History Matters—Do I really need to know Old Testament history?

What benefit is the Old Testament to a person today? It turns out that the Old Testament is of great value to us in every aspect of our attempt to understand the Bible. It's impossible to properly understand the New Testament and the work of Jesus without the Old, and by virtue of Old Testament history we learn not just the theory of what humans are like and what God is like. We actually see it in action in the lives of real men and women whose lives form important links in the chain of God's plan of salvation whch is unfolding through human history.

Before getting into specific examples of the Old Testament's relevance, it is important to realize that the New Testament is actually a continuation of the Old. The main theme of the whole of scripture is introduced in Genesis (the first book of the Old) and is elaborated throughout the rest of the Old Testament and carried right through to the New Testament. There are countless examples where we simply wouldn't know what a New Testament passage was talking about if we didn't know what had gone before in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament does contain a lot of history, but that history is tremendously important. It's one thing to say something, but it's quite another to do it. This history of the Bible is important because it shows what men are like - not merely by stating it in a theoretical manner, but by showing it, time and time again, in worked examples as faithful and unfaithful men and women lived out their lives, and we witness the consequences. Similarly, the Old Testament does not merely state truths about God; it shows Him at work in the world and in human history - we learn at least as much (if not more) by watching and studying that history as we would by reading definititions about Him.

Promises to Abraham

Understanding what happened in the past is very important as it provides a check point and validation of the message of God. Moreover, the New Testament helps explain the Old Testament and visa versa. For example, in Genesis 12 to 22 God makes some wonderful promises to a faithful man named Abraham. In Genesis 13:14-18, God promised to Abraham the land of Israel for an eternal inheritance, and not only to Abraham, but also to "his seed" and to his seed's seed. Remember that Abraham died and was buried with his ancestors, so as yet Abraham has not received this "eternal" "land inheritance" that God promised right here on the earth.

Now let's pass over to the New Testament and see if we can derive further information. It has been said that the New Testament is a commentary on the Old Testament; let's see if we can find an example of this. Sure enough in Galatians 3:26-29 we find a commentary and elaboration on the Genesis account of "the promises." Read all of Galatians 3 for context, but note the latter verses,

For as many of us as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

What promise? The promise given to Abraham so long ago! In the marginal references of many Bibles we are directed right back to Genesis 13, 17 and 22. So is the Old Testament useful and valuable in providing a foundation for the New Testament's teachings? Certainly, yes.

Jesus on the Cross

In Matthew 27:46 as Jesus is on the cross, he cries out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Did Jesus really believe that his Father had forsaken him? Again, there is an Old Testament link going on here - in this case going back to Psalm 22. The Psalm begins with the very quote of Jesus and depicts the scene at the cross. The entire Psalm is predictive of Messiah, and Jesus deliberately quoted from it to draw the minds of the hateful religious leaders and Pharisees to the fact that he, the promised Messiah, was being crucified by his own countrymen. Remember, the Jews would have been intimately familiar with Psalm 22:7

"All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him."

Read the entire Psalm as the thoughts of Jesus on the cross. Once again the Old Testament comes to the rescue and deepens our understanding of the heroic attempt of Jesus to appeal to his executioners even as he was dying in agony on the cross.

Remember our topic is, Do I really need to know about the Old Testament? It is interesting and revealing that millions of copies of the New Testament are printed, usually including Psalms and Proverbs, but omitting the rest of the Old Testament. It's like a house being built without a foundation or a long distance runner setting out without proper shoes. There are so many references in the New Testament to the Old Testament, that a thoughtful reader will become lost without a working understanding of the Old Testament.


Acts 6 and 7 provide a fascinating illustration. Briefly, the Acts of the Apostles is the story of the development of the first century church. The gospel spread from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Syria, to Asia Minor and then on to Greece and Rome. Along with this exciting spread of the Word of God, it was necessary to establish congregations as the basis of support for the new believers.

