Why do we teach the Old Testament?

Monday, 18th May 2020
Image: why-do-we-teach-the-old-testament

Author: Sarah Dalrymple, IBC Tutor


It goes without saying that we teach Old Testament at IBC. After all, it’s the first and largest part of our Bible! Who isn’t familiar with the stories of Joseph in Egypt, David and Goliath, Daniel in the lions’ den? Who doesn’t turn to the Psalms for comfort and courage in times of trouble? Many of our ‘favourite’ passages and verses are to be found in the Old Testament; Isaiah 53, for example, regularly features in our worship at the Lord’s Supper. 

But if we’re all being honest, much of the Old Testament is uncharted territory. We wrestle with unpronounceable names in seemingly irrelevant genealogies; we confuse the kings of Israel with the kings of Judah; we struggle to situate the prophets in their historical context; we grapple with the violence and war, ritual, priests and animal sacrifices, dietary laws and punishments. Even the most determined among us has been tempted to skip Leviticus or Ezekiel on our Bible reading plan! The reality is that most Christians (including preachers!) are more ‘comfortable’ with what we know best – the New Testament.


Jesus’ Bible

Alec Motyer[i] paints a scenario where the Lord Jesus Christ is asked why he keeps quoting from the Old Testament. Motyer then suggests – tongue in cheek – the answer our Lord might give: ‘The old what? What do you mean the “Old Testament”?…Oh, I see! You mean the Holy Scriptures. Why ever do you call them by such an odd name?’ Whether he referred to it as ‘the Scripture’ (John 10:35), ‘the Word of God’ (Mark 7:13) or ‘the Law’ (Luke 10:26), Jesus was talking about his Bible, which has come to us in written form (‘scriptures’), with divine authority (‘the Word of God’), bringing instruction for living (the basic meaning of Torah - ‘Law’). So, if we want to know Jesus, and if we want to be like Jesus, we need to read the Bible he read! Jesus’ understanding of his person and mission is rooted in ‘Moses and the Prophets and in all the Scriptures’ (Lk 24:27, 40). He is the ‘seed of the woman’ (Gen 3:15), ‘Immanuel’ (Isaiah 7), the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53). He is ‘the Lord’s Anointed’ (Ps 2:2), who would proclaim his work ‘finished!’ (Ps 22:31, cf. Jn 19:30). Jesus didn’t just know all these Scriptures perfectly; he was fully aware that he himself was their fulfilment (Luke 4:21; 22:37). 

Jesus’ knowledge of ‘the Scripture’ is well illustrated throughout the gospels. As a boy, his understanding amazed the teachers in the temple (Lk 2:46-47). At his temptation, he resists the devil by quoting three times from Deuteronomy (Mt 4:1-11). Jesus knew ‘his Bible’ from beginning to end (Mt 23:35, cf. Gen 4:8 and 2 Chron 24:21). This is the example he sets for his followers! This is why we teach the Old Testament at IBC!


‘Cumulative Revelation’

Have you ever arrived late to an important meeting, only to discover that the agenda is nearing its end? Everyone else has been present from the beginning – so they are taking for granted what’s been said already; they won’t repeat everything. Since you have missed a significant part of the agenda, you might well misunderstand (or only partially understand) what is being said. Wright[ii] uses this illustration to describe what happens if we read our New Testament to the neglect of our Old Testament. The New Testament presupposes all that God said and did within the story of the Old Testament – and it doesn’t necessarily repeat everything.

Which Old Testament doctrines does the New Testament take for granted? Well, every major one, actually! Even in the early chapters of Genesis, the doctrinal ‘pillars’ of Creation, God, Humanity, Sin and the way of Salvation are firmly established. These are vital for a proper understanding of our own spiritual condition before our Creator; they also equip us to deal biblically with the many moral and ethical issues that we face in our post-modern society. 

Upon these fundamental building blocks, truth is increasingly unfolded; theologians call this ‘progressive revelation’. Motyer helpfully points out that the process is not about advancing from ‘primitive’ to ‘mature’ understanding (leaving the ‘primitive’ behind). He prefers the term ‘cumulative revelation’: ‘Truth built up layer upon layer, so that nothing is lost. The earlier statement is not primitive but partial – part of the complete whole that is yet to be’.[iii]  Without the Old Testament, we can’t arrive at, never mind understand, the New Testament. This is why we teach the Old Testament at IBC! 


God’s Grand Design

The New Testament assumes what the Old Testament reveals: in all of Scripture, there is one God, and one story. Are we tempted to view the God of the Old Testament differently from the God of the New? The same God speaks in both (Heb 1:1-2)! For many, the Old Testament is all about wrath and burdens, while the New Testament is about grace and freedom. Yet one of the most foundational Old Testament statements about God’s character is found in Exod 34:6 and reasserted throughout the history of God’s gracious dealings with his wayward people. Where do we find God’s call to all-encompassing love?  In Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18! (cf. Mt 22:40).

Each Old Testament book, set in its particular historical and literary context, is an integral element in a single storyline with a single outcome. Every narrative, law, poem, prophecy and genealogy contributes to God’s grand design. There is no ‘Plan B’; God always planned to send Jesus – he told us so in Gen 3:15, and Jesus confirms this in John 5:39 – ‘These are the Scriptures that testify about me.’

As their eyes were opened, the New Testament writers in turn understood Jesus’ words. This is why Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with genealogies. This is why Matthew heaps up Old Testament promises fulfilled in Christ – quoting, among others, Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah. The New Testament contains literally hundreds of Old Testament quotations, allusions and echoes – many of which we will miss, unless we saturate ourselves in Jesus’ Bible! This is why we teach the Old Testament at IBC!


The Old Testament Gospel

From the programmatic announcement of Genesis 3:15, the hope of the covenant faithful focussed on a divinely anointed (messianic) King. The Old Testament presents one Messiah, one way of salvation.

Paul writes that ‘the Scripture’ preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham (Gal 3:7). Abraham’s example shows that salvation for the Old Testament believer was by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. The Galatians, in turn, received the Spirit ‘by hearing with faith’, just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”’ (Gal 3:5-6). Abraham himself is a living Old Testament prophecy of the gospel: he was not an Israelite, but a pagan; he was not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Christ. 

Writing to Timothy, Paul exhorts the young pastor to continue in what he had heard from childhood: the ‘sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim 3:16). ‘All Scripture’, says Paul, carries the authority of God and is ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3:16-17). Therefore, says Paul, ‘preach the Word’ (2 Tim 4:2).

As we seek to equip our students to serve God, this truth concerning ‘all Scripture’ compels us. This is why we teach the Old Testament at IBC!


[i] Motyer, A., A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Loving the Old Testament, Fearne: Christian Focus Publications, 2015, p.14

[ii] Wright, C. J. H., How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016, p.20.

[iii] Motyer, p.56.



(This article first appeared in the Dec/Jan 2018 issue of Insight. Insight is the magazine of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland).

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