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Flinders Evangelical Students

A guide to getting Old Testament passages Some tips that will help you in reading and understanding the Old Testament

Make sure you understand the nature of Narrative A large amount of the Old Testament, especially in the Pentateuch (The first 5 books) and the historical books (Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, Ruth, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah) are narrative - ie giving an historical account of events. Often the events and actions of people are simply recorded without any assessment or interpretation - it is left to the reader to decide if they are positive or negative. This should not be based on personal opinion, nor on contemporary popular standards, but on the moral standards and principles given in Scripture. So for example, if you are reading about the actions of a King, read the commands and prophecies given about kings in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 and 1 Samuel 8:4-22. If you are reading about the actions of priests, look at the laws about the priesthood in Leviticus, etc. On other occasions an assessment is made in the passage. For example, 2 Kings 10:28-31: ‘28Thus Jehu wiped out Baal from Israel. 29But Jehu did not turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin—that is, the golden calves that were in Bethel and in Dan. 30The LORD said to Jehu, "You have done well. You have accomplished my will and carried out my wishes with regard to Ahab's dynasty. Therefore four generations of your descendants will rule over Israel." 31But Jehu did not carefully and wholeheartedly obey the law of the LORD God of Israel. He did not repudiate the sins which Jeroboam had encouraged Israel to commit.’

This statement allows us to assess Jehu’s actions appropriately: While he brought to justice the family and allies of the evil King Ahab as was required (See 2 Kings 9:10) and as was his duty as the King, his duplicitous heart meant that his actions were tainted by the influence of idolatry, so we cannot necessarily condone the way he went about it, nor take verse 30 to be an overall approval of his entire reign. God is approving of the accomplishment, not necessarily the means. God is big enough to be able to use the imperfect or even wrong actions of a man in order to accomplish his good purposes of justice.

Make sure you understand the nature of the Law There were three types of laws that God gave the Israelites: 1. Moral. Dealing with what is intrinsically right and wrong, with principals that apply in any and every place, time and circumstance, the Moral Law is summed up in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), and in the ‘Two greatest commandments’ of loving God and loving your neighbour. 2. Ceremonial. Dealing with how the people are to relate to and worship God, these laws prescribe the nature of the Priesthood and sacrifices, of worship in the Tabernacle, and the requirements of individual worshippers (both when they visited the Tabernacle, and as they sough in their daily lives to be in right relationship with God.) 3. Civil. Dealing with life, citizenship and justice in the nation of Israel, these laws are a specific application of the Moral and Ceremonial laws. They include instructions, prohibitions, punishments for crimes, and other principles that were required for the proper functioning of society in their time, place, culture and political environment. How do these laws apply to people today? The coming of Jesus has brought a change in the way we should read, understand and apply these laws on the time we live, ‘post Jesus’:

© 2012 James Krieg & Flinders Evangelical Students. This article may be freely distributed for noncommercial purposes, provided the source is referenced and the content is not changed or added to.

Flinders Evangelical Students

1. Civil laws. Because these laws were given specifically for the nation of Israel, to be applied and operated under in the centuries leading up to the coming of Jesus, we cannot and should not simply transfer them over to us and see them as binding on Christians or on our nation. Because the Church is not a national-political entity, we are not required to follow these laws. Sins continue to be sins---but the penalties change. In the Old Testament sins like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God's people constituted a nation-state, and so all sins had civil penalties. But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how Paul deals with a case of incest in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:1ff. and 2 Cor. 2:7-11). Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation---it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.1

