Reading the Old Testament

Reading the Old Testament

We believe the Bible is the Word of God. We believe that every book – and every word – of the Bible is inspired by God and is profitable to us as Christians. We believe that regular time reading, studying, and meditating on the Scriptures can feed our soul. But admittedly, reading and learning from the Old Testament often feels harder than reading and learning from the New Testament.  

The Old Testament deals with the ancient history of Israel, foreign cultures, characters with names we can’t pronounce, abstract poetry, complicated prophecy, and perhaps most notably, Jesus is not named in the Old Testament. As we read any passage of Scripture, we must use good Principles of Interpretation, and recognize that diverse literary genres must be handled differently. There are differences to how we read and apply History, Law, Poetry, and Prophecy. But make no mistake about it, both the Old and New Testaments are Christian Scriptures.  

Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story, and since Christians are now children of God through faith in Jesus, Israel’s story is our story too. 1 Corinthians 10:11 says it was “written down for our instruction.” But not just instruction in a general way: the Old Testament strengthens our faith in Christ. Paul tells Timothy, 

“…continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

2 Timothy 3:14-17

Did you hear that? The apostle Paul is referring to the Old Testament, saying it can make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus. Yet still we are faced with the reality that the Old Testament can be difficult to understand and connect to our lives. As a seminary professor of mine used to say, we don’t want to interpret the Old Testament like they would in a synagogue – we believe there is a distinctly Christian meaning for our lives! With this in mind, we can look at four general approaches to reading the Old Testament: 

  • Exemplary Approach: This looks at the characters in the story for good examples to follow and bad examples to avoid. In many ways this is a very natural, easy way to read the narratives of the Old Testament. We often can identify with the characters, and can certainly learn much from them. However, there are two problems if this is our main approach.  First, often the good character does bad things and the bad character does good things…and sometimes we can’t even tell which is which! Even if we do know which characters are doing the morally right things, we don’t want to just turn the Bible into a book of ethical principles like Asaph’s fables. Christ and the Gospel must be central! 
  • Redemptive-Historical Approach: Here we read the events of the story to see how they are part of God’s plan to orchestrate history toward redemption. Again, there is value here as we recognize the sovereignty of God working in each historical context, building and developing toward God’s plan of redemption. However, if this is our only approach to reading the Old Testament, it could remove us from a personal connection with God’s Word and may make practical application more difficult.  
  • Systematic-Theology Approach: This reads the passage to learn theological principles and truths about God, humanity, and salvation. Of course the Old Testament is rich with theological truth and eternal laws of life with God. However, the Bible is not a systematic theology book – it is a book filled with poetry, prophecy, laws, and history. We can’t just pull out doctrine from the Old Testament that is disconnected from history or an encounter with God himself.  
  • Fulfillment Approach: Here we look for how the central themes, characters, and symbols foreshadow Christ and his saving work. In many ways, this approach serves as a controlling principle – not to exclude the other approaches – but to inform and empower the other approaches. In this way, we make sure to keep Christ and his life, death, and resurrection central to Scripture.  

The Fulfillment Approach is how Jesus and the New Testament authors read and interpret the Old Testament. They show that the human examples of the Old Testament foreshadow Jesus. He is the one we imitate. We see that God moves his plan forward, through the history of Israel, and the story finds its climax in the coming of Jesus Christ. The theology of the Old Testament finds fulfillment in Christ and his saving work. After he rose from the dead, he appeared to his first disciples, and said, 

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.’”

Luke 24:44-47

Christian, don’t be intimidated by the Old Testament. It is for you, and it is worth the investment. The entire Old Testament is filled with the anticipation of Jesus! For more insight and specific steps on how to study the Word with the Fulfillment Approach in mind, see the post The Old Testament is About Jesus.  


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