The Old Made New: Why and How to Read and Study the Old Testament

May 2003; originally published in Meshereth Magazine

In the words of one wag, in much of modern evangelicalism the Old Testament functions as "God's Word emeritus" - honourably retired. For many of us, the 39 books are not familiar territory. They are not viewed as particularly relevant.

This is underscored by the popularity of "mini-Bibles," containing only the New Testament; perhaps Psalms and Proverbs are added as something of a supplement. These "mini-Bibles" reinforce the notion that the Old Testament is unimportant to Christian faith. Many Christians today will perhaps read Psalms and Proverbs; and some of them will also appeal to the Old Testament as a storehouse of "moral examples." ("Look at naughty Jacob. See how he lies and deceives his father.")

But we are often either indifferent or bewildered when it comes to integrating the Old Testament into our understanding of the Christian faith. This impoverishes us of wealth that God has provided us. The aim of this introductory article is, in a very cursory fashion, to state why we need to read and study the 39 books, and further, how we ought to do so. If we read without understanding, we will quickly lose interest. The goal here is not to be exhaustive in answering either of these questions, but to provide some helpful statements which will, God willing, set the reader on the road to loving and appreciating the Old Testament.


1. The Old Testament is God's Word - to the Christian Church.

All evangelicals confess the fact that the Old Testament is God’s Word. After all, "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16). The difficulty is not extracting this confession. Where we lack is applying the rest of the passage just cited when we are thinking of the Old Testament. "All Scripture is God-breathed, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

In other words, it is not merely that God has spoken. Rather, God has spoken, and what He has spoken still matters. His speech is profitable to us.

New Testament passages often speak of "Scripture," and we give it little thought. Because we have the whole thing, we forget that the Bible did not drop from the sky, Old and New Testaments, nicely divided by a page between Malachi and Matthew. When the New Testament writings were being written, "Scripture," for the most part, referred to what we now identify as "the Old Testament." When Paul says that Timothy has known the Holy Scriptures from childhood (2 Tim. 3:15), he is talking primarily (and perhaps exclusively) about the 39 books. When Luke calls Apollos "an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures" (Acts 18:24), we must recognize that "he knew only the baptism of John" (Acts 18:25) - in other words, he had not yet read a word between Matthew and Revelation.

We can be sure that the writings of the apostles were treasured early on. Peter, for example, identifies Paul's letters as Scripture (see 2 Pet. 3:15-16). But we can also be sure that the Church simply did not have what we know as "the New Testament" for many years. Peter's epistles were written relatively late in his life, as were John's. Paul was not even converted when the new covenant Church was founded.

These facts are necessary to consider if we are to appreciate the significance of how the New Testament writers and preachers speak about "Scripture." The Word that they love, which they expound, is largely the Word which runs from Genesis to Malachi. And if the Old Testament played such a profound role among even the apostles, it ought to play a profound role among us today, as well.

2. The Old Testament reveals Christ.

When Paul preached in the Berean synagogue, his listeners "searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11). While we are not told the specific content of Paul's preaching in Berea, we can be sure that it followed the basic themes of his preaching elsewhere. Paul always preached Christ; as he himself wrote, he was determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Consequently, there is no escaping the fact that Paul's preaching led the Jews in Berea to search the Old Testament in order to check the validity of Paul's message about Jesus.

Jesus Himself gave us this example. On the road to Emmaus with two disciples, "beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself" (Lk. 24:27). All the Scriptures concern Christ. The Old Testament is not merely the record of the Hebrews' developing notions of God. Nor is it a lonely self-enclosed cell of revelation, cut off from what God accomplished in Jesus Christ. The Old Testament bears witness to Christ and His work, which is "witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets" (Rom. 3:21).

Surely that is motivation to read the Old Testament. The gospel is the proclamation of Jesus Christ; salvation is in Him. Consequently, if the Old Testament reveals Christ and bears witness to Him, we have the greatest reason in the world to read it, study it, and understand it.

3. Knowing the Old Testament is the only way to genuinely understanding the New Testament.

Those who do not read the Old Testament will never appreciate or understand the New Testament as they ought to. The revelation of the new covenant is not the invention of a new religion. It is indeed the inauguration of a new order of things - but it is a new order of things squarely built upon what has preceded.

