Why Start Your Bible in the New Testament

Or, Why you should not read your Bible (for the first time) in the order it’s published. This blog post is inspired by an important question/comment posted by someone on my last blog entry. I felt it warranted more attention, so I’m blogging on it further here.

The question is, in a nutshell, If the Bible is God’s word to us, written for us (as I stated in my previous blog), then what are we to do with the commandments we read in Old Testament books like Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy? Some Christians like to quote some of them (ones they happen to agree with) to make their favorite moral arguments, but then conveniently ignore some of the odder ones. For example: Should I stone to death a person who blasphemes God? (see Lev. 24:16). Or should I have my rebellious teenager stoned to death? (see Deut. 21:18-21).

Or less offensive, but odd nonetheless to modern readers, are the kinds of commands we read such as in Deuteronomy 22:11-12; “Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together. Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear.” Does this mean you can’t wear blended fabrics—that God is commanding you to check the tag to make sure that you aren’t buying clothes that are a blend of wool and cotton? And must we go with the fashionable tassel? Or what about this in Deuteronomy 23:1; “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.” So, should we start checking for this at the doors to The Crossing? Should we add that to the list of things for our Greeters to do as people enter the building? Not too many Christians seem to be observing these particular biblical commands. Thanks goodness. But why not?

And then we read New Testament verses like Romans 15:4, speaking of the Old Testament; “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” So when we read any verse in the Bible, including even the odder commandments in some places in the Old Testament, we have to ask ourselves—How does God intend to give us hope and encouragement from this passage? Do such commands give YOU hope and encouragement?

Probably not, that is, probably not if you have not read and understood the teaching of the New Testament before reading through the Old Testament. In other words, the Bible, in particular, is a book where you should not start at the beginning, but rather at the end of the story. Otherwise, you’ll misperceive and misunderstand and misapply much of what you read in the Old Testament.

It’s like the film, The Sixth Sense. Until you see and understand the end of the film can you possibly understand the rest of the film. If you do not know the meaning of the ending, you will misperceive and misunderstand what you see in the beginning and middle of the film. And that’s exactly how it is with the Bible.

Ultimately, the Bible is one story comprised of many stories. It all ultimately points to one thing. One message. And we need to know the ultimate message before we can rightly perceive and understand any given part of it—especially the various stories and commandments we find in the Old Testament. Otherwise we just read a story here and a commandment there and get confused with its meaning for us today. And what tends to result is a kind of Christianise moralism rather than a Gospel-centered faith.

We must catch and understand the rest of the story of the Bible that explains the one ultimate story and message of the Bible (what we often refer to as The Gospel at The Crossing). That’s why correct biblical doctrine/theology really matters. Having a biblical theology/doctrine that comes from knowing and understanding the full story and ultimate message (The Gospel) of the Bible is essential in making sense out of its individual parts. All the parts lead to and point to a whole, and when we find the whole at the end of the story, we then can go back and better perceive and understand and apply the parts. Just like The Sixth Sense.

And that verse in Romans 15:4 is telling us that God intends for everything in the Old Testament to lead us to better see and understand our need for Christ, and what role Christ must fulfill in bridging the infinite gap between a holy God and sinful people by his life, death, and resurrection.

When we read through our Old Testament, we discover that God set apart a people called Israel. And in Israel’s complex and complicated story—their creation and calling by God as a people, their deliverance from slavery through Moses, their regulations for worship, their civil laws as a theocracy under God, their repeated idolatry and unfaithfulness to God, God’s repeated grace and deliverance—in and through all of Israel’s story we read in the Old Testament, God showed the extent of his holiness, and the hopelessness of human sin apart from his mercy and grace, and his eventual perfect provision for his mercy and grace in Christ alone. God showed our need for a holy savior who would completely atone for human sin and would establish his eternal paradise of glorious Life for his redeemed and renewed people in the redeemed and renewed earth of the kingdom of Christ.

That’s why, speaking of what we call the Old Testament, Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “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.” It’s also why Jesus said in John 5:39, again speaking about what we call the Old Testament, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” And it’s why Jesus would often say, referring to the Law in the Old Testament, “You’ve heard it said…, but I say….” (see Matthew 5:21-43). As God, Jesus was changing the Old Testament commandments to reflect the realities of what the rest of the story now means. Jesus’ coming, his death, and his resurrection changed everything. So the commandments which we read in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were, as Hebrews 9:10 says it, external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

That’s why it is incorrect for some Christians to take their favorite commandments out of Leviticus to make their favorite moral arguments, while ignoring others. That is failing to see the redemptive historical point of the commandments of Leviticus in light of the rest of the story.

[Sidebar: Now, just for doctrinal clarity, this is not the case with the Ten Commandments, which were spoken by God to his people directly and not through the covenant mediation of Moses, and then written by God himself on two tablets (See Deuteronomy 4:12-13). The Ten Commandments are in a different category than the Law of Moses (that’s what you’re reading in Leviticus, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). And the Ten Commandments are also repeated as commandments for God’s people in the New Testament as well.]

So this is why at The Crossing we are starting our Bible Reading Plan of 2009 with the New Testament (along with Psalms and Proverbs) rather than starting at the beginning. The beginning is very important, but we want to make sure we get the end of the story down really well before we read the beginning and middle. Otherwise, it’s easy to get confused and misperceive and misunderstand and misapply what you read in the Old Testament.

Understanding the fuller story of the Bible takes developing a good theology/doctrine and discernment over time (see Heb 5:11-14). Not to sound too self-serving, but this is why the New Testament tells us that we need good teachers in the church (see Eph 4:11-15).

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