Why I Love the Old Testament…and Why You Should Too

  • Nathan Schneider
Bible open to the old testament table of contents

If you had asked me 15 years what I thought my primary specialty would be coming out of seminary and entering into pastoral ministry, I would have instantly said the New Testament. I remember having conversations with a former pastor who pegged me as that analytical mind that meshes perfectly with the Greek language. I loved to study theology, and as I was heading into seminary I had a pretty good idea of where my studies would lead me.

Boy, was I way off!

I wrote a few months ago about my first class I ever took at seminary–Biblical Hebrew. What I didn’t share in that post was that it was that course that started me on a trajectory very different from the one I envisioned. I was introduced to a language that was extremely different from Greek, but not at all in a bad way. Instead, I found myself captivated by its beauty, its efficiency, and its ability to communicate deep theological truths just as capably as Greek could.

The other class that had a profound effect on me was Old Testament Studies. This was a two-semester course that covered every book of the Old Testament. In fact, during these classes, we had to read every book three times, so by the time I had finished both classes, I had completed three readings of the Old Testament in about nine months. It was rigorous and challenging, but it also changed my life. What I discovered was that I didn’t know the Old Testament very well. That was bad enough. But what was worse was that I completely underestimated how important the Old Testament was to reading and studying the New Testament.

From there, my trajectory was set. I had fallen in love with the Old Testament, and with the Hebrew language. By the time I finished seminary, I had taken over twice as many classes on the Old Testament as I had on the New Testament.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think I’m alone in my assumptions about the Old Testament. I think there’s a lot of well-meaning Christians in churches all around the globe who know the Old Testament is important, but would rather not bother trying to understand it and who assume that the New Testament is all they really need to get by. And while I would say that any Scripture in a believer’s life is better than no Scripture, I enthusiastically challenge the notion that the New Testament is all the Christian needs.

When the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews admonished his readers over their temptations to return to Judaism, he was confronting Christians who were being sucked back into the notion that the Old Testament was enough. That’s a problem, of course, and current unbelieving Israel is evidence enough to the consequences of holding on to the Old Testament without understanding  where it points. The New Testament is the completed revelation of God, because it is a testimony of the inauguration of the New Covenant and the revelation of the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ.

But there are also many Christians…more even, I would say…who assume that all they really need is the New Testament. That, in my mind, is an equally invalid position that sets the believer up for stunted spiritual growth.

But where would such thoughts come from? Why would believers come to the conclusion that they can neglect the Old Testament to no significant consequence? Well, one of the primary culprits happens to not sit in the pews but rather stand behind the pulpit. It’s preachers who model this attitude towards the Old Testament. Gleason Archer nailed it when he wrote,

Curious to observe and hard to understand is the relative neglect of the Old Testament by Christians in our day as Sunday after Sunday the average evangelical, Bible-believing church hears no message at all from the Hebrew Scriptures. Such Scriptures may be referred to with respect, or cited as proof in confirmation of the New Testament teaching, but nearly all the expository messages are taken from the Greek Scriptures. . . . How can Christian pastors hope to feed their flock on a well-balanced spiritual diet if they completely neglect the thirty-nine books of Holy Scripture on which Christ and all the New Testament authors received their own spiritual nourishment? (Gleason L. Archer, Jr., “A New Look at the Old Testament,” Decision [August 1972], 5)

There are several methods for neglecting the Old Testament. In some churches, the Old Testament rarely gets significant pulpit attention. Most or all sermon series are derived from New Testament passages or books. In other churches, the Old Testament is exposited from time to time, but the passages are familiar and overused, and the messages are contrived and tend to moralize the text rather than explain the text’s original meaning.

Why does this neglect takes place? Well, there’s probably many reasons for it, but three notable ones come to mind:

Lack of familiarity: the relative size of the Old Testament in comparison to the New Testament makes it more difficult for many Christians to gain familiarity. For some or perhaps many, the task of familiarizing oneself with so much content appears too daunting and many opt to stick with passages they know and understand, specifically, the New Testament.

Lack of understanding: for some Christians, the Old Testament seems too foreign to understand. They don’t understand the practices and the culture, they don’t see the relevance to today’s world, and, to put it bluntly, they just don’t get the point of all these stories and prophecies.

Lack of appreciation: for some believers, there is perhaps even an unconscious bias toward the New Testament. It may be unintentional and they may be completely ignorant of it, but it is simply assumed that the New Testament is superior to the Old Testament.

