A number of us journeyed together during Lent to read the entire New Testament in 40 days. More of us read the whole Gospel of John. Those who did this (and who told me they did it) universally found their reading eye-opening. I’m so pleased that many of you decided to add this practice to your Lenten disciplines. If we really want to know God, we have to know the Bible. Knowing the Bible isn’t the same as knowing God, but it sure is hard to know God without knowing the Bible!
Maybe this is the reason that we’ve been reading a lot of scripture during worship– typically one reading from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament (one from the Gospels and one from the rest of the New Testament). During the season of Easter, which goes through Pentecost on June 4, we’re substituting the Old Testament reading for a reading from the book of Acts in order to focus on the good news of Christ raised from the dead.
But here’s the thing: we need to be reading the Old Testament. The only scripture that Jesus knew was the Old Testament! Judging by the number of times he quotes scripture, Deuteronomy was his favorite book!
Nevertheless, there are lots of practical challenges in reading the Old Testament. Here are my top 5:
- Length: Reading the Old Testament is a much bigger endeavor than reading the New Testament. It’s over 5 times as long! That’s enough to scare a lot of people off, but a good reading plan and a dose of good-ole’-fashioned discipline (aided by others reading with you!) can help you get through it.
- Genre: Loosely speaking the New Testament is made up of Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and John), Epistles/Letters (by Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude), and the book of Revelation (generally talked about as “Apocalyptic” writing, which means– get this!– revelation). The first two of these genres are pretty straight forward most of the time. The Old Testament, however is made up of lot of complex genres: Narrative, history, poetry (of various forms), prophecy, wisdom, and Apocalyptic literature (like much of the book of Daniel), among others. Sometimes this can be a bit intimidating.
- Unfamiliarity: For those who have hung around church for a while, hopefully there isn’t too much in the New Testament that you haven’t heard before. Read it through and let me know! This just isn’t remotely the case with the Old Testament. Many of the great narratives are just too long for reading in worship (the phenomenal story of Joseph, for example, runs from Genesis 37- 50). In other cases, it’s simply hard to follow a writer’s train of thought (like in the beautiful, but challenging book of Jeremiah). We have to start somewhere though, and reading the Old Testament gets easier the more we do it.
- Difficulty for application: When Jesus commands us to do something, there generally isn’t much question among Christians of whether or not we should do that thing (again, speaking broadly). Reading the Old Testament– the Jewish scriptures– it isn’t always as clear if something should apply to us Christians or not. This is a big topic that Christians do not agree about uniformly.
- Violence: The writers of the Bible attribute a lot of violence to God. This can be very unsettling to first-time readers of the Old Testament (or for that matter, 100th time readers)! In my view, the most responsible thing we can do is to recognize that God is most fully revealed Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, who took violence on himself rather than perpetrate violence himself. God uses imperfect people with imperfect understandings of God to accomplish God’s purposes. That alone is worth praising God for!
If you’ve made it this far, then you must have a sense that this is somehow all worth it. Yes, I believe it is! Here are my top 5 reasons to read the Old Testament:
- Moving stories: This past week I read the whole story of Joseph in Genesis 36-50. I know this story well, but I still felt myself trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears at several points, like when Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin and when Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. There are loads of moving stories like this in the Old Testament.
- Good news: There are some messed up people in the Old Testament. Israel (Jacob) himself was a deceptive schemer. Moses was a murderer. King David was an adulterer and murderer. But God doesn’t give up on them. God uses them anyway! Maybe God can use even me, even you, too!
- The promise of a Messiah: Jesus does not appear out of nowhere. Rather, he is the climax of a long story. The scriptures testify about Jesus (John 5:39). If we’re going to have a chance understanding how Jesus saw himself and what he understood himself to be doing, we need to know the Old Testament. This is the scripture that shaped Jesus’ life and ministry and confirmed his Spirit-given vocation to bears the sins of humanity on the cross (see, for example, the suffering servant poem in Isaiah). God gave Israel a mission. Jesus takes that mission upon himself so that all of the blessing that God promises may come to Israel and to all people.
- Holy love: Several years ago, I read Deuteronomy again and was struck with a deeper understanding of God’s heart than I’d had before. Yes God’s love is unconditional. But because God’s love is so great, we must respond to it! The Old Testament provides us with so many rich opportunities to put our ears to God’s heart and understand the depth of God’s holy love.
- Know the whole story: Some people like to flip to the end of a book to know how it ends. I’m not one of those people. But even if I were, I’d go back and read the book from the beginning if I liked what I saw! Yes, we should read the Old Testament for it’s own sake. It’s wonderful and beautiful. It’s the story of God and humanity (really God and all of creation). At the same time, we don’t want to miss out on what the Old Testament means for reading the New Testament. We need to know how the story begins if we’re going to understand how the story ends (see Revelation 21-22).
So let’s do it. Let’s read the Old Testament. A great way to do this is as part of a Bible in one year reading plan (here’s a site/app I recommend). Another way is to use a reading plan like this that is a survey of the whole Bible in 60 days. It’s an ambitious plan, but useful for serving up some “highlights.” Don’t be afraid if the pace is too fast. Just print it out and cross off the readings as you do them. I’m happy to help you customize a reading plan that works for you. I’m also happy to talk through difficult readings with you. We’re in this together!
I pray for each of us that we might continue to grow more and more in knowledge of God so that we might come to know God more!