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3. How To Read The Old Testament

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We really should spend more time in the Old Testament, but how we do this has a great deal to do with how much we get from it. And so this lesson will focus on “How to Read the Old Testament.” Having said this, it should not come as a surprise that most of the suggestions given below equally apply to our reading and study of the New Testament. Thus, we begin with a more general heading: “How to Read the Bible.”

How To Read The Bible

We Should Begin Our Bible Reading And Study With Prayer, Asking The Holy Spirit To Open Our Eyes To The Truth Of His Word.

Those of us who utilize the internet have a device called a modem. This converts the signal sent to our house into one that can be utilized by our computer or by our television. The signal is worthless apart from the converting device. So, too, with the Scriptures. Spiritual truths cannot be grasped by the human mind apart from the divine enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.1 Thus, we must look to the Holy Spirit to make the Scriptures and their meaning clear to us:

Open my eyes so I can truly see the marvelous things in your law! (Psalm 119:18, NET)2

25 “I have spoken these things while staying with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will cause you to remember everything I said to you (John 14:25-26).

“I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come” (John 16:12-13).

14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. 16 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14-16, NAU).

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:18-20, NAS).

But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).

Embrace The Bible As Your Primary Text, And Regard All Other Resources As Secondary.

The Bible, in and of itself, is sufficient revelation for all our spiritual needs.

16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

2 May grace and peace be lavished on you as you grow in the rich knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord! 3 I can pray this because his divine power has bestowed on us everything necessary for life and godliness through the rich knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence. 4 Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire (2 Peter 1:2-4).

According to Paul, the greatest danger is not sticking to the Scriptures, but going beyond them:

28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:28-32).

I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6).

No wonder Paul is so careful to point to that which is clearly spoken or written by him, and is not the interpretation and adaptation of others:

2 not to be easily shaken from your composure or disturbed by any kind of spirit or message or letter allegedly from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not arrive until the rebellion comes and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, and as a result he takes his seat in God’s temple, displaying himself as God. 5 Surely you recall that I used to tell you these things while I was still with you (2 Thessalonians 2:2-5, emphasis mine).

Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions that we taught you, whether by speech or by letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write (2 Thessalonians 3:17, ESV).

In my opinion, too many people (including preachers and teachers) start their study by reading the commentaries. Commentaries can be helpful, when we use them rightly, but as I’ve grown older I find myself spending a greater percentage of my time in the Bible itself, and less time in the secondary materials. Personally, I do not read commentaries first, because they tend to predispose and limit my thinking, before I have given careful enough thought to the text itself. Once I have reached some tentative conclusions, I look at a few good commentaries that may point out some things that I might have overlooked, or which may challenge some of my initial conclusions.

When consulting the works of others, we also need to be careful that we do not assume that the number of letters following one’s name (indicating theological or scholarly degrees) is necessarily indicative of the truthfulness or accuracy of that person’s biblical interpretations. We should remember that it was the intellectual elite who opposed the Lord Jesus, while His “uneducated and untrained” disciples were disdained by them.3

Observing a person’s doctrine and character over a period of time is one of the ways we can discern the trustworthiness of one’s teaching:4

Remember your leaders, who spoke God’s message to you; reflect on the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7).

No wonder the Book of Proverbs, as well as the New Testament qualifications for church leaders5 puts so much emphasis on character.

Another way is to test the accuracy of any interpretation is to listen well to other trusted leaders, who evaluate any teaching in the light of the Scriptures:

Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said (1 Corinthians 14:29).

Bear in mind that the truthfulness and accuracy of what one teaches is not proportionate to the skill and cleverness of their presentation, or the degree of confidence with which they speak:

19 For since you are so wise, you put up with fools gladly. 20 For you put up with it if someone makes slaves of you, if someone exploits you, if someone takes advantage of you, if someone behaves arrogantly toward you, if someone strikes you in the face. 21 (To my disgrace I must say that we were too weak for that!) But whatever anyone else dares to boast about (I am speaking foolishly), I also dare to boast about the same thing (2 Corinthians 11:19-21).

