How to read the Old Testament
A generation ago, almost everyone in Britain knew what the Bible said, even if they did not believe it. But today, many people do not know what the Bible says. A recent survey found that nearly half the people in Britain do not know that Good Friday is the day we remember the death of Christ. But of course it goes deeper than that. For many people, Jesus is just a mythical figure, somewhere between Father Christmas and Robin Hood.
One of the biggest mistakes that we can make, as followers of Christ, is to assume that the people around us know what we are talking about. Most of the time, they have no idea.
What is even more sad is that, increasingly, even as Christians we do not know much about what the Bible says.
So what? Why does it matter? Well, why do we want to read the Bible at all? Surely, it is because we want to meet Jesus. We want to see him better, understand him better, love him more, and follow him more. And the place where we see Him and hear Him is in the pages of the Bible. We are right to be cautious about any kind of 'Christianity' that is based on anything other than the Bible.
So how do we meet Jesus in the Bible? We read the Gospels and the New Testament letters. Maybe we tried Revelation once, and it was really heavy going. When it comes to the Old Testament, mostly, we find it hard work. Some parts of it seem, at first glance, to be barbaric, and frankly sub-Christian. Other parts just do not seem to be relevant to us in 2004 in any way.
So we have a few favorite verses that we quote, and a few favorite Psalms that we sing, and a few favorite stories that we tell to the kids: Noah's Ark, David and Goliath, Jonah, Daniel in the Lion's Den. But there are huge chunks that we just miss out, and we do not really know what it is all about. If someone asked us to explain in two minutes what the Old Testament is about, could we do it?
This would not matter if the Bible were just a collection of ancient human writings. But we say we believe that God inspired the whole Bible, and that it is God's message to us - all of it. So are we missing something important if we do not 'get' the Old Testament?
Of course, the Old Testament was the Bible that Jesus read. It was the only Bible he had. And Jesus seems to have had a very different attitude to the Old Testament than we do. He soaked his mind in it, so that, for example, when the devil confronted him during the temptation, Jesus was able to bring to mind immediately the appropriate passages from Deuteronomy with which to face down the enemy.
Later when he was in the synagogue at Nazareth, and they handed him the Isaiah scroll, he was able to roll it open immediately to the passage that he wanted and read it, and then tell the people sitting there
'This Scripture has come true today before your very eyes!' (Luke chapter 4 verses 14-21)
If we could have asked Jesus: 'What is the Old Testament about?' he would have said, 'It's about me.'
So for example, in John chapter 5 verses 39, Jesus is debating a group of Jewish leaders, and he says to them:
You search the Scriptures because you believe they give you eternal life. But the scriptures point to me.
At the end of Luke's Gospel, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, as he is talking to his two followers on the road to Emmaus, Jesus
quoted passages from the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining what all the scriptures said about himself. (Luke chapter 24 verses 27).
Wouldn't it have been wonderful to overhear that conversation? To have listened to Jesus interpreting the Old Testament.
A little later he told his followers
'When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true.
And the Bible goes on:
Then he opened their minds to understand these many Scriptures. (Luke chapter 24 verses 44-45).
Clearly, then, Jesus believed that the whole of the Old Testament was, in some sense, about him - not just a few favorite prophecies from Isaiah and Micah.
This gives us a light to shine on the Old Testament: if we read part of the Old Testament in a way that does not, somehow, point us towards Christ, we have probably misunderstood it. For example, if we read the story of David and Goliath, and all we see is a parable about the importance of standing up to those who are bigger and tougher than we are, we have really missed the point. We should be reading the Old Testament in a way that points us towards Christ, all the time.
I am sure I am not the only person in the world who has decided to read right through the Bible. Genesis was OK - it was an exciting story. The first half of Exodus was pretty eventful too. But by the time I got to the end of Exodus, I was struggling, and the bookmark is still in my Bible, halfway through Leviticus, several years later! Perhaps you identify with this. Perhaps not.
Here are five practical suggestions to help us to stick with it, and to get the most out of it:
- We need to set aside a definite time for it. You know the old saying, 'we don't plan to fail; we just fail to plan.' If we do not set aside a definite time, it will not just happen.
- Pray when you read. Pray that God will show you more of Jesus through what you read. And keep asking yourself: how does this point me towards Jesus?
- Use a modern translation. One that is clear and easy to read. Unless you are a student of English literature, there really is no virtue in using a translation that is difficult to follow.
- Read in big chunks. If you are reading the latest novel by your favorite author, you do not just read three or four sentences and then put it away until tomorrow. You read whole chapters on end. We need to develop the habit of reading the Bible the same way. Set aside a Sunday afternoon and read through the whole of Genesis, or the whole of 1 Samuel. Do not let yourself get bogged down in the difficult bits. Speed up. Skim the genealogies, and the lists of towns and cities. Get the big picture.
- Use a reading scheme. There are several schemes around that will help you to read through the whole Bible in a year, or two years, or five years. Find one that works for you, and then stick to it.
Here are three books that will help you to get the most out of reading the Old Testament. Approximately, the first is the easiest, and the third is the most technical:
God's Big Picture
Tracing the story-line of the Bible
In "God's Big Picture" Vaughan Roberts helps us to see the Bible as one book, with one author (God) and one consistent theme - God's kingdom - God's people, living in God's place, under God's rule and blessing.
The key principle Roberts develops for understanding the Bible as one book with one message is that the whole Bible points to Jesus Christ - the Old Testament as well as New Testament.
The unfolding revelation of God in the Bible
Dr Graeme Goldsworthy is a lecturer in Old Testament, Biblical Theology and hermeneutics at Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia.
Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture:
The application of biblical theology to expository preaching