We also need to remember that the setting of these laws was culturally, geographically and historically far removed from our experience of modern western civilisation. Laws which to us may sound weird, unfair or even unjust may only appear so because our minds have been shaped by our own culture, popular notions of right and wrong, and modern ideas of justice. We should reserve passing judgement on what we think is the rightness or wrongness of OT laws until we can be sure we fully understand the context and reasons for which they were given. 2. Ceremonial laws. Because Jesus has come as our great High Priest (4:14), who by his life, his sacrificial death, and his resurrection has perfectly and completely fulfilled all the requirements for the priesthood, sacrifices, and Tabernacle/Temple worship, these ceremonial laws are now finished and obsolete. This is not because they were bad, but simply because they were only intended to apply up until Jesus. So now sacrifices have finished because he died once for all and our sins are forgiven in Him; food and clean/unclean laws have ended because we are made clean through faith in Him; Temple worship is obsolete because people not worship the Father in spirit and truth through faith in Jesus who called himself the true Temple (John 2:21). Christians are not required (and shouldn’t) turn to the Old Testament to determine how we ‘do church’. 3. Moral Laws. These laws, as foundational to all other laws, have not been made obsolete, and so still apply - yet they apply in a different way to which we may expect. Because in Christ we have been set free from slavery to sin and death, and because we have been restored to a loving relationship with God our Father, then this moral law is not a set of rules to obey to earn or keep our right standing with God. Instead, it becomes the description of a life that has been transformed by the power of God’s grace; something that Christians delight to live by because of the love of God that fills our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The Christian life is not a slavish following of rules, but a life of seeking to love God and our neighbour, confident that in following that spirit of the Law we will find ourselves following the whole moral law (Matt. 22:37-40). This does not rule out reading the Moral law, and reminding ourselves of what it looks like to live a life worthy of our calling, and repenting when necessary, with the confidence that we live under grace, not law (Romans 6:14-15)

Make sure you understand the literary and situational context of the passage “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.” We should never read a passage in isolation from its context, or we risk misreading and misusing it. A verse or passage taken out of context can be made to say whatever we want it to say.


Tim Keller, “Making Sense of Scripture's 'Inconsistency'” on the Gospel Coalition blog, blogs/tgc/2012/07/09/making-sense-of-scriptures-inconsistency/ © 2012 James Krieg & Flinders Evangelical Students. This article may be freely distributed for noncommercial purposes, provided the source is referenced and the content is not changed or added to.

Flinders Evangelical Students

1. When reading narrative, read the events before and after, to understand its place in the bigger story. 2. Even better, read the entire book in which it is located, to get an even bigger picture, and to understand the intention of the author - why they wrote or complied the book, and what key emphases they are making through the book. This will also help you understand the historical and cultural setting of the events you are reading about. 3. Better still - and this may take a bit longer, and will happen as over time you regularly read and are taught the Bible - see how this fits into the context of the whole Bible and its big story from Creation to Consummation, centred in the person and work of Jesus. Everything in the Old Testament is obviously written before Jesus, and so is in anticipation of His coming - it points us toward Him in various ways - by giving us types and shadows that remind us of Him; by promises given by God of salvation; by recording the hopes and fears of those who are looking forward to the coming of the Messiah; by depicting the desperate and depraved state of human beings that highlight the need of God’s mercy in sending a saviour. We must always read the Old Testament with ‘Jesus goggles’ - not trying to apply the passage directly to ourselves, but asking, ‘How does this help me better understand the Father’s plan that has been fulfilled in Jesus, and what does this mean for me now as I am a child of God in Christ?’

Don’t ignore the hard passages It is probably true that as Christians we spend more time in the New Testament than the Old. This is appropriate, because the New speaks clearly about Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, whereas the Old speaks in types, shadows and promises. However make sure that you do not avoid reading the Old Testament, and especially if it’s because there are things in there you don’t like - the less ‘nice’ parts of the Bible. The Bible has been given to us as a whole as the full revelation we need of God, of us, and His plan of salvation in Christ. We need to be real, and prepared to wrestle with the difficult passages, asking for wisdom from God and the help of the Holy Spirit to comprehend these passages and discern the voice of God as He speaks to us in them. A number of these hard passages are often quoted by those opposed to the Gospel as a tool to try and discredit both the Bible and our faith, supposing that by showing their dislike for them they will somehow prove the whole of the Christian faith to be false, superstitious and even evil. Having read and understood these passages in their proper context will not only ensure that you are not shocked or unsettled by these attacks, but that you will also have a reasonable, thoughtful and gracious answer to give when your faith is challenged.

© 2012 James Krieg & Flinders Evangelical Students. This article may be freely distributed for noncommercial purposes, provided the source is referenced and the content is not changed or added to.

Guide to getting Old Testament passages  

Some tips that will help you in reading and understanding the Old Testament