Some have strayed from these and turned away to empty discussion. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not understand what they are saying or the things they insist on so confidently (1 Timothy 1:6-7).

These men are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm, for whom the utter depths of darkness have been reserved. 18 For by speaking high-sounding but empty words they are able to entice, with fleshly desires and with debauchery, people who have just escaped from those who reside in error (2 Peter 2:17-18).

1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. 2 For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling (1 Corinthians 2:1-3).

For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God (2 Corinthians 2:17).

But we have rejected shameful hidden deeds, not behaving with deceptiveness or distorting the word of God, but by open proclamation of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience before God (2 Corinthians 4:2).

Read The Scriptures In Larger Portions.

Years ago, a company placed signs at intervals along the highway, ending with the name Burma Shave. One of the slogans they used was this: “A little dab will do ya.” That is not true for Bible study. Jesus rebuked the scholars of His day for “straining gnats and swallowing camels” (Matthew 23:24). A part of the “camel” element is the broader context in which a statement is made. Don’t be satisfied with “a little dab” of Scripture.

Be Wary Of Any Explanation Or Interpretation Of Scripture That Is “New,” And Departs From What Has Historically Been Held By Godly Saints.

Novelty may have a certain attraction, but the fact is that we are not called to come up with a message that is new; we are called to proclaim something old, something that Jesus and the apostles taught:

(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there used to spend their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new.) (Acts 17:21)

1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. 2 I praise you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I passed them on to you (1 Corinthians 11:1-2).

Therefore, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions that we taught you, whether by speech or by letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15; see also 2 Peter 1:13-21).

28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. 32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:28-32).

When You Are Studying A Particular Passage, Ask “Where Am I?” In Terms Of The Unfolding Revelation Of God’s Word.

I’m reminded of those maps your find in a shopping mall which you consult (don’t you?) when you are looking for the location of a particular store. There is usually a map that is strategically located, which lays out the entire shopping mall. Usually there is a large dot or arrow with the attached words, “You are here!” Now that you know where you are, you can figure out how to get where you wish to go.

The same thing is needed when we are reading the Bible. The New Testament covers a period of time less than 100 years. But the Old Testament covers several thousand years. Thus, it becomes very important to know where you are in terms of the history and geography of the Old Testament. In Genesis you will find that those you encounter at the beginning of the book are found in the Garden of Eden, while at the end of the book Joseph and his family are in Egypt, soon to become slaves. In Exodus you first find yourself in Egyptian bondage, and later the people of God are camped at the base of Mt. Sinai, soon to set out on their journey to the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are camped east of the Jordan, poised to attack the city of Jericho, on their way to possess the Promised Land. The Book of Judges takes place throughout the land of Canaan, when the nation is ruled by judges. But in 1 and 2 Samuel Israel will be in the Promised Land, led by kings (Saul and David), who rule over a united Israel. In 1 Kings chapter 12 the nation of Israel is divided, with the northern kingdom (now called Israel) ruled by Jeroboam, and the southern kingdom (Judah) ruled by Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. From this point on, the kings of both Israel and Judah will change over time. Then comes the captivity and exile of the northern kingdom of Israel, at the hand of the Assyrians. Later will come the exile of the Jews of Judah in Babylon. Then, still later, the exiled people of God are allowed to return to the Promised Land. It is important for the Bible reader to know when and where the words he or she is reading take place.

Put Yourself In The Sandals Of The Person(S) Of That Place, Time, And Culture.

A fellow-elder and friend used to say: “Submission is the willingness to see things from the other person’s point of view.” All too often we tend to look at things only from our own (often distorted or inadequate) perspective, rather than from the point of view of one who is living at that point in time that is depicted in the biblical text. One of the reasons why we often struggle with the Biblical text (Old Testament or New) is that we fail to read the Scriptures from the perspective of those to whom the book was first written. The Scriptures themselves are our primary source of background information here, but other works can be helpful (unless they contradict what is said in Scripture).

