Reading the Old Testament for Benefit – Part 1

Posted on July 25, 2014

For years, both in Canada and United States, I have served as a reader and examiner for men and women who want to be ordained. The ordination process can be a grueling exercise where would-be missionaries, pastors, professors and chaplains push themselves to understand the nuances and depth of both theology and practical Christian work with people.

At the end of several years’ worth of work, they are asked to submit to an oral exam lasting two hours or more.

One young man went through his oral exam easily and less than halfway through I knew he would pass. Often, when a person comes in with great expertise and knowledge, I  feel inclined to push them to see how “deep the well goes” concerning their knowledge. His “well” of knowledge was deep indeed.

At the end of the interview, I asked if there was anything theologically he struggled with. He hesitated; but I assured him we wouldn’t fail him because of struggles. So he admitted the one he had:. “I struggle to believe the Old Testament is from God.” That shocked me. In every way, he had seemed orthodox in his answers. He certainly knew his Bible thoroughly. So how could he come out with this? I asked him to explain.

Simply, he looked at Jesus and the God of the Old Testament and concluded that no matter how you sliced it, they were not the same. And because they were not the same, one of them had to be false. We talked for awhile about his doubts, and I helped him to realize he had probably misinterpreted some key doctrine. He looked relieved to know he didn’t have to jettison his faith because of some doubts.

So we scheduled some time for he and I to look into this matter together. Over the months we met, I went over principles that would help him appreciate the first 2/3rds of the Bible. In an earlier blog entry, I gave an overview on how to read the Old Testament with more accuracy. But now I want to point out some of the ways we can appreciate this part of God’s Word.

One element which always bothered me when reading the stories of the Old Testament is how badly Israel’s leaders lived their lives. If you read through the historical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles, you will quickly realize that every one of Israel’s kings messed up big time. None of them lived an entire life of faithfulness to God. Even some of the best of them–such as David and Solomon–had egregious mistakes that tainted their legacy.

David committed adultery with his friend’s wife and then covered it up with a conspiracy to murder. Later in his life, he allowed his children to commit murder, incest, rape, and treason and failed utterly in disciplining them. His son Solomon, even though he started well, ended very poorly. He married over 300 wives and had 600 concubines. God had given him more wisdom than any other man, yet he squandered his life near the end on sexual pleasure and idol worship. Hezekiah was used by God to bring revival to the country, but pride caused him to make political mistakes which resulted in the Babylonians taking over his country.

I could keep going for a long time. After reading about all these failures, I began to despair about God and His plan.

Then something occurred to me. There was one king that didn’t blow it. Jesus, the King of the Jews. And I realized that was the point of all these stories. Only Jesus can live the kind of life that pleases God. If we have surrendered our lives to follow Christ, inviting his Holy Spirit to live within us, we can truly change to look like him. We now have the promise that the end of our lives can be better than the beginning or the middle. Every day we have the opportunity to live successfully, even if yesterday was a disaster and a loss.

This is the first point I want to make about appreciating the Old Testament. Keep the example of Jesus firmly in your mind. When you see humans fail all through the books, you can realize that this is just what happens with humans. It is only with God’s help that we can rise above all of that.

That really helps me appreciate the people in the Old Testament. Just knowing their lives are not supposed to be good examples all the time, knowing that they are just like all of us, and have as many failures as successes; this causes me to thank God even more for Jesus.

When I read about Moses, that humble man who communed with God as if face-to-face, and see he also made huge errors in his life, I am encouraged. When Moses struck the rock with the staff and poured out his anger on the people of God, I realize my anger at members of God’s church is not something unusual. However, I don’t use Moses’ example as a rationale to excuse my own behavior. I use it to bring me back to the central tenet of Christianity: That without the power of Jesus flowing in me by the Holy Spirit, I am going to fail regularly in life. And, when I do fail, there is a God of grace who will not leave me, forsake me or reject me.

Even though Moses lost his privilege to enter the Promised Land because of his angry outbursts, he was still able to say at the end of his life (Deuteronomy 32:46-47):

“Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe—all the words of this law. 47 For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess.”

God stayed with him even through his failures. How much more can we stand in victory if Christ is the strength of our lives? This is the value of the Old Testament. We see humanity in its rawest form and we can anticipate the power of God to change us because of Jesus.

Next article, we will look into Appreciating the Initiative of God.