Celebrating the First Testament
Philip Graham Ryken
Editorial note: On November 6-7, 2018, Dr. Philip Ryken, President of Wheaton College, delivered the Hughes Preaching Lectures at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, on the theme of “Fully Evangelical, Totally Biblical, Maximally Practical Homiletics.” What follows is an edited transcript of his second of four addresses.
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to 1 Samuel 22. My purpose this afternoon is to get you excited all over again about the tremendous resources we have for ministry in the Old Testament, the First Testament, the Word of God to the people of God from Genesis to Malachi.
You will notice the context of our passage at the end of 1 Samuel 21. David in verse 12 was much afraid of Achish the King of Gath, during his on-again, off-again warfare with Saul. He was in exile among the Philistines. Being the resourceful warrior that he was, he changed his behavior before them, and pretended to be insane in their hands, and allowed spittle to run down his beard. Apparently, it was an effective performance. Maybe 1 Sam 21:15 is a useful reference to use when somebody brings you a substandard intern: “Do I lack mad men that you have brought this fellow to me?”
That is the context: David by his own wits but also by the grace of God is delivered from the Philistines. In chapter 22 we read:
David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men (1-2).
Here you have the Old Testament absolutely at its best. It’s a real historical account of what really happened, told with absolute vividness. The characters come to life even in just the few details you are given, not a detail of which is wasted, which is one of the characteristics of biblical writing. You have a real-life experience of something that really happened. As you read the story, with David as the anointed servant, suddenly there comes to you in a fresh way a vivid depiction of our Savior. Because when you see David in his anointed role as king and see the people that are gathered to him, you see that it is people in distress, people who are in debt, people who are bitter in soul, you recognize your own heart in all of its need. You recognize all of the struggles of life in a fallen world, both our own sinfulness and indebtedness. But also, the areas that are broken in our lives and in need of healing, the distress of conflict and turmoil; everything that is part and parcel with life in a fallen world. You see in a fresh way, a savior to whom these people are drawn in all of their deeply human need.
For me, this is the kind of passage where I see David, but I also see my Savior. I understand his relationship to me because I recognize my own deeply human needs as a fallen person in a fallen world. I see in this passage what one of the hymn writers describes as “great David’s greater son,” thinking of Psalm 110, but also captivating something for us from the Old Testament, from the stories of David as the king that is a type and prototype of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It is the kind of passage that gets me excited about our salvation all over again and gets me excited about sharing the Scriptures with others so that they could see the Savior in this kind of vivid way.
I would’ve thought that coming to Reformed Theological Seminary of all places, this is a place where it is hardly needed to say that the Old Testament is an amazing resource for ministry. I would like to hope that hardly needs to be said anyways because to me it is so obvious, so much of my upbringing and a passion to me in ministry. Then I read Michael Kruger, from Reformed Theological Seminary, addressing this kind of concern in the contemporary church. He wrote an article on why we can’t unhitch from the Old Testament. It is a response to a recent and possibly popular book by a notable preacher. The argument in this preacher’s book is that modern Christianity relies too much on the Old Testament. Now, I would’ve said exactly the opposite of that. Modern Christianity relies too little on the Old Testament. There’s too little awareness and knowledge of the gospel as it is presented to us in the first covenant.
The argument in this particular book (that Dr. Kruger masterfully refutes) is that we have this habit of reaching back into Old Covenant concepts, teachings, sayings, and narratives and this has led to a lot of vices in the contemporary church, that it is quite a risk. The author says that if you look at the prosperity gospel, the Crusades, anti-Semitism, legalism, exclusivism, judgmentalism, all of this is because we are relying too much on the Old Testament. I thought anti-Semitism was an interesting item on the list. I haven’t read the book to see how that is argued, that focusing on what the Holy Spirit has said in the Scriptures of the Old Testament is anti-Semitic. Anyways, his argument is that when it comes to stumbling blocks to faith, the Old Testament is at the top of the list.
So, if that is an argument that people are making, and maybe an argument that will have some influence, maybe we do need to be reacquainted with the First Testament. There are reasons why it is so vitally important for us not simply to be aware of the Old Testament, but to immerse ourselves in the Old Testament. The teaching and preaching the Old Testament are an ordinary part of the healthy diet for daily Christianity and for the life of the local church. So, what I would like to do in our time together, as I celebrate the First Testament, is to give you maybe as many as 31 reasons to preach and teach the Old Testament.
