When I was teaching middle school, I would constantly search for ways to explain things better. Examples, illustrations, and analogies are always useful, especially for teaching new information. Students will remember very little unless there is a way to build on a foundation of their prior knowledge.
Somewhat in the same way, God uses the Old Testament of His Word to teach Christians, too. Although no one in the Old Testament can exactly be called a Christian as believers are today, the characters and events, principles and prophecies of those pages may all be used for a Christian’s learning. They provide a foundation for better understanding God’s ways in the New Testament. I would like to suggest three aspects of this foundation–three things we can learn about God from the Old Testament–as well as a study method which is illustrated in the New Testament as we ponder Old Testament truths.
As a first lesson about God, even a quick reading of the Old Testament cannot fail to produce a sense of His righteousness and holiness. This sense only intensifies upon closer examination of the text. Here is a progression of that idea.
God’s first words in the Bible are, “Let there be light,” and the existing darkness was separated from the light and was held in check by the sun and moon (Gen. 1:3,4,16-18 NKJV). As the New Testament attests, “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5).
God’s creative acts placed Adam and Eve in a perfect garden; but they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, disobeying God’s single prohibition. His holiness required Him to banish them from His garden. Further, they allowed sin and death into God’s creation; this affected every aspect of that creation, including every human to come after them (Gen. 2:8-17; 3:1-24).
Man then had an opportunity to govern himself by his conscience, which now knew good and evil. But sinners cannot keep themselves from doing evil, so wickedness increased until it overflowed the earth in the days of Noah. God’s judgment was total: He sent a worldwide flood which destroyed all of humanity except Noah’s family (Gen. 6:5-7:23).
God next allowed the institution of human government. However, this resulted only in man’s self-righteous aspiration to construct a tower that would reach to heaven; so, God confused their languages and scattered them across the whole earth (Gen. 9:5-6; 11:1-9).
God then chose one family–the Israelites–to be His object of special favor. They grew into a nation and received God’s commands, which they earnestly promised to keep (Ex. 24:3-8). However, their disappointing history, generally characterized by a disregard for God’s desires, fills most of the rest of the Old Testament. God’s angry judgment of their wickedness is vividly portrayed in telling events like the earth swallowing up rebellious Korah (Num. 16), the stoning of covetous Achan (Josh. 7), the years of oppression by the Midianites (Josh. 6:1-10), or the complete overthrow of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (2 Ki. 17:1-23; 24:1-25:21). The nation faces even sterner judgment in the future, until they finally are willing to submit fully to the Lord as their King (for example, see Joel 2:1-11,17-21).
Notice God’s desire to benefit and bless man in each phase of this history. Yet every phase is characterized by the failure of man to maintain God’s righteousness. People either tried but failed, or, worse, they responded to God’s claims with contempt. God’s judgment on these actions and attitudes demonstrates His holiness.
Thus, the Old Testament proves that God is righteous and that we are without recourse in ourselves to meet His standards. Knowledge of this history serves only to highlight our inadequacies. As Paul wrote in the New Testament, the only effect produced by knowing a commandment was that sin appeared “exceedingly sinful” (Rom. 7:13). This realization now leads us to a second aspect of the Old Testament: It tells us what God wants us to know.
Christ Himself: The Old Testament is brimming with instruction. The very fact that God is willing to reveal Himself and His ways is amazing; it was a chief benefit of being Jewish, according to both Moses and Paul (Dt. 4:7-8; Rom. 3:2). The foremost subject of this instruction is Christ Himself. God wants us to know His holiness and our emptiness, as we just noticed in Romans 7:13; but next we can read Galatians 3:22 & 24: “The Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ.” Further, the Old Testament not only leads us to see our need of Christ, but it also provides glimpses of Christ all throughout its pages.2 Here are only a few:
–Every offering that ever satisfied God is a picture of the sweet-smelling sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. It’s as if God provided sacrifices like the passover lamb so that, when Christ came, the words “Behold the Lamb of God!” would have profound significance. (Consider Ex. 12:11-13; Lev. 1:9; Jn. 1:36; Eph. 5:2.)
–Christ is the Manna, the true, life-giving bread from heaven (Ex. 16:15; Jn. 6:35), and the Rock which provided streams of water in the desert (Ex. 17:6; 1 Cor. 10:4).
–Christ is the obedient Hebrew Servant, who would not leave His master, wife and children but desired to serve forever (Ex. 21:2-6).
–Christ is revealed in the tabernacle and temple, in His glory and splendor and in His meekness and humility. The high priest, the altars and sacrifices, the furniture and coverings all illustrate something of Him. Further, His death caused the temple veil to be torn apart, so that a Christian’s access to God’s own presence is now unhindered (Mt. 27:51; Heb. 10:19-21).
It is good to read the Old Testament with an eye that searches for Christ. Wherever there is blessing or benefit, grace or glory, holiness or power or peace, there you find a glimpse of Him.
Examples for us: The New Testament is clear that, even if the Old Testament is not about a Christian, it is still for a Christian. “All these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). Thus, if we want to know how to overcome temptation, we can see Joseph running from the house to escape the advances of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:7-12). If we want to find how believers should work together, we discover in Nehemiah 3 some Jewish believers, side by side, repairing Jerusalem’s walls. To illustrate how Christian lives are lived by faith, Hebrews 11 reviews acts of faith from more than a dozen Old Testament lives, stating time would not allow the mention of countless others. We even are given the right to use the meanings of names to gain insight, since Hebrews 7:1-2 does so with Melchizedek in order to make a point about the Lord Jesus.