Focus On What Is Clearly Stated In The Text Of Scripture, Rather Than On What Is Not There (Or What Is Unclear, And Thus Is Specualtive).

This is something that I am passionate about. More often than I would wish, a “scholar” finds some new piece of information from some source outside the Bible, which prompts them to modify or set aside the clear teaching of the Bible. Extra-biblical material may be of some use, but it is not to be accepted with the same level of confidence that we have in what is clearly stated in Scripture. To state it differently, some folks resort to extra-biblical content in order to prove that what the Bible clearly says it does not clearly mean. The more important the biblical truth is, the more clearly and frequently we should expect it to be stated.

Some years ago an unbelieving friend was telling me about a book he had been reading, which he found very helpful. He said something like this as he recommended the book to me: “I love this book because it fills in so much that the Bible has left out.” Beware! Listen to what God said:

“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29, NAU).

8 I heard, but I did not understand. So I said, “Sir, what will happen after these things?” 9 He said, “Go, Daniel. For these matters are closed and sealed until the time of the end. 10 Many will be purified, made clean, and refined, but the wicked will go on being wicked. None of the wicked will understand, though the wise will understand. 11 From the time that the daily sacrifice is removed and the abomination that causes desolation is set in place, there are 1,290 days. 12 Blessed is the one who waits and attains to the 1,335 days. 13 But you should go your way until the end. You will rest and then at the end of the days you will arise to receive what you have been allotted” (Daniel 12:8-13).

A pastor friend, now with the Lord, greatly impacted my life. I still remember him saying, “All cults and false teaching are either the Bible plus, or the Bible minus.” God said it first:

“Keep in mind all the words I am solemnly proclaiming to you today; you must command your children to observe carefully all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 32:46b, emphasis mine).

“You must be careful to do everything I am commanding you. Do not add to it or subtract from it!” (Deuteronomy 12:32).

18 I testify to the one who hears the words of the prophecy contained in this book: If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. 19 And if anyone takes away from the words of this book of prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city that are described in this book (Revelation 22:18-19).

We can be assured that God’s Word contains all that we need to know in order to live a life pleasing to Him:

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come” (John 16:13, emphasis mine).

2 May grace and peace be lavished on you as you grow in the rich knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord! 3 I can pray this because his divine power has bestowed on us everything necessary for life and godliness through the rich knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence. 4 Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire (2 Peter 1:2-4, emphasis mine).

20 You know that I did not hold back from proclaiming to you anything that would be helpful, and from teaching you publicly and from house to house, . . . 27 For I did not hold back from announcing to you the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:20, 27).6

16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Christians need to learn to live with a certain measure of mystery. After all, do we really think that we are able to comprehend everything the an infinitely wise God is doing? Peter reminds us that the Old Testament prophets scratched their heads at what they themselves wrote:

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 11 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who proclaimed the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven– things angels long to catch a glimpse of (1 Peter 1:10-12).

Think of the mysteries that Old Testament saints could ponder. The Messiah would be both God and man. The Messiah would suffer greatly at the hands of sinful men, and yet somehow He would triumph over His enemies. Then there was those promises about the Gentiles being included in God’s blessings. These things were all mysteries, until the coming of our Lord and His saving work on the cross of Calvary. Now we understand, but the saints of old did not. We, like them, need to be willing to live with mysteries, knowing that someday God will reveal what the mystery was about. Sadly, there are Christians who focus on the mysteries of the Bible, spending a great deal of time and effort trying to explain them. This is not a profitable venture.

Ask Yourself, “What Don’t I Like About What I Am Reading?’

