Why Bother with the Old Testament?

To have a full understanding of the wisdom literature, poetry, and prophets of the Old Testament, it is necessary to have a thorough knowledge of the Law of Moses: Genesis through Deuteronomy, and especially Deuteronomy. It is these five books of the Law which form the pillar on which the rest of the temple called the Bible is built, including the New Testament. And likewise then, to fully understand the New Testament it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the Old Testament, and especially of those first five books. If you don’t know the Old Testament, when you read the New Testament you’ll be like someone who missed the first ninety minutes of the movie and wonders what’s going on now.

Consider some examples:

Compare Mark 1:40-45 with Leviticus 14. So what is the significance of Jesus’ words, “don’t tell this to anyone…offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing as a testimony to them”?

The cleansed man was to say nothing. Yet his sacrifice was to be a testimony to them — a witness to them of something. Of what? Of Jesus. Compare also the sacrifice to the work of Jesus on the cross with the Old Testament sacrificial system. What Jesus says to the man he healed illustrates the significance or truth of Jesus’ words in John 5:39-40: “You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

More importantly, if you don’t know the Old Testament, you’ll miss the allusions to it in the New Testament, and thereby miss a lot of what the New Testament is talking about; you’ll lose perspective, as well. As one of the more obvious places where an understanding of the Old Testament is critical is the book of Revelation. There are many allusions to Ezekiel, Isaiah, the Exodus and Zechariah (among others) that show up in the book of Revelation. Given the widespread ignorance of the connections that the author of the book of Revelation is making to the OT, it is not surprising that so many entirely misunderstand what the book of Revelation is actually all about (a comparison between Babylon and the Roman Empire, both of whom mistreated God’s people and both of whom would suffer God’s judgment).

For instance Revelation 22:1-2 reports:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Consider that the same imagery appears in Ezekiel 47:1-12:

The man brought me back to the entrance to the temple, and I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east). The water was coming down from under the south side of the temple, south of the altar. He then brought me out through the north gate and led me around the outside to the outer gate facing east, and the water was trickling from the south side.
As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits and then led me through water that was ankle-deep. He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep. He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist. He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross. He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?”

Then he led me back to the bank of the river. When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”

Consider Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

How might that inform your understanding then of Revelation 7:3?

Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.

And how about its implications for our understanding of Revelation 13:16-17:

It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

Or consider a comparison of the plagues being poured out upon the “earth” in Revelation with the plagues that were poured out on Egypt in order to rescue the people of God from oppression and slavery. And why does Revelation refer to Rome as Babylon (as did Peter in 1 Peter 5:13) The answer is related to how Rome treated the Jews, and that like Babylon, the Romans destroyed both Jerusalem and the Temple.

Consider the imagery of the little scroll in Revelation 10:9-11:

So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’” I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.”

It should bring to mind Ezekiel 3:1-4:

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat.

 Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.

He then said to me: “Son of man, go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them.

Wherever you go in the New Testament, you’ll find yourself standing upon the foundation of the Old Testament and walking along its familiar paths (at least familiar to the people and writers of the New Testament).

And one more thing. When Paul told Timothy “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God p may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17) he was not thinking about the New Testament at all. It didn’t exist yet. Instead, he was thinking of the Old Testament. Quite obviously the Old Testament was quite useful to the early Christians. It seems likely it’s still useful to us, even in the twenty-first century.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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