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How to Read the Old Testament - Part 2

Posted in Bible, History of Redemption, Old Testament

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This article continues from the previous post. We are wrestling with the issue of how a Christian should interpret the Old Testament. We said that we need let the Bible itself teach us how to interpret the Bible, and the most important guide for interpreting the Old Testament is our New Testament. That was the starting point. Then we said that the New Testament clearly sees the Old Testament as the Word of God. Next we saw that Jesus is the centerpiece of all Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments. Last we looked at the history of redemption. Below is the rest of the discussion.


Fourth, the New Testament makes clear the distinction between the “new covenant” and the “old covenant.” The “old covenant” describes the covenant made at Mt. Sinai between the Lord and Israel (Ex. 19-24). It is a God-given way by which his people relate to him and it includes the Ten Commandments, the cleanliness code, the plans for the tabernacle, the annual festivals, and especially the elaborate system of sacrifices. Thus, God makes a way so that he might dwell among his people (Ex. 25:8), but only according to very specific regulations. This material is the focus of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of Israel being blessed for obeying this covenant and cursed if they disobey it.

Yet, the New Testament tells us that in Jesus the promised “new covenant” has been inaugurated (Heb. 8:8ff.; Luke 22:20). It was promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and was said to bring true forgiveness, true fellowship with God, and a true ability to obey God. The old covenant could never bring these. The author of Hebrews tells us about the old covenant that “according to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (9:9). In fact, “in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year” (10:3), but no ability to remove those sins.

Jesus, however, offers the sacrifice that “perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:14), and “where there is forgiveness of these [sins], there is no longer any offering for sin” required (10:18). The result of the new covenant is that sinners like us can “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (10:19). If the symbol of the old covenant is the curtain that separated the most holy place from the people of God (cf. Lev. 16), the symbol of the new covenant is that curtain being torn from top to bottom at the sacrifice of Jesus to allow free access to God (Matt. 27:51; Mark. 15:38; Luke 23:45).

The old covenant is a confusing part of the Bible’s teaching for most Christians. The mistake often made is to say that because the old covenant is “obsolete” and “ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13), the Old Testament is somehow less important and even “vanishing away.” Yet, the old covenant is only a part of the Old Testament, formally only a few chapters in Exodus (19-24), with elaboration in the rest of the books of Moses (Exodus-Deuteronomy).

Further, the Old Testament has much more to say about approaching God than what is given in “the old covenant.” The rest of the Old Testament even helps us interpret the old covenant.

For instance, we cannot forget that salvation by faith is given first in the Old Testament, not the new. Abraham’s faith is an essential part of our Old Testament. Abraham was the first to hear the commendation we typically identify with Paul and the apostles: “he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Justification by faith alone is not new with Jesus, but it began with the faith of Abraham (Rom. 4:1ff.). This predates the old covenant by hundreds of years and is essential to the religion of the Old Testament.

A man like David who committed adultery and murder—both capital crimes under the Law of Moses, the old covenant—but who remains blessed by the Lord throughout his life, makes no sense apart from the faith of Abraham. David was indeed righteous, but not in the sense of complying with the technicalities of the Law of Moses. He was righteous because “he believed the LORD, and [the Lord] counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:6-7). As David himself says and Paul will quote in Romans 4:7, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (citing Ps. 32:1-2). “Blessed” here means justified and saved (Rom. 4:1-6). Our “lawless deeds” do not mean automatic condemnation and judgment unless we do not have the faith of Abraham.

Further, in places like Amos 5:22-24 the Old Testament cries out against those who bring “burnt offerings and grain offerings”—both clear parts of the old covenant—but lack “justice” and “righteousness.” God says, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen” (v. 23). In other words, a legalistic obedience to rituals and sacrifices is meaningless unless someone possesses the faith of Abraham, a faith that is lived out in “justice” and “righteousness” (v. 24). Psalm 40:6-8 and Isaiah 66:3-4 and many other passages echo this same idea. Perhaps Hosea 6:6 expresses it as baldly as any passage: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (cited by Jesus in Matt. 9:13; 12:7).

Such teaching makes it crystal-clear that salvation is found in having a faith like Abraham’s, not in a dutiful allegiance to the details of the old covenant. The old covenant was not to be ignored and obedience indeed included honoring its commands. Yet this was to be done in true faith. The old covenant told the believer the way to live, but they would need to look to the faith of Abraham to know the way of salvation.