I got this question from Francis Chan, and I love it! It comes from a chapel message Chan recently delivered to Azusa Pacific University students:

Chan went on to say that, over the past 20 years, he has noticed a change at APU [Azusa Pacific University] and in Christian culture in general. While he was clear that he knows he is generalizing, he said he has noticed a trend of people elevating their own thoughts and feelings over the authority of God’s Word. He challenged his audience to evaluate whether there is anything they believe from the Bible that they actually don’t want to believe. Or are they comfortable with all their beliefs, meaning they are probably interpreting the Bible to suit their feelings? 7

The Bible is not written “the way we like to hear it.” The Bible will often speak that which we don’t want to hear. Many were those who did not wish to hear what the Old Testament prophets had to say, just as they rejected the words of Jesus and His apostles. But if our interpretation of Scripture is always what we want to hear, we will probably end up with a hearing problem. When we do disagree (or at least dislike) what we read in the Old Testament, or the New, we should pause to reflect on where our culture stands on this matter. If we are simply reflecting our culture when we disagree with Scripture, then we are on the wrong side.

5 For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. 6 For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:5-8).

Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God– what is good and well-pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:2).

17 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. But you did not learn about Christ like this (Ephesians 4:17-20).

In Situations Where We Encounter Something Offensive In Scripture, Consider It In The Light Of The Primary Purpose Of The Text.

For example, let’s consider the offenses we find in the final three chapters (19-21) of the Book of Judges. The Levite throws his concubine out to the wicked men of Gibeah, men who wanted to “sodomize” (not a bad choice of words here) the Levite. They abuse his concubine all night, and then she crawls back to the threshold of the house where she dies. In the morning, the Levite comes to the door and harshly commands her to get up so they can be on their way, but she is dead. So he cuts her body into twelve pieces and sends a piece to each tribe of Israel. This leads to a war with the Benjamites (who supported the wicked deeds of their brethren, the men of Gibeah). In the end, the other tribes conjure up a plan to replenish what is left of the Benjamites by creating a situation in which the Benjamites can steal Israelite women from other tribes to be their brides.

We should begin by recognizing that this is honest, forthright, reporting. The events are ugly, but the account, while offensive, is true. We are meant to be offended by what took place. And then we should realize that this event, carried out by Israelites (not the Canaanites!) was worse than the events of Genesis 19, where the men of Sodom wished to commit a similar sin. Now we see the truth of what Paul tells us in Romans chapter 3, that all men – whether Jews or Gentiles – are sinners, rightly deserving God’s eternal judgment. Judges merely underscores the need of the Jews, as well as the Gentiles, for God’s salvation, and then puts an exclamation point behind it. The Old Testament is not a “happily ever after” account, but a real-life account of man’s great sin and his need for a Savior.

Identify The Unique Contribution Of Each Book Of The Bible To The Message Of The Scriptures As A Whole.

This is a very important point. Like snowflakes and fingerprints and DNA, no two books of the Bible are exactly alike, and the differences are important to note. Each book has its own unique contribution to make to the message of the Bible as a whole, which God intends for us to grasp. Each of the four gospel accounts is unique. Granted, the so-called synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have certain things in common, but each is written by a different author, and perhaps to a different audience. But each gospel has something unique to contribute that the others do not. These differences may very well be instructive and profitable. For example, Matthew’s account tells us of two demonized men, whose demons were cast into a herd of pigs (8:28-34). Mark (5:1-20) and Luke (8:26-39) focus on only one of these men. Perhaps even more significantly, Mark’s gospel contains this man’s words (or rather one of the demons who possessed him) as he pled with Jesus:

He begged Jesus repeatedly not to send them out of the region (Mark 5:10, emphasis mine).

Luke, on the other hand, gives us a slightly different account of the demons’ request:

And they began to beg him not to order them to depart into the abyss (Luke 8:31).

From this distinction in the two accounts I infer that demons are restricted to a certain geographical territory, and that once they are cast out of this territory they are sent to the abyss,8 where they are confined and no longer can go about the things they did when loosed.

In the Old Testament, the Book of Esther is unique because it portrays Israel outside of the Promised Land, even though God has granted them freedom (and even encouragement) to return to the land. The Book of Esther portrays Israel in unbelief, which becomes a key to the interpretation of what we will read in the book.