The New Testament writings do not begin at the beginning. Almost all of the New Testament writings were written by Jews - Jews who were wholly conversant with the existing Scriptures. Paul was a learned Pharisee who had studied under one of the most respected rabbis of the day (Acts 22:3). Even the unlettered fishermen among the apostles were doubtless proficient in the Bible that they had; in biblical times, Scripture was memorized and internalized in large chunks.

Moreover, most of the early converts to Christianity were already familiar with the Bible of the Jews. The Philippian jailer was among the minority of converts who came directly from paganism (Acts 16:25-34; cf. also 1 Cor. 6:11). A careful study of the book of Acts and the epistles will show that most Gentiles who converted during the first missionary wave were proselytes or "God-fearers" - that is, non-Jews who believed in Israel's God and studied Israel's Scriptures.

In this light, it is not so surprising that the writers of the New Testament constantly quote, cite or allude to the Old. And without recognition of the Old Testament context, the New Testament reader will often miss the significance of the statement. For example, Paul writes that God has highly exalted Christ, "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phi. 2:9-11). If the reader does not look at the Old Testament passage Paul is alluding to (Is. 45:23), he will not realize that Paul here has put Jesus in the place of Yahweh, God of Israel. (By the way, New Testament allusions to the Old often provide great proof-texts for the divinity of Christ when dealing with cults such as Jehovah's Witnesses. While the cults try to purge more direct statements, Old Testament passages referring to Yahweh which are applied to Christ in the New tend to get missed.)

It is the Old Testament that provides us with the fullest account of creation and fall. It is the Old Testament that articulates a great deal of God's moral character. Without sound knowledge of such a foundation, the New Testament will be misunderstood. Neither the Old nor the New Testament is intended to stand alone. They mutually inform one another.


I do not intend to develop here a list of rules of interpretation designed to provide technical know-how in order to become a Bible commentator. But I do wish to draw out some of the practical implications of what has already been said. The reasons that motivate Old Testament study are also indicators regarding the course that study must take. The "why" shapes the "how."

1. Read historically.

Because the Old Testament is God's Word, it really and truly reveals God to us. One of the shortcuts Christians are often tempted to take (particularly in view of the validity of point 2 below, that the Old Testament should be read "Christologically") is to avoid entering the warp and woof of old covenant life, and turn the Old Testament into a big moral and spiritual allegory, without really understanding what God was doing then and there.

God repeatedly tells His old covenant saints: "I am the Lord your God." God was really and truly personally active in the lives of His people. If we are rightly to understand and apply the Old Testament to our lives, we need to be willing to enter into "the world of the text" and recognize the activity of God there.

Interestingly, it is precisely this sensitivity to history that helps us with Christological reading. When we are careful to read the Old Testament as a historical book with a real chronology, we can see how God develops His relationship with His people, and the course of that development will help us discern the direction which God is going as the time of the new covenant approaches. In turn, this will help us recognize the sorts of concerns and issues that God meets head-on with the sending of His Son. Properly done, reading the Old Testament historically will not lead us away from Christ, but direct us to Him.

2. Read Christologically.

We argued above that the Old Testament reveals Christ. Quite understandably, this means that in our reading of the Old Testament, we ought to expect to encounter Christ. The ministry, death and resurrection of Christ throw light upon God's intentions throughout the Old Testament. Every act, situation, and person in the Old Testament must be viewed in relation to the coming Christ.

This raises the issue of typology - a notoriously difficult subject that remains controversial to this day. We cannot answer all of the questions related to typology here - we would come up with a book, rather than a short article. But a brief statement is necessary for our purpose.

"Typology" refers to divinely established patterns in Scripture. These patterns can be found within the Old Testament itself. For example, James Jordan and Peter Leithart have noted the creation-fall-judgment-re-creation pattern which finds so many forms in Scripture. (For a development of this, see the Jordan-influenced chart in Leithart 2000:38.)

Another pattern can be detected in the arrangements for the deliverance of Rahab at Jericho. Rahab's instructions indicate that a scarlet cord is to be attached to a point of entrance/egress of her house (i.e. the window), and further that all her household is to be kept within the house (Josh. 2:18-19). Does this sound familiar? If you know the Passover stipulations, it ought to. Blood was applied to the doorpost of the house, and the whole household was instructed to remain within the house during the night that the angel of death was passing over the land of Egypt (see esp. Ex. 12:22-23). In short, Rahab's deliverance was patterned upon the original Passover deliverance of the firstborn in Egypt.