Now, I’ll preface this by saying, we typically in Philadelphia, at Tenth Presbyterian Church, we have Sunday morning services on Thanksgiving Day, 11 o’clock worship service and I was sitting up there on the platform with James Montgomery Boice the Thanksgiving Day that he decided to do a 27-point sermon on Thanksgiving. It was really 3 points but each of the three points had 9 subpoints—he just really wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving! At the end of the sermon, after he had preached the sermon and prayed, he’s walking back to sit down next to me and he said to me, “that was too many points, wasn’t it?” Now what do you do when you’re an associate minister and your senior minister asks you to critique his sermon? I said, “well, they were all good points though.” I thought that was a pretty good answer!
There are not just one or two reasons why we have to proclaim the gospel in the context of the Old Testament. We have many, many reasons for doing so. The first is this: The Old Testament is the Word of God. That would be enough of a reason to preach and teach the Old Testament, it is the Word of God. We have this confirmed for us in many different ways and in many different places. I remind you of Paul’s words to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God [the person of God] may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
When Paul says “all Scripture,” by extension we can find him referring, by good and necessary consequence, to the Gospels, to the Epistles of the New Testament, to the book of Revelation, but what he is mainly thinking about as he writes this is the Scriptures of the Old Testament. That is Holy Scripture. That is breathed out by God. And it’s useful for all of these things.
There’s an example of this, and it’s a small example, I like what B. B. Warfield says about the incarnation of the Son of God but I think it also applies to our doctrine of Scripture is that some of the most important things that are said about these central doctrines are said incidentally. What is assumed in a passage, obviously Jesus would have to be both human and divine for this to be true, similarly the word of God would have to be both a human production and a divine production. A lot of these things happen almost incidentally. In 1 Timothy 5:17, where Paul is talking about elders who rule well, they are deserving of double honor. Paul says, “the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” As I understand this passage, he is quoting both from Deuteronomy 25 and Luke 10, saying Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament, is the Word of God for us. We believe in the whole Scripture, both Testaments, being the Word of God. That all by itself would be reason enough to read, study, teach, and preach the Old Testament.
Number 2: The Old Testament is necessary background to the New Testament. The First Testament is necessary background for the Second Testament. By some estimates, 40% of the verses of the New Testament either quote from or directly allude to material in the Old Testament. I remember being surprised by that estimate when I heard it. The Old Testament is the crucial backstory to the New Testament. It is really more than the backstory. It is also the front story because of how often it’s quoted from or alluded to. You really can’t understand the New Testament, even if you thought you should focus on the New Testament, you wouldn’t be able to understand it without understanding the Old Testament. One of the things I have sometimes done with somebody who is new to Christianity or new to the Christian Faith and doesn’t know much Bible, I will recommend or give them a robust children’s story Bible and say, “read this, it won’t take you long, but read through all those stories because you will have so much of a head start in understanding all that you will read about in the New Testament just by understanding the stories of the Old Testament.”
Number 3: The Old Testament gives us a fuller understanding of Christ. Let me give you one notable example of that. The Old Testament helps you understand Jesus in His prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministry. Eusebius of Caesarea perhaps is the first to use this structure in his Ecclesiastical History. He’s wanting to tell the whole story of the Christian church, and he starts in the Old Testament. He starts with the anointing of the leadership figures in the Old Testament as connected to the anointing of Christ. He says, in the same way that you have these people who are anointed as prophets, priests, and kings, you now have a Messiah, an anointed one, who is prophet, priest, and king. He gives a kind of clue that then gets developed robustly through the whole history of the church through the Middle Ages and strongly in the Reformers and afterwards, even to the present day. And there is a lot in the New Testament that shows Jesus exercising His prophetic, priestly, and kingly roles and fulfilling prophecies that relate to prophets, priests, and kings. You cannot understand what that is all about unless you read through the Old Testament page by page and on virtually every page you see something about a prophet, a priest, or a king. Sometimes positive examples, sometimes negative examples, but all of them illuminating the offices of Christ and His complete work. It is a very good way of understanding the Old Testament in a Christ-centered way, to think in terms of prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministry and that’s just one way in which the Old Testament gives us a fuller understanding of Christ.
