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How to Read the Old Testament - Part 1

Posted in Bible, Discipleship, History of Redemption, Old Testament

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In the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie drinks and drinks and drinks his Ovaltine—something like chocolate milk powder—and saves the proofs-of-purchase to get his Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Pin. Well, he gets it. And in a moment of childhood ecstasy he attempts to decode the secret message from the radio show. He discovers, to his dismay, that the longtime mystery message is only another commercial from the show’s sponsor. It says merely, “Drink More Ovaltine.”

After all that work and focus and saving and patience, the great message was nothing he didn’t already know. Was it worth it? Absolutely not. Was it a complete sham? Yes! Would he have rather gotten all that time back and invested himself in something better? For sure.

Unfortunately, this is how some of us feel about reading our Old Testaments. First we think we need some Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pin to interpret all those oddities. Then we’re afraid that when we’ve put in all that effort it won’t really tell us much we don’t already know. In other words, maybe in the end it’s not even worth it.

If these are common feelings for you, I hope you track with me to the end of this article.

The truth is, while we don’t need a decoder pin, we do need to put in some time to think through some things. But far from being a waste of our time, in the end we will discover mysteries, be transformed, find the Lord, and even find ourselves. If that seems like a good use of your time, then let’s think through how to read our Old Testaments.

First, open up your Bible to its table of contents (it’ll help if you actually do this). We want to point out a few things. Notice that the Old Testament has about twice as many books as the New Testament. Notice also that your Old Testament is likely over a thousand pages, and your New Testament is about a third of that. This is a good basic observation. If the Bible is God’s word and two-thirds of the Bible is the Old Testament, then doesn’t it seem like we should read it?

The next thing to see is the list of books in your Old Testament. Look for Genesis right at page one. All the books that follow up through Esther are called the “history books,” though the first five are also separated as “the books of Moses” or “the Law of Moses.” These history books tell the story from creation (Genesis 1-2) to the rise and fall of the nation of Israel, and then some about the nation after its Babylonian captivity. These books are historical narratives. They communicate the deepest truth, but they do it as they describe what people say and do at different times.

Then we come to the books from Job to Song of Solomon. These are called the “wisdom books” because they emphasize “wisdom” so much. We love these books and likely have spent a good deal of time in Psalms and Proverbs. Poetry is the dominant style of these books.

The last major part of the Old Testament goes from Isaiah to Malachi. All of these are the prophetic books—the Major Prophets are Isaiah to Daniel, the Minor Prophets are Hosea to Malachi. These books are a mix between poetry and historical narrative.

These books date from the books of Moses in 1,500 B.C. or so to Esther which dates somewhere in the 400s B.C. In other words they are written over a span of time twice as long as from the Reformation to the present. That’s a long time. Almost all of it was written in Hebrew with a little written in Aramaic.

Now the question for us is how to read the Old Testament. How do we read it in such a way that we get far more out of it than some silly or simplistic message like “Drink More Ovaltine”?

We’ll start with an answer to this question and then work out the implications of the answer.


How do we interpret the Old Testament? To get at the answer to this we need to state a fundamental principle for interpreting God’s Word. That is, let the Bible teach you how to interpret the Bible. Because the Bible is inspired and we are not, the Bible is inerrant and absolute and authoritative and we are not, it must also be our teacher and guide when it comes to interpreting what we read in it. The Reformers used the phrase Scripture interprets Scripture (or the much more opaque phrase, the analogy of faith) to describe this idea. If we are careful and patient readers of the Bible we will get the necessary insights from it to interpret it correctly.

Our question once again is how do we interpret the Old Testament? The most important aspect of this is that the New Testament is our primary guide in how to read both the Old and the New Testaments. The way that Jesus and the apostles understand God’s Word acts as our interpretive grid for all of God’s Word.

In this sense, then, we must start by reading our Bibles backwards. The commands, history, and teaching of the Old Testament cannot be properly understood without the perspective of the New Testament. As an example, how would we know that Melchizedek is such an important type of Christ without Hebrews 5-7? The reference in Psalm 110:4 would not be enough for us to get this from our Old Testament. With the New Testament as our guide we learn several things about our Bibles.

