When I was ten my grandparents gave me my first Bible. I determinedly announced to my whole family that I would be reading the Bible in its entirety, cover to cover, starting that night. My parents chuckled. I thought, “I’ll show them. I’ll do it, then they’ll see!”
After a few weeks, I made it to Leviticus and lost steam.
I have been in that exact cycle since then. Each new year that dawns, I say, “This is the year! The year I will read my Bible from cover to cover!” And I download a reading plan on my phone, and I always find myself losing interest somewhere between Leviticus and Numbers. To me, reading the Old Testament often has the appeal of reading Shakespeare: it’s long, boring, and old—but most importantly—hard to understand. I don’t know what to do with it.
Here I am, about to turn twenty, in that same broken cycle as my ten-year-old self. Am I ashamed of this? For sure. But here’s my grace-filled realization as of late.
I just returned from my first trip to Israel, where I began to witness the Bible coming to life, the pages coloring themselves scene by scene, debunking the many misconceptions and assumptions I’d carried around for years.
Although my parents and church did a wonderful job at sharing some of the Old Testament’s most iconic stories with me from a young age, I was never able to connect the significance of those stories to Jesus. And while I believe it’s so important to share these accounts with your children, it’s necessary to teach them more than just the “Greatest Hits,” so to speak. True, these stories are hits for a reason, but even the infinitesimal details of the Old Testament are important to Jesus’s existence.
Over the course of my few weeks in Israel, I wandered the same desert that the Israelites wandered in. I stood at the foot of the temple where Jesus would’ve gone to temple. I walked through the gates of excavated Jewish cities, places where Abraham, David, and Solomon most likely visited. The gravity of seeing these landmarks will never leave me, and I am a changed believer because of the impact their realness has had on me.
Now that I’ve been, I get it. I wholeheartedly understand why it has been so challenging for me (and many others) to find the resolve to trudge through the “hard parts” of the Old Testament: we can’t possibly visualize it.
At its core, the Old Testament is made up of cultural intricacies: just as any story that takes place in modern times is made up of slang words and Internet references that will be difficult for future generations to decipher, the Old Testament is brimming with cultural specificities appropriate for its time. Most, if not all, of these intricacies will be unfamiliar to us in the modern day.
In Israel, I ultimately began to realize how little I actually know about the Old Testament. Sure, I might have a broad—albeit blurry—overview of its historical timeline, but the Old Testament deserves a closer look.
The Old Testament is a holy text, its stories portraying the brokenness of a people group whose sin had not yet been met by the Cross. The Old Testament is a story of desperation, an outcry for mercy in a world riddled with evil. The Old Testament provides a healthy mix of miracles performed through God-fearing people and routines that seem archaic to the untrained eye.
But more than this, the Old Testament prophesies Christ’s incarnation. The Old Testament all but speaks the Messiah into existence. While it might seem obvious, this is something I didn’t understand the full complexity of until I went to Israel.
However, everyone doesn’t need to go to Israel in order to understand Jewish and Christian history, although I wish everyone could.
I am the poster child for someone who should have understood the Old Testament and its contents by now. I was raised in a Christian home, went to church every Sunday, youth group every Wednesday, small group every weekend, the works. I went to a Christian high school and had mainly Christian friends. Even now, I attend a Christian college. The Bible has been a constant in my life, something I’ve heard almost daily. So why did it take traveling to the other side of the world for me to comprehend the deep importance and sanctity of the Old Testament?
While all of these circumstances did provide an elementary level of understanding and appreciation for the Old Testament (and I am eternally grateful for this), I have continued to struggle because every time it was taught to me, it was taught with a degree of detachment from the New Testament.
Here’s what I realized in Israel, purely by witness: In order for us, as Christians, to fully understand the depth and breadth of our faith, we must take it upon ourselves to understand the Old Testament and the Jewish faith embodied in its chapters.
Old Testament culture was Jesus’s culture during His life on Earth. Jesus upheld Jewish tradition—the Abrahamic covenant—in His flesh. If our Savior abided by these laws, shouldn’t we be taking the study and understanding of these laws seriously?
Our God is the same God who spoke to Moses through the burning bush, the same God who cast Jonah into the belly of a whale for safekeeping as he traveled to Nineveh, the same God who preserved Rahab from Jericho’s crumbling walls, the same God who sent His son down as a willing sacrifice on our behalf. The Old Testament functions in the same way for us as it did for the people who lived it: preparation to receive Christ.
I’m not a parent yet, nor am I a youth minister, but I am someone who has been ministered to by both. And while both have served as incredible Christian models in my life, somehow I missed a clear understanding of what the Old Testament means for me as a modern-day Christian.
I am not qualified to tell neither parents nor youth ministers what to do or how they should teach, but I know one thing for sure: Teach your children and students the Old Testament. There is no better way to assure that your children comprehend the complexity of grace.
Christ’s forgiveness only becomes more radical when we understand its context. The Old Testament is what gives us that context. The darkness of the Old Testament makes the coming of the light even more glorious.
The Old and New Testament together show us this: grace knows the ugliness of the past, but celebrates God’s goodness in the present and in the future.