Why Study the Old Testament?

Does the Old Testament have any authority for the Christian believer today? Why should we even try to study the Old Testament?

This is actually something I have dealt with in a couple of my contexts. Some of the people say they only want to talk about that God is love and this is all you need to know. Others say they are “Red Letter Christians” meaning they only hold to and pay attention to the words of Jesus (red words) and this is what shapes their faith. We do have to pay attention to the “red letters” but we also have to understand the context they are written in.

One of the helpful things I have come to learn is the Old Testament is actually our story. When we read through the Old Testament, even the difficult passages, we can see how God related to the people, which is the same way God would relate to us today. God, especially through Jesus, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So, as Christians we have to understand what it looks like to live out our lives in faithfulness.

Jesus says many times, “You have heard it said…but I say…” What does this mean unless we go back to see what he was talking about? Eye for an eye, as an example, is not just a saying in our culture; but it is a phrase that was used, for a specific reason, in the Old Testament. In essence, Jesus is giving more meaning to the words the people have heard and lived by all their lives, and therefore making them go deeper in their meaning to help the people see the seriousness of sin. In other words, Jesus is trying to show we do not have to be legalistic about our faith, just live it out of the heart—this, after all, is where our true motivations come from anyway.

Jesus gave the teachings and writings of the Old Testament authority, because he is God incarnate and therefore said the words. This is the first thing we have to pay attention to. Because of this, we see the apostles and early church give authority back to the Old Testament. Paul said that all scripture is God-breathed, God-inspired and he was talking about the Old Testament. But, without the Old Testament, we miss out on seeing the bigger picture God has in mind for being sent out to all the nations.

Through the Old Testament, we understand that Yahweh is the God who created the universe, and therefore is completely “other” from the universe, yet is also constantly active and personal in all of creation, especially through the lives of the people. We see how Yahweh has been set above the other “gods” of the world Because God is active in the world, we can better understand the mission Jesus sent his followers on by looking back at the calling of Abraham, even look back further to see how the world was set in order and how people were supposed to live with each other from the very beginning.

Back to the Old Testament is our story. Many people say that “our lives are the only Bible people will read.” This is true. I can also see how our lives tell the story the Bible tells. We are created out of love (whether or not this is true from a human perspective, we are created from the love of God). Because we are created out of love, we have been set to live this life in this particular time, this particular culture, with this particular personality, and gifts/talents/motivations, etc. We have been placed here to tend to and cultivate what God has given us, and go into the world. We have been created for a purpose.

We also see how we have been given teacher, preachers, books, other people to guide us and teach us the “rules of life” so we can learn what it means to be a “good/decent person”. The Lord did this with Israel with the Sinai Covenant. God gave the people the law to show what it means to live a holy/set apart people. But, we learn we still have this desire to do what we want and disregard what God said (blessing and curse of free will). This helps us understand there is something in us we cannot take out or get rid of on our own—something that seems to be ingrained in us to do things we know we shouldn’t do. We see this through the continual living faithfully and calling of Israel to repent by the Prophets.

There comes a time when God says the people have done their own thing for so long before stepping in to take over. God has always been present in our lives and there comes a point when we realize we need God to be the One leading us and changing us. We need God to step in to the world/our world, and show us how we are being transformed and make us into something even more than we could have ever imagined. This is where Jesus comes in.

Jesus comes, and we finally realize we need only him, he is the only One who can do what we need. Now, because of the Old Testament, we can better see how God has been working in the world to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Savior we have been hoping for has come, is changing our lives, and taking us to a place where we can work with him to change the world and see the world redeemed because of his grace. Because of Jesus (Yahweh in flesh), we can go from the chaos of our world (the world) and move into a life of order, peace, and true faithfulness.

Why study the Old Testament? A scholarly answer would be so we can understand the entire message of the Bible and to understand what is really going on. A theological answer would be so we can understand what the New Testament is actually saying and how it is applied to our lives. A personal answer, at least to me, would be so we can better understand our purpose and how we are supposed to live. More importantly, so we can better understand our lives and see how we sin and fall short of God, we constantly go back and forth from doing what we are supposed to do/not do, we see God (through Jesus Christ) coming to change our lives, and we see us moving toward a future with a hope because God has it already in the palm of his hands and has an ultimate plan for the future.

We study the Old Testament because it is our story. It is the story God tells so we can understand our mission to be in a holy community, and to be lights to the world to take the message of salvation to all the nations. If we can take this time to study and understand the importance of the Old Testament, we can better see how God through Jesus Christ is reshaping the world back the original intent.

Because people, by fallen nature, are self-absorbed, bringing us to a place to see we are also in the story of ancient Israel could make it seem like reading about your own family history and given better understanding to why we live like we live. This could also give people the motivation to learn more, on their own and in groups, to study the complexity, yet simplicity, of the message of the Old Testament and see more clearly how Jesus is really fulfilling (not obliterating) the law and words in the Old Testament which should give greater clarity and purpose to our lives and reason for living as a mission community to the rest of the world so God’s plan is completed.