image by Debby Hudson from Unsplash
Contrary to the concerns that a lot of good Christian friends had, my experience of studying lit in uni (though admittedly atypical) reinforced and affirmed my faith in many ways, one of which was equipping me to enjoy and appreciate the Bible far more. I'll try not to get sidetracked; I wrote this post twice over because I ended up arguing my point rather than moving on to the actual topic! Another day, another post. First things first.
The Old Testament and the New Testament were just really fun storybooks to me, growing up, with their respective boring parts. I skipped deftly through the Psalms and the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament, and just as skillfully passed over the expository books in the New Testament, preferring to immerse myself in the rollicking blockbuster books of Genesis, Joshua, Judges, 1st and 2nd Kings, Chronicles, Nehemiah; and in the New Testament, the Gospels, the miracles of Jesus, and the surreal, fantastic visual imagery of Revelations.
And that was it! Cool stories but all pretty disjointed (no wonder, considering I just picked out the parts I liked.) Like picking out the parts of a jigsaw puzzle that have pictures on it, and ignoring all the parts that are just blank sky/grass/background (=my childhood.)
It was only in my teens when I was talking stuff with my dad and asked him why we didn't have to offer sacrifices nowadays (thankfully; anyone has any idea how to get a live sheep in Singapore?) He explained to me about the old and new covenant, how Jesus was our last and ultimate Sacrifice, the last Passover Lamb, that for the first time I glimpsed more than a mere chronological connection between the Old and New Testament, glimpsed part of the significant overarching themes that made them so perfectly complementary.
That was just the beginning. Suddenly there was a whole vista of meaning and significance to the kind-of-gross animal sacrifices, the blood, (I mean, "fatty lobe attached to the liver??" That phrase being repeated so many times in Leviticus always had a weird fascination for me) the OT prophets talking about the Messiah, the Ten Commandments and Jesus's "neo" Ten Commandment preachings in Matthew.
The Old Testament, best summarized in the Garden of Eden and the Ten Commandments, represented the story of humanity's perfect creation, the sinless, ideal state we were meant to exist in, and the ideal relationship we were meant to have with God. The fall. The impossibility of us regaining our previous state, no matter how hard we tried, or how many brownie points we tried to accumulate to offset our demerit points. The significance of the Ten Commandments, since their very existence proves the intrinsic nature of our sin, and since their simplicity and impossibility are like a death knell to any hope of us being able to redeem ourselves.
But (to use another literary term) also a foreshadowing of the solution, the first introduction of the theme of redemption and substitution, of death as a means to life. Of sacrifice.
The first deaths in the Garden of Eden and the messy sacrificial ceremonies in Leviticus, the mystic substitution and "unfairness" of the Passover Lamb, the same theme running through the Old Testament like a blood-red thread.
And then the New Testament. All Jesus's teachings about the heart, about how holiness and sin aren't limited to external actions, on trust. His death on the cross, and how it overturned all the expectations and definitions of success/failure that both His enemies and His disciples had. The ultimate example of "My strength is made perfect in weakness." The depth and scale of God's plan for salvation, not only in a historical context, but in a thematic sense as well.
Wow. Talk about epics. You know that breathless, heart-wringing feeling you get from epic sagas like Lord of the Rings, the great themes which make classics so striking and gripping? The Bible had like the origins of so many of those great themes, simultaneously; and still held them all together with a breathtaking unity. A theme which still grips our hearts today.
I changed my perspective of the Old and New Testament as merely chronologically related, realizing how they work together to explore and develop the overarching significant theme/themes of God's grace and man's redemption. The miraculous paradox of how Jesus's death enabled both God's attributes of holiness and mercy at once. The equally miraculous paradox of how we can be both condemned sinners and perfect in God's eyes, the elect. The juxtaposition of the old and the new man, the conflict within the soul, the mystical work of the Holy Spirit in "turning hearts of stone to flesh--" what a metaphor, by the way.
How to read the Old and New Testaments in a complementary approach:
1. Cross reference. I know--I used to hate being directed somewhere else, too lazy to flip through all those pages just for one verse! With technology, it might have gotten easier--or use both; leave one open where you're studying and use another Bible for your cross references, so you can see them side by side.
Take that extra bit of effort. You might find yourself seeing that passage in a whole different light, seeing a new perspective, seeing another of those thematic thread that run through both Testaments.
2. Read with an awareness of the overarching themes. As discussed above--but not exhaustively--having this deductive approach rather than a linear one when it comes to reading the Bible enables you to see the big picture. For example, study with a focus on how both Testaments reveal God's person, how they develop different attributes, or the same one. What hasn't changed, what has?
3. When studying the Bible--especially if it's a complete Bible study plan--don't, whatever you do, do it chronologically. From personal experience, I find this a sure way to kill your enjoyment and motivation. Just imagine facing the long plod ahead through Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Or resigning yourself to a string of nondescript Minor Prophets. Or one epistle after another. It's just setting yourself up for task-oriented, get-it-off-the-list, I-feel-like-dying frustration. What's more, there's a high chance that you end up more and more myopic, seeing each incident in isolation, failing to grasp the context and greater picture. I appreciate how Search the Scriptures jumbles the Old and New Testament books, encouraging you to dabble equally in both, and how I have the freedom to pick what book--Old or New--appeals to me at the time, while still pursuing a systematic whole-Bible study program.
4. When you hit something that makes you feel uncomfortable, or weirded out--"Ehh. Er why did God put this in, what's the point of this?" don't pass it over. Chances are these are some significant spiritual growth opportunities, as they were in my own experience; the sacrifices, the whole concept of the Holy Spirit, King David's less-than-perfect track record that jarred with his title as "the man after God's own heart."
5. And lastly, go. Do it. Don't be intimidated by the theology, or parts you think you can't understand, or simply the mental effort it requires to really think through and study the Word. Don't wait till you're retired, have more time, have enrolled in a theology course, going to be a full-time church worker or church leader, have a nice quiet rainy morning with a cup of your favourite tea and no background noises or commitments on your schedule to hurry you....
...ooh now we're getting a bit personal!
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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