What’s the point of studying the Old Testament? The answer to this question can be found in the book of Hezekiah. Go ahead and turn to that book in your Bible right now. 

If you just tried to find the book of Hezekiah in the Bible, sorry (not sorry). Years ago a visiting minister to my church did the same thing. He asked everyone to turn to the book of Hezekiah, so most everyone tried. Feeling embarrassment from not being able to quickly find the elusive book, some of us swallowed our pride and went for the table of contents to find the page number. About that time the minister let us in on his trick - there is no book of Hezekiah. He had staged this little demonstration to prove a point: Christians don’t know the Old Testament.

Various denominations, movements and famous preachers have been known to de-emphasize the relevance of the Old Testament. The reasons vary, but generally speaking the rationale behind their arguments is that since Christians live under a new covenant, the older covenant isn’t as important to focus on.

It is true that Jesus fulfilled the terms of the old covenant. It is also true that those who are His disciples have entered into a new covenant and aren’t bound to the terms of the old covenant. However, that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the Old Covenant as a religious relic that has little relevance.

Why study the Old Testament?

Cross Reference ImageThe Bible is an interconnected whole. It is like a living organism that cannot be reduced to smaller pieces and retain its essence and being. Check out this marvelous graphic that depicts how the Bible connects and hyperlinks to different parts of itself. Along the bottom of this image is one vertical line for each chapter in the Bible. The longer the line, the longer the chapter. All of the colored arcs show 63,779 Bible cross-references. This is an incredible visualization that drives home the fact that the Bible is an astonishingly complex and interconnected collection of texts. Want to make sense of these scriptural hyperlinks in the New Testament without the Old Testament? Good luck with that!

To visualize this yet one more way, consider that if one reads through the entire Bible in one year, we spend from January through September in the Old Testament before ever reaching the New Testament. That’s a tremendous amount of background information to ignore.

jan to octThe Old Testament makes up three-quarters of the Bible. Who watches only the last thirty minutes of a two hour movie and expects the story to make sense? Those who don’t know their Old Testament are doing exactly that! The New Testament quotes or alludes to the Old Testament more than 900 times. The New Testament authors expect their readers to be very familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures. They don’t typically slow down to explain what they mean when they refer to an Old Testament passage.

For example, the Jewish rabbis of Jesus’s day used a technique, today called “remez” (hint), in which they quoted a small part of a Scripture passage assuming their audience's knowledge of the Old Testament would allow them to deduce the fuller meaning without having to quote a lengthy passage. If their students weren't familiar enough with the Old Testament they would not be able to follow along.

Jesus used remez and one of His best known sayings was this technique in action. What did Jesus mean when He said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is a quote from Psa 22:1. Consider the following verses from Psa 22 and compare to the events described in Mat 27:35-44.

Psalms 22Matthew 27
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
7 All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads
8 "He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!"43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
12 Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me36 Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 
13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying,
16 For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 
18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots.

Jesus wasn't merely expressing that He felt forsaken. Jesus is using remez to point out that the very things those present were witnessing and participating in were written about in Psalm 22. To any one present at the crucifixion whose hearts could still be reached, Jesus’s utterance of the opening words of Psalms 22 should have been a jarring realization that they were seeing the prophecy fulfilled before their very eyes. They were crucifying and willingly participating in the humiliation of the One this Psalm was written about!

What Bible did the early church use?

What Bible did Paul and Peter and the earliest disciples study and what did they use to persuade people that Jesus was the Messiah? They didn’t have the New Testament Scriptures yet! What Scripture are these verses referring to?

  • Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:35 ESV)
  • And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2 ESV)
  • Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11 ESV)
  • Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim. 4:13 ESV)
  • All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, (2 Tim. 3:16 ESV)

Things in the New Testament you can’t understand without the Old Testament

  • Why Jesus selected fishermen as His disciples.
  • Why Jesus cursed the fig tree.
  • What the kingdom of Heaven|God is.
  • What the Gospel (good news) is exactly.
  • Why John the Baptist dressed as he did.
  • Why Jesus was called the “Son of Man.”
  • Why Jesus said to forgive seventy-seven times.
  • Why the woman with an issue of blood expected healing by touching Jesus’s garment.
  • The annual Jewish feasts.
  • Where the Jewish people came from.

When the New Testament speaks of the Scriptures, it is talking about the Old Testament. The Old Testament was the only Bible the early church had for many decades and they were able to use it effectively to share the good news about Jesus. Paul said, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4 ESV) The writings of former days he speaks of was the Old Testament. Clearly, the apostles and earliest Christians considered the Old Testament to be of utmost value. How well would you be able to use only the Old Testament to share the good news about Jesus?

Conclusion

People who ignore the Old Testament tend to draw some strange and inaccurate conclusions about New Testament teachings. Our understanding of the New Testament can get pretty distorted if we try to interpret it without the insights only the Old Testament can provide. To understand the New Testament to our fullest potential, we should expend the effort necessary to know the Old Testament and be as familiar with it as we are the New Testament.

Back to top