Why Read the Old Testament

Why Read the Old Testament?


Over the last two weeks I’ve been looking at the new NIV Zondervan Study Bible. While this is not a review per se, my first impressions are that the Bible is very promising: great articles, helpful study notes, and full color on every page.1

In his article “Introduction to the Old Testament,” T.D. Alexander provides a compelling description of the Old Testament’s role in the biblical storyline:

The Bible is built around a grand story that starts in Genesis with the divine creation of the earth and ends in Revelation by anticipating the coming of a new earth. The OT contributes to this story by explaining the origin and nature of the human predicament, which, in essence, is our alienation from God. From the early chapters of Genesis onward, the OT describes how God sets about redeeming and restoring creation after the tragic rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Not only is God’s redemptive activity evident throughout the OT, but by pointing forward to Jesus Christ, the OT introduces the ultimate means by which the tragic consequences of human sin will be reversed. (p. 3)

Alexander then goes on to provide a brief summary of the Old Testament narrative. He concludes this section, writing:

While the grand story of the OT moves through a series of distinctive stages, these stages are closely linked to one another as God’s plan of redemption unfolds. From the Garden of Eden to the return of the exiles from Babylon, God is at work, seeking to restore to himself an alienated humanity and to reclaim the earth from the powers of evil. In all of this, the OT prepares for events that come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. With good reason the NT cannot be fully understood without an intimate knowledge of the OT. (p. 6).

What a great reason for reading the Old Testament! Sure, the stories seem bizarre, the names unpronounceable, and the genealogies monotonous; for the Christian, the Old Testament is required reading, helping you better understand the events and writings of the New Testament. Moreover, as Alexander writes in the last paragraph, in the Old Testament we see God at work, bringing restoration and reconciliation to both mankind and the entire cosmos.

  1. Now if they could only work on the size. My copy—which is the Personal Size—makes the ESV Study Bible look thin! 

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George Whitefield on Preaching

George Whitefield quote on preachingGeorge Whitefield, one of the greatest evangelists in church history, was a pioneer in open-air preaching. Rather than having the people come to him, he went where the people were. This itinerant ministry took him throughout England, Scotland, and several times to America.

Here’s what Whitefield had to say in 1741 on his open-air preaching:

Let not the adversaries say I have thrust myself out. No;they have thrust me out. And since the self-righteous men of this generation count themselves unworthy, I go out into the highways and hedges, and compel harlots, publicans and sinners to come in, that my Master’s house may be filled.  (quoted in Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’d Anointed Servant, Kindle loc. 686-689, emphasis mine)

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Leithart on Reading and Applying Scripture

Here at A Greater Story we promote a Christ-centered reading of the Old Testament. Through this, the Old Testament stories, laws, and poetry have echoes, allusions, and typology that point to the future work of Jesus Christ.

A challenge some have with this form of biblical interpretation has to do with application: how does this Old Testament story apply to our everyday lives?

In his book A Son to Me, Peter Leithart aptly describes the concerns people have:

Jesus in the wilderness reverses the sin of Adam in the garden—lovely, but the baby has chicken pox and I’ve got to get the twins to the baseball game and help organize the reception for the new assistant youth pastor’s wife’s mother and finish dinner by six… It is certainly wonderful to know that Jesus is a new Solomon, building up His temple, but I have to close out a big contract on Tuesday, and the boss is breathing down my neck… I’m glad to know Jesus is a greater David who can fight giants, but I got a D on my final and don’t know how to tell my parents. (Leithart, A Son To Me, 19).

Leithart then notes how this idea of missing application from typology is a hermeneutical error, and to get application from the Old Testament, one needs to understand what we are doing when we read the text. We need to work on both reading and applying Scripture. His suggestion is that we need to interpret the world in light of the text, and not the other way around. To quote Leithart again:

If the world absorbs the text, as in allegorical or historical -critical interpretation, we can discover nothing in the text that we did not know before; the text can only illustrate truths we learned form other sources, and it will not challenge or rebuke us. If the text absorbs the world, as typological interpretation demands, it is useful for correction, reproof, and training in righteousness. Interpreted typologically, Scripture is unleashed to function as revelation. (Leithart, A Son To Me, 24, emphasis mine).

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N.T. Wright on the Nature of Discipleship

N.T. Wright on the nature of discipleship in a Christian’s life:

[I]t is a call to see oneself as having a role to play within a story—and a story where… there is one supreme Character whose life is to be followed. And that Character seems to have his eye on a goal, and to be shaping his own life, and those of his followers, in relation to that goal. (N.T. Wright, After You Believe, p. 17, emphasis original)

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The Importance of Land in the Bookends of the Old Testament

Stephen Dempster is an influential evangelical scholar focused on the Old Testament narrative. Among other works, he is most notable for Dominion and Dynasty, one of the top books that have shaped my life.

At the beginning of Dominion and Dynasty, Dempster notices similarities between the first and last books in the Old Testament (called bookends). Since Dempster follows the Hebrew Bible order of the canon, this means Genesis and Chronicles.

