UNDERSTANDING THE OLD TESTAMENT
Written by Doug Ponder on April 17, 2013
Committed to the Bible, But Confused About Most of It
Like many Southerners, I spent a good part of my life in a church that held services on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings. We always knew what to expect from each: Sunday mornings were about dressing up to “give your best to God,” but Sunday evenings were more relaxed and casual (did that mean we were giving God our worst?). Sunday mornings were packed full of people. Sunday evenings were sparsely attended. Sunday mornings meant singing with a large choir. Sunday evenings meant the music minister leading songs by himself. And Sunday morning sermons were from the New Testament; they were always about Jesus. But Sunday evening sermons were from the Old Testament, and Jesus was lucky to make a cameo appearance.
My church wasn’t alone in this. Lots of people aren’t sure of what to do with the Old Testament. They want to like it. They believe they should read it. But they don’t understand it.
The fact is that we have a problem when 75% of the Bible is a mystery to us. So what should we do? Well, if we paid closer attention to what the New Testament itself says about the Old Testament, we’d be a lot less confused.
Jesus Says It’s All About Him
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)
At the time when Jesus spoke these words, there was no “New Testament.” It hadn’t been written yet. That means Jesus was talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, or what we call the Old Testament. Jesus then added the following words to drive the point home further, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me” (John 5:44). You may know that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, which Jesus here clearly says is all about him.
Apparently a lot of people missed the point of the Old Testament in Jesus’ day, too. That’s why he went around giving lessons on how to interpret it. “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). He even had to teach his own disciples the same: ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45).
‘The Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms’ was a common way of referring to the entire Old Testament. Jesus was leaving no part out when he said that it all points to him. And notice, too, that Jesus did not say that the Old Testament is now about him, as if it used to be about something else. No, Jesus said the Old Testament has always been about him.
Paul the apostle also believed that the Old Testament was always about Jesus. He wrote to remind his friend that “the Holy Scriptures, which you have known from childhood, are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). And his ministry proves his point. When Paul went into the cities and towns to preach the good news about Jesus, he didn’t use a Gideon New Testament with Proverbs. He preached about Jesus from the Old Testament.
How to Read the Bible and Miss the Point
Here’s why this matters. Suppose one day that you’re reading the well-known story about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39). You’ve been scheduled to speak at a Christian high school in a few days, and you think this would be the perfect message for hormonal, sex-crazed teenagers. So you decide to teach them them about how Joseph fled the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife, and you explain that God wants them to flee temptation, too.
There’s just one problem. That story wasn’t written to give us a step-by-step guide for dealing with sexual temptation. According to Jesus, the author of that story (Moses) was writing about him. What you’ve just done, therefore, is take a story that Jesus says is about him and turn it into a moralistic lesson about how to stay pure before marriage. Jesus is more than disappointed by this; he’s righteously angry. You’ve robbed him of his glory and you’ve robbed your audience of a chance to see the real hope that they have in Jesus.
“Okay, smarty pants. Show me why I’m wrong for doing that.” Well, if that’s your heart when you read this, then you have missed the point. We shouldn’t strive to interpret the Old Testament correctly so that we can belittle those who get it wrong and feel good about ourselves for getting it right. Rather, we strive to interpret the Old Testament correctly because we believe Jesus when he says that it’s all about him.
Test Case: Reading Genesis 1 Like It’s About Jesus
When Jesus said that the Old Testament is all about him, he didn’t mean that every word on every page were secret symbols pointing to his life and ministry. Imagine trying to read it that way: “You see, when God said, ‘Let the birds fly across the expanse of the skies,’ he really was talking about Jesus, who one day would “fly” through the skies as he ascended into the heavens. So basically, Jesus was created on the fifth day as one of the birds.” Reading the Old Testament like that is just stupid.
So what did Jesus mean when he said that it was all about him? He meant that the meaning of the Old Testament, in the parts and in the whole, was always about him. The point of the creation story, for example, isn’t about how old the earth might be—contrary to how you might often hear it taught. The point of the creation story is to introduce you to Jesus, the creator of all things. That’s what you should “get” out of this text.
You should come away from it thinking something like, “If Jesus created everything, then that means he is the Lord over everything. I’m part of the ‘everything’ that he created. He must be my Lord, too. My life is not my own.” That’s why the saints and angels sing this for eternity: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11).
Or maybe you’ll think on the fact that Jesus calls his creation “very Good” (Gen. 1:31), so that must mean that he is the source of all goodness and beauty in the world. An application of this truth might lead you to conclude that if you reject Jesus, the Lord of creation, you will be turning your back on the source and giver of every good thing in the universe.
As you read Genesis 1 you might also conclude that since Jesus created the world, he obviously cares about it. This has tremendous implications for things like litter, pollution, and greedy waste of natural resources, doesn’t it? For this world isn’t ours to abuse; it’s a gift from Jesus to be stewarded for his glory.
And we haven’t even mentioned how the description of human beings created “in the image of God” has obvious implications for understanding how Jesus perfectly reflects that image better than anyone else who ever lived (Col. 1:15). In other words, Jesus shows us what it looks like to be human, to live as God intended us to live.
All of this (and more!) from that one little chapter, simply by thinking on what it says about Jesus.
How to See Jesus in the Old Testament
“Yes,” you say in protest. “But Jesus isn’t mentioned in Genesis 1. Only God is.” Kind of, sort of, not really. This kind of thinking actually misses the forest for the trees (not to mention, it contradicts what Jesus himself has said about the Old Testament).
Think of the last time you watched a movie that ended differently than you were expecting. If you try to re-watch the film, it will never be the same to you. For you now know how it ends, so you can see clearly where it is heading right from the very start.
