Teach the Old Testament with Christ at the Center
Understanding the flow of historical context
It is not uncommon for Christians to find themselves intimidated by the Old Testament. You may have heard a fellow believer say something like this: “I love the New Testament but find the Old Testament overwhelming. All those ‘begats!’ The endless rules and regulations of Leviticus. The sheer volume of kings who rose and fell. And the prophets! Jeremiah’s tirades. Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels. Who can possibly understand it all?”
It’s human nature to be wary of the obscure. People cozy up to the Gospels, being somewhat familiar with the stories about Jesus. They might wade through the history of the early church in the book of Acts with relative ease. The New Testament letters to the churches are for the most part brief and somehow seem more relevant to present day life. But when it comes to Old Testament Scripture, many believers find it to be daunting in both size and scope. Yet we know that “All scripture,” not just some, “is given by inspiration of God and is profitable.”
With this in mind, here is one way to help your people engage with the Old Testament through historical context.
Start by Focusing on Christ
In order to help people grasp the flow of Old Testament history, let’s remember the reason that God gave us the Scriptures. Through them, God the Father is calling the human race to reconciliation through the Son. The thread of Christ’s redemptive work runs all the way from Genesis to Malachi. Christ is the truth that anchors the text. People can be taught virtually any part of the Old Testament with our Lord as the central reference point.
Where do we find Christ in the Old Testament? We can start all the way back in Genesis, with God’s pronouncement to the serpent in Genesis 3:15:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
Here at the very beginning of human history is God’s promise of redemption in Christ. The serpent’s apparent success in foiling God’s plan for humankind is only temporary. In the darkness and despair of that day when Adam damaged his relationship with the Father, hope shone through. God will ultimately bruise the serpent’s head, giving a death blow to his kingdom. Yes, we later see Satan bruise the heel of the Messiah on the cross, but Christ will come forth in resurrection victory, and Satan will ultimately be doomed. Paul references this in Colossians 2 as well as many other places in the New Testament. Thus, we see that history has a beginning and an end, and God is the ultimate victor. The good guys win!
Approaching the Law
Another scriptural area of obscurity for many believers is the Law of Moses. We can follow the stories of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt and subsequent wilderness wanderings. The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 are easy enough to grasp. We get that part. But Leviticus? Endless ceremonial details leap from nearly every page, specific and overwhelming. What is God saying in these Scriptures?
One traditional approach is to look at Old Testament events and people as pointers to something in the New Testament. This is sometimes known as typology. Thoughtful searching and meditation reveals some fascinating “types” that can inform our understanding of redemption. One gripping and beautiful example is found in Leviticus 16, where regulations are given for the Day of Atonement. Here God gives instruction to Aaron, the high priest, on presenting the yearly sacrifice for the sins of the people. We come away from this chapter with a graphic picture of God’s holy requirements and our own sinfulness. The author of the book of Hebrews draws extensively from Exodus and Leviticus (see, for example, Hebrews 4:14-16, 8:5, and 9:24), showing how now Christ is our High Priest, as well as our access into the Most Holy Place, the very presence of God. He is our sin offering and our scapegoat. This Scripture is just one of many places in the Law of Moses that can open our understanding of the work of Christ in bringing us back to God.
Turning to the Psalms
In the Psalms, we find rich and detailed information on our Lord. The most famous of these, perhaps, is Psalm 22, which begins with what became Christ’s cry of agony on the cross.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1).
Jesus speaks these words from the cross as our sin is laid on him. This Psalm gives us a window into the very thoughts of Christ as he hung there, stretched out and broken for us. The New Testament writers did not record them for us. But here we have a prophetic recording of them, hundreds of years before the crucifixion. Reading the rest of the psalm gives us a much fuller sense of what Jesus is saying.
Searching the Prophets
On to the prophets, those interminably lengthy and dense tomes, seemingly obscure. Is Christ revealed in them? Without a doubt. One familiar example is found in Isaiah 53, one of the “servant songs.” Christians have always read it as rich with description of Jesus’s suffering on the cross:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)
Reading on, Isaiah tells us that the Messiah will pour out his life unto death and bear the sin of many. Here is a clear Old Testament depiction of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
As those entrusted to lead God’s people, it is our joy to disarm the Old Testament of its mystery. Just as Christ did for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, with the help of the Holy Spirit we can explain to others “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The flow of biblical history becomes clear when Christ is at the center.
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