The above shows that there is a clear distinction between the old covenant and the Old Testament. The old covenant is indeed “obsolete” and vanishing away (Heb. 8:13), but this should not make us blind to what the Old Testament provides to the new covenant believer. One critical dimension of the Old Testament is how it guides us in knowing and doing the will of God—a “rule of life.” This is the understanding of the Old Testament to which we now turn.



The fifth key way that the New Testament interprets the Old Testament is by showing us that it provides Christians with a “rule of life.” The Westminster Confession of Faith uses this phrase to summarize the role of the Old Testament in the life of the believer. They call it a “rule of life,” not “a covenant of works,” which a person must obey in order to be saved. It is a “rule of life,” which means that it reveals to us “the will of God” and our “duty” to him and others (Westminster Confession of Faith 19:6).

This way of approaching the Old Testament is exactly right, but not because these 17th century divines were revolutionary in their approach. They were right because they accurately captured what Jesus and the apostles teach about our Old Testament. Here are some examples.

Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that anyone who “relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). He then proceeds to apply what he says. In that sermon he begins by quoting six commandments from the Pentateuch, all with the familiar refrain, “You have heard that it was said” (e.g., 5:21). He cites commands against murder (v. 21) and adultery (v. 27), about divorce (v. 31), vows (v. 33), an “eye for an eye” (v. 38), and loving our neighbor (v. 43).[2] In no case does he tell us that these commandments have been done away with because they are part of the old covenant. Instead, he uses them as a “rule of life” and applies them to the Christian in an even stricter way than the Jews would have understood them in the time of Moses.

We might assume that this was the pre-cross Jesus and that the apostles did away with this approach to the Old Testament after Pentecost. This is not what we find.

For instance, in Romans twelve Paul says that we are not to “avenge” ourselves because the Old Testament strictly forbids it: “Never avenge yourselves…for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (12:19). Do you see the importance of this verse? He does not merely quote from the Old Testament in a useful way to direct Christians in our behavior. He tells us to do something precisely because it is commanded in the Old Testament.

In fact, this phrase, “for it is written,” is one of the compelling reasons to see the Old Testament as a rule of life. Paul will use it again in 1 Corinthians 9:9 where he is calling the church to financially support its ministers. They are to do this, “for it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain’” (citing Deut. 25:4).

The apostle Peter uses similar language in his first epistle. There he tells us, “as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). What is the reason we should be holy? “Since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1:16, citing Lev. 11:44). Again we are not given the Old Testament as a convenient example, but we are to do something because it is commanded in the Old Testament.

In places like Romans 13:8-10 we see that the Old Testament command to “love your neighbor as yourself” remains binding on the people of God. In fact, Paul tells us there that other Old Testament commands like “you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word” (v. 9). This means that both the great commandment to “love your neighbor” remains binding, but also that these other commandments (6th, 7th, 8th, 10th commandments from the Ten Commandments) remain binding.

Thus, it is not just Jesus that gives us this second “great commandment” (Matt. 22:39). Paul cites this command from Leviticus 19:18 as part of how a Christian obeys the will of God. He will again quote the command in Galatians 5:14, and James will cite it in 2:8.

Another point to make here is that Jesus and the apostles not only direct our behavior by looking at the Law of Moses. They look at all types of Old Testament writing. Paul cites Proverbs 25:21 in Romans 13:20. Jesus cites Hosea 6:6 in Matthew 9:13. Paul cites Psalm 37:8 in Ephesians 4:26. Peter cites Psalm 34:12-16 in 1 Peter 3:10-12.

In other words, the key issue is not where the law was originally found—the Ten Commandments or the books of Moses, etc. The key issue is what kind of law it is. All of these are what theologians have called “moral laws.” They relate to how we relate to the Lord and others. They speak to issues like worship (Matt. 15:8/Isa. 29:13), love (Rom. 13:8-10/Lev. 19:18), mercy (Matt. 9:13/Hos. 6:6), forgiveness (Heb. 8-10/Jer. 31:31-34), honesty (Eph. 4:26/Zech. 8:16), holiness (1 Peter 1:16/Lev. 11:44), and basic godliness (1 Peter 3:10-12/Ps. 34:12-16).


