Why Do We Need the Old Testament?

Without the Old Testament, you and I wouldn’t know half of what God has done to save the Israelites from themselves. The New Testament tells us about the reason for our hope, but the Old Testament tells us what God did to give that hope to us.

Sonya Downing
Old Testament table of contents

Growing up, I always heard Christians recite the same mantra to non-believers: “Believe and you’ll be saved.”

I don’t disagree with that sentiment, but it’s easy to get so fixated on this drop that we ignore the ocean it’s in: The Bible. It’s especially easy to ignore the Old Testament because Lamentations is depressing, Daniel’s visions are trippy and confusing, and Song of Solomon is really awkward.

Here’s the thing you and I forget 99% of the time: God chose what went in the Bible. So, the fact that the Old Testament exists means that God put it there intentionally.

My tiny little human brain can’t possibly wrap itself around the thought process of God. It can, however, come up with four things the Old Testament does for those who read it.

1. It Preserves and Passes on the History of God Saving His People

Anyone who skims the Old Testament can see that despite being God’s chosen people, the Israelites made a lot of mistakes. Like, a lot.

For example, despite seeing God plague Egypt (Exodus 7:14-11:10), part the Red Sea (Exodus 14:1-22), and dump the aforementioned sea back on top of their persecutors (Exodus 14:23-31), the Israelites got antsy during Moses’s time on Mount Sinai and thought to themselves, “This God isn’t the real deal. Let’s worship a shiny cow instead” (Exodus 32:1-5).

This was neither the first nor the last of Israel’s blunders, and God made sure the Bible’s authors didn’t leave out a single one. But what does God do after the Israelites get it wrong yet again? He saves them. He saves them every single time.

Without the Old Testament, you and I wouldn’t know half of what God has done to save the Israelites — our spiritual ancestors — from themselves.

We also wouldn’t understand the theological or cultural roots the New Testament, in general, and the gospel, in particular, stemmed from. And where would we be if we didn’t know the gospel?

2. It Shows That God Is Deeply Invested in Our Everyday Lives

Before they came to the Promised Land, the Israelites didn’t have a president, prime minister, or even a king. Israel had what us newfangled folk would call a theocracy. In a theocracy, the religion is the state and the state is the religion.

This means that the laws laid out in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy weren’t just “thou-shalts” and “thou-shalt-nots” for private life; they were public law, in the same way, paying taxes and stopping at stop signs are the law.

“Who cares?”, you ask, “Leviticus is still boring.”

That may be true, but the fact that the Law of God was also the law of the land shows us something important: God didn’t just want to see the Israelites on weekends and Passover. He wanted to be an integral part of their lives so that they’d flourish.

This is true of God today: He wants to be with us when we eat our Cheerios, pay our electric bills, and fold the laundry that’s been sitting in the dryer all week. Without the Old Testament, we wouldn’t know that no detail is too small for our God to care about.

3. It Teaches Us How to Praise God

When most Christians think of praise, they think of singing along to Hillsong covers in church. This is largely because the book of Psalms is an anthology of hymns and poetry and partly because singing happy songs on Sunday makes our hearts warm and fuzzy.

Because most modern Christian worship comes from happy source material, believers forget that not all praise comes from a joyful place. Job’s love for God cost him everything, some of the psalms (e.g. 28, 38, and 88) are desperate cries for help, and Ecclesiastes is a mope-fest about how meaningless life is.

Job, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes are quite different from each other, but they serve the same purpose: To acknowledge God as savior not in spite of hardship and suffering, but because of it.

Without these less-than-cheery Old Testament writings, we wouldn’t know that pain can and should be harnessed for praise. We would only be able to praise God when we were happy.

4. It Foretells the Coming of Christ

God saving Israel, making Himself part of our lives, teaching us how to praise Him… what’s the point of it all? Why do we need a hodge-podge of facts, rules, and angsty poetry when we have the tried-and-true “believe, and you’ll be saved”?

Because the Old Testament has something else going for it: Prophecies about Jesus. Isaiah 7:14 tells us Jesus will be called Immanuel, or god with us. The prophet Hosea marries a prostitute as a symbolic representation of Jesus’ love for the undeserving Church. And Daniel 7:13-14 predicts Jesus’ second coming.

These prophecies and dozens of others gave Old-Testament Israelites something to hope for: An end to the covenant of law and the beginning of the covenant of grace. Modern-day Christians get something out of it, too: The realization that God spent millennia — yes, millennia — taking care of His family.

Why Does This Matter?

If you forget everything else about this article, remember this: The New Testament tells us about the reason for our hope, but the Old Testament tells us what God did to give that hope to us.

The more of it we read, the more we understand and appreciate the lengths He has gone to for sinful, stubborn, silly people like us who don’t deserve it.

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Sonya Downing is a novelist, freelance writer, and content editor with a bachelor’s degree in professional writing. Her freelance work has been published in Focus on the Family’s teen girl magazine Brio, The Evangelical Church Library Association, and The Secret Place quarterly magazine. She has also blogged for IlluminateYA Publishing and edited for Mountain Brook Ink. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.


Originally published May 19, 2020.