In some ways, the Old Testament is a bit like that. Just as the directors of the movie knew what they were doing, the authors of the Old Testament knew where everything was headed (because God had told them, cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-11). But some of their readers missed the point, hence the need for Jesus’ correction. After Jesus opened their eyes to see what they had been missing, though, they could never read the Old Testament the same again.
For example, the Old Testament opens with the famous words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen. 1:1). In the New Testament the apostle John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made through him; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1, 3). (The “Word” is John’s description for Jesus, the one who took on human flesh in order to make God known to us, cf. John 1:14, 18.)
John isn’t changing the creation story; he is explaining it. “In the beginning God created,” says the Old Testament, and “that God was Jesus,” says the New. It’s not a change of meaning, it’s more clarity about what has always been the case.
John wasn’t the only one to make this connection, either. As Paul reflected on Jesus and Genesis, he wrote the following words: “He is the image of the invisible God, the heir of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:15-16).
Jesus is the creator, so all things belong to him. Jesus is the Lord, so he rules over all things. Jesus is the perfect image of God, so he reveals to us both God and true humanity. Aren’t those the exact conclusions that we came to in our own reading of Genesis 1?
It didn’t take too long to come to these conclusions. It just took believing that the Old Testament is really about Jesus (because it is).
Reading the Rest of the Old Testament Like It’s About Jesus
So what would happen if we read the rest of the Old Testament that way? Here’s an incredibly short list of some of the discoveries that you would find:
When God promised that one of Eve’s sons would crush the head of God’s enemy while he himself was pierced (Gen. 3:15), you would know that this is a promise about Jesus, who destroyed the work of the devil and was pierced for our transgressions (Isa. 53:5; Col. 2:15).
When God saves the human race through Noah (Gen. 6 – 9), you wouldn’t see a cute story for children. Instead you’d see a reminder of God’s righteous anger toward sin and a preview of how God would again spare the human race through the faithfulness of another man, Jesus.
When God promises Abraham that he will bless all the families of the world through his offspring (Gen. 12:1-3), you would expect for Jesus to be the one to do this. Not to mention, the repeated failures of Israel to do so, demonstrate that Jesus was the only one of Abraham’s offspring who truly blessed the world. That’s why Paul says that God’s promise to Abraham was always a promise made about Jesus (Gal. 3:16).
When God calls Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac (Gen. 22), you wouldn’t read the story as if it were about how you should blindly obey whatever you think God is telling you no matter how crazy it is. Instead, you would see in this story a picture of how God would one day provide everything his people need in Jesus, his only Son and the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).
When God rescues Israel from slavery (Exodus 1 – 12) by sending his messengers to slay the firstborn son of all those who didn’t paint the blood of a lamb on their doorposts, he was previewing the ultimate way that Jesus would fulfill the entire exodus story: he is the firstborn who is slain that we don’t have to be; he is the lamb whose blood is on the doorpost; and he is the one who leads us out of slavery to sin and death (Jude 1:5).
There are many, many more examples, for the entire Old Testament beckons to be read as its authors intended. Only by reading the Old Testament as if it were about Jesus will you be able to understand its continuing meaning for your life.
Jesus, the Fulfillment of the Old Testament
Therefore, Jesus is the promised son of Eve who crushed God’s enemy and was bruised for your sake. Jesus is true and better Noah, who saves us not from temporary waters but from the everlasting wrath of God. Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who left his perfect home in heaven to seek out the lost. Jesus is the promised offspring of Abraham, who blesses the entire world. Jesus is the true and better Isaac who was provided as a sacrifice for sins. Jesus is the true and better Joseph, who though betrayed by his brothers, was raised to authority that he might bless even his betrayers. Jesus is the true and better Moses, who didn’t just give us God’s law but fulfilled it completely on our behalf. Jesus is the true and better David, who conquered sin and death on our behalf because, like Israel in the face of Goliath, we were unwilling and unable to fight. Jesus is the true and better Solomon, whose kingdom brings peace in more than name only. Jesus is the true and better Jonah, who was willing to obey the call of God to preach the good news, and who spent three days in the belly of the earth—not as punishment for what he’d done, but to free us from the punishment we deserve. Jesus is the true and better temple, where God and man met perfectly in his own body. Jesus is the true and better Israel, who faithfully lived as the chosen servant of God.
If you see Jesus as all of that, then you will clearly know how your life fits in the story of what God is doing through him. You owe him your gratitude, your dependence, your devotion, your service, your worship, and your life. Jesus is the Creator, the Lord, the One Who Conquers God’s Enemy, the Blessing of God, the Hope of Humanity, the Lamb of God, the Faithful Servant, the Suffering Savior, the Redeemer, and the Eternal King. And that’s just what the Old Testament says about him!
What If I Can’t Do This?
After finishing the rough draft of this article, my wife asked me this: “But what if I can’t do this?” “Do what?” I said in reply. “See Jesus in the Old Testament like you can. I’ve read the Bible for years but never saw any of that.” She had a point. It was a great question, and here’s what I said in reply:
Not everyone has to be able to read and interpret the Bible equally well. That sounds elitist to our ears, but that’s because we have believed the lie of Western individualism, which completely overlooks the diversity of the gifts that Jesus has given his body (1 Cor. 12:7ff). So you are not a failure if you can’t see Jesus in the Old Testament as quickly as someone else can.
But you are responsible for joining yourself to a church family that preaches the Old Testament like Jesus would. This means if your the pastors of your church preach the Old Testament like a bunch of moralistic principles and inspirational stories (instead of one story that points to Jesus), then it’s probably time to move on. Your life is too short to waste by sitting under the teaching of someone who doesn’t preach from the Old Testament in the same way that Jesus, Paul and the other apostles did. Yes, it really does matter that much. For someone who can’t see Jesus clearly in the Old Testament is probably not very good at understanding him in the New Testament either.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.