Why Spend Time on the Old Testament?

We go back to the beginning of our Bibles, to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And the question inevitably arises, “Why so much? And why so many details? And why so many varied pictures of God?” Then we remember Hebrews 1:1-3:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times, and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. . . . the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (NIV).

But that raises another question. If we have the Son, why should we spend so much time in the Old Testament? Why not read the gospels? How clear the picture is there! “Blessed are the poor” (Matt 5:3). “Pray for your enemies” (Matt 5:44). How gracious that whole message is. Then you see the way Jesus treated sinners. How forgiving! Is there anything arbitrary, exacting, or severe in the record of the gospels? Look at how Jesus treated Judas. He washed the feet of His betrayer the night before He died (John 13). Look at how Jesus seemed to cover people’s sins as much as He possibly could. He didn’t even expose the men who brought that woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11). And when Jairus’ daughter was raised and the crowd rushed out of the room to celebrate, who was it that called after them and said, “This little girl is hungry. Get her something to eat” (Mark 5:43; Luke 8:55). The Bible even says that the Son of God cried at the funeral of one of His friends (John 11:35).

None of this sounds like the Devil’s picture of God. In the gospels, Jesus is clearly not the kind of person Satan has made God out to be. Then why don’t we just settle for the magnificent record in the Gospels? However, as one reads on through the gospels, one cannot help noticing Jesus’ own use of the Old Testament, in John 5:39, 40, for example: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life” (John 5:39, NIV). That’s almost a form of bibliolatry, worshiping the Bible as if there were some magical power in the book. “No,” Jesus said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40, NIV). He speaks of the Old Testament scriptures as bearing witness to the truth about Him. Why would we want to waste them? And note also in Luke 24:27 how He used the Old Testament: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (NIV).

To really follow Christ’s example, then, is to use the Old Testament. Where do you think He found His picture of God? How did he know God so well? He grew up with the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. We would be very wasteful not to use them, too. So back again we go to the Old Testament, remembering that 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all scripture inspired of God is profitable.”

Scripture starts with the lovely picture in Eden, but as soon as they are created God says to our first parents, “In the day you eat thereof, you will die” (Gen 2:17). And right there is the problem. Did God mean, “If you disobey Me, I’ll kill you?” That does sound arbitrary and severe. Moreover, the original pair were cast out of the garden on their first offense (Gen 3). What if all children were thrown out of their homes the first time they disobeyed? We would have a lot of homeless children in the world. Are we more forgiving than God?

We read about the Flood, when God drowned not just sinful men, but women and children, babies, and all of their pets (Gen 6:13, 17; 7:4, and especially 7:21-23). Then we go on to Sodom and Gomorrah, that awful burning of human beings (Gen 19:24-25). And then the story of Lot’s wife (Gen 19:26). How many of you women, leaving the home where you had reared your children, wouldn’t want to take at least one little peek over your shoulder? Yet look what happened to Lot’s wife. And look at all the fighting in the Old Testament. And then you find God saying, “When you fight, don’t just kill the soldiers. Go into the villages afterwards. Break into the homes. Kill the women. Kill the children. Kill the babies. Kill the pets. Leave alive nothing that breathes” (1 Sam 15:3). That same day King Saul decided not to kill everybody (1 Sam 15:8-9). And God was not pleased (1 Sam 15:18-19, 23-24).

Most of us would say that doesn’t sound like the New Testament. How could Jesus get the kind of picture He had of His Father from these stories? And there are more of them, like the stoning of Achan (Joshua 7). The worst part of that story is not so much whether Achan and his family deserved to be stoned, but that God asked His own people to do the stoning (Josh 7:12-13, 24-25). And then there’s “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exod 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21; Matt 5:38), and “the gluttonous child is to be stoned” (Deut 21:20-21), and “the illegitimate child is to be banished from the camp for ten generations” (Deut 23:2).

2 thoughts on “Why Spend Time on the Old Testament?

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Pretty similar. The OT is the Bible of the early church. That, along with the example of Jesus, is where they came up with their picture of God. It is the stories that illustrate the complexity of the cosmic conflict and give us hope when darkness surrounds us.


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