Another way, of course, is the gospel story of humiliation and exaltation in places like Luke 24: 26-27, but then some verses later in the same chapter. Jesus is not just with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus but with His other disciples and He says to them in verse 46, ““Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Yes, it’s a gospel paradigm for understanding the Old Testament: suffering and rising again on the third day. But it is also the implications of that gospel in terms of repentance and forgiveness as a proclamation to the nations. All of that is part of the Old Testament revelation of Jesus Christ. It is not just the sufferings and glory of Christ that are prefigured in the Old Testament; it is also the ongoing gospel work of proclaiming repentance and forgiveness in His name to the nations. All of that is rooted, Jesus says, in what is written in the Old Testament.
Number 4: The Old Testament gives us a fresher understanding of Christ. This is the point of 1 Samuel 22. When you read the New Testament Gospels, you are looking at Jesus directly. In the Old Testament, it’s almost as if you catch sight of Him reflected in a mirror. You are not looking directly at Him, but you are looking at something and you catch a sideways glance. It gives you a new perspective, you see Him in a fresh way, the way you sometimes do when you catch sight of somebody in a mirror. You see a different aspect or maybe it catches you by surprise a little bit. You didn’t expect to see that particular reflection. But just because it’s a sideways glance, it comes to you with new and fresh power. There are so many examples of this. I love John’s testimony in 12:41 with reference to Isaiah, “Isaiah said these things [referring to His call narrative] because he saw his glory and spoke of him.” That calls to mind for me Isaiah 6—Isaiah seeing the Lord high and lifted up—and I understand it is not just the Sovereign Lord God who is our Father, but it’s actually a vision of Jesus Christ that Isaiah beholds and that’s what he wants to communicate to us in his prophecy.
Or think, for example, how much richer our understanding of Christ is when we read Psalm 118, on the chief cornerstone, this stone that is cast aside in the building of God’s house but then is recovered and then becomes central to the entire building. It becomes marvelous in our eyes. There’s something marvelous about the revelation of Christ that you see in Psalm 118. You are seeing Him in a marvelous way, and this reappears in the New Testament. Here’s just another example. I’ve been preaching and teaching through some of the psalms recently and I was really struck by Psalm 109:31. Here’s a psalm of David when he is under duress, people are coming after him, they’re accusing him including in what seems to be legal context. Typically, in that ancient world, there’s an accuser on your right hand and he’s there to accuse you and bring you up on charges before the court. And what do you see in verse 31? It’s the Savior that stands at the right hand of the needy one to save him from those who condemn his soul to death. All of the sudden you’re in this courtroom scene and it’s your Savior that is standing at your right hand to bring deliverance! I just see my Savior in this verse and in this context of somebody under attack and under duress, in a fresh way that comes with fresh power.
Number 5: The Old Testament helps us understand our world today. Here I refer, specifically, to understanding the Middle East because the ancient conflicts that have a big influence on global politics in our world today draw fuel conflicts that are rooted in the Old Testament. Regardless of your particular view on how you connect Old Testament prophecy to Israel, to the church, or to what God is doing in the world, we would all have to agree that there are stories in the Old Testament that set the trajectory of conflicts that influence our world today and illuminate the nature of those conflicts. There are things that we are struggling with in our world today that go back to Isaac and Israel, that go all the way back to Israel and Syria. The Old Testament gives us an understanding and a perspective.
Number 6: The Old Testament gives us more of the promises of God. We get lots of promises from God in the New Testament but there are also many promises in the Old Testament, including promises in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in the New Testament but also promises in the Old Testament that won’t be fulfilled until the end of history. And I find in living out ordinary Christian life, I need more of the promises of God, not less of the promises of God. I need to think more of the promises of God. I need to hold unto the promises of God more rather than less. And I find that so many people that are struggling in the Christian life also need more of the promises of God. Also, in grasping hold of those promises of God, seeing the amazing track record that God has in fulfilling His promises again and again, strengthens me in my hope that God will fulfill the promises that He’s made to me that He’s not yet fulfilled. For ministry, for spiritual growth, and for the kind of pastoral care we are offering to others, the Old Testament is a tremendous resource for us in offering people more of the promises of God.