Dempster notes there are two striking similarities between Genesis and Chronicles: both focus on genealogies and the land. And while the genealogies are important, the land is a main character throughout the Old Testament. Here’s what Dempster writes about the land in Genesis:

Genesis establishes a domain over which humans are to realize their humanity. The world is created by the command of God; the garden of Eden becomes the prime habitat of human beings until their exile from it. Humans are expelled from the earth with the judgment of the great deluge. The postdiluvian human community is dispersed across the face of the earth at Babel. And when Abram arrives on the historical scene he is promised a commodity that has been in short supply for human beings: a land to call his own. He never quite gets it, except a graveyard for his wife. By the end of Genesis his descendants are exiled in Egypt from this land of promise. From this exilic vantage point the aged Joseph’s remarks conclude the book of Genesis: ‘I am about to die; but God will surely visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Genesis 50:24) (Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 48, emphasis original)

And here’s Dempster’s comments on the land in Chronicles:

Chronicles also focuses on the land, which Abraham and his immediate descendants did not possess. This focus narrows to Jerusalem and the temple within that land. For example, the heart of Chronicles concerns Jerusalem and the temple under David and Solomon, some twenty chapters! The ultimate tragedy is the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people to Babylon. Yet the end of Chronicles, like Genesis, is not exile. The note of promise is a directive from Cyrus for them to return to the land and rebuild the temple (2 Chronicles 36:23). (Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 48-49)

So both Genesis and Chronicles end with a glimmer of hope in the midst of exile: God will give them the land again. This promise of restoration will continue into the New Testament story, ultimately concluding with New Creation.

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Wright on the Good News

I just finished N.T. Wright’s most recent book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes It Good. While some of this book is a summary of his other works (most notably Surprised by Hope), there is some values in his distinction that the Gospel is news and not advice. Advice is something that can be accepted or rejected, while news—describing a historical event—shapes and affects reality.

In the first few chapters, Wright discusses the Gospel proclamation in context of first-century Roman culture. Notably, he compares the announcement of victories by Roman emperors with the announcement of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The Christian claim, remarkable, is that the world is a different place, in a different way, not because of Augustus but because of Jesus. Not because of great affairs of state in the first-century Roman world, but because of something that happened in a far-off province near the easter frontier of the Roman Empire in the same period. The good news that Jesus announced, like that good news that his first followers announced about him, was not a piece of advice, however good. It was about something that had happened, about something that would happen as a result, and about the new moment between those two, the moment in which people were in fact living, whether they realized it or not. (Wright, Simply Good News, 17, emphasis original)

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Unity in Diversity in the Bible

In the introduction of his book The Symphony of Scripture, author Mark Strom highlights three presuppositions that ought to shape how we read and understand the Bible:

  1. The Bible is essentially the record of God’s dealings with his people over thousands of years and within several different cultures. A central story line and the constant interaction of themes such as sin, judgment and grace unify its diversity
  2. Jesus Christ is the key to understanding this unity in diversity
  3. The books of the Bible should be read with respect for their historical and cultural context and the literary conventions they reflect

(Mark Strom, The Symphony of Scripture, p. 15)

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How Location Shapes Our Story

In his great book Dangerous Calling, author Paul Tripp has a gem of a quote on how our story is shaped by the three key locations in the Bible:

You could argue that the biblical story is about three locations. The garden in Genesis was a location of perfection and beauty but became a place of sin and trouble. The hill of Calvary was a place of both horrible suffering and transforming grace. And the New Jerusalem, that place of peace and refuge, lit by the brightness of the Son, will be our final refuge forever. Because of the cross of Jesus Christ, your story will not end with daily trouble and temporary relief. No, your final location will be utterly unlike anything you have ever experienced, even on your best and brightest day. You are headed for the New Jerusalem, where the final tear will be dried and trouble will be no more.

Paul Tripp, Dangerous Calling, pp. 109–110.

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The Story of Mankind – Told by our Buildings

Joseph Campbell—a noted mythologist—had a gift for explaining cultures through their stories. His work has influenced religious studies, writers, and even George Lucas.

In an interview he gave in the 1980s, Campbell notes how prominent buildings in the West help explain what we value in our story:

When we approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest thing in the place. When you approach a 17th-century city, it’s the political palace that’s the tallest in the place. And when you a modern city, it’s the office buildings and dwellings that’s the tallest things in the place.

He then provides a helpful example:

If you go to Salt Lake City, you can see the whole thing illustrated in front of your face. First the temple was built, right in the center of the city. This was the proper organization, that’s the spiritual center from which all flows in all directions. And then the capitol was built, right beside the temple. And it’s bigger than the temple. And now the biggest thing is the office building that takes care of the affairs of both the temple and the political building.

That’s the history of Western civilization.

Sometime I will try to trace how this can be seen in the church, too; how the church’s story is seen in what we value in architecture.

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