On the Emmaus Road, the Lord began with Moses and the Prophets.
The Old Testament makes up almost three-quarters of the Bible and yet it remains a closed book to many of us. How many of us, when asked to turn to the book of Obadiah, begin to feel queasy? How often do we read the Old Testament and end up more confused than enlightened? Do we ignore the Old Testament and stay on the familiar ground of the New Testament? Or, worse still, has knowing that the church is distinct from Israel (1 Cor. 10:32) led some of us to wrongly conclude that the Old Testament is less important than the New?
It might encourage us to keep in mind that when Paul wrote to tell Timothy that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16), he was largely referring to the Old Testament. And when he goes on to say that the Scripture is given to equip us for “every good work” (v.?17), this tells us that we require all Scripture if we are to become mature believers.
What then are some of the ways in which the Old Testament is important to us today?
“From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:15).
It is sometimes thought that the New Testament alone contains the gospel. Some even think that, in Old Testament times, people were saved by keeping the Law. Paul dealt with these errors when writing the book of Romans. In it, he assures us that salvation has always been on the basis of faith, and he uses the Old Testament to prove it. Romans 4 asks, “What does the Scripture say?” and then quotes Genesis 15:6 which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Romans 4 also quotes Psalm 32:1-2 to show us that David was saved by faith. The gospel has always been the only way of salvation, and it was preached in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament (Heb. 4:2).
How much poorer would our gospel efforts be without the Old Testament accounts of people like Rahab, Ruth, or Mephibosheth to illustrate the gospel message? Or without verses like Isaiah 64:6 which tells us that “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment”? Or without Isaiah 53’s description of the One who was “led as a sheep to slaughter”? In fact, it is this very passage that was used to lead the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ (Acts 8:32). And we read that the Jews at Berea believed because they “examined the Scriptures [the Old Testament] daily, to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11-12).
“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
The Old Testament is an essential source of instruction. Even though most of the Old Testament is written primarily to Israel, there are at least four ways that the Old Testament can instruct us today.
The Old Testament reveals timeless truths to us.
The Old Testament reveals the character and nature of God. Since God is unchangeable (Mal. 3:6), all that we learn about His character in the Old Testament is true today and will still be true in eternity.
The Old Testament provides the basis for much of the New Testament’s teaching.
When we read about tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, we find in verse 21 a quote from Isaiah 28:11. Much of the error we hear today regarding the gift of tongues flows from the fact that the Old Testament reference in 1 Corinthians 14 is usually completely ignored. Salvation, divorce, head coverings, the Lord’s table, and countless other teachings could be listed which have their basis in the Old Testament and which are either misunderstood or poorly understood because that basis is generally ignored.
The Old Testament illustrates many New Testament teachings.
The Old Testament’s illustrations of worship, redemption, substitution, priestly work, etc. help us to appreciate New Testament teachings to a depth that we wouldn’t be able to with only the New Testament.
Applications may be made from Old Testament commands that don’t apply directly to us today.
At first glance, we might write off a command such as “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deut. 25:4) as being inapplicable today, but 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 makes an application for us and informs us that that application was intended.
The Old Testament was “written for the generation to come; that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord” (Ps. 102:18).
“Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11).
Not only are the Scriptures profitable for teaching and instruction in righteousness, but they are also profitable for reproof and correction (2 Tim. 3:16). Along with instructing us, the Old Testament admonishes us. It is good to learn from our mistakes, but it’s even better to skip the mistake phase altogether by learning from the mistakes of others. God didn’t record the sins and faults of His people in the Old Testament so that we might be self-righteous or amused, but in order that we might avoid the same errors.
1 Corinthians 10 lists some of the chastenings that fell on Israel for their unbelief, evil cravings, idolatry, immorality, and grumbling. Then we are told that these things were recorded “for our admonition.” Even in judgment God is gracious as He uses that judgment to warn others (cf. Ex. 9:16 and Josh. 2:9-10).
“There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). The sins we struggle with today are the same sins the Israelites struggled with. If we were to pay more attention to the record of God’s Old Testament people, perhaps we would find ourselves repeating fewer of their errors.
“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me” (Jn. 5:39).
The Old Testament is important for salvation, instruction, and admonition, but, above all, it is important because it testifies about the Lord of Glory. The Father’s desire is that we share His delight in His Son and the entire Bible has been given to us to that end.
There are many ways in which we see Christ in the Old Testament: prophecies, appearances of the Angel of the Lord, pictures, His names, and as the Lord Himself. (See article on p.?21) Our knowledge of Christ is immeasurably deepened by the Old Testament.
In the end, this last reason for the importance of the Old Testament is a summing up of the first three. The gospel is not a religion nor a set of instructions, it is a Person (Gal. 1:6), and “there is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:12). And if we truly desire instruction and admonition, there is no better place to find it than at the feet of the One who is the Truth; nothing is more practical than learning of Him (2 Cor. 3:18). As we read the Old Testament, let us look for Christ.
“And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:27).