed by one application.
SIX POINTERS ON FAITHFULLY READING THE OLD TESTAMENT
1) The Bible is One Book
First, the entire Bible – consisting of both Old Testament and New Testament – has one unified storyline for start to finish. One of the simplest ways to demonstrate this unity is by looking at the bookends of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) Then at the conclusion of the Bible, standing on the cusp of eternity, the apostle John tells us: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” (Revelation 21:1) Going back to the Bible’s early chapters, Adam and Eve – after they had sinned – were kicked out of the garden and lost their access “to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24). So the dramatic tension of the plot of Scriptural history is this: how can sinners who have been shut out of God’s presence and forfeited the everlasting life that could have been theirs, be restored to fellowship with God and eat freely from the tree of life? The answer to this question goes straight to the heart of the gospel and reaches its climax in the new heaven and the new earth. Revelation 22 begins:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.” (Revelation 22:1-3)
In the new creation, the accursedness of Genesis 3 shall be reversed and God’s faithful servants will enjoy healing and life and glory in the presence of God forever and ever, amen. Reading Genesis 1-3 and its final resolution in Revelation 21-22 show us that the Bible is one book from beginning to end.
2) Jesus is the Center of the Biblical Storyline
Second, the one unified storyline of Scripture is centered on the Lord Jesus Christ and the gracious salvation that He brings to His people. I don’t have to convince you that the New Testament is centered on the Lord Jesus Christ and the gracious salvation that He brings to His people, though I will simply point out that the New Testament begins this way: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) Matthew 1:1 tells us that the New Testament is fundamentally about Jesus Christ, who came to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And yet Matthew 1:1 also shows us that the coming of Jesus Christ arises out of God’s prior work and promises involving King David and, going back further, to the patriarch Abraham – in other words, the Old Testament is the storyline in which the coming of Jesus both takes place and makes sense.
In fact, our Lord Jesus Christ taught us to understand that the entire Old Testament is centered on Him and His gracious salvation. To the two disciples with whom He was walking on the road to Emmaus, Jesus said this:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)
Jesus spoke in like manner with a larger group of disciples later in Luke 24:
““These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”” (Luke 24:44-47)
So the Bible has one unified storyline from start to finish, and the central theme of this single storyline is the supreme worth and saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ: His suffering and death, followed by His resurrection and glory, followed by the global proclamation of His gospel (“repentance and forgiveness of sins… in his name”). This is not a new gospel, but the Old Testament gospel that was promised beforehand and prefigured in various ways, and which is finally and gloriously fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.
Therefore we should read the entire Bible as a single storyline with a central theme. How foolish it would be to neglect 70% of the Bible (the Old Testament accounts for approximately 70% of the whole Bible) when 100% of the Bible exists to help us understand and live as Christ-centered participants in God’s everlasting kingdom!
3) The Practical ‘How to Live’ Instruction is the Same in Both OT and NT
Third, the practical ‘how to live’ instruction of the Old Testament is fundamentally the same as the practical ‘how to live’ instruction of the New Testament. One key passage is found in Matthew 22, where Jesus said that “all the Law and the Prophets” depend on the two greatest commandments. Here is the passage, beginning in verse 35:
“And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”” (Matthew 22:35-40)
Think about this: “all the Law and the Prophets” rest on the wonderful foundation of the two love commands: “love the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). What this means is that God designed the instruction of the Old Testament to lead His people on the path of love for Him and love for one another. Indeed, the instruction of the Old Testament shows us what it means to walk in such love.
Has the basic ‘how to live’ instruction of the Old Testament changed? While we recognize some adjustment in certain details, such as offering slain animals in sacrifice or avoiding certain foods, we must insist that the basic ‘how to live’ instruction has not changed. The call upon us is to be “true worshipers” who “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) and who have a supreme love for the Father’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:15). At the same time, this upward love to God must be accompanied by an outward love to others: “love one another” (John 13:34) is the most basic instruction given to us Christians in terms of how we are to relate to one another.
Since “all the Law and the Prophets” are essentially a manual of love, why would we neglect it?
