Thoughts on Evangelical Neglect of the Old Testament

It has been my experience, in talking with fellow evangelicals, that many of us are quick to equate the Old Testament to mean little more than what the Pharisees thought it meant in Jesus’ day. It is a book of Jewish religion, and if there is any Christian doctrine in its pages, it is veiled to the reader who hasn’t first become acquainted with the New Testament.

Of course, regardless of whether we are ethnically Jewish or Gentile, we have to first admit that we are able to approach the OT only because of Jesus Christ. The promises of God contained in its pages are only for those who are sons of Abraham by faith in the Messiah (Romans 4:9-16). So I’m not saying we should try coming to the OT willfully ignorant of Jesus. He is the only way to come! But I don’t think Jesus wants our faith in him to change our method of reading the OT.

What am I getting at? I am concerned that evangelicals, by and large, approach the OT with an unbiblical dependency on the NT. Since the NT is newer revelation and offers a more developed view of God's redeeming purposes, it becomes the key by which we "unlock" the meaning of what has come before it. There is no overt discrimination against the OT, just a lack of deep engagement with it as meaningful, relevant revelation in its own right.

I can understand why people defer to the NT: it does seem clearer, and it is more concise and systematic. It contains the narratives of the life of Christ, our Savior, and it holds out to us some of the deepest and most compelling descriptions of the gospel.

The OT, on the other hand, is more drawn out and poetic. The message can seem cryptic and unclear. Laws, genealogies, construction blueprints, and land allotments bore us. It gets gruesome in places. And frankly, we don't always know what parts pertain to us or not.

So why not skip the OT altogether and just stick with the New?

That would make sense if mere doctrinal information is all we are after. If all we want from our Bibles is to learn Christian dogma in its most developed form, reading the NT alone would probably be sufficient. It practically teaches every doctrine covered by the OT, and then of course it adds some crucial material of its own.

But we want more from Scripture than just a systematic theology, don't we? There's a reason we don't settle for catechisms and dissertations in our devotional lives. We want faith and hope and encouragement and love, not merely a catalogue of things we ought to believe. And how do we get those things?

Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)

We know this verse well. But note that "the word of Christ" is not limited just to NT revelation. Christ is simply the Greek alternative to the Hebrew word messiah, which means "anointed one." So Paul's statement applies to every word concerning God's Messiah, including those spoken by the OT prophets (i.e. Psalm 2:2; Isaiah 61:1, etc.). That's why he can quote the OT in the following verses, saying that Israel did indeed hear the word of Christ in the days of the prophets but did not understand.

Later in the Book of Romans, speaking primarily to an audience of Gentiles who were geographically, culturally, and chronologically far removed from the origin of the OT, Paul says,

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)

How does "whatever was written in former days" offer instruction and encouragement to distant, Gentile believers (which would include most Christians throughout history)? It testifies to Christ, that's how. We don't have to make the ancient Hebrew Scriptures Christian—they already are! Paul wrote verse 4 to make apparent what he had just demonstrated in the sentence before: the OT encourages us by telling us about God's Anointed One (Romans 15:3).

The more I read the OT, the more I see how indispensable it is for fostering the encouragement and faith I need to thrive in my walk with God. And my challenge to you in writing this post is that you would approach the OT as a complete, competent, and relevant work for you in its own right.

The OT is not a deflated sail that needs NT air to get moving. Sure, there is more revelation beyond Malachi, and yes, we shouldn't try to just forget the NT when reading the prophets. But let’s not use what we know from the apostles to reinterpret or silence what the prophets themselves have to say to us. They were writing for us in the first place, you know (1 Peter 1:12).

Again, don’t make the prophets punt to the apostles. Read them for their own strong messianic and gospel hope, and let that set the stage in revelation history and in your heart for Jesus to come and prove the Father right and gloriously fulfill all of his great and precious promises.

Tyler Kenney (@tylerkenney) is a former content strategist at Desiring God. He and his wife, Kristen, live in the Twin Cities.