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Four Suggestions for Making Your Way through the Old Testament

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Let’s face it, the Old Testament (OT) is where Bible reading plans go to die. You get off to a great start in Genesis and Exodus, but then Leviticus is like an impenetrable brick wall. You plod along, but eventually give up, content to read the more devotional parts of the OT like Psalms and Proverbs, or maybe the occasional story of David. It’s in the New Testament (NT), after all, where most Christians live and move and have their being.

If you are making a commitment to read more of the Bible in 2019, let me encourage you not to give up on the OT. The entire OT is, after all, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). It may not be all equally profitable, but it is equally inspired, and “written for our instruction” (Rom 15:4). Paul says “all Scripture is breathed out by God.” Furthermore, the books of the OT are “sacred writings,” which are “able to make you wise unto salvation” (2 Tim 3:15).

With that in mind, let me off four suggestions for making your way through the OT.

1. Begin each session with prayer.
Take after the psalmist before you open the Bible, and pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps 119:18). Seek out the Holy Spirit to lead you into all truth (Jn 16:13). Or, take Solomon’s advice, to “call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding” (Prov 2:3).

We need God’s insight because the OT is sometimes hard to understand! Solomon says it’s like seeking out a hidden treasure (Prov 2:4). But hard work and daily plodding have rewards. Understanding the OT depends in great measure on knowing God. But it’s when we read the OT that we “find the knowledge of him” (Prov 2:5), an intimate knowledge that wouldn’t exist apart from God’s special revelation in Scripture.

2. Know the main storyline of the Bible, and follow it in every book.
Paul spent his last days teaching Jewish leaders, and his teaching is summed up under two related headings: (1) “testifying to the kingdom of God” and (2) “trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23),which is a short way of describing the OT. That is what the OT is about in brief: the kingdom of God and the Messiah Jesus.

If you concentrate on these two themes as you read the OT, the disparate parts will begin to cohere. The OT doesn’t just contain information about the Messiah; the OT is messianic, written for a messianic purpose, in order to sustain a messianic hope. If you lose sight of this purpose, you will likely get bogged down in the details and conclude that the NT only sheds light on the Old (which it does). But I am arguing that if you follow the storyline, the reverse is just as true: the OT is the light that points the way to the New.

So, force yourself to be interested in God’s program from beginning to end by seeing the end at the beginning. Eden is related to the New Jerusalem because the New Jerusalem is a new Eden.

3. Consider reading an OT theology book as an aid, something to help explain what you’ve read in the OT.
The idea is to read a portion of the Bible––Genesis 1-5, for example––and then read the portion of one of these books that covers that section of Genesis. We might call this “reading the OT theologically,” tracing its contours and themes through progressive revelation. There are many good resources available that can make the difficult terrain of the OT more understandable, including the law codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, or the prophecies of Jeremiah. For several years, I’ve recommended Paul House’s Old Testament Theology or Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty as two good books for this type of reading program. Both are still excellent resources.

But this practice is simply a tool for comprehension, so don’t be fooled into allowing it to replace your Bible reading. Christians have a long history with substituting reading about the Bible for reading the Bible. May it never be! The more we read the OT, the less strange it will seem to us. And a tool like an OT theology book will help in that endeavor.

4. Lastly, meditate on what you read.
Take delight in it. Chew it up like bread because that’s what it is—daily bread. We need bread to live, and we need the Bible to live for Christ. Without it, we are famished spiritually. But don’t be content with glossing over the pages with your eyes. Think about it! Many Christians get nothing out of reading the OT, not because they are ignorant of its contents, but because they are thoughtless. This is a tragedy. Thinking takes time and is hard work. But it’s not wasted time. It’s feasting on the knowledge of God. So don’t give up too quickly. God’s words are more precious than gold and silver.

The Apostles knew the importance of the OT, and we should follow their example. Peter, James, and John were even eyewitnesses to the majesty of Christ, seeing his glory unveiled before their eyes and hearing God’s voice audibly (Matt 17:1–8). But Peter says that even though they had this experience, “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Pet 1:19). What Peter is referring to is the OT!

In our day, we give a lot of weight to eyewitness testimony. “Pictures or it didn’t happen!” is a common mantra. And yet Peter says that the OT Scripture, fully inspired and profitable for Christians, is more fully confirmed than the testimony of eyewitnesses. Why? Because it proceeds directly from the Spirit of God. It is “a lamp shining in a dark place,” and it is able to do something that pictures and video can never do: make us wise unto salvation (2 Tim 3:16). Therefore, we would do well to pay attention, “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts” (2 Pet 1:19).

Ransack the OT for all it’s worth, and then you will “understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God” (Prov 2:5).

Josh Philpot is a pastor at Founders Baptist Church in Spring, Texas. He and his wife, Jenn, have four children.
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