Number 7: The Old Testament shows us a fuller range of the human experience. This is one of the benefits of reading great literature of any kind that puts us into contact with human experience. But in the Bible, we’re put in contact with human experience in a way that makes a difference in our lives spiritually. The people that we meet in the Old Testament are people living their lives before God. All of these characters that become so memorable to us as we read the stories of the Old Testament are having a range of human experience that is much greater than the range of human experience that we encounter simply from reading the New Testament. All these stories of people fighting, dreaming, marrying, working, eating, drinking, living, and dying, living out all these things in their relationship with God. There is so much more of that that we encounter in the Old Testament than we would simply in the New Testament. It’s a reminder that we are not alone in our spiritual experiences. There’s an invitation for us to learn in the context of the communion of the saints and sisters and brothers who have gone before us who have experiences that can help us understand the work of God in connection with our own experiences.
Number 8: The Old Testament teaches us more of the law of God. I refer most specifically to the Torah, the law of God as given through the prophet Moses, maybe most specifically to the Ten Commandments. This is one of things Michael Kruger was up against with this book that he was reviewing. One of the statements in that book is “thou shalt not believe that the Ten Commandments apply to you.” That is part of the argument of the book! Actually, everything in the law of God, understood rightly, does apply to us. It’s not just the law of God in Moses but the unpacking of the implications of the law in the prophets, for example. I think it is a good thing to have more of the law of God because it leads us more deeply into repentance. As I reflect on some years of preaching the gospel, I can’t think of anything that has made a bigger gospel impact on congregations that I have served than the clear, convicting preaching of the law of God that gets you to the point that you cannot deflect it. You know it’s referring to you. You know it’s exposing your own sins, and then you have to deal with it through repentance and a deeper understanding of the gospel. Few things are more effective for leading people to Christ than an understanding of the law of God. So it’s a good thing that the Old Testament teaches us more of the law of God. It’s also good because the law helps guide us in our conduct as those now who have been redeemed by Christ and naturally want to please our Savior in the way we live.
Number 9: The Old Testament exposes us to more biblical poetry. That is a good thing! Poetry is a delight to the soul; it gives us a deeper and richer experience in our relationship with God. A big percentage, maybe 40%, of the Old Testament is in poetic form. Poetry touches the mind and heart in a different way than prose. It operates differently than law, history, gospel, or biblical narrative. Poetry touches some people more deeply who are particularly in tune to the way that poetry works through images. For some of us, we may connect more deeply to this part of the Bible than that part of the Bible, but there are people that strongly connect with poetry and God in His wisdom has given us a lot of that so that people can connect with Him spiritually through poetry. But I will also say that there is a poetic side to all of us. Each of us has a capacity to understand images, to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, which poetry sometimes does, so we become more complete people, more whole people, as the Word of God in its variety of genres and literary forms has its impact on us. Poetry is a very significant part of that. One thing that I point out to college students on my campus if I occasionally hear that they are having trouble connecting with poetry is that actually they listen to poetry every day. They listen to contemporary music and all the lyrics of that are poetic—not necessarily that they rhyme but that they have images; the way that they communicate is poetic. There’s a capacity in each one of us that is designed to respond to poetry.
Number 10: The Old Testament is Christ’s own method of preaching the gospel to Himself. Think, for example, of the way that Jesus handled temptation from the book of Deuteronomy. It’s not the first thing that most Christians would probably do. “I’m facing a temptation, let me turn to Deuteronomy; there’s probably something here that will help me resist that temptation.” But Jesus is so immersed in the Old Testament world that these weapons are ready to hand for Him. The devil comes at Him with a temptation and it’s blocked by this text from Deuteronomy. The counter measure to temptations comes from the Old Testament Scriptures, which helps us see how immersed the man Jesus was in the Scriptures of the First Testament. Think of how much meditation and reflection Jesus had done on the Psalms, which so quickly come to His mind and His utterance in His suffering on the cross. In those hours of betrayal and crucifixion, Jesus is going back to the Scriptures of the Old Testament and He is proclaiming for Himself and for others the message of the Psalms as it relates to His accomplishment of redemption.
