How should Christians read the Old Testament?

Old TestamentMost church-goers know the Old Testament stories that they were taught in Sunday School, but many don’t understand or are unaware of the significance of these accounts for the church today.  Some Christians have gone to the extreme of rejecting the Old Testament (OT) because of its “Jewishness” and exclusively focus on the “Christian” New Testament.   Others may theologically subscribe to the OT as authoritative Scripture, but in reality never preach from or hear sermons from the OT. 

A danger that evangelicals trained in Biblical Theology face is that we are tempted downplay the ethical teaching value of the OT accounts in their own terms, in favour of a more progressive revelatory/ typological approach that always finds the only meaning of an OT passage as it is fulfilled in Christ. 

Paul demonstrates to us in 1 Corinthians that reading the OT typologically with its fulfilment in Christ and reading the OT more in its own terms looking for moral/ ethical/ behavioural lessons are both equally valid ways of reading scripture.  

1. Read the Old Testament as a Christian book

In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul reminded the Corinthian church of some very important OT lessons – namely the danger of idolatry.  In v1 he wrote,

 “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea…”

The Corinthians knew the account of the exodus from Egypt, but were unaware and ignorant of its significance.  What is interesting is that Paul, writing to a predominately Gentile church, called the Israelites, “our fathers”.  Paul believed that there was and is always only one people of God – those who believed God’s promises – both in the Old Testament and New Testament.  He sees Christians as the true descendants of Abraham and therefore heirs of the promise (Galatians 3:29).  Paul wrote:

“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” (v6)

“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (v11)

What happened to the Israelites happened as an example for us – us Christians.  We, as followers of the Christ, are living in the end of the ages.  The time of God’s promises to save his people and judge his enemies is now upon us in the coming of Jesus – this is why Paul calls the time period between the first and second coming of Christ the “last days”.  The point is that the OT was written for us – the OT is not a Jewish book, it’s a Christian book.  We must never feel that we have somehow stolen the Jewish Scriptures or misused them.

2.  Read the Old Testament as pointing to Jesus

In 1 Corinthians 5:7 Paul refers to Christ “our Passover lamb”.  While Paul does not go into detail here, he clearly sees Jesus’ death as comparable to the slaughter of the unblemished lambs before the Exodus.  The painted blood of these lambs on the doorposts caused God’s judgement to pass over individual homes.   Jesus, the true lamb of God, thus dies to bear the wrath of God for our sin so that the judgement of God may too pass over us.   Paul here is simply taking Jesus’ words seriously when he 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)   At a very foundational level we must understand the OT as preparing us for the coming of Jesus.  The temple, the priesthood, the sacrificial system, the role of king and prophet, and all the other OT institutions point us to the person and work of Christ.  A “Biblical Theological” understanding of the OT is essential.

3.  Read the Old Testament accounts act as examples and warnings

In v6 Paul wrote that “these things took place as examples for us”.  

In v11 Paul similarly wrote, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction…”

Not only does the OT point us to Jesus, it also functions as examples to us as to what pleases God or displeases God.   Abraham is the great example of faith.  Joseph’s running away from Potiphar’s wife is a great example of fleeing from sexual immorality.   Gideon is an encouraging example of how God can use anyone – even nervous weaklings.  Samson is an even more encouraging example of how God can and does use those with massive character flaws.  David’s adultery with Bathsheba acts is a supreme example and warning about the danger and devastation of sexual sin.  On other hand, David’s prayer in Psalm 51 is a great example of true repentance.    As we read OT accounts (and teach them to our children), we need to think about how they point us forward to Christ and how they may serve us as examples of how to live or how not to live as the people of God.  

The Bible vs Cosmo

At a theological conference I attended many years ago, the speaker – who was an ardent “Biblical Theology only” proponent – vociferously argued  that the OT accounts were not to be used as moral/ ethical examples.  He said that we might as well use examples from the Cosmopolitan magazine – at least they would be more “relevant”.  I had to disagree. The OT is inspired by God and is uniquely useful for “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. (2 Timothy 3:16)

The Old Testament is for us.  Go on, read it.