FAQ: Do We Even Need the Old Testament?

If you check out the Bible translation statistics on Wycliffe’s page, you will find that of the world’s 6,800+ languages only 513 have a copy of the entire Bible (that is around 6.6% for those keeping score). However, you may also notice that 1,276 languages have access to the New Testament. This means that we have 763 languages that have the New Testament, but not the Old.

And as I have talked to translators, there are many translation projects that stop with the New Testament. If I understand correctly, one of the reasons for these statistics is that translators at times will go into a people group, translate the New Testament, and then wait to see how well it is received before translating the Old. While I think there is wisdom in this practice, it also: Do we even need the Old Testament? I mean, if we only had the Book of Romans we would know: that we are sinners (Rom 3:23); the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23a); we can receive eternal life through Jesus (Rom 6:23b); this is because Jesus died on the cross for our sins (Rom 5:8); in order to be saved we must call upon the Lord (Rom 10:13); and to call we must believe in Christ Jesus and that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10:9,10). That is pretty much the Gospel, so why bother with the Old Testament if we have what we need for salvation in the New?

Well, I think the answer is yes. Yes, we do need the Old Testament and here are the top five reasons I have come up with so far:

Much of the New Testament Does Not Make Sense Without the Old
When Jesus approached John the Baptist in the River Jordan John cried out “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Imagine reading that with no concept of the Old Testament. Why in the world would John call Jesus a lamb? Jesus was not that young, he did not have wool, he did not eat grass, and he was the kind of guy who would make a whip and drive people out of the temple. How was he anything like a baby sheep?

Of course, to those who have read Exodus 12, you know of the lamb that died so that death might Passover the house of the Hebrews. If you have read Isaiah 53 you would know that Isaiah predicted a suffering servant would come who would be led like a lamb to the slaughter. Reading the New Testament without the Old is like walking into a movie 2/3 of the way in. You get to experience the climax and the conclusion, but without the character development and history. You are squinting at the characters thinking, which one is that again? Wait, he’s HIS son? So, why did they kill him?

Jesus Liked It
It is sort of popular these days to act like the only part of the Bible that is important are the red letters, the actual spoken words of Christ. But what is amazing is that quite a bit of those red letters are actually black letters from the Old Testament quoted by Jesus. I counted 183 quotes from the Old Testament just in the four Gospels. Consider that. Jesus came to Earth as God incarnate. He could have said anything he wanted, communicated anything to us, and he chose to quote from the Old Testament. And why would he do that? Well, I can think of one reason…

It is the Word of God
When Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, he revealed its source: God. In Matthew 22 the Sadducees confronted Jesus trying to find a logical and legal problem with the concept of the resurrection. They “knew a guy” who died and having seven brothers his widow followed the law of Moses and was married to each one successively after the previous brother died.

But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching (29-33).

There are a few things that are striking about this passage. First, he confronts the Sadducees for not knowing the Bible. Then he explains that the Bible represents words that were “said to you by God.” And then finally he quotes from Exodus and forms his argument on the reality of the truth in the Old Testament. He is not quoting philosophical principles from the Old Testament, he is appealing to its historicity. If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob never really existed (as some claim) this argument would not make sense. God is the God of the real, not the fictional. And the God of the living and not the dead. The crowd was rightfully astonished at his teaching because he valued and understood the Old Testament.

We Need Repetition
I have four toddlers and I am currently writing this blog while every five minutes reminding them that in order for nap time to work, they need to stay in their beds. I think when God called us sheep (Isa 53:6) another fitting illustration would be that we are like toddlers. We just do not seem to be able to learn the first time. This is exactly why the author of Hebrews appeals to the book of Exodus for us to learn a lesson. The time of the Exodus was the most toddler-ish period of Israel’s history. Over and over again the Lord provided for them and over and over again they rebelled, lost sight of God’s promises, and in the end an entire generation was not allowed to enter into the Promised Land. But even the Promised Land was not the rest that Israel had hoped for. Instead that rest comes through trusting in Christ. However, the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (4:11). There is a reason the Exodus was recorded in God’s Word, we need to be reminded. God is faithful, even when we are faithless. We are being called to learn from the repetitive failures of our predecessors. (The toddlers are still not asleep, BTW).

We Need to Know God
Finally, there is so much about God that is not talked about in the New Testament. That is not to say that the New Testament speaks of a different God, or is lacking in some way, but it is only part of the canon that God gave us to know him. Missing out on the Old Testament is to miss out on watching God work for thousands of years. On hearing God’s children cry out to him and seeing him answer. How could we neglect reading of God creating the world from nothing? Listening to his promises throughout the generations and watching as he step-by-step fulfills those promises? He truly is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And he has chosen to reveal himself through history. He has revealed himself as an awesome, creative, faithful, wrathful, merciful, glorious God. It takes more that 66 books to get a good understanding of this, let alone 27. Let us not neglect the very Word of God written to reveal Him to us.

In the end, my prayer is that every language would have the entire Bible. I long for peoples all over the world to know the God that I know and to know him deeply. Pray that the Bakoum people would one day cry out with the Psalmist:

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Psalm 119:97,103

Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.