Here’s another example. At the end of the Gospels—whether it’s Scribes or Sadducees or Pharisees—these teachers of the law come to Jesus with question after question. They go into their little huddle and they come up with a real stumper, come to Jesus and he totally deflects it, asks them a question in return, and shows them how mistaken they are in their premises. It’s masterful in every encounter. Then you sort of get to the end of it all and Jesus says, “you know you’ve asked me a lot of questions. I’ve got a riddle for you from Psalm 110: The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies my footstool. Who’s that about?” He puts the question out there and the Gospels say that after that no one asked him any more questions. In order to have that deep, rich understanding and to put it into play in pastoral and apologetic questions, it is evident how deeply rooted our Savior was in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. On the assumption that we are not wiser than our Lord, then it becomes imperative for us to understand the Old Testament Scriptures and to preach the gospel to ourselves from these Scriptures.
Number 11: The Old Testament is the apostolic method of preaching the gospel to the world. The preaching of the apostles is always gospel preaching. It’s always the risen Christ in the context of His having been crucified. That is the message again and again in the sermons of Paul, Peter, and Stephen as we read them in the book of Acts. That gospel preaching is rooted in the Old Testament. I used to wish that I had a recording of what Jesus said to His disciples in Luke 24, whether the ones on the road to Emmaus or the ones in the Upper Room, when He was “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets… [teaching what was said] in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” It became apparent to me that you don’t have the recording of that but you have the notes because what the apostles are doing in the rest of the New Testament is going back to some of the passages that Jesus taught to them that day and then for the next 40 days and they are teasing out the implications of all of these Old Testament Scriptures. This was probably not limited to the ones that Jesus specifically taught them because He taught them to view the whole Old Testament in a Christ-centered way and He gave them a very good start with the passages He drew out for them. So, when you see Peter in Acts 2 commenting on Joel and bringing in Psalm 16, or when you get to Acts 3 and Peter is quoting from Deuteronomy and Samuel, or Stephen in the book of Acts surveying the whole Old Testament history of Israel, or Philip in Acts 8 preaching from Isaiah 53, there are all kinds of references to the Old Testament. When the apostles were preaching the gospel, they were doing it by expounding the Old Testament Scriptures.
Number 12: The Old Testament opens up more than half the Bible for use in ministry. I’m starting to show you some of the benefits of preaching and teaching the Old Testament. If you don’t take advantage of those benefits, it’s almost as if you’re fighting with one arm tied behind your back—maybe even an arm and a half because such a big proportion of the Bible is the Old Testament. And it’s to be used for ministry in providing spiritual counsel, in proclaiming the gospel, in addressing temptation, in ministering to needs of broken families, and in helping people with their discouragement and depression. The Old Testament is a tremendous resource for all of this pastoral ministry, whether you’re in a preaching ministry or a counseling ministry. There are much greater resources for working with young people, for working in women’s ministry, for talking to seniors, for working with internationals—so many vistas open up for us when we unleash the Old Testament for ministry.
Number 13: Preaching the Old Testament gives honor to the Holy Spirit (who breathed out these words). I’ve already made the point that these words are breathed out by God, that’s where I started. This is a slightly different point. It has to do with our relationship particularly with the Third Person of the Trinity and the honor that we are able to give to the Third Person of the Trinity when we believe that the Old Testament is the Word of God and then put it into use in ministry, which is what the Holy Spirit wants to use to change people’s lives. Teaching, preaching, reading, studying the Old Testament honors the Holy Spirit who gave us these words, then opens up the church and the world to His influence through these parts of Scripture. I believe that everything in Scripture has its work to do in the world. I think every part of the Scripture has its gospel work to do in the world. There’s a way to understand everything in the Old Testament from a gospel perspective. One of the ways we honor the person and work of Holy Spirit is by allowing Him to do his work with the Scriptures of the Old Testament.
Number 14: The Old Testament gives us a clearer picture of our sin. This is maybe implicit with what I already said about the law of God but it goes beyond that because there are so many narratives in the Old Testament that give us an anatomy of sin and how it works, that have the power to give us an “aha” moment where we recognize ourselves. When you go to the garden with Adam and you see him say, “the woman you put here with me, she gave it to me and I ate,” you learn so much about blame shifting and your relationship to God. If you can’t see yourself in that passage, you need to look at yourself a little bit more seriously. Or think about Adonijah who exalts himself and says, “I will be king.” You look at what self-exaltation involves, how hard you have to work to get other people to exalt you if you want to exalt yourself, what a contrast that is to the humility of the true king who waits for God to exalt him, you learn a lot about the impulse to self-exaltation from that kind of narrative. The Old Testament gives us a clearer picture of our sin, of how desperately wicked our hearts are, and there are aspects of sin that are more fully displayed in the sordid history of the Old Testament that they would be anywhere else.
