I sometimes hear people say this:
“We are a New Testament church producing New Testament Christians.”
Ever heard that? The sentiment may not always be expressed in these same words, but it’s a prevalent mindset in Christendom. We spend so little time studying the Bible at all, when we do go to God’s Word, we tend to reach for the Gospels or one of Paul’s letters (usually the second half of one of Paul’s letters — you know — the really practical parts).
The Old Testament seems to be relegated to children’s Sunday School (where it serves as a good source for morality tales) or adult Bible studies related to biblical prophecy (where it serves as a kind of Ouija-board, giving us shadowy clues for the future of our nation and our world).
It hasn’t always been this way. Christians throughout the centuries understood the profound sense of unity and harmony between the two testaments. But when Nazi Germany officially forbade the study of the great “Jewish book”, it was only reinforcing what many people already thought: we don’t need the Jewish parts; we just need the Christian part.
Here’s the problem with that statement: You can’t really be “New Testament” anything without being “Old Testament”, too. Just try to understand Hebrews or Revelation without the Old Testament background. When the apostle Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), what “Scripture” do you think he was talking about?
He was talking about what we now call the Old Testament.
To be clear: it is my belief that the Old Testament is incomplete without the New. It is also my belief that the New Testament is incomplete without the Old. Apart from the Old Testament we would have an incomplete understanding of what God is really like. We could never understand the origins of our truest problem: our alienation from God and others. And thus, we would have an incomplete understanding of what people are really like too.
The Old Testament consistently reminds us that God is the center and source of life. The world does not revolve around us. We are not the center of the universe. The earth is not ours to do with as we see fit. We are given the task of being stewards of God’s creation, and our lives are sacred — meaning we belong to God and are set apart by him for his purposes.
We learn from the Old Testament how life with God actually is, not necessarily how it should be. It is alarmingly real, refusing to gloss over life with all of its humanity and brokenness. Abraham, Jacob, Job, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Jonah — God refuses to wait until a golden boy hero comes along with his perfect teeth and broad shoulders and spotless character. He deals with people as they are, enduring arguments and complaints and wrestling matches and moral failures, and he is not unmoved by our problems.
The Old Testament gives us a history to join, a promise that God doesn’t kick us out at the first chance, choosing instead to enter into a relationship, with all that involves. We know from the Old Testament that we can actually interact with God, that he prefers an honest argument to dishonest compliance.
More than anything, Christians should value the Old Testament because Jesus did. These are the stories he learned and the prophets he quoted. These are the Psalms he prayed and the laws he lived.
Without a good understanding of the Old Testament, it will be impossible to become like Jesus. So, next time you open the Good Book, do some reading from the first half (more like 3/4). Read Genesis. Read the Psalms. Read the Proverbs. Allow yourself to steep in the wisdom of the same Bible Jesus read.