One of the trickiest challenges for Christians is how to read the Old Testament. In particular, the stories of the Old Testament challenge believers. Sometimes we read Old Testament stories as inspirational tales. But these narratives often present rather unsavoury elements such as David’s affair with Bathsheba. So the desire to “be like David” comes to a full stop. At other times, we read the Old Testament as fascinating records of history but with little practical value to today. After all, do we really need to build a parapet on the roof as Deuteronomy commands?
So let’s take a moment to look at how the earliest Christian writer (that we know of) read the Old Testament and applied it to his life. And that writer is the apostle Paul.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 10
Paul writes the following to the Corinthian church:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:1–4).
Paul calls the ancient Israelites whom God led out of Egypt in the Exodus “our fathers.” In other words, Paul calls the Corinthians the children of the ancient fathers. Or as I heard someone explain it recently, Paul narrates the Corinthians into the Old Testament story.
The Old Testament story becomes our story. We are the children of our spiritual fathers. And we can read the Old Testament in a direct way. As Paul explains, the story of Israel’s Exodus “took place as examples for us” (1 Cor 10:6). He further details the ways in which the ancient Israelites did not obey God put Christ to the test (1 Cor 10:9). Paul then notes of these narratives, “they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11).
He also affirms that the Old Testament story points to new covenant or “end of age” realities. So he calls the “Rock” that followed Israel “Christ.” Christ spiritually nourished the Israelites in the wilderness. And the Rock’s spiritual quality and symbolism allow Paul to identify the Rock with Christ.
So How Should We Read Old Testament Narratives?
According to Paul, we can, first of all, read the Old Testament narratives as part of our spiritual stories. The ancient Israelites are our fathers. Israel is not only some ancient people group and nation. They are our people. We are their children. Anyone who hopes in Christ is a spiritual child of Abraham as Paul notes in Romans 4:16. So read the Old Testament to find your identity, to see your spiritual roots.
Second, read the Old Testament in a Christ-centered way. Paul calls the Rock Christ without needing to explain: yes, well, you see there is a symbolic connection and various lines of evidence that allow me to make this argument. He certainly did the exegetical work which is evident from his writings. But he doesn’t feel the need to make excuses. He just says, “and the Rock was Christ.” So do the exegetical work that Paul does, and then unapologetically read the Old Testament in a Christ-centered way.
Third, read the Old Testament as an example for our faith. There are many examples of exemplary faith in the Old Testament. Hebrews 11 shows a New Testament writer’s recollection of this fact. Yet Paul affirms the negative example in the Old Testament. He writes, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor 10:6). We are not to do as they did.
But Won’t This Mean We Read the Old Testament out of Context?
Far from it. I am not saying that we should engage in an allegorical reading of the Old Testament. I am affirming that we should read it according to its historical, grammatical, and canonical context. In other words, you read it in light of real history; you read the words in normal ways; and you read each passage in the context of the whole Bible.
I believe Paul did something like this, and we should too. After all, if you cannot learn from the apostles in how to interpret the Old Testament, then who can you learn from?
There’s much to be said here. But I will say one thing that might help. The Old Testament prophetically points to God’s coming salvation. And many of the Old Testament institutions point to heavenly realities (realities that become fulfilled in the new covenant).
For example, Moses modeled the tabernacle on earth after the tabernacle in heaven (Exod 25:40). And if you want to know what the heavenly tabernacle is like, just read the Book of Revelation. But the point here is that Christ ministers as a high priest in the heavenly tabernacle on our behalf. The Old Testament tabernacle was a shadow of the heavenly reality in which Christ now ministers on our behalf, on whom the end of the ages has come.
So, it’s part of the fabric of the Old Testament to provide earthly illustrations of heavenly realities, realities that Christ has brought near to us through his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reign.
Read the Old Testament narratives with confidence therefore. Discover your spiritual heritage, see Christ, and find examples for your spiritual vitality in the Old Testament.