Why New Testament Christians Should Study the Old Testament
The Stone-Campbell Movement has served Christendom well through its invitation of all believers to practice “New Testament Christianity.” An unintended and unfortunate consequence of this plea, however, has been the historical neglect of the Old Testament in the preaching and teaching of many Restoration churches.
Regarding the New Testament as the “only rule of faith and practice,” some in our fellowship have come to view the Old Testament as no longer relevant for the believer. The Old Testament, it is argued, was for the Jews. Having brought us to Christ it has now served its intended purpose and (like the Mosaic Law) has, therefore, become obsolete.
While it is biblically accurate to distinguish between the testaments and between salvation by law and salvation by grace, it does not necessarily follow that the first three-fourths of the Bible should be categorically dismissed as obsolete and irrelevant for the Christian. In fact, a careful reading of the New Testament demonstrates how closely tied it is to the Old Testament and how important the Old Testament was to the New Testament church. Here’s why “New Testament Christians” should read the Old Testament.
Jesus Read It
The Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus. He read from it, quoted it, interpreted it, and declared himself to be the fulfillment of many of its promises. He insisted that he did not “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets . . . but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
Grasping the true significance of the Old Testament revelation, he summarized all that the Law and the prophets taught by quoting what he called its two “great commandments”: “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18). He also helped his legalistic contemporaries to recover the spirit behind the Law (Matthew 5:22-48). Sometimes he even built an entire argument upon a single word of Old Testament Scripture (Mark 12:26, 27; Exodus 3:6).
The First Church Lifted It Up
The Old Testament was the Bible of the New Testament church. When the authors of the New Testament referred to the “Scriptures,” they were referring to the Old Testament. The New Testament was still being written and had not yet been canonized and fully distributed among the churches.
When Paul described the Scripture as “God-breathed” and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), he was speaking of the Old Testament. When he said that what “was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4), he was talking about the Old Testament.
The New Testament Writers Believed It
There are more than 300 direct quotations of the Old Testament to be found throughout the New Testament. If one counts partial quotations or allusions, the number jumps to more than 2,000. This material accounts for about 10 percent of the New Testament, or about the same amount devoted to the recorded words of Jesus.
Taking their cue from Jesus himself, the authors of the New Testament believed the Old Testament to be nothing less than the word of God (Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; Romans 3:2). The writers used the Old Testament in their histories, sermons, letters, and even their prayers. They used it when addressing Jews and Gentiles, churches and individuals, new converts and veteran believers. They used it to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, to offer ethical instruction, and to argue a theological point. The Old Testament was the primary authority they cited in their declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Redemption Story Begins There
The story of redemptive history that culminates in Jesus Christ has its origins in the Old Testament. The Bible may have two testaments, but it tells one essential story. The creation, the fall, the election of Israel, the promise of a coming Savior, the birth of Jesus, his supernatural ministry, his redeeming death, his victorious resurrection, his establishing of God’s kingdom, and his glorious return are all part of a continuous narrative that runs from Genesis through Revelation.
The same God who began to speak in the Old Testament has now spoken fully and finally in Jesus Christ and the New Testament that testifies of him (Hebrews 1:1, 2).
It Explains the Ministry of Jesus
The Old Testament helps us understand the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry. The Hebrew Scriptures were always on his mind and frequently on his lips. Jesus once described himself as the “one of whom the scriptures speak.” It was his way of informing his generation that a vast array of Old Testament prophecies were uniquely fulfilled in him.
He was born in Bethlehem, of a virgin, from the line of David—all foretold by the Old Testament.
He spoke in parables, performed miracles, made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and was betrayed by one of his disciples—all predicted by the Old Testament.
At a Nazareth synagogue Jesus began his public ministry by reading from the book of Isaiah. In the wilderness he quoted Deuteronomy in his successful efforts to resist temptation.
He called himself the “Son of Man” (Ezekiel 2:1) throughout his ministry. And then, at his trial, he revealed what he meant by his use of that title (Matthew 26:64; Daniel 7:13).
He is the “light of the world” who came “in the name of the Lord” to establish the “kingdom of God.” He is the “stone which the builders rejected,” the “good shepherd,” the “servant of the Lord” and the great “I am.” All of these names of Christ have their roots in the Old Testament. In fact, one cannot intelligently confess that “Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living God” without some knowledge of the Old Testament.
It Contains the Roots of the Gospel
The Old Testament helps us understand the meaning of the “gospel.” When John the baptizer greeted Jesus at the Jordan, John said, “Look the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This unusual announcement can be understood only against the background of the ancient Jewish ritual of animal sacrifice. As an illustration of the seriousness of sin and the desire of God to forgive it, God instructed the Jews to offer the best of their flocks and herds as a sacrifice for their sins. God accepted the life of the animal, symbolized by its blood, as a substitute for the life of the sinner who offered it (Leviticus 1:1-6). This oft-repeated ritual prepared the world for the coming of a “Lamb” of such perfection and worth that his sacrificial death could achieve the forgiveness of the collective sin of all humankind. In an unspeakable act of gracious love, God accepted the life of the Lamb of God as a substitute for our lives.
The mocking of Jesus’ persecutors, the soldiers gambling for his robe, even his words upon the cross—all were predicted in the Old Testament. His burial in a borrowed tomb, his three days in the grave, and his glorious resurrection were all in fulfillment of Old Testament predictions. In every sense of the word the events of the “gospel” happened “according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
It’s One Part of a Single Story
The Old Testament anticipates what the New Testament elucidates. The 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament add up to one book we know as the Bible. Though separated by languages, cultures, and even centuries, the two testaments together constitute one sacred story—the story of a God who made us, loves us, and seeks to save us in his long-promised “only begotten Son.”
Steve Hooks is professor of biblical studies at Point University, East Point, Georgia.