For many in the church today, the Old Testament is completely foreign to us, except for perhaps a few disconnected stories about Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Samson, and David. The reality is that fewer American Christians each year are reading their Bibles, and even fewer still read the Old Testament. A survey of sermon texts on church websites or in published books of sermons point to a much larger percentage of sermons from New Testament texts, despite the fact that the Old Testament is nearly four times as lengthy as the New Testament. When we don’t preach it regularly, don’t read it often, and rarely take pains to put the stories into a coherent whole, it is not long before the Old Testament will become unintelligible at all. To put it simply, the Old Testament is dying, and we need to find a cure.
Some might ask, “Why?” I mean, we are Christians and we have the New Testament, so as long as our pastors have a decent understanding of the Old Testament and we can grab a few moral lessons and bits of wisdom from it, why do I really need to know it at all? This might sound a bit too blunt, but don’t our reading habits (or lack thereof) suggest this is how we feel? What’s really at stake if we don’t understand the Old Testament? The Gospel—the Gospel is at stake.
In his longest and most frequently studied letter, the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul addresses an abundance of deep theological issues. Yet at the heart of this letter is Paul’s emphasis on the gospel, which he calls “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16, ESV). Paul identifies himself as a servant of Christ Jesus who is “set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:2-3, ESV). Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of Paul’s letter is his insistence that the gospel, the same good news that is the power of God for salvation, was preached in the Old Testament. In fact, as the frequent quotations of Old Testament texts in Romans (not to mention his other letters and the rest of the NT) attest, the Old Testament was the foundational Scripture upon which the apostles based their preaching and their ministry.
As pastors, do we know how to preach the Old Testament through Christian eyes while still remaining faithful to the meaning of the inspired author? Do we know how to teach our laypeople to do the same, or are they forcing Jesus into the text or avoiding it altogether? As pastors, do we know how to read and preach the Old Testament as a coherent story, as one Text that our congregation can grab hold of as their own story? As laypeople, do we know how to open our Bible to the Old Testament and read it in light of God’s grand story of redemption though the offspring of Abraham, and know that by faith we, too, are children of Abraham (Gen 12; Gal 3)?
In his excellent book, The Old Testament is Dying, Brent Strawn writes: “I have no doubt that the Old Testament is read, at least occasionally, by many Christians and in many churches, but part of my larger point—not to mention the larger problem—is not simply if the Old Testament is present (somehow), read (intermittently), or preached from (sporadically) but how it is present, read, preached from, and so on and so forth.” As he continues in this work, he compares the Old Testament to a language and explores the factors that lead to language death and applies those factors convincingly to the Old Testament. His conclusion: the Old Testament is dying. But there is hope.
So what do we do if we have recognized the problem? We need to become individuals and local churches that reclaim the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. I’ll explore this more in subsequent articles, but if you are in driving distance of Branson, I would encourage you to check out a conference I am a part of called “Christianity and the Death of the Old Testament,” hosted at fbcBranson on October 6-7. The aim of this conference is to provide teaching and tools to ensure that we take seriously all of God’s word and are better prepared to read the Old Testament with Christian eyes. You can find more details at https://www.fbcbranson.com/oldtestamentconference.
Portions of this essay were used in the MBC Pathway, August 22, 2017 edition.