In Acts 6 certain of the unconverted religious leaders began to dispute with a man named Stephen and, in his defense, Stephen delivers a superb speech based on the history of Israel from the Old Testament (Acts 7). Stephen opens with the story of Abraham including references to his son Isaac and Isaac's son Jacob. Then 44 verses are devoted to Joseph, his travail and subsequent elevation to rulership in Egypt. Then reference is made to Jacob and his sons living in Egypt, the birth and life of Moses, the burning bush , the ten plagues, the deliverance of Israel under Moses and the tabernacle in the wilderness.

Without a working knowledge of the Old Testament, Stephen's speech would be basically meaningless. But there's more to the story! Stephen was appealing to the Jewish leaders who accused him of "blaspheming this place (Jerusalem), and the Law. " Of course Stephen was doing no such thing and the charge was trumped up to entrap him. But Stephen argues to the Jewish leaders that the Old Testament teaches that not only in Jerusalem, but also in Mesopotamia (present day Turkey, Iran and Iraq), God appeared to Abraham (7:1), Abraham worshipped in Haran, (present day Turkey) (7:4), the Jewish nation lived for some 200 years in Egypt worshipping God, (7:9-18), and Moses was raised in Egypt, lived for 40 years in the land of Midian (present day Saudi Arabia), and then returned to Egypt and delivered his people from Egyptian bondage. Stephen is appealing to our knowledge of history and geography, arguing that God may be worshipped and served, not only in Jerusalem, but in every place on earth. Stephen's "defense" is powerful and it is based on a working knowledge of the Old Testament.

From the Law and the Prophets

In short, the apostles and the Lord Jesus himself in the New Testament writings consistently turn to the Old Testament for examples and illustration, and to prove key points about the gospel message and the conduct that God requires. For them, the New Testament had yet to be written. The Old Testament was their scripture, and if it was good enough for them and for many of the arguments they were making, then it makes good sense that it would relevant today as well.

One last example. In Luke 24 several disciples were walking along the road and met Jesus although they did not then recognize him. The disciples were downhearted and terribly confused at the crucifixion of Jesus and expressed their disappointment to the "stranger" with whom they were walking. The "stranger" responded,

"O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?' And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself."

Why it Matters

The Apostle Paul picks up on this same technique and uses it himself. So much so that it's not an over-exaggeration to say that without a working knowledge of Genesis, the history of Israel, the prophets and "all the scriptures", it is impossible to understand much of the New Testament, including the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians and Hebrews and, the last book of the Bible, the Revelation. These all rely heavily on Old Testament background including hundreds of quotations and allusions to the Old scriptures. The interplay of the "Old" in the "New" is woven as an exquisite tapestry; we certainly don't want to miss out on this most enlightening resource.

Furthermore, a number of basic teachings about, for instance, the state of the dead and the nature of man, are clearly set out in the Old Testament. The New Testament writers assume the reader is aware of the truth on these matters. Thus they write expecting the reader has this fundamental knowledge. The Old Testament was and is the revelation of God revealing His purpose with the earth and mankind upon it. Although specific religious rituals in the Law of Moses were "fulfilled" by Jesus Christ and are not binding on us today, the Old Testament is relevant, timeless in its appeal, and essential to our salvation. God didn't reveal Himself merely by words on a page. He revealed Himself by doing things in history - and the Old Testament is the account of that history. Even the seemingly 'dry' parts like the Law of Moses contain fascinating insights into God's character and ours and the way in which God would ultimately seek to save men and women through the sacrifice of Jesus.

We need not be "scared off" by the Old Testament. It is not predominantly a history book; it is the revelation of God and a manual to eternal life. Most Bibles have an excellent set of cross-references, so that many key Old Testament references and allusions appearing in the New Testament are already set out for us in a reference list. When reading scripture, it's useful to have a Bible which has this reference list and to check out some of the links you find. You will set out on an adventure that will lead to some thrilling discoveries which should demonstrate beyond doubt the importance of the whole Bible and the great work that God has done throughout all its pages.

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