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Reclaiming the Old Testament in the Church — By John H. Walton
What would account for how few sermons are preached on the Old Testament? Its canonical status is no less than that of the New Testament, and it comprises two-thirds of our authoritative revelation from God. So why is it preached so infrequently? I am persuaded that much of the explanation is found in the fact that we simply don’t know what to do with it. Every person reading through the Bible has experienced at one point or another that uncomfortable feeling of wondering, “What is this doing in my Bible?” Maybe they are reading Leviticus or Song of Songs. Perhaps they experience it even in some of the narratives of Genesis.
The key to approaching the Old Testament is to remember that at every point it is God’s revelation of himself to us. Our first question, therefore, should always be, “What does this passage tell me about God?” It is interesting that what is preached most are the Old Testament stories. Unfortunately, when we read them, we are often drawn to the characters in the narratives as we seek to have the faith of Abraham, the courage of Esther, the loyalty of Ruth, the heart of David, etc. There is nothing wrong with challenges to have more of those qualities in our lives. But in the end, these are stories about God more than about Abraham, Esther, Ruth or David.
If we want to be like God, we need to know God. We come to know God (as we come to know anyone), by hearing his stories. God has created us to be in relationship with him and the Bible allows us to know him so that we can deepen that relationship.
I was raised being steeped in the Bible in my home and in my church. Early on I became expert in the names, dates and places, especially of the Old Testament. But we cannot think that knowing the Old Testament is achieved by knowledge of the trivia of the Old Testament. Knowing the Old Testament entails knowing the God of the Old Testament.
I have found that if I only teach students the hard data of the Old Testament, the basic content framework, both professor and student often walk away from the experience with a hollow feeling—there must be more. It is important to move beyond the basic content to communication of what the Old Testament is and how it works. I want students to walk away sharing my excitement about the Old Testament as an essential part of God’s revelation of himself. I want to give them a primer on how to understand the Old Testament and how to understand its role in contemporary society and in their life and church. This is what Old Testament sermons and lessons also need to accomplish.
Questions: Do you find it difficult to move from trivia to revelation? To what extent do think that the authors of the Old Testament intended the characters in the narratives to be role models? Are there genres where you find it more difficult to think in terms of the text revealing God?
If you want to learn more about how to approach the Old Testament in this way, you can find some guidance in J. Walton and A. Hill, Old Testament Today.
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).
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