Studying the Old Testament

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Here are some of my initial thoughts in gathering together information on how to study the Bible…

Why is it called “Old”?:

If you asked Paul about the “Old Testament” he wouldn’t know what you were talking about. It is an unfortunate term because it can make us think the Old Testament is not meaningful for us today. The word “testament” is actually the word for “covenant” so the Old Testament is about older covenants (agreements) that God made with his people. He made a covenant with Noah, Abraham, and David. In Jeremiah 31 God said he would eventually make a new covenant with his people. We see that happen through Christ in the Gospels of the New Testament. So old does not always mean “obsolete.” As we will see the Old Testament still has much to offer us today.

Why Studying the Old Testament is Important:

It is not unusual to hear people say the Old Testament is not that important to Christians because it was nailed to the cross and is no more. That is not entirely true so it is important to realize that you cannot fully understand the New Testament without having some knowledge of the Old Testament. If you only read the New Testament it is like only reading the last couple chapters of a novel – you don’t get the whole story. The story from creation in Genesis to the cross in Matthew to the church in Revelation there is continuity. There is a common story. God is at work redeeming his people. It is true that the Bible is like a love note written to us from God. But it is also more than that. The Bible is the story of how God has relentlessly been pursuing us to redeem us from sin and death and bring us into perfect relationship and harmony with Him and His kingdom.

What is also interesting is that the “Bible” of the apostles was the Old Testament. It took a while for their writings to be collected and assembled into what we have in the “New Testament” today. So when Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for certain things he was almost certainly referencing the Old Testament. What is more, the Old Testament was inspired by God and that makes it valuable to us.

None of this is to say that we live by the Old Testament today and follow all of its rules. We no longer offer sacrifices because Christ was a “once for all sacrifice” (Hebrews 10). But that doesn’t mean that studying the Old Testament is not worthwhile. The Old Testament has many things that God still wants us to hear.

Connecting the Old and New Testaments:

Jesus and every writer of the New Testament (except possibly for Luke) was a Jew. They lived in the culture of the Old Testament law. The Old Testament was a part of their every day life. It was their culture. It was how they grew up. You see it in how they write. You see it in the amount of times they quote the Old Testament in the New Testament (695 times in 20 of the 26 books of the NT!). If Paul, Jesus, and others thought there was useful information in the Old Testament then I am sure we have something to profit from studying it as well.

The Old Testament is filled with expectation. It is filled with the expectation that God is going to send the Messiah (or anointed one – Christ in Greek) to redeem or restore his people. There are so many prophesies that look forward to this time. We see that in the New Testament. So by understanding the Old Testament you gain a greater appreciation for what is happening in Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

Breakdown of the Old Testament:

The Old Testament is divided up into sections that help us understand what we are reading. Just like when you read the newspaper that has a sports section, a financial section, the front page stories, and all the rest; the Bible is divided up into helpful sections.

The Law (Torah):

Includes Genesis through Deuteronomy.

Historical Books:

Includes Joshua-Esther and Lamentations

Wisdom Writings:

Includes Job-Song of Songs


Divided into two sections based on length (Major=longer, Minor = shorter):

  • Major Prophets: Isaiah-Daniel
  • Minor Prophets: Hosea-Malachi

Importance of Genre:

It is important to realize that the Bible is made up of different types of writings because that influences how we read them. You read the weather forecast different than you read sports stats and you read stats different than you read the editorials and the headlines. Why? Because they are meant to be read differently. If you try reading baseball stats like a story it isn’t going to go very well. That is one reason we have a hard time with books like Leviticus and Chronicles because we are used to stories and poems and we often miss the point of what is there because we aren’t reading it through the proper pair of glasses.

Example – Psalm 51:5 – “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” This is poetry and is not to be taken as strict doctrine. This is artistry. It is expressing a feeling of remorse and how utterly sinful he feels in that moment. We can’t read that and conclude we are all sinners at birth. That is reading a poem like a legal document. It doesn’t work. Knowing what we are reading and how to read it can help us untie some difficult knots we find in scripture due to the distance we have from the biblical writers of time, culture, language, etc.

0 Responses

  1. One of the shameful moments in my ministerial life was when a young man wanted to make a point from the Psalms during a men’s meeting and an older minister interrupted him, saying: “My Bible says that was nailed to the cross.” I was so shocked by the statement that I didn’t stand up and defend this young man. How could someone who had been in ministry for over 30 years say such a thing?

    These are good materials. Glad you’re putting them together.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    1. Because they think that the Old “was done away” and there’s nothing back there. So narrow minded.

  2. i have been reading olbricht’s book, He Loves Forever which talks about Love being the main theme of the OT writings, he starts in Exodus 33-34, which has become my fav verse in the Bible, I think

  3. I really got a lot from reading Richard Foster’s book, “Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation,” in which I thought he did an excellent job of addressing various parts of the Bible by genre, purpose, etc. Definitely worth reading!

  4. What bothers me beyond end is how so many pastors/evangelists/ministers look at the Old Testament “Christllogically”. It is a different covenant and era. Don’t make a history book more than a history book. Philosophy and “blue prints” for life are in the New Covenant.

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