Written by Nate Bibens
When Paul wrote to the young evangelist Timothy, he reminded the young man that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) What a blessing it is to have in our possession a book written by the most high and holy Creator of the universe! We have access to the one book that truly offers the answers to life’s toughest problems; mankind’s deepest questions, and humanity’s greatest fears. Sadly though, many people continue to live a life of blindness, groping in the darkness for answers they will never find because they do not read their Bibles. On the other hand, there are people that read their Bible, but they make a grave mistake in not reading and studying their entire Bible.
In 2012, we live under the New Covenant. Our way of worship, our doctrine, our means of salvation, and our lifestyle are governed by the writings of the New Testament. But that simple truth does not negate the importance of the Old Testament, nor does it release Christians from their need to read and study the Old Testament. Misconceptions abound in regards to the Old Testament. Unfortunately, these misconceptions are not limited to the realm of non-believers. Even within the Church there is confusion and misconception from time to time concerning the Old Testament. Such has been the case since the dawn of the Church. In the first century, some people wanted to go back to the ways of the Old Testament. Today many people want to throw away the Old Testament. Both views are erroneous. It is important that we, as faithful Bible students, are able to come to a proper understanding of the Old Testament’s teaching, purpose, and application.
Misconception #1: The Old Testament is Useless for those in the New Testament Era
To many people, the Old Testament is a relic of the past that can be tossed aside and forgotten. Since the Old Law was nailed to the cross with Christ (Col. 2:14) surely we needn’t spend much time reading the writings of the Old Testament. However nothing could be further from the truth. The Old Testament holds a wealth of instruction and guidance even for the New Testament Christian. In fact, for one to truly grow in the grace and knowledge of God’s divine word, one must know both the Old and New Testaments.
First of all, to truly understand the New Testament, one must have a grasp of the Old Testament. The Old Testament was not written so that it could be thrown away when Jesus came; it was written to prepare the way for Jesus to come. Even Christ claimed that He did not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:7). The Old Testament from beginning to end is an incomplete story. All the foreshadowing, sacrifices, and prophesies grow in intensity from Genesis on, but when the book of Malachi ends, the hopes of the Hebrew people still aren’t answered. Why was the Old Testament and incomplete story? It was simply the preparation, or the introduction to the full story. And so we must turn to the New Testament to find the rest of the story. Thus, to truly understand the New Testament story and teachings, one must understand the preparatory material leading up to that story. A college student trying to learn college algebra would not turn to the last couple chapters of a text book to try and understand complex logarithms, nor would a reader turn to the last page of a fiction novel to only uncover the end of the story. Why would we only want part of the story when it comes to the Word of God?
Secondly, we see that the New Testament writers revered the Old Testament very much. While figures vary slightly between commentators, the New Testament quotes the Old Testament approximately 270 times. Taking into account all of the mere references to an Old Testament person, place, or idea, there are nearly 4,000 times the Old is referenced in the New. In fact, if you took out all of the Old Testament passages in the New Testament, you would lose close to one third of the New Testament! For the apostles in the first century, the Old Testament was the foundation for their preaching. Why? Because they were able to use the Old Testament to prove that Jesus was the Messiah! They understood that the principles and precepts set forth in the Old Testament had laid the groundwork for what they were accomplishing under the New Covenant. And so when we understand the Old Testament, it helps us understand the writings of the New.
Thirdly, we know that the Old Testament is useful because it is the Word of God. As Paul said to Timothy, ALL Scripture is given by God, and therefore useful to His children (2 Tim. 3:14-17).Paul reminded the Roman congregation that the “things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). When Paul wanted to warn the Corinthians of the danger of sin, he reminded them of the punishment Israel suffered for rebellion (1 Cor. 10:1-12). Likewise, we today can still gain great insight and admonition by making the Old Testament a part of our Bible study.
Misconception #2: The Old Testament is just a Story Book
Within the Bible, and particularly in the Old Testament, there are some wonderful stories. There are stories of courage and valor; love and romance; triumph and victory, and so many other great stories. Most children that are raised in Christian homes grow up learning stories like Noah and the Flood, Jonah and the Whale, and Daniel and the Lion’s Den. These stories are wonderful stories, and they are entertaining even to young children. The problem is, sometimes people look at the Old Testament as nothing more than a collection of bedtime stories.
While many of the stories in the Old Testament are very entertaining, we must always remember they are true historical occurrences. While Jonah and the Whale might seem like a fairy tale to some people, the Christian reader should accept the story as truth and reality, and thus realize there is a lesson to be learned. It is easy to focus on the entertaining aspects of the Old Testament, and not focus on the lessons that are intended for us to understand. Each story and each narrative has a purpose within God’s word, and each narrative can teach us great lessons in what it means to be a child of God.
Also, Christians need to read and study all of the Old Testament. It is easy to read only the sections that contain the interesting stories, but unfathomable lessons are found throughout the other parts of the Old Testament such as the Psalms, Deuteronomy, and the prophets. Many Bible reading programs come to a grinding halt in Leviticus every year; because people think it is boring compared to the great stories of Genesis and Exodus. But we should remember Leviticus and other oft-overlooked books of the Old Testament have great lessons to teach us about being faithful and obedient to our Lord.
Misconception #3: The New Testament and the Old Testament are Completely Different
Some people look at the two testaments of the Bible as though they are nearly contradictory. It is true there are several differences between the two covenants. But for the differences that do exist, there are far many more similarities between the two.