Yet, while moral laws remain binding for Christians, other laws of the Old Testament absolutely do not—binding in the sense that we continue to obey them. The most important type of law that is not binding is what we call “the ceremonial law.” This category includes the various feasts and festivals, the Levitical priesthood and office of high priest, and the tabernacle sacrifices offered in worship, thanksgiving, and atonement for sin.

Such laws are no longer binding for us because Jesus as the definitive high priest has offered himself as the final and ultimate sacrifice for all time:

He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself Heb. 7:27 He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption Heb. 9:12).

Not only does Jesus make additional sacrifices like these unnecessary, we should see them as forbidden. To offer the blood of a bull or a goat when the Son of God has offered his own blood is to blaspheme the cross of Christ and to say that God’s atonement is not enough. This is like choosing chocolate wrapped in gold foil instead of the treasure chest of real gold coins being offered to us. The sacrifices all point ahead to the final sacrifice of Jesus. This is why Jesus is introduced as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Passover lamb was a powerful symbol of atonement to escape wrath, but it is Jesus who accomplishes this for real and forever for those in him.

Of course, we continue to offer the sacrifice of our lives (Rom. 12:1), service to others (Phil. 2:17), financial investment in God’s church (Phil. 4:18), and worship (Heb. 13:15). All of these are described in sacrificial language. The key is that none of these are making an offering to atone for our sin, and in none of these is the blood of an animal offered up. They are sacrifices made precisely because our sins have been removed and God’s wrath is no longer upon us!

The ceremonial laws do continue to teach us even though they do not bind our behavior per se. They remind us that God is holy and we are sinful. They remind us that God is the most precious being in the universe and thus worthy of all sacrifice. They point to God’s total ownership of us which includes our possessions, time, and resources. They vividly paint the picture that we approach God only on his terms. Thus, we can read these laws to great effect even while we do not obey them literally.


There is a third category of Old Testament commands that is slightly more difficult to apply as post-Pentecost Christians. This is the civil law, those laws that relate to Israel as it functioned as a society, a nation, a people under a single civil government. An example of this is the numerous laws that relate to the exact punishments for thievery (Ex. 22:1ff.) or what to do when we have intentionally or unintentionally harmed someone (Ex. 21:18ff.). Where the New Testament forbids stealing and calls us to generosity (Eph. 4:28), the Old Testament prescribes the exact restitution a man is to make to another. Where the New Testament calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Rom. 13:8-10), the Old Testament prescribes the exact restitution for harm we do to others because of our negligence or malice. There are laws that relate to property, slavery, taxes, the poor, the military, and kings that have more to do with Israel being an independent nation than what is required of the people of God in every culture and generation.

However, the fact that the people of God are now “the church” and not a nation under a civil government does not mean that all such laws are irrelevant for us. Paul in 1 Timothy 5:18, for instance, quotes the command from Deuteronomy 25:4 that says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when he is treading out the grain.” Paul does not use it to speak of farming, however, but to say that a minister of the gospel should be paid for his services. He is applying Deuteronomy 25:4 in a wise and insightful manner in a context different than the original setting. This seems a good approach for many of the civil laws. The fact we cannot in a literal sense say that God owns “the land” does not mean that the property laws have no relevance for us (e.g., Leviticus 25).

One key part of this is the way that the Old Testament prescribes punishments for certain laws. Capital punishment is a civil matter, not a religious one. In the Old Testament this right rests with the nation of Israel (Lev. 20:2; etc.). Yet, Paul says to new covenant Christians that the government bears “the sword” (Rom. 13:4), meaning that capital punishment is in the hands of the state and not the church. That is why the church responds to sins like idolatry with excommunication and not stoning (1 Cor. 5:9-13; cp. Lev. 20:2).

Dividing the Old Testament commands into these three types is so consistent in the New Testament that we are surely right to adopt this approach to our Old Testament. We are not imposing arbitrary categories. The terms we give to the three types of law might be our own, but this is no different than coining the term “Trinity” to capture a clear biblical teaching. Finding this three-part distinction in Old Testament commands is consistent with how Jesus and the apostles approach their Bible, and it gives us a guide for approaching those commands not cited in the New Testament.


A sixth point the New Testament makes about the Old Testament is that “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6). Paul says this as he looks at the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and then traveling in the wilderness. He warns us from committing idolatry like they did (v. 7), committing sexual immorality as they did when “twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (v. 8), or grumbling like they did when many were killed because of it (vv. 8-9). In other words, Paul says that we are to look at the Old Testament histories as having “examples for us,” sometimes good ones and sometimes bad ones.

