The Old Testament Is Really Just One Big Story
What comes to your mind when you think of the Old Testament?
Is it boring? Old news? Irrelevant? Inspiring? Motivational?
I think I've felt each of those growing up. As a child, the Old Testament was presented as a collection of moral stories meant to inspire me to choose good and avoid evil. That wasn't bad for an introduction, but it wasn't enough.
A few weeks ago, we had a youth event in our church where our instructor walked us through the Old Testament. He emphasized three things: The Old Testament is one story, planned by God, and pointing to Christ. This introduced the youth to the same perspective of the OT that took me years to understand from theological scholars. It's not the popular perspective, but it is the biblical one. The popular one is to see the OT as a collection of morally inspiring stories that set an example of how we should live and what we should expect from God.
The trouble with seeing the OT as a collection of morally inspiring stories is that it misses God's patiently enacted plan of redemption. It's too simplistic and can easily mislead us to believe something the Bible doesn't teach. The OT reveals God's grace and mercy for us in the covenantal words, "I will be your God, and you will be my people." It displays the kingdom of God as the seed of the woman repeatedly overcoming the kingdom of this world as the seed of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). It relays God's plan of redemption through types, foreshadowing, and prophecy. Without the OT, we never arrive at the NT.
Take the heroic and motivational story of David defeating Goliath. It's the classic underdog story where the small guy overcomes the greatest obstacles to become the hero. But that's not the intention of the story. It's really a story about a substitute who defeats the seed of the serpent—a picture of Christ's death.
That's because the way Hebrew authors got their point across was to tell a story around the point. Sometimes it took chapters, other times only a few verses, but they made their point. Peruse the book of Hebrews to observe how the author extracts the intention of the OT. Looking at the OT through these lenses changes the perspective of our favourite stories, and it shows us the value of all the overlooked stories, two of which have become my favourites.
The first happens in Genesis 15, where Abraham (still named Abram) is unsure about God's promise to make him a great nation. Abraham has faith, but he can't envision how God will bring His promise to pass. So, God tells Abraham to prepare a covenant-making ceremony by cutting various animals in half and spreading them on the ground with a path between. For us, this seems like a bloody, gory scene, but Abraham knew what it meant.
"And the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts" (Jeremiah 34:18)
In ancient times when a lord wanted to make a covenant with his servant, say when a servant owed the lord money and couldn't pay, the lord would enter into a covenant with the servant. This covenant was oath-bound, promise-driven, and conditioned on the servant keeping the requirements prescribed by the lord. The lord would walk through the pieces of animals on the ground to seal the covenant, signifying his commitment to his promise. The servant would walk through, indicating his commitment to keeping the requirements of the covenant. In a sense, both the servant and the lord were saying, "Let me be as these pieces if I don't keep the covenant requirements."
The events in God's covenant-making ceremony with Abraham took an interesting turn. God comes to the ceremony in the form of a smoking oven and flaming torch, and He passes through the pieces. Now any reader familiar with this kind of ceremony should expect Abraham to rise from his sleep and walk through the pieces, but that part of the story never comes. Through this ceremony, God indicated that He would become as those pieces if He didn't keep His promise, and He would become as those pieces if Abraham didn't keep the requirements of the covenant. The ceremony vividly depicted the grace-filled nature of God's relationship with Abraham.
Abraham and his descendants failed to keep the requirements of the covenant numerous times, but God did not. He kept His promise to Abraham, and through Christ on the cross, He became as those pieces not only in Abraham's place but also in ours.
The second story is found in 2 Samuel 9, where David is the victorious king in Israel. In mourning the death of his close friend, Jonathan, he remembers the covenant he made with him. So David asks if there is anyone left in Saul's house for him to show kindness to on behalf of Jonathan. One of Saul's servants points David in the direction of Mephibosheth, Jonathan's son, who was crippled in both feet. The chapter ends with gospel-soaked words: "So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate always at the king's table. Now he was lame in both his feet" (2 Samuel 9:13).
Here is Mephibosheth, a young man who has nothing in himself worthy to eat at the king's table (a point the author makes abundantly clear through repetition), eating at the king's table. Why? On account of a promise made and a family relation. By faith, we—crippled from sin—sit at God's table because of His promise to Christ, and our adoption in Christ. Christ's, as our head, is our righteousness before God and gives us the right to sit at God's table. The story of David and Mephibosheth is a picture of Christ's righteousness credited to us.
The Old Testament is the gospel and is interpreted rightly in light of the explicit gospel of the New Testament. It is a direct path toward and a continual picture of the gospel. You cannot divorce the OT from the NT, nor can you ignore the OT in favour of the NT because the OT is really just one story that is part of the big story.