The Book of Joshua portrays Israel in obedience to God’s commands, and thus we see God’s people enjoying the blessings which He promised in the Book of Deuteronomy (28:1-14). The Book of Judges describes the next generation of Israelites, who disregarded and disobeyed God’s commands. Here we see the consequences of sin which God foretold in Deuteronomy 28:15ff. The Book of Ruth is likewise written in the days of the judges, but here both Ruth and Boaz are part of the righteous remnant (Romans 9:27), on whom God pours forth His blessings (on both a Jew and a Gentile).

Look For The Pearls In Each Book.

Every book of the Bible has its own gems, but we must look for them. Genesis contains the account of man’s fall, and of God’s first promise of a Savior (3:15). It also contains the Abrahamic Covenant, God’s promise to bless all nations through Abram/Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3, etc.). The Book of Exodus describes the plagues on Egypt and God’s deliverance of His people. It also introduces us to the Passover, and to the crossing of the Red Sea. And then, of course, there is the first revelation of the Law of Moses. Most important in Exodus, however, is the revelation of God’s glory in God’s self-revelation of Himself (34:6-7). This is a theme which runs all through the Old Testament, and the New. Leviticus has much to teach us, but chapter 16 and the Day of Atonement is probably the most prominent “gem” in the book. The Book of Numbers contains the rebellion of the Israelites at Kadesh Barnea (chapter 14), resulting in Israel’s wilderness wanderings (chapters 15ff.). Beyond this there is the bronze serpent (Numbers 21:8-9), to which our Lord refers in John 3:14-15. Deuteronomy (chapters 28-30) has the fullest prophetic outline of Israel’s history, the result of God’s blessing for obeying His commands (28:1-14), or God’s cursing for sin and disobedience to His law 28:15-68).

Ask, “What Do I Learn About God, And About Man, From This Text?

Neither God nor man (human nature) changes, and thus as we read the Old Testament we must constantly be aware of what we are being taught about God, and about man. Ask yourself, “How am I like this Old Testament character, and what does God say I should do about that?

Be Very Careful To Avoid The “Pious Bias.”

For everything that was written in former times was written for our instruction, so that through endurance and through encouragement of the scriptures we may have hope (Romans 15:4).

Just what is it that gives us hope from the Old Testament? Certainly, we find hope when we consider the promises and the character of God. He promises to grant salvation to those who have faith in Him (see Genesis 15:6; Hebrews 11:13-16; Romans 4, etc). God knows all, and is all powerful. He is also faithful and full of mercy. Thus, we can count on His promises.

But there is another element to consider here, which gives me hope, and it is this: The Old Testament saints are jerks, and so are the New Testament saints. Just look at those who are in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews chapter 11. Abraham (in effect) offers his wife to those who might kill him, to spare his own life. And this in spite of the fact that Sarah is to be the mother of the messianic line. Lot offers his daughters to the pagan men of Sodom, so that two perfect strangers will not be harmed. Jephthah makes a foolish vow. Samson is a womanizer most of his life. Jonah is so hard-hearted he wants to see innocent children and cattle burned up by God. If God can save folks like this, then there is hope for me! But for goodness sakes, quit trying to make heroes out of jerks. Their salvation says a lot about God, and very little about men (other than the fact that they don’t deserve saving). See people in the Old Testament as they really are – as the author meant you to see them. Put away the “rose colored glasses” when you read your Bible.

Find The Triangulating Truths Which Clarify The Teaching Of Any One Text.

Whether it is the Old Testament or the New, there is a temptation to seize upon one text, or one promise as the end all of revelation on that subject:

Train a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6).

Parents should be encouraged by this instruction to faithfully teach their children in the ways of the Lord. But it is clear in Proverbs that the child, also, has the obligation to honor and obey his or her parents and their teaching (Proverbs 1:10, 15; 2:1; 3:1, 11, 21; 4:10, 20). When you look at the kings of Israel or Judah, there is no direct correlation between godly parents and godly children. Neither is there a direct correlation between ungodly parents and ungodly children. Thus, even though godly parents faithfully carry out Proverbs 22:6, the faithfulness of their child is not necessarily guaranteed by their so doing.

