Why Should I Study the Old Testament?

by J. Birney Dibble

A few years ago when I was on the mission field, a fellow missionary said, “I don’t find the Old Testament much help in my work. So I seldom read it and have never really studied it.” When he saw my eyebrows go up a few inches, he added, “Look, my call from the Lord was to take Jesus to the people of this country who have never heard of Him.”

Recently, a member of my Bible study said, “I suppose I should know more about the Old Testament, but I don’t really see what it has to do with being a Christian.” When he saw the question in my eyes, he began to list the parts of the Old Testament that were unacceptable to him as a Christian.

Were they right? There are parts of the Bible some see as irrelevant for Christians: Song of Songs, much of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. What about the apocryphal books such as Tobit, Baruch, and Daniel and Susanna (Daniel 13)?

Maybe some in your congregation have questioned the need to study the Old Testament. There are many reasons why we need to not only read the Old Testament but also study it, preferably with the help of a commentary. Here are some reasons that will help you answer their questions.

Because Jesus Did

Jesus was a scholar of the Old Testament. When Jesus quoted Scripture, He quoted from the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament).

In Matthew 4, Jesus was in the desert being tempted by Satan. In verse 4, Jesus resisted Satan’s first temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. To tempt Jesus the second time, Satan quoted Psalm 91:11,12 (Matthew 4:5–7). Jesus resisted by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16 (Matthew 4:7). Jesus resisted the third temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13,14 (Matthew 4:8–10).

Do you think Jesus made up the Sermon on the Mount? Think again. Jesus clearly had studied the Old Testament and the Talmudic writings. He borrowed extensively from both. In Matthew 5, Jesus may have taken verse 3 from Isaiah 66:2; verse 4 from Isaiah 61:2,3; verse 5 from Psalm 37:11; verse 8 from Psalm 24:3,4; verse 9 from Psalm 34:14; verses 10,11 from Isaiah 51:7,8; verse 12 from 2 Chronicles 36:16; verses 21–26 from Exodus 20:13; Proverbs 10:12; Ecclesiastes 7:9; verse 39 from Proverbs 20:22; verse 43 from Proverbs 25:21. (Jesus also paraphrases the Talmud in at least eight passages.)

Perhaps the scriptural reference that best illustrates the respect Jesus had for the Hebrew Bible is found in John 10:31–38: “Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, … Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, “I have said you are gods”? If he called them “gods,” to whom the word of God came — and the Scripture cannot be broken (my emphasis) — what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, “I am God’s Son”?’ ”

The Disciples Quoted From the Hebrew Bible

The disciples’ use of the Old Testament indicates their thorough knowledge of those Scriptures. Here are a few in the Gospel of John:

In 1:45, Philip finds Nathanael and says, “ ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ ”

In 2:19, Jesus said “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Verse 22 reads, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”

In chapter 12, Jesus made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem riding on the colt. In verse 16 we read, “At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.”

In John 19, John made sure his readers would understand all that had happened was written in the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. Verse 18: “Here they crucified him, and with him two others — one on each side and Jesus in the middle.” Verse 24: “ ‘Let’s not tear it,’ they said to one another. ‘Let’s decide by lot who will get it.’ This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, ‘They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.’ So this is what the soldiers did.” Verse 28: “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ ” And finally, in verse 36: “These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken.’ ”

Paul Knew the Hebrew Bible

Paul quoted from the Old Testament many times. In Romans 3 Paul quoted from the Hebrew Bible seven times: verse 4 (Psalms 51:4; 116:11); verses 10–12 (Psalm 14:1,3); verse 13 (Psalm 5:9); verse 14 (Psalm 10:7); verse 15 (Proverbs 1:16); verse 17 (Isaiah 59:7).

In Roman 9 through 12, Paul quoted from the Hebrew Bible 36 times from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, 1 Kings, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah (10 times), Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, and Malachi.

As Christians, can we do less than study those books from which Paul quoted? If, for example, you are studying Paul’s doctrine of grace superseding the observance of the Law — and you want to study the Law — you need to read Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The task may seem almost insurmountable because these four books have instructions that are seemingly irrelevant for today’s Christian community. You will need help to understand the Old Testament Law. Consult a commentary to help you through the maze.

We must studythe Law to comprehend the context from which Paul originally quoted. In fact, once you have studied these Old Testament books, you will find it much easier to understand Paul’s doctrine.

To Fully Comprehend Messianic Prophecy

Christians declare that Jesus is the Messiah. But many in Jesus’ time did not believe He was the Messiah. A hard-fought battle raged for centuries: beginning with Jesus himself, then by the disciples, by the first missionaries (Paul, Barnabas, Silas), by leaders in the new churches (Apollos, Timothy, Aquila and Priscilla), eventually by hundreds and then thousands of others. The vast majority of Jews of that time did not accept Jesus as their Messiah. Jews today still await Him.

All too often we passively accept the messianic oracles selected for us by our theologians, pastors, Bible instructors, and parents. We need to respect their judgment, but we also need to investigate these claims for ourselves, studying the prophetic writings to fully understand just what these claims are.

We need to inculcate into our minds a cohesive prophetical background of the 2,500 years that led up to the coming of the Messiah at that particular timein history. We can do this by reading passages other than those selected for us to prove that Jesus was truly the expected Christ. Here is such a list, but with the caveat that they are taken out of context and do not give a true picture of the grand sweep of Messianic prophecy.

