How to Become Familiar with The Old Testament

Several times a year, in classes and conversations, a passage or concept will be explained from the first three-quarters of the Bible and someone will say something like, “I really need to be more familiar with the Old Testament.”

Maybe you feel the same way. But how do you actually become more familiar with the Old Testament?  Let me offer you four suggestions on getting to know it better. 

Remember the Old Testament’s Importance

Sometimes, motivation is a large part of why we don’t spend time in the Old Testament. Because we are rightly focused on Jesus as his disciples, the Old Testament can seem distant, even not immediately relevant. So, remember a few things about the Old Testament. 

The Old Testament is God’s Word. Paul famously says that it “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). That alone means the Old Testament is worth your time. It’s theology of God, his plan, and his people is helpful and life-giving (Ps 19:7–11).  

The Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible. This is a point Jason DeRouchie makes well. He says, “Jesus never read Romans or Revelation. . . .  It was books like Genesis and Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Psalms that shaped Jesus’ upbringing and that guided his life and ministry as the Jewish Messiah.”* The Old Testament anticipates Jesus and helps us further appreciate his life and work (John 5:39). 

The Old Testament is the Bible that Jesus and the apostles used to preach the gospel. The church was built on regular preaching of the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus’ person and work (Luke 24:36–49). Certainly, the Gospel and apostolic letters began to be seen and taught as Scripture by the end of the first century.  But this was years after the gospel was preached at Pentecost, and the church spread from the Jewish community to the Samaritans and the Gentiles. Paul’s mission trips were about preaching Christ from the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g., Acts 20:27; 24:14; 26:22; 28:23). 

Reflect on Biblical Summaries of the Old Testament’s Storyline

Within the Bible itself, there are summaries of key events in biblical history. Some of these deal with large portions of Israel’s history. Others deal with more narrow time periods or thematic threads through redemptive history.  All of these passages feature theological commentary, which helps frame the storyline. Reflecting on these passages can help give a basic grasp of the Old Testament storyline as well as some big takeaways.  

Here are some great summaries to look at: Psalm 78; Nehemiah 9; Matt 21:33–46; Acts 7; Acts 13:13–43; Rom 5:12–21; Romans 9–11; Galatians 3–4.

Read Good Books and Resources on the Old Testament

Leland Ryken (author of my favorite Bible handbook) has a great article that gives a paragraph-long summary of each book of the Old Testament. A great place to start. 

Again, Jason DeRouchie is a helpful guide.  He is a clear and energetic teacher whose website has all manner of free resources—in audio, video, print—that cover the Old Testament in varying detail. 

If you want to go a little deeper, try these books. They cover key themes and how they develop across the biblical storyline culminating in Christ: Wellum and Hunter, Christ from Beginning to End and Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (now collected in the larger book, The Goldsworthy Trilogy

Read the Old Testament

You probably knew was coming, right?  At some point, if you really want to know the highways and byways of the Old Testament, you simply need to read it. One way to start is read through key chapters in the storyline. This will give you a backbone of the narrative and theological arc of the Old Testament, making it easier to read the rest of it later. Consider this guided reading, covering thirty-five key sections from Genesis to Malachi.  Then, set a plan and start reading all of the Old Testament. 

*Jason S. DeRouchie, What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2013), 28.

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