Here is a promise God gave to the nation Israel,

14 “and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14, NAU)

We should be careful not to simplistically apply this promise to America, for instance. But beyond this, we need to be careful in applying this promise to Israel. In Psalm 73 we learn that God’s blessing comes to us in various ways, and it is not always in the form of health and wealth. There is blessing in obedience to God, but it is not always a material and physical blessing. It is the nearness to God which is a blessing,9 and this may come about through suffering.

Jesus answered them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive” (Matthew 21:21-22).

Here is yet another promise that needs triangulation:

Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you (Matthew 18:19).

Does this text mean that whenever two Christians agree on what they are asking for, they are certain to receive it? No! There are other factors involved, factors that help to triangulate the truth. When we pray, we should ask in faith (James 1:5-6), but we must also be aware of the fact that God will not answer our misguided prayers:

You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions (James 4:3).

There is not just one verse which is somehow the key to assure God’s affirmative answer to our every prayer.

I find instruction in the accounts of the temptation of our Lord. Satan takes one verse from the Scriptures and then misapplies it in his vain attempt to divert Jesus from His earthly mission:

9 Then the devil brought him to Jerusalem, had him stand on the highest point of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and ‘with their hands they will lift you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’” (Luke 4:9-11).

Our Lord responds by citing another text of Scripture which proves Satan’s temptation to be erroneous:

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:12).

Any Scripture must be interpreted and applied in the light of the rest of Scripture. I call this “the triangulation of truth.”

How To Read And Study The Old Testament

Look For Jesus And Those Things Which Point Us To (And Prepare Us For) The Gospel.

A number of years ago John R. Cross wrote a book entitled, The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus.10 It basically presents the story of Jesus as our Lord might have given it to the two men on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35. As I recall, this approach was taken by missionaries, who wisely determined that the gospel should not be given to lost natives by starting in the New Testament, but rather by beginning where the gospel does -- in the Old Testament. It has been some time since I have ministered in Asia, but as I recall the account given to me, the natives were enthralled by the story of salvation as it was progressively told to them. They were eager to hear how it ended, but the missionaries kept on in the Old Testament until the story reached the point of the New Testament Gospels.

The point I am seeking to make is that the gospel doesn’t begin with the New Testament Gospels, but rather it starts in Genesis chapter 1, and then is progressively revealed throughout the Old Testament. The God who brought salvation to men is the same God who created the universe (see John 1:1-3). To present the gospel only from the New Testament is not the complete story. The Old Testament is not only foundational to the gospel, it is the introduction to the gospel (see Genesis 3:15). Thus, we must continually look for gospel clues as we read through the Old Testament. These are the very things to which our Lord Jesus referred on the road to Emmaus.

So let’s hear about this from our Lord Jesus:

“You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39).

So he said to them, “You foolish people– how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the [Old Testament] scriptures (Luke 24:25-27; see also 24:44-45).11

In some cases, you will discover gospel truth in the Old Testament by reading the New Testament. For example, who would have seen this gospel connection:

14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt” (Matthew 2:14-15, citing Hosea 11:1).

Who would have thought that the bronze serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:9) would have been used by our Lord as a prototype of the salvation He came to accomplish?

Ask: “Does The New Testament Ratify, Modify, Or Abrogate This Command?”

I confess, this (like most everything I say) is not an original thought. I got this from my Hebrew professor in seminary. He said that when we read the Old Testament we should ask this question: Does the New Testament ratify (accept without modification), modify (the original instruction), or abrogate (a five dollar word for reject / set aside) this Old Testament instruction.