Here is a selection of Hebrew Bible oracles quoted in the New Testament. Jesus used many of these as He announced to the disciples and the world that He is the Messiah: Psalm 2:2; 16:8–11; 18:5–7,16,17; 21:1–5; 22:6–18; 49:15; 69:20,21,25,26; 109:3–7; 118:22; 138:7,8; Isaiah 26:19; 50:6; 53:3–5,7,8; Hosea 6:1,2; Micah 5:1–3; Zechariah 9:9,10; 12:10; 13:6,7. There are many others, but this gives you a starting point.

To Understand the Book of Hebrews

The writer of Hebrews quotes from the Hebrew Bible at least33 timesto make his points. But those points will be clear only if you know your Hebrew Bible. Two examples:

To understand Hebrews 6 though 8 you need to have a thorough comprehension of the complex relationship between Melchizedek, Abraham, and Jesus. You must turn to Genesis 14:13–20 and Psalm 110 (especially verse 4).

To obtain the proper perspective about Hebrews 7:21, “The Lord has sworn, and he will not change his mind,” turn to the many times God reversed His judgment on His people. One of the earliest examples is when Abraham interceded with God about the destruction of Gomorrah and Sodom in Genesis 18:23–33. Another very early example is Moses’ discussion with God in Exodus 32. A few others are found in 1 Samuel 15:29; Jeremiah 15:6; 18:10; Ezekiel 24:14; Zechariah 8:14,15.

It is not enough to just look up those references. To reach full comprehension, you need to study the context in which these passages occur. To understand the Book of Hebrews you need a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.

To Understand the Book of Revelation

It is difficult enough to grasp the sense of this book even with a knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. Some chapters (e.g. 1,18,19, and 21) are full of Hebrew Bible references that one cannot possibly understand the text without a thorough knowledge of the books John quoted. The classic apocalyptic parts of the Hebrew Bible you need to study in toto are: the Book of Daniel and Isaiah 24–27. There are also references to the coming apocalypse in Ezekiel 38,39, and Zechariah 12–14. A careful study of Daniel and Isaiah will ground you sufficiently to better understand what John is saying in Revelation.

To Extract for Yourself the Wisdom of Proverbs

Proverbs are one-liners we can use to order our lives. For many centuries people called the Book of Proverbs “The Wisdom Book,” and for good reason. The wisdom it teaches covers a wide field of human and divine activity, ranging from matters purely secular to most lofty moral and religious truths. Jesus and the apostles often quoted from Proverbs (see John 7:38; Romans 12:20; James 4:6; Luke 14:10).

There are at least three ways to study Proverbs. First, read a chapter a day, consistent with the same day of the month, before or after your regular Bible study. Second, read one proverb a day, type it out on a small piece of paper, and put it somewhere in your house (the TV, fridge, bathroom mirror) where you will see it during the day. Third, simply start at the beginning and read it through to the end.

To Be Enthralled by the Psalms

For paeans of praise and poetry, for wisdom, doxologies, and thanksgiving, for echoes of our own cries to the Lord for help, and for prayers that go up to God in words we would use if we had the gift, we turn to the Book of Psalms. There is not another book like it in the whole world — not the Koran, the Upanishads nor the Bhagavid Gita, the Book of Mormon, the sayings of Confucius — not even our own New Testament.

Forty percent of the Hebrew Bible quotes in the New Testament are from the Psalms. Jesus began His ministry when He heard a voice coming out of heaven paraphrasing Psalm 2:7, which reads, “I will proclaim the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’ ” Jesus ended His ministry by quoting Psalm 22:1, which reads, “ ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?’ ”

To Learn the History of the Israelites

To fully comprehend the coming of Jesus, we must read and study the history of the Jews up to His time. The story of Jesus begins with Abraham, continues through the patriarchs, the Egyptian captivity, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, the 200 year period of the judges, the beginning of the monarchy under Saul, the glory years of David and Solomon, the breakup of the monarchy into Israel and Judah, the deportations of Israel and Judah to Assyria and Babylon. It continues with the return of the exiles from Babylon, the rebuilding of the Temple in the days of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Habakkuk, the years of Greek rule culminating in the persecution under the Seleucids, and the Maccabean revolt ending with restoration of a free people until the coming of the Romans. For the Greek and Maccabean periods you will need to read at least the First Book of the Maccabees, a book Protestants consider apocryphal but which is historical and will increase your understanding of that era.

To Recognize that in Genesis God Establishes Our Identity, Origins, Purpose, and Destiny

In Genesis, Christians find their identity: an anchor for our understanding of the beginning of all things. We find in Genesis our origins: that human life is not an accident but a purposeful creative act of God. We are a common humanity made in the image of God. We learn from Genesis that our lives have a purpose: to live in the company of the Creator as obedient children. Finally, we see in Genesis the first glimmers of our destiny: as God declares that sin and disobedience will not be the final word about mankind — the serpent’s demise is in the making. The Creator’s initial intention for humanity will come full circle when we again walk in unrestrained fellowship with Him.

I recommend you start with Genesis 1:1 — “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” — and finish with the last two verses of Malachi: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”

You might say, “That will take forever.”

No, it won’t; but it will take at least 2 years if you do it right.

At the end of those 2 years you will better understand when Jesus, the disciples, and the letter writers quote the Hebrew Bible.

And, too, I think you will look back and say, “Now, wasn’t that great.”

J. Birney Dibble, M.D., Eau Claire, Wisconsin