Further, Jesus explicitly said in Matthew 5 that he did not come to “abolish the Law or the Prophets”:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19)
The context of Jesus’ statement here is The Sermon on the Mount, which is full of practical instruction to disciples about how to live as followers of Jesus. In the Matthew 5 passage quoted above Jesus refers to the critical importance of doing the commandments of the Law, and at the end of the sermon Jesus reinforces this theme as he speaks about doing the Father’s will (Matthew 7:21) and doing His words (Matthew 7:24-27). The Sermon on the Mount is our Lord’s practical exposition of “the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12; similarly, “the Law or the Prophets” in Matthew 5:17), and if we would be faithful disciples then we must render heartfelt obedience to our Lord’s instruction.
Since this midweek lesson has been prompted by our study of the Ten Commandments, it is important to point out that the New Testament treats the commandments as the faithful expression of the way of love.
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)
The practical ‘how to live’ instruction of the New Testament is substantially the same as the practical ‘how to live’ instruction of the Old Testament, which means that the diligent reading of the Old Testament is not a distraction but a help to living a life that pleases God.
4) The NT Identifies the OT as Authoritative and Transformational Instruction
Fourth, the New Testament explicitly identifies the Old Testament as authoritative and transformational instruction for both the saving knowledge of Christ and growth in the Christian life:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:14-16).
When Paul refers to “the sacred writings” and “[all] Scripture]” he has especially in mind the already well-established writings of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is “able to make [us] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and it is also able to lead us on the path of holy living. Why would we neglect this great gift that God has given to us for our good?
There are two other passages from the apostle Paul that reinforce the words that he wrote to Timothy. He wrote these words to the church in Rome: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4) And he wrote these words to the church in Corinth: “Now these things happened to them [the Israelites] as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11) The message is clear: if we would be well-instructed and full of hope, we ought to be diligent readers of all that God ordained to be “written down” in the pages of the Old Testament – for it was “written down for our instruction.”
5) The NT Writers Utilize the OT as Authoritative
Fifth, the New Testament writers utilize the Old Testament as authoritative in their own teaching. For example, when Paul gives instruction to the church about the respective roles of man and woman, which he does in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and in Ephesians 5:22-33 and in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, he consistently refers back to Genesis 1-3 as providing the necessary foundation to his instruction. Or when he gives instruction to the church about the rightness of compensating those who are preaching the gospel, which he does in 1 Corinthians 9:1-14 and in 1 Timothy 6:17-18, part of his argument is to go back to the Law where it says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when treads out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4; quoted in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18). The author of Hebrews tells us that the exhortation about “the discipline of the Lord” (Hebrews 12:5) from Proverbs 3:11-12 is an exhortation that addresses us (Hebrews 12:5). James draws upon the Old Testament examples of Job and Elijah to encourage us in the way of patience and the way of prayer (James 5:7-11, 13-18). The apostle Peter weaves Psalm 34:12-16 into his instruction about practical Christian conduct. Since the New Testament writers treat the Old Testament as authoritative, so should we.
6) There Are Changes from OT to NT, but They Are Changes Within the Unified Storyline
Sixth, none of this is to say that nothing changes as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Promises are fulfilled (e.g., Matthew 1:22-23, 2:15, 2:17, 2:23, 4:12-17; 5:17, and much more); shadows become reality (Colossians 2:16-17, Hebrews 10:1); and the perfect sacrifice is made (Hebrews 10:1-10). Further, God’s focus on ethnic Israel as a political nation that is located in (or exiled from) a specified geographic land turns to a focus on a multi-ethnic body of Jewish and Gentile believers all over the world (Matthew 28:18-20, Ephesians 2:11-22). These changes are real and must be taken into account in terms of how we understand and apply the instruction of the Old Testament. But these changes are changes within a unified storyline that is all centered on Jesus and is all oriented toward our transformation from guilty lawbreakers to wonderfully forgiven and justified law-keepers who delight in the Lord and keep His law by walking in love – and this as a result of the Holy Spirit’s powerful transforming work in our hearts.