How did Jesus teach us to ratify, modify, or abrogate the Law? I believe Jesus ratified the two great commandments, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus appears to have modified the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught, “You have heard it said, . . . but I say to you. . .” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-32, 33-37, 38-42, 43-48). One can read these verses in one of two ways. First, you can read them as Jesus “raising the bar,” and thus modifying the Old Testament commands. Or, secondly, you may read these texts as Jesus simply teaching what these laws required, but which was modified by men who sought to minimize God’s standards. I believe you can say that Jesus (by His resurrection on the first day of the week) modified the practice of Sabbath keeping, so that one could observe a Sabbath rest on some other day (Matthew 28:1; Acts 20:7; Romans 14:5-6). Jesus did not allow Sabbath regulations (at least those penned by legalists) to hinder His ministry on the Sabbath (see Matthew 12:1-14).

Jesus clearly abrogated the Old Testament food laws, thereby facilitating fellowship between Jews and Gentiles (see Mark 7:14-19; Acts 10-11; Romans 14:1-4; Galatians 2:11-21).

Finally, Identify The Guiding Principles Underlying And Undergirding Any Biblical Declaration Or Command.

This has application to New Testament teaching as well, but I am thinking here primarily of the Old Testament law and its commands.

Jesus makes a point of distinguishing the particulars of the Law from the principles underlying them:

23 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law– justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others. 24 Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)

The Pharisees were obsessed with the particulars, to the degree that they disregarded the governing principles:

And a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten herself up completely. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her to him and said, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” 13 Then he placed his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. 14 But the president of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the crowd, “There are six days on which work should be done! So come and be healed on those days, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from its stall, and lead it to water? 16 Then shouldn’t this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be released from this imprisonment on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:11-16, emphasis mine; see also Matthew 12:1-13)

The allegation here was that Jesus had violated the Sabbath. We learn from Jesus that there are actually several guiding principles which impact one’s application of the Sabbath regulations. For example, a priest is expected to “violate” the Sabbath in carrying out his duties on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:5-6). Anyone can violate the Sabbath when their animal is in the ditch (Matthew 12:11-12). In Luke’s text (above) one was expected to violate the Sabbath, not just in an emergency situation, but on a regular basis, in order to water his animals. David could violate the rules regarding sacred bread, because his life was in danger, the need was great, and he was to be the next king of Israel (Matthew 12:3-8). Jesus could work on the Sabbath because He is Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8) and because His Father was at work on the Sabbath as well (John 5:17). And so we see that the Law anticipated a number of exceptions to the fourth (Sabbath) commandment.

Many specific commands may not be directly applicable to men today, but the principles behind them may be. Consider how Paul ascertains the principle from the particular:

5 Do we not have the right to the company of a believing wife, like the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I lack the right not to work? 7 Who ever serves in the army at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Who tends a flock and does not consume its milk? 8 Am I saying these things only on the basis of common sense, or does the law not say this as well? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” God is not concerned here about oxen, is he? 10 Or is he not surely speaking for our benefit? It was written for us, because the one plowing and threshing ought to work in hope of enjoying the harvest. 11 If we sowed spiritual blessings among you, is it too much to reap material things from you? 12 If others receive this right from you, are we not more deserving? But we have not made use of this right. Instead we endure everything so that we may not be a hindrance to the gospel of Christ. 13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple eat food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar receive a part of the offerings? In the same way the Lord commanded those who proclaim the gospel to receive their living by the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:5-14, emphasis mine).

Paul is asserting his right to be financially supported (along with Barnabas, and all the other apostles), which he voluntarily chooses to forego, for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:15ff.). Paul buttresses his right to be financially supported by appealing to the Old Testament, both regarding rewarding the ox and the priests who labor. He goes so far as to say, “Does God really care about the ox? Is that what this command is all about – the care and feeding of oxen?” No, he insists, that is not the primary purpose of this law. It was to teach a much broader principle: the laborer is worthy of his wages (see Luke 10:7).

We may be city folks, and we may not have an ox, or a goat, but we can learn and be guided by the principle as it was to be applied to the ox. The problem with Jesus’ adversaries is that they were so caught up in the particulars they disregarded the guiding principles.

Consider yet another example of how we can be instructed by considering the principle underlying a particular rule or commandment:

If you build a new house, you must construct a guard rail around your roof to avoid being culpable in the event someone should fall from it (Deuteronomy 22:8).

