Why Christians Should Read the Old Testament

Picture of Bible, The Old Testament
Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash

Few people would jump into a movie halfway through on purpose. People who love reading books do not usually open them to chapter 16 and start their reading mid-way through the book. The reason we don’t do this is obvious. If we want to understand how things work in a book or a movie, it’s wise to start at the beginning. However, when it comes to reading the Bible, many Christians do what I just described. Many Christians practically ignore the Old Testament and sprint directly to the New Testament and many never make their way back to the Old Testament.

I realize we are under the new covenant and not the old (Heb. 8:8-13). I know the new covenant is described as more glorious than the old covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-11). I recognize salvation comes through the New Testament message of Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). I would even agree that if a person only had one day to live it would be more profitable to read John and Acts and respond to Jesus’ grace rather than slogging through Leviticus and Zechariah.

Yet, we cheat ourselves by willfully neglecting the old covenant which makes up almost three-fourths of our Bibles. The Old Testament can be intimidating. The Old Testament can be viewed as boring, especially as we have become familiar with epistles and the short pithy lists contained in them and have not spent a lot of time reading prophecy or narrative which makes up most of the Old Testament.

Even with all that said, the Old Testament is necessary and a knowledge of it is indispensable to Christians. The Old Testament was the Bible for Jesus and the early church. As you read the sermons in Acts, they quote extensively from the Old Testament. Apostles wrote to churches to tell them they must not be ignorant of the message of the old covenant if they are going to live faithfully under the new covenant (1 Cor. 10:1-12). Allow me to give a few reasons why Christians should read the Old Testament and conclude with some practical tips on where to start.

The Old Testament Introduces Us to God

The Old Testament describes God as the one who created everything (Gen. 1:1; Pss. 33:6, 33:9). The Old Testament reveals God’s nature and the type of God we can expect to encounter as we read through the rest of the Bible (Exod. 34:6-7). The Old Testament shows us how God deals with sin (Nah. 1:3) and how ready he is to forgive (Psa. 130:3-4; Mic. 7:18-19). In the Old Testament, we learn that God keeps his promises and is trustworthy no matter how much time has gone by (Josh. 21:43-45; 23:14).

It is true that the triune nature of God is more clearly taught and expounded in the New Testament, but that reality is based on our knowledge of God in the first 39 books of the Bible.  While many people think God changed between the testaments, a careful reading of the old covenant helps us to see that we are dealing with the same God (Mal. 3:6). That shouldn’t sadden us but excite us! If we want to know God better, we will start by reading the Old Testament and his dealings with humanity for centuries.  

Background and Foundation of the New Testament

Likewise, Christians need to read the Old Testament because it is the background and foundation for the New Testament. The New Testament opens by describing Jesus as the descendant of David and Abraham (Matt. 1:1; cf. Gen. 12:1-3; 2 Sam. 7:12-16). Those words mean relatively little to someone unacquainted with the promises made to those two men centuries beforehand. We are also introduced to John the Baptist, and he is described as one preparing the way for the Lord (Matt. 3:1-3; Mk. 1:2-4). This is fulfilling the prophecies made about the forerunner of the Messiah (Mal. 3:1; Isa. 40:3).

There are also principles about God’s holiness and reverence that are first introduced to us in the Old Testament (Lev. 10:1-2; 2 Sam. 6:1-7). When Jesus gave the greatest commands for humans to follow he quoted from the Law of Moses (Matt. 22:37-40; cf. Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:4-5). This is just a sampling of the way the Old Testament serves as the background and foundation for our understanding of the New Testament.

Sermons in Acts by Peter, Stephen, and Paul all demonstrate that Christianity is not a new faith that sprung up out of nowhere. Instead, Christianity is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises of God doing something new in the world through his chosen servant Jesus. Their use of the old covenant shows that Christianity is the child that the old covenant gave birth to. It’s impossible to reach our full potential as students of the New Testament without an in-depth knowledge of the Old Testament.

Develops Our Biblical Vocabulary

We may be tempted to take certain words and concepts for granted in the New Testament if we ignore their usage in the Old Testament. Words like sanctification, priesthood, and the temple of God may not mean as much to us if we fail to see how they were used in the old covenant. When Peter says we are a spiritual house for God, a royal priesthood, and able to offer up spiritual sacrifices, he leans heavily upon his readers’ knowledge of the Old Testament (1 Pet. 2:5). Also, the idea that Christians are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s own possession comes from Old Testament statements spoken initially about Israel but ultimately fulfilled in the church (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. Exod. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:6).

Likewise, When Jesus says we are to be the light of the world (Matt. 5:16) he probably has Isaiah’s words in mind that call for God’s people to shine their light for the benefit of the nations (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). Even words like sin, transgression, and unrighteousness are introduced to us in the Old Testament (Psa. 32:5; Hos. 12:8). Our biblical vocabulary and understanding of concepts will be enriched after we spend adequate time with the books in which these concepts originate.

Greater Appreciation for Jesus

Most Christians know that Jesus is prophesied about in the Old Testament. The prophets said that the Messiah would come. They spoke of where he would be born (Mic. 5:2), how he would teach (Ps. 78:2), how he would die (Ps. 22; Isa. 53), and even his resurrection (Ps. 16:10). However, what might not be as well known is that Jesus says the entire Old Testament, when read properly, points to him (Lk. 24:44; Jn. 5:39-40). After his resurrection, Jesus taught his disciples how to read the Old Testament properly. The Old Testament is read properly when there is a consideration for its original context, but also when it is read with an eye looking beyond itself to its final fulfillment in Jesus (Jn. 1:44).

SEE ALSO: Why Christians Need to Read the Psalms

Moreover, reading and understanding the old covenant helps us to see all that Jesus did for us. He fulfilled the law we never could fulfill. He is the sin offering that keeps us from being tied to the sacrificial system described in detail in Leviticus. His fulfillment of those things does not make them unimportant. But it does mean that we should read and study them—and as we do so—we will have a deeper love for him in view of all he accomplished for us. It’s impossible to read the old covenant in light of the cross and maintain a small view of Jesus. If you only read the New Testament you can still fall in love with Jesus. However, if you read the Old Testament with the knowledge of Jesus, your love will deepen and grow.

Where Do I Start?

There are several different ways to get into the old covenant and enjoy it. You could start in Genesis and read it straight through. Or you could read all 150 psalms. The psalms are not only prayers of God’s people in the Old Testament, but they have narrative poems which tell the story of the history of God’s people that will help you as you read the Law of Moses and the prophets later. You could devour Joshua to see God give his people the land and then read 1-2 Kings to see how they lost it through their sin, idolatry, and rebellion. Of course, Isaiah is a great place to spend some time as he has much to say about the failings of the people, but also about the faithfulness of God and his plans for the future.

The important thing is to start. Find a way that works for you and then work out the plan. Look for what the Old Testament teaches you about God, and notice themes that are familiar to you from the New Testament. Listen for vocabulary that is borrowed and expanded by New Testament authors, and above all, look for Jesus! I’m thankful to live under the New Testament, but I am also thankful God preserved the Old (Rom. 15:4)!

Hiram Kemp

Hiram is a graduate of the Florida School of Preaching, Freed-Hardeman University, and is working on his Ph.D. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as one of the ministers at the Lehman Avenue church of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He and his wife Brittani have two children, Nadia and Andre.

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