As a Bible teacher, I often find that Christians are totally mystified when it comes to reading the Old Testament. We know how to read the New Testament– that’s about Jesus and the church, so we’re on pretty solid footing there– but the Old? Battles, sacrifices. genealogies, weird stories and endless amounts of poetry? How do we even begin to understand what’s going on? You may as well take a line from those old maps and stick it on the Old Testament: “Here there be dragons.”
But our conviction is that all of God’s Word is for all of his people. You don’t need to be a scholar to interpret three quarters of your Bible. You can read–and understand– what God is telling you today.
There are a number of statements in the New Testament which clue us in to how the Old Testament should be understood. In John 5:39, Jesus tells the Pharisees “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” He says a little later on, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (5:46). Paul affirms something similar when he says that Christ died and rose again “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Peter says that the prophets of the Old Testament were predicting the sufferings of Christ by the Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:10-12). So it’s clear that Jesus and his apostles think the Old Testament was written about him.
More than that, the apostles seem to think that the Old Testament was written for the church. Paul says in Romans 15 that “whatever was written in former times was written for our instruction, that through the endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). He says in 1 Corinthians of the Jewish exodus that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). This is what allows Paul to relate the Jews’ eating of manna and drinking water from a rock to the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10), to apply laws concerning oxen to the rights of a gospel minister (1 Corinthians 9), to call the church Isaac and the unbelieving world Ishmael (Galatians 4); it’s what allows Peter to give the Jew-Gentile church the designation given to Israel in the Old Testament, that we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).
What this means is that when you read your Bible, you can read all of it, not just your favorite bits, as God’s word to you. It’s all about Jesus, and it’s all for the church. This isn’t an abstract concept, by the way. It matters now. Have you ever started in on a one-year reading plan for your Bible and gotten bogged down in Leviticus, or Samuel, or Jeremiah, because it feels alien and draining rather than life-giving? Have you ever felt that a particular passage couldn’t possibly fit the rubric given in 1 Timothy, not profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, or training in righteousness? The truth is, the whole Bible exalts Christ for the benefit of the church. Therefore, it is our duty and delight to read the Old Testament in such a way that Christ is exalted and we are edified. This is not reading into the text; this is reading the entire text.