I know I may be stepping on some toes here. I’m sorry. That’s why I don’t dance. But if the shoe fits, maybe you just need to put it on and wear it and admit the problem rather than denying its there. Remember, the first step is admitting there’s a problem.

So why take the Old Testament seriously? Why should you consider diving in and studying the Old Testament for yourself? Well, let me give you a few reasons.

The Old Testament is INSPIRED

We’re all familiar with the passage…2 Timothy 3:16–17. We’ve heard it all before. But hearing is not necessarily understanding, and hearing is not necessary heeding. Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

Understand that “scripture” there is the standard term the New Testament authors used to speak of the Old Testament (cf. Rom. 1:2; 4:3; 9:17; 11:2; 15:4; 16:26; 1 Cor. 15:3–4; Gal. 3:8, 22; 4:30; 1 Tim. 5:18; Jas. 2:8, 23; 4:5; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2:6; 2 Pet. 3:16). And specifically in this context, it refers primarily to the Old Testament scriptures (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15).

The process of inspiration is a mysterious concept, but Peter spells it out as clearly as could be said in 2 Peter 1:20–21. In short, Scripture does not originate from the human author (v. 20), but rather is the product of the Holy Spirit moving the human author along to write for God (v. 21). This doesn’t mean that God simply dictated everything to them (although in some cases, like for the ten commandments, there was dictation). But in most cases the human authors write under the superintending guidance of the Holy Spirit. So what was produced were divine/human writings…human in that they were written by real people with real backgrounds, social and cultural contexts, educations, personalities, styles, etc….and divine in that the Holy Spirit ensured that what was written by these human authors was exactly what God wanted to be written.

But here’s what you have to understand about the doctrine of inspiration: the character of God INFORMS the character of Scripture. Consider the following four statements in light of inspiration:

  • If God is true then Scripture is true
  • If God is trustworthy then Scripture is trustworthy
  • If God is without error than Scripture is without error
  • If God is authoritative then Scripture is authoritative

No wonder Jesus declared in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” It’s because Scripture comes from God that you need to have and know it. It’s because Scripture comes from God that the Old Testament must be held equally in value and study with the New Testament. Consider the words of the late James Montgomery Boice:

It is beyond doubt that Jesus highly esteemed the Old Testament and constantly submitted to it as to an authoritative revelation. He taught that the Scriptures bore a witness to him, just as he bore a witness to them. Because they are the words of God, Jesus assumed their complete reliability, in whole and to the smallest part. (James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: Book I, rev. ed. [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Christian Fellowship of the USA, 1986], 45)

The Old Testament is PROFITABLE

When we go back to 2 Timothy 3:16–17, it’s hard now to miss the emphasis on inspiration. “All Scripture is God-breathed.” But note what comes next: “…and profitable.” Scripture is profitable, which means the Old Testament is profitable. But how? Consider what comes after:

  • Teaching – Scripture is the source of all doctrine and truth
  • Reproof – Scripture identifies and condemns sin
  • Correction – Scripture corrects the sinning person and straightens their crooked path
  • Training in righteousness – Scripture guides and directs people in what it means to live righteously

So what happens when Scripture is used for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness? The result is that “the man of God may be complete and fully equipped for every good work.” That is to say, Scripture gives the believer competency, enabling him to meet all the demands of life, and equips him with everything he need for righteous living.

But just like how the character of God informs the character of Scripture, so inspiration informs profitability. I can’t stress this next statement enough: If the Scripture is inspired, then it is profitable. On the flip side we could say, If the Scripture is not profitable, then it is not inspired. In other words, there’s no such thing as Scripture that’s inspired but does not have profit. To act as though a text in our Bible is inspired but holds little or no profit for the Christian is to COMPLETELY misunderstand the doctrine of inspiration. Profitless Scripture is an IMPOSSIBILITY.

If the Scripture is inspired, then it is profitable. If the Scripture is not profitable, then it is not inspired!