When we study the Bible, whether we are studying the Old or New Testament, we must remember that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” We understand that God is the same today as He was when the world began, and He is the same as He will be millennia from now. With that stated, it should come as no surprise to us that God expected similar things from His children in the Old Testament as he expects from His children in the New Testament. One of the great blessings of living when we do, is we have the entire Bible record available teaching us from the very beginning of time what it means to be a child of God.
There are obvious differences in the Old and New Testaments. Worship for instance is quite different. Worship under the Old Law had to take place in Jerusalem, but under the New Law can be done anywhere on earth as long as it is done in spirit and in truth (John 4:19-24). Other differences could be noted, but instead I would like to focus on just a few similarities. After all, much of Old Testament delivers principles and precepts that are not confined to the pages of the Old Law, but are true for God’s children in all time periods.
First of all, we see the same basic expectation of God’s children in the Old and New Testament. In fact, God has required the same overall life style for His children under every dispensation – that is to live a life exemplary of God’s holiness. To Abraham, a patriarch before the Law of Moses, God said “I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless” (Gen. 17:2) To the Israelites under the Law of Moses God said, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2) And to Christians of the New Testament Jesus said “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) The basic premise of being a child of God has remained unchanged even through the different dispensations. Although we live in an unholy world, we, as the children of God, are to live holy lives that exemplify the holiness of our father. This great teaching permeates the Old Testament, and we can grow our ability to show forth the holiness of our Father by learning from the teachings and examples of both the Old and New Testaments.
Secondly, although the means of worship vary from Old Testament to New, the motivation and purpose for worship does not. While we worship differently under the New Testament, we can learn a great deal about true worship by reading and studying the Old Testament. Again, God’s basic desires for mankind have remained unchanged throughout the dispensations of time. He has always expected faithful worship, and is displeased when such is not the case, and the story of Cain and Abel teaches (Gen. 4:3-4, Heb. 11:4). We learn from the example of Nadab and Abihu the danger of worshipping God in a way not prescribed by His Word (Lev. 10:1-2). We see the attitude towards worship that should be displayed by men like David (Psa. 122:10), and we see the disgust God feels when His children worship Him merely as a routine (Isa. 1:11-15). We should never desire to go back to the way of worship under the Old Testament, however the importance and sincerity of worship are great lessons we can benefit from by reading those “things written before.”
Many other lessons abound within the pages of the Old Testament that are true for Christians today, such as morality, faith in God, obedience, the danger of idolatry, and many more. We do ourselves a great injustice when we don’t learn the timeless lessons held within the Old Testament of God’s Word.
Misconception #4: The Old Testament is Outdated and Irrelevant Today
The Old Testament was written during a time of history that baffles the world’s greatest historians. Some of the ancient history of that time period will be forever unknown by men. With stories taking place in such a far removed era, it is easy for Christians today to overlook the relevance of such writings, feeling they are outdated and ancient. After all, animal sacrifice is nearly non-existent in America. We don’t work or interact with many people that worship pagan gods, bow down to graven images, or visit temples of false deities. We don’t live in a time of kings and kingdoms, and the victors of wars these days don’t carry off entire civilizations into slavery. The truth is though, for all the differences in time periods, the Old Testament is a surprisingly contemporary writing.
Many of the main subjects and teachings are as applicable today as they were when they were penned by the prophets of old. Consider the problems the nations of Israel and Judah faced, and see how closely they are related to our own difficulties.
For being God’s chosen people, Israel suffered from a constant problem of moral decadence. From the time of Moses through the days of the prophets, Israel’s leaders were constantly battling sins of immorality. While there were times of repentance and purity, they were followed by a long and sure decline to new depths of depravity and wickedness. Does this sound that different than the world today? In just the past fifty to hundred years, how much has immorality grown? Pre-marital sex, adultery, drunkenness, homosexuality, drug use, and all manners of immorality have grown to be acceptable life-styles, when not so long ago they were viewed as scandalous by society, not just church goers. Leaders today should learn from Old Testament leaders that taught and fought against immorality in Israel.
Many of the prophets wrote during times of economic and political instability. With violent nations on the rise, and hard economic times pressing the citizens of Israel and Judah, writers like Amos and Habakkuk and other encouraged the nations to turn back to God and reject their worldly ways. Today, people are constantly worried about the unsteady economy. Foreign tumults cause much debate. This is a time to preach the truth, and encourage people to place their faith and trust back in God where it belongs.
Leaders of the Old Testament also faced religious error on a nearly constant basis. From flagrant idolatry to religious tolerance, leaders of God’s people strove to get the nation in line with the law of God. Today, we battle forces outside the church that spread false doctrine that is completely contrary to the Word of God. Leaders must be vigilant to protect the Lord’s children from the wide array of religious error that permeates our society and world. In today’s world of tolerance and acceptance, we struggle against open-fellowship doctrines and the allowance for religious error, sometimes even among our own brethren. The Old Testament is an excellent teaching guide to show us the importance of strict adherence to the law of God’s Word.
Bible study takes a great deal of discipline and work. Frequently, people attempt to take shortcuts to make it easier, and one of those shortcuts is simply writing off the Old Testament. I hope this article has shown how grave that error is, and how important Old Testament study truly is. Even though we are New Testament Christians, we must dismiss misconceptions about the Old Testament being irrelevant, and we must strive to grow in knowledge of God’s Word in its entirety.