(2 Tim. 3:16-17; Heb. 3:7; Matt. 19:4-5)

First, one obvious place to start is to see that the New Testament views the Old Testament as the Word of God which continues to speak—not just in the past, but in the present. Paul says that the Bible is “breathed out by God” and “profitable for teaching…that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Its value is not merely in the history that it provides, but it is “breathed out by God” and it is necessary to equip us for “every good work.”

Similarly, the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 95:7-11 and strikingly calls it the Holy Spirit speaking to us right now these thousands of years later. The key is in the verb tense he uses: “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says [present active indicative; not past tense, “said”], ‘Today, if you hear his voice…’” (Heb. 3:7). In other words, that “today” rings out to us right now in our own day. As the writer tells us, then, the Old Testament is spoken by “the Holy Spirit,” and God’s Holy Spirit is speaking right now, directly to us.

As a third example we can see in the teaching of Jesus the way he refers to Genesis 1:27 (humanity made male and female) and 2:24 (a man to leave father and mother to join to his wife). This point is more subtle, but notice that Jesus speaks first of “he who created them,” and this same person is also the one who “said” Genesis 2:24: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife’” (Matthew 19:4-5, emphasis mine). In other words, the Creator is the one who spoke Genesis 2:24, not Moses.

In these three cases it is very clear that to Jesus and the writers of the New Testament, the Old Testament is indeed the God-breathed Word of God. It speaks authoritatively because it is God speaking to us. The Old Testament is no trite slogan from a corporate sponsor, but it is the Creator of the universe speaking to us directly and personally.


Second, Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of all Scripture. He is not mentioned until Matthew 1:1, over a thousand pages into most Bibles, and yet he is the very centerpiece of the Bible’s teaching (Luke 24:27; John 5:46; Rom. 1:1-4; etc.). He is the central Fact by which we interpret every page of the Bible. He is the Truth which we must understand if we are to understand any verse of the Scriptures. He is the great Promise that echoes throughout the Old Testament and which we see fulfilled in Christ.

Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The key to this verse is what Jesus means by the word "fulfill." What exactly did Jesus "fulfill"? Some believe that Jesus fulfilled the entire Old Testament and therefore its prophecies, commandments, and ceremonies all point to him and end with him and the Christian is therefore not obligated to obey the commandments. Yet, this is to push Jesus' words too far. It is much better to read the word "fulfill" in light of the many other appearances of the term in the gospels.

Jesus here is speaking in terms similar to the many references in the four gospels where the author points out something Jesus is or does as fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy. Jesus is born of a virgin “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 1:22; cf. Isa. 7:14). He was born in Bethlehem “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 2:15; cf. Micah 5:2). He healed the sick “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’” (Matt. 8:17; cf. Isa. 53:4). Lots were casts for his clothing while he was on the cross “to fulfill the Scripture” (John 19:24; cf. Ps. 22:18). In this way Jesus does not “abolish the Law or the Prophets,” but he “fulfills them.”

In other words, what Jesus has in mind in Matthew 5:17 are the prophecies of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is far from abolished by Jesus, for he comes to fulfill its promises. Further, as he continues to teach in the Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing the commandments, he will teach them as binding for the Christian as understood through Christ (more on that below).

To continue on Jesus being the Center, Jesus is also the gospel of God, the “good news” (the meaning of “gospel”) that was "promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures" (Rom. 1:1-4), but which is accomplished through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension (Rom. 3:21-28; 5:1-8:39). All of this confirms what Jesus told the Pharisees, "If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me" (John 5:46).

Thus, just as publishers divide our Bibles into the Old Testament and the New Testament at the moment Christ is born, and history is divided into B.C. and A.D. because Christ came, so Jesus is the centerpiece of our Bible. It is through the teaching of the New Testament that this becomes unmistakable and clear.


