Many believers question how the Old Testament could possibly be beneficial or edifying for them. They argue that in the Old Testament, Jesus had not yet come and since it is recorded like a long historical drama filled with confusing names of people and places, the Old Testament is simply irrelevant. Since we are new covenant people, shouldn’t we primarily focus on the New Testament? And more seeker-friendly pastors and Christians simply do not see the relevance of the Old Testament. How would someone visiting your church feel if they came in on a random Sunday and heard about the Israelites and the Moabites? How could this possibly help them with the daily struggles of their lives? What does Israel have to do with 21st century Christians? And maybe a more crucial question, What is the value of the Old Testament? Or to use the language of the day, What is the relevance of the Old Testament?
All Scripture is God-Breathed
An answer can be found in 2 Timothy 3:16. Paul gives Timothy some final exhortations as his death is imminent and not far away. In this letter, Paul warns Timothy of the danger of false teachers and urges him to continue in the faith (2 Tim. 3:14). One thing Timothy is to continue in is “all Scripture” which is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV). But what did Paul mean by “all Scripture?” I contend that Paul is solely referring to the Old Testament in this context, though I leave open the possibility that he may have been referring to the teachings of Christ and even his own writings. Regardless, Paul was not directly referring to the New Testament as we know it today as it had not all been written at the time of the writing of 2 Timothy. This does not imply that the New Testament is not God-breathed. I think one can easily argue for the divine inspiration of Scripture as an implication from 2 Timothy 3:16 and from other passages in Scripture as well.
The Old Testament Too
But what is important for this discussion is that Paul compels Timothy to continue in the faith by continuing in the God-breathed Old Testament. It was the Old Testament that Timothy’s mother and grandmother had taught him from childhood (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15). The Greek word for “Scripture” is used 51 times in the New Testament and every single occurrence refers to the Old Testament. The Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible and he quoted from it often, even saying that its central message was about him (Luke 24:27, 44)! So, Paul intends to communicate that the Old Testament is God-breathed and profitable for his sanctification. The Old Testament is sufficient for Timothy’s holiness. In other words, Timothy can become like Christ by continuing in the reading, study, and meditation of the Old Testament. Needless to say, Paul considers the Old Testament to be slightly important and relevant for the Christian. Simply put, the Old Testament is relevant because it is God’s Word.
You may agree that certain passages of the Old Testament have helped you in your walk with Christ. And I am certain that you agree that the Old Testament is important and beneficial. But Paul adds one word that I think is most striking in this passage. The word “all” is like a tiny arrow that pierces our post-modern church culture that calls for practical advice from the pulpit and riots against Old Testament passages that seem irrelevant. The Greek word for “all” can be just as easily and correctly translated as “every” in this passage. So, Paul is saying, “Timothy, every single portion of Scripture is from God and it is for your good!” It is not just a portion of the Old Testament that Paul commends to Timothy. It isn’t just those epic stories or the monumental figures and events that serve as types of the Christ who was to come that Paul commends to young Timothy. No, Paul says that it is all Scripture, the entire Old Testament, that is breathed out by God and profitable.
This is so crucial for us today. We can be so guilty of minimizing the importance of the Old Testament. Because of cultural differences between the original authors and us, we often simply ignore the reading, study, and preaching of many Old Testament texts. The Old Testament is not just a collection of cool stories to entertain our children in Sunday school or to provoke us to speculate how tall Goliath really was or just how big the fish was that swallowed Jonah. The Old Testament is authoritative and God-breathed Scripture that is sufficient for our sanctification and should hold a place of supremacy in our lives.
All of the Old Testament is God-breathed and profitable. All of the genealogies. All of the gruesome battle descriptions. All of the names that are so difficult to pronounce. All of the Law. All of the imagery of the prophets. All of the poetry of the psalmists. All of the suffering of Job. All real. All inspired. All authoritative. Scripture does not glean its authority from our capacity to understand it and it is not waiting for our finite and sin-ridden approval. We do not give Scripture relevance, God does. Scripture gleans its authority from the One who spoke it. Therefore, because of its divine nature and sufficient function, the Old Testament is worthy of our study.
No Text Can Be Ignored
This impacts our preaching and Bible study. We should not only preach or study the four Gospels. We should not only preach or study the New Testament. Instead, recognizing that all Scripture is God-breathed, we must give ourselves to the preaching and reading and studying of both testaments, all 66 writings. If the pastor asks you to turn to Ezra or a Psalm or Leviticus, do not turn him off and think a discussion of Old Testament sacrifices does not impact your life. If your daily reading is in Deuteronomy or 2 Chronicles, do not blow it off as irrelevant. Reading two lines out of Leviticus or two pages of genealogies out of Nehemiah will do more for your soul than reading an entire book written by C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling because Leviticus and Nehemiah have the imprint of God himself.
We are not at liberty to pick and choose to obey only those passages that agree with our finite philosophies or wishes. Scripture is not subject to our will, but rather to the will of the one from whom it is breathed out! All Scripture is from the Spirit of God and because of this it is all holy and good and true. This means that when we come to difficult passages, we do not have the option to disregard it or deny it, for when we do so, we are denying God himself. It is therefore important to learn how to study the Bible. Yes, you want to wield a sword when an enemy attacks you, but if you do not know how to wield it correctly, you are great risk of maiming yourself. In the same way, if we do not know how to properly wield the Sword of Truth, we will only be maiming our souls.
Read the Old Testament for God’s Glory
For the sake of your satisfaction and sanctification, dive into the Old Testament. Know that I understand the difficulty that comes with reading, studying, and interpreting the Old Testament. There are thousands of years of cultural and linguistic differences to account for. This is where good resources come in handy. To read the Old Testament for the glory of God is to read it and understand it correctly. This will take work and some digging. But know that you are digging for priceless diamonds and the work will be delightful rather than begrudging.
For helps on understanding cultural differences, seeing Christ in the Old Testament, and better understanding the overall theme, storyline, and theology of Scripture check out these resources. I believe these aids will help you better understand the Old Testament:
Encountering the Old Testament: A Christian Survey by Bill Arnold and Bryan Beyer
An Introduction to the Old Testament by Tremper Longman III
What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible by Jason DeRouchie
An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach by Bruce Waltke with Chalres Yu
Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum
The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments by Thomas Schreiner
God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology by Jim Hamilton