Patterns relate events one to another, and demonstrate a particular manner in which God has ordered history. This gives us a very strong hint that we are meant to ask how a particular pattern is fulfilled in the work of Christ - whether by recapitulating the pattern through His work, or by providing the divine answer to the problem indicated by a negative human pattern (perhaps both).

For example, the death and resurrection theme (which corresponds closely to the creation-fall-judgment-re-creation theme mentioned above) can be seen in this light. In Ezekiel 37, the exile to Babylon (587 B.C.) was interpreted prophetically as a state of death, but God promised to bring the dry bones together and resurrect His people through His breath/wind/Spirit (all three are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek). It is not difficult to make the connection between that prophetic oracle and the death and resurrection of Christ, and the consequent sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is also not difficult to make the connection between Ezekiel 37 and several other events in the Old Testament, particularly the Exodus - which in turn helps clarify the relationship between these events and Christ.

Recognizing patterns also helps us formulate questions to ask the text of Scripture, and in answering these, our understanding will deepen, both of individual texts and of the message of Scripture as a whole. In our example above, the relationship between the Passover deliverance and that of Rahab helps us raise questions like this: How is the scarlet cord related to the blood of the Passover lamb? Why the stress on placing this upon the way of entry into the house? By means of this analogy, the destroying angel in Exodus becomes the armies of Israel in Joshua: what is the significance of this connection? Given the connection in Scripture between Passover and the death of Christ, how is Christ's work unfolded in the rescue of Rahab and her household? Etc.

3. Read the Old Testament as fulfilled in Christ.

Knowing the Old Testament is the only way to a genuine understanding of the New - and vice versa. If we are to recognize the significance of Christ's work, we must delve into the Old Testament and discover the historical foundation for that work. Conversely, if we are to grasp the full extent of the Old Testament's riches for us, we cannot read it as something that stands alone, something self-contained and complete. We must read it as the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said that He did not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). The word fulfill has a fundamental semantic range having to do with completion. Something that has not been fulfilled is lacking in some way; its full reality still awaits.

To understand the manner in which Christ fulfills the Law and the Prophets, an initial task would be to examine all of the places in the New Testament (especially the Gospels) where Christ, through some event in His own life, is explicitly said to have fulfilled a statement or passage in the Old Testament. Such a task is clearly beyond the scope of this short essay. I have elsewhere done some initial study of the Gospel of Matthew in connection with this task. I will only summarize here by saying that Christ's fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets "fills up" the prior revelation by way of taking up that revelation into Himself and glorifying it through His Person and work. For example, Christ's death is referred to by Luke as His "exodus" (Lk. 9:31; note that most English translations do not render this word literally). This Christ-exodus is the fulfilled Exodus, in which God's people are most fully and truly liberated. The "exodus of Exodus" provides the pattern, the type; Christ provides the fulfillment. This means that we have not heard the full divine intent of Exodus until we have listened to the text and understood it with reference to Christ's suffering, death and resurrection.

When we recognize that Christ has become the Incarnate Word of God (Jn. 1:14), the manner of reading the Old Testament Scriptures is necessarily shaped by that. For the pious Jew, the Law could be read within the overarching context of the covenant at Sinai, and to some degree, a somewhat indeterminate Messianic hope. That manner of reading the Law no longer obtains, because Christ has taken the Law and the Prophets up into Himself; He has become the Word enfleshed. And that means that the Law can no longer be understood except through the lens that He provides (or more accurately, the lens which He is). The coming of Christ is eschatological (eschatology has to do with the "last things"): His arrival is the in-breaking of the age to come, such that when one is in Christ, he is in a new creation: all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17). The Old Testament, too, is a new creation in Christ, and that is the way it must be read.


How does one close an article such as this? The Old Testament is a treasure of riches, and when we begin to read it through the lens of the Incarnate Word, that treasure is refracted into millions of points of light. A 3000-word essay seems woefully inadequate.

But precisely the vastness of the treasure allows me to close. Precisely because I know that I will not scratch the surface frees me to leave off here, and invite you to begin the journey for yourself. May you truly encounter Christ in the pages of your Old Testament.

Select Bibliography

James B. Jordan. Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999 [1989].

Peter J. Leithart. A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000.

— Tim Gallant

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