AN IMPORTANT APPLICATION
With these six pointers on faithfully reading the Old Testament in view, let me offer one simple and important application. I am drawing this application from insights that I have learned from Dr. Daniel Block , who was one of my Old Testament professors in seminary and whose writing I have found profitable. Block counsels us to not come to the Old Testament with the mindset that we don’t have to obey this instruction unless it is explicitly repeated in the New Testament. This is probably a very common approach, and earlier in my Christian life I paid a certain amount of credence to this perspective. So, the logic of this view goes, if the New Testament doesn’t repeat the fourth commandment that we keep the Sabbath day holy, then we are under no obligation to keep the Sabbath day. End of discussion. But in light of all that we have learned in our lesson today, I hope you understand that reading the Old Testament in this “I’m not obliged to follow this instruction unless it shows up in the New Testament” is not a healthy way to read the Old Testament. In fact, on this way of reasoning there is actually very little value in reading the Old Testament, since all that really matters is what the New Testament says.
Is there a better approach? Yes! Dr. Block offers this helpful counsel:
“… when we reflect on whether or not Christians need to keep any or all of the Old Testament laws, perhaps we have been asking the wrong question all along. When we are confronted with a specific commandment from the Pentateuch, instead of asking, “Do I as a Christian have to keep this commandment?” perhaps we should be asking, “How can I as a Christian keep this commandment?””
As it happens, the word ‘how’ is a very important one, for we understand that we must read particular instructions in light of the whole Bible. So here are a few examples of asking ‘how’ we can keep particular instructions.
Question: How should we obey the instruction to bring animals to the priest in order to make a sacrifice of atonement?
Answer: by trusting in Jesus as the true and final sacrifice whose broken body and shed blood made atonement for our sin.
Question: How should we obey the instruction to put idolaters to death?
Answer: by practicing church discipline and if need be, after a season of attempted correction, by excluding the unrepentant idolater from the fellowship of the church. (See 1 Corinthians 5:1-13)
Question: How should we obey the instruction to leave the edge and gleanings of the harvest field, as well as some of the grapes in the vineyard, “for the poor and for the sojourner” (Leviticus 19:9-10).
Answer: by not hoarding our resources but being generous toward those in need, and by giving them opportunities and contexts in which they can come and gather some of the resources that they need.
Question: How should we obey the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy?
Answer: Come back next week for an attempt to answer this question!
A FINAL APPEAL
Brothers and sisters, do not neglect Scripture’s first 70%, which God has so manifestly given to you for your spiritual good. For the sake of having a well-established “faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15), for the sake of having a well-instructed hope in the Lord (Romans 15:4), and for the sake of making progress on the path of love (Romans 13:8-10), let us be diligent in reading, understanding, and practicing the instruction of the Old Testament. We learn from these three passages that these three great and foundational biblical realities of faith, hope, and love, so often associated with 1 Corinthians 13:13 but also found in other New Testament passages, actually have their deep roots in the Old Testament. Let those deep roots nourish you as follow Jesus all the way back to “the tree of life”!
 Daniel I. Block, The Gospel according to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012: p. 134. Block comments (p. 134), “Most Western evangelical Christians assume that unless the New Testament expressly affirms the continued relevance of an Old Testament ordinance, we may assume it has been abrogated in Christ. One should probably rather adopt the opposite stance: unless the New Testament expressly declares the end of an Old Testament ordinance (e.g., the sacrifices), we assume its authority for believers today continues.”
 Ibid., p. 132.
 See Ibid., p. 135, where Block offers a great practical example of how to apply Old Testament instruction. He writes (p. 133), “This is the case, for example, in the law concerning houses with parapets (Deut 22:8). In arguing for the ongoing relevance of this commandment we obviously do not mean that Christians must build houses with parapets. Rather, we recognize and live by the theological principle illustrated by this law: heads of households must ensure the well-being of all who enter their homes. In the context of a modern city like Chicago, this translates into an appeal to keep the sidewalk leading up to the house clear of ice and snow in the winter.”
 See Ibid., p. 132-133, where Block discusses this matter.