Imagine that you and a friend decide to go see a movie, but you misread the schedule and arrive an hour into the film. Would you still go in and watch the last half of the movie?
Of course not. No one jumps into the middle of a movie and expects to understand what is going on.
Even worse is when someone comes in and starts watching a movie with you after it has started, but then starts asking you questions about what’s gone on before.
“Is that the good guy or the bad guy?” “Why are they hiding?” “Why is she so mad?” “Are they in England?”
They ask so many questions that you can’t follow what is happening. Even if you could take the time to explain, it’s really impossible to help them fully understand the rest of the movie. The only way to do that is to watch the first half.
As absurd or annoying as these circumstances are, it is similar to how many Christians treat the Bible when we give priority to the reading and study of the New Testament over the Old Testament.
When we regard the New Testament as more important or relevant than the Old Testament, we are acting like we can jump into the middle of a movie and understand what is going on.
When we become confused, we start peppering those who do understand with questions that can only be answered sufficiently by reading the Old Testament for ourselves.
I’m afraid, however, that it’s even worse than that. What people tend to do is read the New Testament, construct a story that seems plausible for that small section of the Bible, and then go back and read the Old Testament and try to make it fit the New Testament story they’ve constructed.
In doing so, they try to find answers to questions that the Old Testament writers weren’t asking and ignore the questions they were asking—as well as the answers they were giving.
Perhaps even more tragic is when we treat the beginning of Matthew as the real beginning of the story and the Old Testament as a prequel to the main story.
And even worse than that is when we treat the Old Testament as a plan—whether of God’s choosing or humanity’s choosing—that didn’t work, and the New Testament as the plan that did work.
That would be like watching a movie and halfway through the director comes on screen and says, “You know, all this really isn’t working that well, so we’re just going to move in a different direction for the rest of the show.”
When we view the Old Testament as the-plan-that-didn’t-work, we make reading it a waste of our time.
The incarnation of Jesus is the climax or the pinnacle of a story that begins, quite literally, “In the beginning.”
And you cannot understand Jesus if you haven’t at a bare minimum read the Old Testament at least once.
Jesus was constantly quoting the Old Testament, in particular Isaiah and the Psalms.
He wasn’t just referring his hearers back to the particular passage or passages he was quoting; he was invoking the full sweep of Isaiah’s message, of the Psalms and ultimately the larger story of the Old Testament.
We have caricatured too often the relationship between the two testaments. We say that the Old Testament is about the law and works while the New Testament is about grace and faith, for instance.
That would be news to Jonah who watched God forgive Nineveh of their atrocities against Israel through one act of repentance.
It would be news, as well, to Hosea as he went after his wantonly wayward wife Gomer.
And it would be news to Jesus who went beyond the laws against murder and adultery and expanded them to include anger and lust.
Jesus said that he didn’t come to destroy the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), but he did it in a way that no one could see coming.
When Paul tried to make sense of this fulfillment that came in a completely unexpected way, he didn’t make up a new story but instead went back and studied the old story with fresh eyes to see that this was God’s amazing plan all along.
Read the Old Testament, the whole thing—every genealogy, every obscure law. Even if you don’t understand it all, it will soak in and understanding will come gradually, slowly and with some assistance.
But read it and read it again. And when you come to the parts about Jesus, you will see them in a whole new way.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A longer version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.
Pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.