Number 15: The Old Testament gives us more good stories to tell. Just think how many great narratives there are in the Old Testament and think how much people love to hear a story. I remember liturgical readings at a missions conference at College Church in Wheaton. Missionaries were giving testimonies of some of their work that they had seen God do, readings of Scripture were paired with those testimonies. There were a number of missionaries at the front of the church and some of them were telling their stories. Then one person would say, “tell us a story.” Then the whole group would say, “yes, tell us a story.” When they said, “yes, tell us a story,” you were anticipating the story that you were about to hear. There’s something about knowing that a story is coming that just pulls you a little closer to the edge of your seat. Even when you’re drifting off in a sermon, the story starts and you find yourself, almost in spite of yourself, listening to the story. That’s how powerful stories are. The Old Testament gives us a lot more good stories to tell, (including, by the way, stories that people in your church and context have never heard, or they haven’t heard in a long time and have forgotten, or they have heard but they didn’t actually notice some of the most important things in the story). I marvel at the wisdom of God in giving us such a variety of forms of literature in the Bible but you can’t help but notice His great love for stories and the way He’s designed us with a great love for stories.
Number 16: The Old Testament tells us the story of our own people, the one people of God. I find it very helpful to know the story of my people. I was, I’m sure, an unusual student at Wheaton College when I noticed that they had just published a big, semi-scholarly history of Wheaton College and I said, “oh that looks like fun to read, I’m going to read that as extra reading my freshman year just so I know the history of this place and it helps me understand what my calling is as a student.” I remember feeling the same way when I did a paper in seminary on the history of the community that my father grew up in Pella, Iowa. Those were Dutch exiles under religious persecution that came into the New World. I read their story, the kind of theology they liked to talk about, how clean they liked to make their homes. I said, “these are my people, I’m understanding myself better because I understand these stories.” Understand when you read the Old Testament, this is your story. You are part of the people of Exodus coming out of Egypt because if that never happened, the promises to Abraham never would have been fulfilled, there never would’ve been a Savior. As you read through the stories of the Old Testament, your salvation is riding on these things. You’re connected with the very people that are part of these stories. We are reading to understand the beginning of our own narrative.
Number 17: The Old Testament gives us greater confidence in the truth of the gospel because it is rooted in history. There are many examples of this. I think of the Moabite Stele, for example, the way that it refuted those who try to claim from time to time that there was never a David that was king of Israel. No, there was a king David, we know that, and we could confirm that from other historical records. The more we understand the history of the Old Testament, the more it fits into the total historical picture. I find those kinds of confirmation to the history of the Bible giving me a stronger confidence in everything that God has said, including in the gospel.
Number 18: The Old Testament presents a fuller revelation of the character of God, who after all is the main character in almost every story. No one has ever dominated a narrative the way the Living God dominates the narrative of Scripture. You meet all these other, different characters, very vivid people, but in all of these stories they are interacting with the Living God. Even in the ones where He isn’t mentioned so explicitly, He is orchestrating the events of history and people are living their lives out with reference to Him. We live in an era where people do not know God and there’s an amazing opportunity to introduce them to God. What He loves, what He hates, how He rebukes, how He cherishes, what He seeks to rescue, how He redeems—all of these living actions of the Living God come to life in the Old Testament. We understand and get to know God better through its pages.
Number 19: The Old Testament gives us something new to learn and teach. Because even people who grew up in the church, maybe have a Sunday school understanding of the Bible. There are lots of stories they’ve never heard before and the Old Testament is big enough that by the time you get back around to certain things you don’t remember them so well yourselves sometimes. There’s always something fresh and something new to give people. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to preach at a local church and I decided to preach from Jeremiah 45. It’s this little story of Baruch who gets grumpy with the Lord. He is the assistant and amanuensis to Jeremiah. He’s a little discouraged with God and grumpy because he thought he was going to get something better out of life. God speaks to him and says, “are you desiring great things for yourself? Seek them not.” Here’s this amazing little story that connects so well with the experience of so many of us. I had the opportunity to preach to a congregation with the title Attempt Small Things for God, knowing that this was going to be new for most of the people in the congregation. I think it’s a good thing that people learn new things.