Now, I can hear some Christians say, “But what about the law? How can the law be profitable when the New Testament says we’re not supposed to be under the law anymore?” Well, consider what the New Testament says about the law and compare it with what 2 Timothy 3:16–17 says about how Scripture is profitable:

Purpose Reference 2 Timothy 3:16–17
The Law reveals sinfulness Romans 3:19-20 Reproof
The Law reveals sin’s hideous nature Romans 7:7–13 Reproof
The Law reveals the holiness of God 1 Peter 1:16 Teaching/training
The Law restrains sin 1 Timothy 1:9 Correction
The Law guides to Christ, the Messiah Galatians 3:23–24 Teaching

The reality is that just because the believer is not under the Mosaic Law as a legal code does not mean that it offers the believer no profit. In fact, just the opposite is the case. It’s in the Mosaic Law that we are taught about God’s holiness and righteousness (Lev. 11:45; Deut. 32:4), his eternality (Deut. 5:26; 33:27), his personhood (Lev. 26:12), his omnipotence and wisdom (Exod. 31:3; Deut 10:17), his sovereignty (Exod. 34:9), his graciousness and mercy (Exod. 45:6–7), and his atonement for sin through substitutionary sacrifice (Lev. 4:20).

All of these doctrines form the theological foundation for what we learn in the New Testament regarding God and the salvation he offers in Jesus Christ. And that segues us into a final point about the Old Testament that we really need to understand.

The Old Testament is NECESSARY

Here’s what you need to recognize about the Old Testament but probably don’t want to admit: An accurate and effective understanding of the New Testament depends upon a knowledge of the Old Testament. It’s as simple as that.

“Baloney!” I hear you say. “God’s word is clear! I can understand the New Testament on its own. I don’t need to know the Old Testament!” I understand the sentiment. The New Testament is, after all, the completion and filling up of the revelation of God’s program. But just consider this: Even the New Testament writers draw frequently from the Old Testament both for their theology as well as to encourage and instruct to the church. Just consider some of these facts:

  • Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7): contains 39 quotations or allusions to the OT in 111 verses. That’s 35% of the passage, which amounts to around 1 in every 3 verses.
  • Romans 3: contains 12 quotations or allusions to the OT in 25 verses. That’s 48% of of the passage, or just under 1 out of every 2 verses.
  • Romans 9–11: contains 64 quotations or allusions to the OT in 90 verses, amounting to 71% of the passage. That equates to 5 out of 7 verses.
  • Hebrews: contains 222 quotations or allusions to the OT in 303 verses. That comes out to be 73% of the book, or roughly 3 out of every 4 verses.
  • James: contains 52 quotations or allusions to the OT in 108 verses, or 48% of the book, which is just under 1 out of every 2 verses.
  • Jude: contains 16 quotations or allusions to the OT in 24 verses, or 67% of the book. That’s about 2 out of every 3 verses.
  • Revelation: contains 278 quotations or allusions to the OT in 404 verses That amounts to 69% of the book, or roughly 2 out of every 3 verses.

There’s many other New Testament books that aren’t listed here that contain numerous Old Testament quotations or allusions. But I hope these facts help you understand just how integrated the Old Testament is into the thoughts and theology of the New Testament writers. I can’t say this for certain, but I will anyway. I think the New Testament writers would be shocked and dismayed to think that the church would neglect these thirty-nine books we have in our Bibles, which comprise of three quarters of the holy Scriptures. They would be shocked for the simple fact that for them, the Old Testament was their Bible! How can it not be ours also?

The reality is that the church’s gospel message…the message concerning Jesus Christ…was a message that flowed directly from the Old Testament! The message of the New Testament apostles and evangelists was the same message proclaimed by Moses and the prophets (Acts 8:29–35; 26:6–7; 22–23; 1 Cor. 15:3–4). Likewise, the extension of the gospel and of the membership of the church was founded upon Old Testament revelation and preaching (Acts 13:44–49; 15:14–17).

So when we consider the Old Testament, we need to recognize three core principles:

  • If the Old Testament is inspired, then to neglect it is to neglect the very words of God himself
  • If the Old Testament is profitable, then without it, the man of God cannot be complete and fully equipped for every good work
  • If the Old Testament is necessary, then without it the New Testament revelation becomes incomprehensible and its gospel becomes groundless

The message couldn’t be more clear or more simple: take the Old Testament seriously. And I promise you that if you do, and if you begin to get a sense of how it all fits together…the theology of the Old Testament…that you will learn to love it and appreciate it. You may never be as fascinated with it as I am. But you will appreciate it, not only because it’s God’s word, but because it helps you understand all of God’s word.

Now, how do you go about studying the Old Testament? Well, that’s a topic for another time. Perhaps even next time.