Reading the Old Testament is like trying to wrap your brain around a long, complicated movie. You need to read it over and over to catch and understand important details and see how they all fit together. The Old Testament provides a 2,500-year backstory to the New Testament, but because we’re so far removed from the customs, traditions and history it describes, it takes work to become familiar with them.
But the Old Testament isn’t just a daunting book. It is 39 uniquely daunting books. That’s why many of us find one-year Bible reading plans such a challenge.
Many of us struggle to wade through the dense lists of commands, genealogies and prophecies in the Old Testament. So how do we apply any of it, let alone enjoy it?
We asked Dr. Mark Futato, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, for his thoughts.
Cru: You obviously love the Old Testament, but what would you say to those of us who find it hard work?
Dr. Futado: One thing to do is just start with Paul’s perspective, that the Old Testament was written for our encouragement and to give us hope, even the dark stories. As we read the Old Testament, we’re looking to be instructed and encouraged so that we can have hope.
Cru: What do you think stops us from enjoying the Old Testament?
Dr. Futado: There’s a big disconnect between the person reading the Old Testament and the text itself. We can really feel the gap between the world of the Old Testament and our world, so we struggle to understand what the text means.
Cru: So what can we learn about Jesus through the Old Testament?
Dr. Futado: The main thing we can learn is that He’s coming as Messiah. The New Testament really unpacks for us what that means. The Old Testament is like a movie trailer telling us what’s coming in the gospel with the Messiah. When we go back, we see things an original Old Testament reader wouldn’t have gotten. But we’ll read these passages more clearly after we’ve “seen the movie,” after we’ve read and understood the New Testament. We’re re-watching with the end in view, so to speak.
Cru: So how do we apply the Old Testament?
Dr. Futado: First, we need to understand the Old Testament in its original context. And then we have to see how the text drives us to who Jesus is and what He has done for us. Once we see how that text relates to Christ, we’re in a position to understand how that applies to us.
As Dr. Futato says, the Old Testament was written for our encouragement and instruction. So, as you read, ask and expect God to do both.
Although the Old Testament, with its strange and unfamiliar customs and rules, can feel irrelevant to modern life, it uniquely reveals much about who God is and the challenges we face in relating to Him. Many of these rules were given to specific people in specific situations. Some no longer apply (like instructions for building an ark, priestly duties and dietary restrictions).
If you mistakenly focus on the rules, you can miss the overarching story of God relating to humankind that culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament’s customs and rules are part of that story and help you better understand and appreciate who Jesus is and what He did for us. You’ll miss much in the New Testament if you have little to no grasp of the Old.
When you read, ask yourself what you can learn about God and His character from the passage you are reading. For instance, you can learn about God’s holiness and righteousness in His judgment of sin in Genesis. You can learn about His love and compassion in the Psalms and His wisdom in the Proverbs. You can learn about His sovereignty in Job and in the prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel.
How does this passage inform and enlighten your understanding of the gospel and the hope found in the New Testament? The writers of the New Testament knew the Old Testament well. They quote it frequently in their writings, and often what they teach assumes that their audience has some knowledge of an Old Testament story, law or prophecy. Many people mistakenly believe that the Old Testament only highlights God’s wrath and the New Testament God’s grace, but this simply is not the case.
When you read a passage from the Old Testament, read it multiple times. Review what comes before it to remind yourself of the context. Use the introduction and overview of the Old Testament book you’re reading in a study Bible or a Bible dictionary to become more familiar with its historical context.
Write down any questions that come to mind while reading a passage, and look up additional information about them later. For instance, reading about Moses, Pharaoh and the Israelites in Egypt might prompt you to research the customs and culture of ancient Egypt. Reading about Abraham could be a springboard to learning about Ur of the Chaldees.
Use cross-references to locate other passages that might shed light on what’s going on. Different books of the Bible often talk about the same story. For example, in Acts, Stephen summarizes Old Testament history and connects it to the story of Jesus. The Book of Hebrews refers to lots of Old Testament passages and is harder to understand if you’ve never read the Old Testament.
Become familiar with the New Testament before trying to wade into the Old Testament. At the end of Luke’s gospel, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus Himself shows two of His followers how the Old Testament is a book about Him. The better you know Him through the New Testament, the better you will be able to recognize Him in the Old.
There are a couple more things you should keep in mind. First, you can’t understand any of the Bible without the help of the Holy Spirit. Pray for understanding. Second, take your time. God’s Word is unchanging, so there is no rush. God will reveal things to you in His own time as you consistently go to His Word for understanding.
Check out “How to Study the Bible.”
If you want to dive deeper into the Old testament, try finding a good Bible study:
“The Step Stone Bible,” which has a ton of information regarding the locations and cultures in which the Bible was written.
“God’s Big Picture” and “Life’s Big Questions” by Vaughan Roberts.
Or visit some of Cru’s helpful resources:
When you become a Christian, you enter into an exciting, lifelong relationship with the Bible. If you want to learn from the Bible, you’ll need to carve out intentional time for it.
The Bible is God’s way of making Himself known to us. Here are 14 important reasons to read it.
While there are several great methods of studying the Bible, here’s a simple method one can follow: Observation, Interpretation, Transformation and Application.
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