Number 20: The Old Testament is useful, ever so useful. The Old Testament is useful for training in righteousness, for correction and rebuke, referring again to 2 Timothy. Earlier, I made the point that the Old Testament is the Word of God but the real point that Paul wants to make there is that because it is the Word of God, it’s useful for those different things. It shows you the difference between correct theology and false theology. It shows you the right way to live over against the wrong way to live. Paul was referring primarily, though not exclusively, to the Old Testament. If you want something that’s really practical, useful for people spiritually, the apostle Paul says, “the Old Testament, that’s what’s really useful for people in all of these different kinds of ways.”
Here’s another just little example of an application of the Old Testament that is so simple but so powerful in its relevance. When Jesus says in Luke 17:32, one of the shortest verses in the Bible, “remember Lot’s wife.” Now, if you’re a wise person and you know the story, you’ll be able to think about “what is Jesus saying to me? He is saying to me not to love the things of this world. Not to get caught up in all the sexual temptations, the wealth and prosperity, the inhospitality of an urban community that’s turned its back on God, not to long for those things but to set my face squarely ahead for the future that God has for me, for the promises that He wants me to receive by faith.” It’s just this little verse, “remember Let’s wife,” but so useful for actually living out your life in the contemporary world.
Number 21: The Old Testament will stretch you and also stretch your people, helping you to grow. There are a lot of difficult parts of the Old Testament. There are a lot of tough parts in the Bible, but it becomes very rewarding because it’s the hard things that help you grow. I remember starting a long series in the book of Jeremiah. At least some people were asking, “this is a long book; is it really a good idea to go all the way through the book of Jeremiah?” How gratifying it was later to have somebody come up and say “you know, I feel like Jeremiah works where I work because the things that he notices about how people operate and what they truly need, that’s what I see in my context.” But to get to that point, you have to pay your dues, you have to be immersed in the biblical text, you have to work with the biblical text to get those rewards that come from really being stretched. I think preaching and teaching from the Old Testament brings maturity in the individual Christian life and in a congregation. Part of that maturity comes from some of the difficulties of working through it.
Number 22: Preaching the Old Testament is vindicated by the history of the church. Generally, you’ll find that when the Old Testament is alive for the people of God, those are times when the church is strong. It’s not just true of the apostles, it’s true of the Church Fathers, of the Reformers, of the Puritans—these worthies immersed themselves in the study of the Old Testament. Part of the strength of their theology and how they approached the Christian life came from that immersion. I won’t take any more time to give examples of that, but I think it is easily demonstrated.
Number 23: Preaching the Old Testament will give you a richer appreciation for the grace of God. It’s not just law that you encounter with the Old Testament; it’s also gospel that you encounter. Sometimes in the Old Testament, because of the strength of the teaching of the law, because of the disobedience of the people of God, some of those grace-filled moments seem a little fewer and farther between, but just for that reason come through particularly powerfully. Think, for example, of all of the judgment that Isaiah preaches in the first part of the book. By the time you get to “comfort, comfort ye my people,” you are really ready for a word of gospel comfort. If you have worked your way through Isaiah, it comes to you so much more powerfully, this experience of the grace of God.
Number 24: Teaching and preaching the Old Testament enables us to follow Paul’s example in preaching the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). I do not mean by this that when Paul said, “the whole counsel of God,” he necessarily was saying Genesis to Revelation. He may have been thinking more broadly and more thematically. I do think that whatever Paul meant, one of the best ways to achieve that goal is to have a healthy diet that’s drawing from everything in Scripture, drawing from the Old Testament and from the New Testament. I had the privilege of serving a short internship with William Still from Aberdeen in Scotland. His usual pattern was to preach whole chapters of the Bible Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening Bible study, and Friday evening prayer meeting. He preached every chapter in the entire Bible over the course of his ministry. That’s awesome but most preachers never get the chance to do that. We may not have the opportunity to do that either, but we can be drawing in a healthy way from many different parts of Scripture. We are giving our people a more balanced biblical diet rather than perhaps focusing on areas of particular interest for us—a broader exposure to Scripture that will build them up spiritually.
