The Old Testament has been somewhat neglected in recent years. Of course, this is a generalization, but it’s a demonstrable one. A 2019 Pew Research study found that, out of 49,719 Christian sermons preached in the early summer of that year, only 61% even mentioned a book from the Old Testament. There are other American data trends and surveys that hint at New Testament favoritism as well. But what’s the big deal? The really important stuff is in the New Testament anyways, right? Actually, that’s a pretty dangerous oversimplification as most pastors instinctively know. So, here’s 3 reasons why pastors should preach from the Old Testament more (if you aren’t already).
The Old Testament is problematic. At least, that’s how the modern world sees it. Rapid scientific advancements in the West have estranged us from our own history and left us with the tendency to view our civilization as morally superior or somehow even more civilized. The history of ideas responsible for this lofty worldview is long, complex, and not the subject of this essay; but when they come into contact with the Old Testament authors and their God, the result is too often a caricature. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it…
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Wow, that’s a mouthful, and while Christians will understandably recoil at accusations like these, most aren’t so sure how to parse them. Many are certain God is being misrepresented, yet they see no avenue for defending Him. The result is an increasingly timid faith struggling to give an account in a secular age.
However, the reality is that God doesn’t need us to come to His defense, and when approached with a healthy dose of Old Testament literacy, the Word of God can defend itself quite well.
One consequence of not cultivating Old Testament literacy is that people will tend to get hung up on difficult passages that seem to contradict Christian values and lend to arguments like Dawkins’. These difficult passages can be found in the New Testament as well, but they are arguably far more frequent in the OT. For example, why would God seemingly command genocide in places like 1 Samuel 15:3? Why does he condone what sounds like chattel slavery in Leviticus 25:45-46? And why indeed would God seek to kill Moses right after He commissions him to go before Pharaoh in Exodus 4:24?
Most pastors have the ability to contextualize these passages quite well, whether that be systematically, exegetically, or otherwise; and by those principles usefully apply them to sound Gospel teaching. This is made clear in 2 Timothy 3:16. Even these controversial passages, which are certainly included in the phrase “All Scripture,” are relevant. If teachers will stick to the text, trusting that God’s Word is indeed inspired and “profitable,” then modern Christians will begin to develop a comprehensive, rather than a selective, view of Scripture.
It all starts from the pulpit. The modern congregation especially needs guidance when approaching the Old Testament. Being thousands of years removed from the culture of the ancient near east will render much of the context and many of the themes lost on modern readers. This is not a bad thing, and it does not in any way refute God’s sovereignty, foreknowledge, or the power of His Word to speak to people’s hearts. This is simply to say that it is a biblically literate teacher’s responsibility to help people pick up on these contexts and themes. The goal is that people will be like the Bereans in Acts 17, who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
I saved perhaps the most important point for last. It may also be the most obvious, but it is worth revisiting. The Old Testament testifies, among other things, towards the New Testament and towards Christ. It lays the foundation for the Christian worldview. Why did God create us? How did it all go wrong? Why do we need Jesus in the first place? The Old Testament provides answers to these fundamental questions and more. It sets the stage.
Likewise, the New Testament depends on the Old Testament. It testifies about the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and promises. From the outset of the New Testament, Matthew is constantly identifying parallels between Jesus and countless Old Testament prophecies. This thread runs throughout the Gospel accounts. In Matthew 5, Christ Himself says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…”
There’s an abundance of other examples, but the point is clear. The Old and New Testaments depend on each other. To separate them is to water down the message of Scripture as a whole. Therefore, the church should view each as a testament to the same reality, while still recognizing that they were written at very different times and in different contexts.
Every teacher has a unique relationship with their congregation, and this post is intended to identify a trend in the Western church. A trend is by its nature a sort of generalization, and investigating it is merely meant to provoke thought. Maybe you focus enough already on both testaments, or perhaps your congregation is one that would benefit from more Old Testament preaching. Either way, I hope the reasoning above made clear why it’s important.