Third, we learn that the Bible’s history is better called “a history of redemption.”[1] The Bible does not give us an exhaustive history of humanity from Adam to the new heavens and the new earth. An obvious example of this is that world powers come and go with only passing references to them—Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans. Each of these was dominant for hundreds of years and over vast regions, but they are mentioned only as they enter into the story of God’s people.

Further, the Bible doesn’t even give us an exhaustive history of God’s own people. As an example, Moses and David are the subject of many books of the Old Testament, and they are referenced over a thousand times in our Bibles, being named in almost every book. But Seth the son of Adam is mentioned in only three places (Gen. 4:25-5:8; 1 Chron. 1:1; Luke 3:38) though he lived 800 years—a span of time roughly equivalent to that described in the thirteen books from of Exodus to 2 Chronicles. The only real detail we have about him is that his father was Adam and his own son was Enosh. Why such a difference between Seth and the key figures Moses and David? The answer is that Moses and David were central players in how God accomplished the redemption of his people. Seth was apparently important only in the propagation of the race of man, but that is all. So the Old Testament communicates through emphasis that some events and people are more important (Abraham, Moses, David, the Exodus) and some are less important (Seth, Lot, etc.).

But even more important than the Old Testament emphasis is the New Testament teaching on this history of redemption, for indeed the New Testament reinforces this idea. It highlights the same key figures as the Old Testament: Abraham (e.g., Matt. 1:1; Rom. 4), Moses (e.g., John 6; Acts 7; 2 Tim. 3), and David (e.g., Matt. 1:1; 9:27).

The New Testament also places emphasis on certain events of the Old Testament much more than others: Creation (Gen. 1:1-2; John 1:1-4), the Fall (Gen. 3:1ff.; Rom. 5:12-22), the Passover and the Exodus (Ex. 12-13; Matt. 26:2ff.; Acts 7; 13:16ff.; 1 Cor. 5:7), the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Luke 22:20; Heb. 8:8ff.), the coming Messiah (Isa. 61:1-13; Luke 4:18), the coming final “day of the Lord” (Joel 2:28-32; Rev. 20:11-15), and the new heavens and the new earth (Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:1). In places like Acts 7:1-53 and Acts 13:16-41, Stephen and Paul summarize the history of Israel in very similar ways. They hit the highpoints in God’s story of redemption, and these duplicate what we see in the Old Testament’s emphasis and the New Testament references.

Taken together, then, here is the basic plotline of what we are calling God’s history of redemption:

  1. Creation (Gen. 1-2; very approx. 6,000 B.C.)
  2. The Fall (Gen. 3)
  3. Abraham and the covenant (Gen. 12-25; approx. 2,000 B.C.)
  4. Moses, the Exodus, and the Law (Ex.-Deut.; approx. 1,500 B.C.)
  5. David and the monarchy (1-2 Samuel; 1-2 Chronicles; approx. 1,000 B.C.)
    **We could add here the Assyrian captivity (722 B.C.) and the Babylonian captivity (586 B.C.), but little is made of these in our New Testaments.
  6. Jesus and the new covenant (Matt.-John; 4 B.C.–30 A.D.)
  7. Pentecost and the church age (Acts-Rev.; 33 A.D. to the present)
  8. The return of Christ and final judgment (Rev. 19)
  9. New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 21-22)

We could add three more events to this basic plotline, but they are ones that get little attention in the New Testament. These are the “promise of redemption” in Genesis 3:15, where the Lord promises that an “offspring” of the woman shall crush the head of the serpent (Rom. 16:20). A second is the flood of Noah and the covenant made with him (Gen. 6-9). A third is the captivities in Assyria (e.g., 2 Kings 17) and especially in Babylon (e.g., 2 Kings 25). In the history of God’s people these events are significant, but in terms of moving forward God’s plan of redemption they apparently contribute little. This is why the New Testament mentions them but makes little of them.

[1] Or “salvation history.” Some authors have taken to using the phrase, “The Storyline of the Bible,” and by this they mean that while the Bible contains 66 books, really there is a single, over-arching story that connects everything we find there. This story has a “storyline,” which is the story of God accomplishing his redemption.

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