A wise brother once noticed I was having trouble deciding how to illustrate a point during a Bible lesson for children. He later encouraged me to search for examples from Scripture itself rather than only from the natural world. “That way,” he said, “the Spirit of God will always bring something to mind.” There surely is no lack of biblical illustrations available for our learning!
Types: It is worth noting here the use of types in Scripture. A type (perhaps an Old Testament event or person) is a picture designed by God to connect with some truth of Christianity–its antitype, or fulfillment. When the Israelites were bitten by deadly snakes, Moses was told to make a brazen image of a serpent and lift it on a pole; those who were bitten could look at the brazen snake and would be healed (Num. 21:4-9). This is clearly a type: It shows Satan’s deadly grip on humanity, which the Lord Jesus then broke by being Himself lifted up (cp. Jn. 3:14-15).
Although types are always beautiful portrayals of Christ or Christian truths, danger lies in attempting to apply all details of a type to the antitype. In the example of the serpent, it could not be stated from the type that one must physically see the Lord to be saved. Ignoring salvation by faith, such a teaching would defy the sense of the rest of Scripture. In all cases the integrity of the Bible as a unified whole must be maintained.3
A third benefit from reading the Old Testament is an appreciation of the faithfulness of God. When Daniel, a captive in Babylon, read Jeremiah’s prophecy, he knew God would soon bring His people out of captivity (Dan. 9:2; cp. Jer. 25:11). That’s just what happened in the days of Ezra. Except for still-future predictions, every prophecy in the Old Testament has been fulfilled, whether it concerned individuals, nations, or Christ Himself. This allows us to rest in the faithfulness of God; what He has said, He will do.
Since this is so, we can expect Old Testament prophecies dealing with still-future days to unfold just as described, as well. However, the prophets of the Old Testament are often regarded as obscure and difficult books to read. The pages of, say, Ezekiel are probably quite clean in most Bibles, since we hardly ever read them! Yet, if four general principles are observed, these books will also begin to open their storehouses to us.
1. The Old Testament features Israel and the earth, not Christians and the Church.
2. If a passage can be interpreted to describe a) the writer’s own time, or b) a literal event (or both), that’s probably the correct interpretation.
3. The Rapture–Christ catching away His Church from the earth–is the next main event of prophecy but is not found in the Old Testament.
4. After the Rapture, three other main events of prophecy follow: a) the Tribulation period, when Israel is judged for her failures (e.g., Isa. 5:18-30); b) the appearing of the Lord to deliver Israel from the nations gathered against her (e.g., Zech. 14:3); and c) the Millenium, the 1000-year reign of Christ as King of kings (e.g. Mic. 4:1-4). Unless the Old Testament prophets are appealing to the people of their own era, they generally enlarge on one of these three periods.
How To Study the Old Testament
Since the Old Testament describes God’s holiness, God’s instructions, and God’s faithfulness, it certainly has value. However, we may often read its stories but neglect the portions which seem to require more spiritual energy to understand. How can we benefit from more of the Old Testament?
As an example of how to study, let’s observe a passage in Hebrews 10, where the author is examining a portion of Psalm 40. These are divinely inspired words, and therefore they are not to be exactly compared with a Christian today studying the Bible, but the three steps used here and elsewhere in the New Testament do seem to provide a pattern for us.
First, the verses are simply quoted right from the text of Psalm 40:6-8 (Heb. 10:5-7). Second, the thoughts are repeated, as if the writer is thinking through what has been quoted; notice is given to the order of the words and when they were said (vv. 8-9). Finally, he reaches an understanding of the meaning of these verses (v. 9).
We can study the Old Testament (indeed, the whole Bible) the same way. First, we need to read the words–perhaps only a few verses at a time. Second, we should think about and meditate on what we’ve read. What can be observed from the text? What thoughts or connections does the Spirit of God reveal? Finally, we can reach an understanding of the meaning. Personal gains made directly from the Scripture in this way are refreshing, stimulating advances which spur us on to learn more of God’s Word.
Know Your Bible
At the time of Paul’s conversion, the only Scripture available was the Old Testament. Yet he was able to use those words to mightily prove Jesus to be the Son of God and the Christ (Acts 9:20-22). We are beneficiaries of the fullest revelation of God, having both the Old and New Testaments. Let us be skillful in both.
1. I once read the idea that we should view it not as the “Old” but simply the “Older” Testament. It is not old in the sense of being obsolete and valueless; it is rather a storehouse of wealth which demonstrates God’s ways apart from revealing Christ come in manhood as a servant.
2. One suggestion is to see FIGURES of Christ in the Old Testament, noting also the FEELINGS of Christ in the Psalms. Then, the gospels relate the FACTS of Christ, and the epistles describe the FRUITS of Christ which His own should display. (See OUR WONDERFUL BIBLE, R.K. Campbell, p. 124. Sunbury, PA: Believers Bookshelf, 1982.)
3. An extremely helpful explanation of this subject is found in the text THINGS TO COME, J. Dwight Pentecost, pp. 50-53. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1964.