I’ve been reading through the Old Testament every year since 2012. That was the year our church began using the RMM Bible Reading Plan. The plan takes you through the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice in every calendar year; I had read the Old Testament before, but my reading was selective and sporadic to say the least. I had read the Psalms and Genesis and Exodus and parts of Isaiah multiple times, but truth be told, I may have only read The Book of Obadiah once – back in Bible School and I’m not sure if I had ever read The Book of Leviticus from start to finish.
So I resolved to begin systematically and faithfully reading through the Old Testament.
I did not expect to love it.
But somewhere along the line, the Old Testament got inside me. It became a part of my daily routine. More than that, it became a part of me. It became the voice behind me saying “This is the path, walk ye in it.”
If you asked me why I was reading the Old Testament back in 2012, I think I would have said: “I need to be more familiar with the Old Testament storyline.” It’s possible I might have said: “I need to set a better example for my people.” Both of those statements are true, or at least they were true – but neither of them reflects what I would say today. Today, if you asked me why I read the Old Testament I think I would lead with the following.
I read the Old Testament:
To hear the Voice of My Heavenly Father
When the Bible speaks, God speaks.
I believe that. I’ve believed some version of that for my entire adult life and yet I don’t think I had processed the full implication of that until fairly recently. I was helped to see that by observing how the New Testament authors spoke about the Old Testament. Consider for example Hebrews 12:5: “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him” (Hebrews 12:5 ESV).
In this passage, the Apostle quotes from Proverbs 3:11 and refers to it as an exhortation to sons. To state the obvious, the Book of Proverbs does not have any sons – but God does. The Apostle is saying that the Book of Proverbs is to be understood as God speaking to his sons.
Let that sink in.
Don’t be distracted by the gender issues.
The Apostle isn’t saying that God only speaks to men – he is using the word “son” as a metaphor for “full, inheriting, child.” Male or female.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that the Apostle to the Hebrews understands the Book of Proverbs as the very voice of God to his children.
Do you want to hear the voice of your heavenly Father? Read the Old Testament. Read Proverbs. Read anything in the Old Testament and you will be hearing the very voice of God.
Seeing that changes everything.
It changes the way I pray. My practice is to read my Bible first and then to respond to what I’ve heard in prayer. I try to model that in my prayer groups at church and to my children at Family Devotions. We let God speak first, out of respect and out of a desire to be shaped by his Word – and then we respond. We thank God, we confess, we ask for help to live in accordance with what we’ve heard, we affirm that God’s ways are right and lead to life. This is the dialogue out of which the Christian life must flow; and it all begins with receiving the whole Word of God as the voice of our heavenly Father.
I read the Old Testament to hear that voice.
I also read it in order to learn my family history.
To Learn My Family History
To be clear, my biological family comes from England on both sides and England doesn’t feature prominently in the Biblical narrative. But I’m not talking about my biological family – I’m talking about something far more important than that.
In 1 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul says to a largely Gentile church:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1–5 ESV).
Read the first line again: “Our fathers.”
Paul speaks to Gentiles and directs them to consider the stories of the Old Testament as having happened to their spiritual fathers. “These are your stories!” He says that to Jews and to Gentiles. This is entirely consistent with what he says in Galatians 3:29: “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29 ESV).
Abraham is our father if we are in Christ through faith. Whether we are Jewish or Gentile by birth is no longer a significant consideration.
If you are a Christian, then the Old Testament Patriarchs are your spiritual fathers.
Their story is your family story and the Apostle Paul says it is filled with instruction for you. You need to know where you came from! You need to know what your people are like, where they have been and how God has helped them. You need to know that to live as God’s people today. Paul says that in 1 Corinthians 10:
Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:6–11 ESV)
I read the Old Testament to learn my family story and to profit from the example of my forebears.
I also read it so as to see and learn the way of life.
To See the Way of Life
The Apostle Paul talks about that in Romans 15. He says: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4 ESV).
It seems to me that the attitude of the Apostle Paul towards the Old Testament is frequently misrepresented. While he undoubtedly taught that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, he also taught that: “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12 ESV).
Holy, righteous and good is GOOD, is it not?
But what is it good for? That’s really the issue. Paul did not believe that the law was good as a means of salvation; but that does not mean that he thought it was good for nothing. This is a man, after all, whose life goal was: “to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed” (Romans 15:18 ESV).
That doesn’t sound like a man who cares nothing for the commandments of God. It sounds like a man who believes that the commandments are the way of life. They are not the way of salvation, but they are the way that saved people walk. They show us how God wants us to live. They teach us how to love God and one another.
They are for our instruction.
I read the Old Testament because it helps me. Notice that Paul says it is for “our” instruction – not for those unfortunate people who lived in former days. No. He doesn’t say that. He says it is for us.
I read the Old Testament because it teaches me how to love other people and how to live with a Holy God.
Lastly, I read the Old Testament to be reminded of my need for a Savior.
To Be Reminded of My Need for a Savior
No matter what plan you use to read the Old Testament, you’re likely to arrive at a similar conclusion: God is holy, we are not, and that’s a serious problem.
That’s the message of the Old Testament in a nutshell. God is Holy! He doesn’t change! He is perfect and marvelous and awesome in all his ways! And we are not – we are really, really not. We are fallen, and we are failed. Away from God, we abuse one another. Even the best of us, even the most noble of us, fall short of the glory of God.
We need a Savior!
We need a Prophet to tell us the truth.
We need a Priest to pay for our sins.
We need a King to defeat our enemies and fight our battles and bring us home to God.
We need Jesus!
If you aren’t in that place when you come to the end of the Old Testament, then you haven’t been paying attention.
The Old Testament tells me the story of me apart from God – and I don’t like how it ends! But I do like what it promises. It promises that God will come; it promises that he will do for me what I could never do for myself and he will pay for what I have done in his body on the cross.
That’s why I read the Old Testament! Because it brings me to the end of myself, and it points me in the direction of Christ.
Thanks be to God!
N.B. To listen to the Into The Word podcast, featuring Pastor Paul Carter, see here.