We can look at David fighting Goliath (1 Sam. 17) or Abraham offering what was most precious to him to the Lord (Gen. 22) and see a positive example we are to emulate. We can look at Cain’s jealousy of Abel (Gen. 4) or Israel’s golden calf (Ex. 32-33) as negative ones we should avoid.

The biblical narrative will typically give us clues in the text that tell us whether a man is choosing rightly and being blessed by the Lord or choosing sinfully and being punished. The intent is to either imitate or avoid their example accordingly.

This way of reading our Bibles isn’t meant to stand alone. We should see far more in the story of David and Goliath than ‘trusting God in the face of obstacles.’ We also need to see God’s chosen deliverer saving God’s people. In this way David foreshadows the ultimate deliverer Jesus Christ. Yet, once we’ve been careful to identify this element of David’s heroism, we should indeed see how he strengthened himself in the Lord, trusted God’s promises, and saw past the size of Goliath to the size of his God. These are things we should imitate and teach our children to do the same.


This way of reading our Bibles has been generally associated with those who call themselves “Reformed” or “covenantal.”[3]For us it provides the most thorough, complete, accurate, and insightful approach to reading our Bibles.

One thing to say in closing is that it is not merely academic. As a brief example, the Psalms are filled with commands, exhortations, and examples for us, and many of these have no New Testament echo or restatement. When it tells me to “sing a new song,” am I obligated to do it? (Ps. 33:3). When it says to “delight yourself in the Lord,” does a new covenant Christian need to obey this? (Ps. 37:4). We believe that we are indeed to obey these as moral commandments binding on the people of God in both covenants. Surely we can admit that reading the book of Psalms is no mere academic pursuit. Those prayers are too important to us to dismiss them so easily.

Now where do you start? If you haven’t read the Old Testament where should you begin?

One approach is to read books that give you the basic storyline of God’s people. Read Genesis, Exodus, 1-2 Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah. That will give you a good grasp on the rise and fall and rise of Israel. Then read Daniel, Jonah, and Micah to get a sense of the prophets. Keep the story going by reading Luke-Acts and Revelation.

Now you’ve gotten the big picture view of God’s message. After that search around online to find a good Bible plan for you—or you can check out Seeking God Daily and the accompanying journal.[4] A good basic plan is simply to read two chapters of the New Testament and one of the Old (or one of each, depending on your time). Maybe add a Psalm or Proverb for the day as well.

I hope you feel more empowered to read your Old Testament well. It will indeed pay back huge dividends. You will know God more. You will grasp his promises better. You will discover the gospel in an even greater depth. You will see Jesus Christ more fully. You will trust God more. You will become more holy. Those are powerful statements, but this isn’t false advertising, certainly not a “Drink More Ovaltine” moment. The Old Testament is God’s word and will equip the man of God for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17), is treasure for our souls (Ps. 19), guides our steps (Ps. 119:105), and so much more.

So, read it like you are discovering vast treasure and food for your souls—because that’s exactly what you are doing.

[1] We should note here that we divide our Bibles into the New Testament and the Old Testament and “testament” in this case is the Latin word for “covenant.” In other words, the scholars that separated our Bibles in this way were trying to capture that the over-arching distinction of our Old Testament is the “old covenant” it reveals, and the over-arching uniqueness of our New Testament is the “new covenant” in Christ that it gives.

[2] These commandments are originally found respectively in Exodus 20:13, 14; Deut. 24:13; Lev. 19:12; Ex. 21:24; and Lev. 19:18. Some are spoken in a couple different contexts of the Law, but these are the original ones.

[3] This approach to the Old Testament is advocated in various ways by John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Frame, Sinclair Ferguson, Ligon Duncan, R.C. Sproul, Herman Ridderbos, Herman Bavinck, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, Hughes Oliphint Old, and others. The alternative approach is sometimes called New Covenant Theology and is represented by D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, David Peterson, John Piper, and many others. For a good introduction to the Law from a Reformed perspective, see Sinclair Ferguson's Kingdom Life in a Fallen World: Living Out the Sermon on the Mount, especially his chapter on Matthew 5:17-20 (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1986).

[4] At Amazon:

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