A guard rail (or parapet) was required on a roof top, because someone might fall and be hurt. The principle is this: As much as possible we should seek to eliminate potential sources of injury or harm to others. It was on the basis of this principle that we installed a glass barrier on our balcony, so that no one would fall from there to the bottom floor. When we are aware of the potential to harm others, we should make every reasonable effort to prevent it.

Here is my last example, and I confess, I love the challenge it presents.

The first of the firstfruits of your soil you must bring to the house of the LORD your God. “You must not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19; 34:26).

How can this twice stated statute possibly apply to us today? We will only know if we discern the principle that is being taught here. Think about it for a moment. A mother goat gives birth to her offspring, and her body is designed to produce milk to facilitate and sustain its life. A goat’s milk is God’s provision for sustaining the life of her offspring. How inappropriate it would be to take something designed to sustain life, and use it to destroy it.

Let’s think about this in more contemporary terms. A woman’s womb is given to her to be a safe place for her offspring to survive and thrive until the time of birth arrives. To introduce chemicals or to use medical procedures (which should be used to promote healing and to prolong life) to invade the womb and destroy the child is just as inappropriate as boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.


Many things have been said in an effort to stimulate your interest and diligence in reading and studying the Old Testament. If Jesus and the apostles loved it, so should we. If they diligently studied it, so should we. It does not hinder our study of the New Testament; rather it enhances and facilitates it. It is here that we are first introduced to God, and to man. It is in the Old Testament that we observe the incredible mercy and grace of God in dealing with sinful men and women. It is here that we receive the promise of salvation, and indications of the means by which it will be provided. It is here that we become painfully aware of our need for a Savior, and that we receive an increasingly growing revelation of what He will be like. And then, when we come to the New Testament and the Gospels we can declare, “There He is.”

This is exactly the method Paul used in proclaiming the gospel to his Jewish audiences. He took the Scriptures they knew so well, and focused on those which pointed ahead to Israel’s promised Messiah. And then he proclaimed Jesus as the perfect fulfillment of all the prophecies which spoke of Messiah. This is precisely what we find in Acts chapter 7, where Stephen linked his preaching to the Old Testament Scriptures, and so also with Paul in Acts 13:13-41.

It is this message which we still proclaim today: Jesus is the Promised Messiah of the Old Testament, who has come to save lost sinners from the condemnation they deserve. If you have not come to trust in Jesus yet, read the Bible, starting in Genesis and ending in Revelation. If you have come to trust in Jesus, read this old, old, story over and over again. I guarantee that every time you read through the Bible you will see more and more about your need for salvation, and about the marvelous salvation God has provided in Jesus.

And may I give this admonition to those who profess to be a Christian and yet write off the riches of the Old Testament Scriptures. As I have been preparing this message the thought occurred to me that I am already seeing some Christians begin to write off the New Testament in exactly the same way (and for the same reasons) that they reject the Old. The epistles were also written long ago, and to a people far away, with a culture and circumstances quite different from ours. Does this make the New Testament irrelevant to us today? It does not! It must not! Read your Bible as though God is speaking to you through it, because He is.

1 See 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible citations are the from NET Bible.

3 See also Acts 4:13-14; Luke 10:21-22; John 7:45-53.

4 It would be a very fruitful exercise to consider Paul’s words to the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, as they indicate the things which accredited him and his ministry.

5 See 1 Timothy 3 and Titus chapter 1.

6 I believe Paul stressed the fact that he had proclaimed the whole purpose of God – all that they needed to know – because there would always be those who came with some “new” revelation, which somehow turned men from right doctrine and practice.  We all can be like the Athenians, who were always seeking something new (Acts 17:19-21).


8 Jude 6.

9 Psalm 73:28.


11 See also Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; 52:13—53:12; Micah 5:2.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Bible Study Methods, Bibliology (The Written Word), Christian Life, Old Testament, Spiritual Life

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