Number 25: The Old Testament helps us see the gospel. I think, for example, of the way that you see the gospel in Zechariah 3 where Joshua the High Priest is in filthy clothes and the angel of the Lord defends him against the accusations of Satan, strips off his filthy robes, clothes him with new robes and with a turban that says “Holy to the Lord.” If you can’t see the gospel in that passage, you’re not going to see it. There are many passages like that in the Old Testament that show us the gospel, that specifically work out some of the details for us of the gospel. I’ve referred to Luke 24; I would also refer to Acts 8:35, which really struck me. It’s the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. He is reading Isaiah 53, evidently, and saying, “how do I understand this?” Philip preaches to him the gospel, the Ethiopian eunuch is baptized on the spot, but interestingly Acts 8:35 says he just began with that Scripture. That’s not where Philip ended. That was a good jumping off point. There’s a lot you can do in Isaiah 53, but there’s so much more in the Old Testament to preach the gospel to somebody so that they see it and come to faith in Jesus Christ.
Number 26: The Old Testament shows God’s one plan of redemption unfolded throughout all of history. There’s an amazing connectedness to Scripture, a total unity. This is a book where you really do see a lamb from the foundation of the world. You read the whole Scripture and you can see this in a totality that really holds together. There’s the development of the covenant, there’s themes in Scripture of marriage, the water of life, of fruitfulness that go right from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. But you are not going to understand that one unified story and that one plan of redemption unless you understand the Old Testament is part of God’s total work.
Number 27: The Old Testament will give you broader perspective on the global work of missions. If you’re committed to the missionary advance of the gospel, to what God is doing in the nations, if you have a heart and maybe a calling for that, the Old Testament gives you many resources. It doesn’t start in Matthew 28 and Acts 1 with the Great Commission. It’s there from Abraham on in a plan that God is working out among the gentiles as gentiles come into the community of faith and as you have examples of where the message of God’s grace is meant to go out to the nations. There are many verses on this in the Psalms, for example. The Old Testament is tremendous for thinking about the missionary work of the church.
Number 28: The Old Testament will give you a deeper understanding of doctrine. So many doctrines develop already in the Old Testament. Think of how Martin Luther, for example, regarded the Psalms as a compendium of sacred theology. The sovereignty of God, the unity of God, His omnipresence, what it means to be adopted into the family of God, what it means to be justified, what it means to be glorified—these doctrines are there in the Old Testament Scriptures. If you want to be a better systematic theologian, as well as biblical theologian, the Old Testament is an important part of laying that foundation.
Number 29: The Old Testament—the First Testament—will bring people to faith in Christ. This was Timothy’s story. Paul says to him, “the Scriptures are able to make you wise unto salvation.” He appeals to the experience Timothy had at his mother’s knee, under the influence of his grandmother’s prayer and ministry. It is the Old Testament that gave Timothy an understanding of the coming of the Messiah and of salvation. Not too long ago I heard of a Muslim man in China. A missionary had given him a Bible and encouraged him to begin with one of the Gospels. He could see that it was three quarters of the way through and he wanted to start at the beginning. So, he started in Genesis instead. By the grace of God he made it through Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and long before he got to the Gospels he came to the missionary and he said, “I see it: Jesus is the promised Messiah.” It was the Old Testament that had brought him to that understanding.
Number 30: The Old Testament introduces many great heroes and heroines of the Christian faith. We need those inspiring examples that set a pattern and a model for us. You get a lot of them in Hebrews 11, but you won’t really understand those stories unless you understand the Old Testament. Even Hebrews 11 tells you, “I’ve got so many good stories that I could tell you, I don’t have time to tell you all these stories.” Take the hint given in Hebrews and go read some of those stories as they’re recorded for us in the First Testament.
Number 31: Finally, the Old Testament will grow you deeper in the life of prayer because of all the prayers found in it: Moses interceding for the people of God, Solomon praying at the Temple, Hannah’s prayers, Daniel’s prayers of repentance, and all the prayers that you’re given in the Psalms, which Martin Luther described as the prayer book of the people of God.
This list is meant to be a cumulative case for the value of teaching and preaching the Old Testament. It shows so many of the things that I desire in my own life: a deeper understanding of the gospel, a knowledge of Christ, a heart for missions, a greater commitment to the life of prayer, a life that’s inspiring because it’s inspired by people whose lives themselves are inspiring. These are the things that I want for myself, the things I want for my children, the things I want for my campus and my congregation. This is a reminder of something you already know: the Old Testament is an amazing place to get all of those things!