Jesus studied the books of the Old Testament from childhood (Luke 2:46). He was guided in his ministry by what he learned from them (Luke 4:4-12, 16-21). And they formed his curriculum for training the disciples (Luke 24:44).
When we study the New Testament, we meet Jesus. When we study the Old Testament, we get to know that which filled his heart and guided his mission. To know Jesus requires that we study the whole Bible, including the Old Testament.
The Old Testament begins with the five Books of Moses: Genesis through Deuteronomy. Also called the Pentateuch or the Torah (meaning “Law”), these books form the foundation of all that follows. They contain God’s promises to assemble a community of love, justice, and redemption. Those promises are gradually fulfilled through the rest of the Old Testament and in the New Testament revelation of Christ. An Old Testament study plan should include all of its parts, but with careful attention to the Pentateuch.
Simply reading—patiently, thoughtfully, and with prayer—will go a long way. Don’t rush. And don’t read like a miner panning for gold who casts aside whatever does not shimmer. It is okay to read without finding “nuggets.” Just read. Engage your imagination as you consider each passage, and pray for the Spirit to help you understand.
There are a number of tools that can aid comprehension as you do so. One of the most helpful is a good study Bible, like the ESV Study Bible. It has notes to explain difficult verses and many other helps. But its book introductions are where a study Bible shines. Before reading an Old Testament book, read its introduction in the study Bible. That will orient you to the book’s themes and structure.
Another boon for study is the short book by Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature … And Get More Out of It. The Old Testament includes many kinds of literature. Poetry. Stories. Laws. Wisdom. And more. Each type of text needs to be studied on its own terms. Ryken’s classic will open up a world of reading strategies to “get more out of” Bible reading.
A couple reference works will also help, like a ready atlas such as the ESV Bible Atlas or the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. When modern texts mention places like Chicago, Dubai, or Timbuktu, those names evoke nuances that contribute to the text’s meaning. But biblical references like Shechem and Hebron lie flat on the page unless one gains insight into Bible lands. An atlas offers that help.
A Bible dictionary or encyclopedia will illuminate technologies, persons, and trades encountered in Old Testament texts. One of the best is the Anchor Bible Dictionary (ABD), although less costly alternatives like the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) or the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary are also useful.
There is a wealth of resources that can aid your Old Testament study. These are just a few key starters. But the most important support for Old Testament study is other people. While it is edifying to do some study alone, the Bible is not designed for learning solo (1 Pet 1:20).
As you read, consult Bible experts through their commentaries (see bestcommentaries.com for reviews), by listening to sermons at church and online (check sermonaudio.com or the sermon library in Logos Bible software), or by listening to podcasts (like the BibleProject, OnScript, or Old Testament courses through Logos Mobile Ed such as OT 101 by Mark Futato). Technology makes it possible to include experts in one’s study.
But above all, the Lord promises particular blessing as we study his Word as his church. Talk to your pastor about your study goals. And if you can, join or start a small group in your church where you can study in fellowship. The Knowing the Bible Series study guides are excellent for small groups exploring the Scriptures together.
The New Testament is the Bible’s exciting climax. But the New Testament builds upon the promises, lessons, stories, and hopes carefully inscribed into the Old. Jesus himself drew from the books of the Old Testament for his guidance. To know Christ requires prayerful study of the whole Bible, including the Old Testament.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
- How to Find Jesus in the Old Testament
- How to Do In-Depth Study of God’s Word (3 Steps)
- 12 Passages that Reflect Resurrection in the Old Testament
ESV Study Bible (Bible and Notes)
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How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . and Get More Out of It
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Crossway ESV Bible Atlas
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Zondervan Atlas of the Bible
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Knowing the Bible: Old and New Testament (45 vols.)
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