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Why We Still Need the Old Testament: Lessons From the Bible Translation Movement

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The Mogariss people of West Asia have been plagued with terrorism and civil war for more than four decades. For over 25 years, James* and his fellow Mogariss translators have been working to get God’s Word into the Mogariss language. Having completed Proverbs, Psalms, the New Testament, and the Pentateuch, he and a Mogariss believer named Abdul began working on Deuteronomy. Recently, James asked Abdul to read aloud from Deuteronomy 6, the Shema. Abdul read in exemplary fashion with beautiful intonation, as if he was teaching his own family members. 

At the close of the reading time, Abdul prayed for his family and the families of other believers, for his country, and for God’s mercy to help them learn more about his commandments. Miraculously, just weeks before major civil unrest led to terrorists taking over the government, the team completed Deuteronomy!

The Shema is the prayer found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your might.” For those of ancient Israel, these words were the equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer for believers today. But this story from East Asia reminds us that the Old Testament is critical to our understanding of who God is and how he works today. 

Old Testament Overhaul?

In the U.S. context, pastors and individuals sometimes avoid the Old Testament because the context feels so distant from contemporary culture, particularly in an individualistic society like ours. We have to work hard to understand the messages and stories of the Old Testament and to relate them to our skeptical friends. It can feel easier to keep our focus on the New Testament, which seems more directly applicable to our daily lives. 

However, when we only look to the New Testament, we miss crucial elements of our faith and the gospel story. For example, in Genesis, we find God’s intended purpose for us as caretakers for creation, how God created us to be in relationship with him and with one another, and how God cares for his chosen people. In the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations, we see real people expressing hope and lament as they journey through the realities of life. And the lives of those like Jacob, Ruth, David, Job, Daniel, and others help us reconcile joy and grief as we grapple with our own feelings and failures. They also give us permission to express those to God, who listens and loves us despite it all. 

More than 10% of verses in the New Testament are either direct quotes or allusions to the Old Testament. When we don’t connect the two testaments together, we miss out on the full understanding of why Jesus’ coming was so important. 

Old Testament Preference?

I sometimes get asked what books of the Old Testament are most requested by minority-language church leaders, to which I respond that the cultural context of a particular language community often informs what parts of Scripture have special meaning. Here are just a few ways this plays out:

  • Old Testament Scripture that shows the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians or the rebuilding of Jerusalem can provide history that both reinforces Christian claims and also builds toward the coming of Christ.
  • In some cultures, a high value for local proverbs can make the book of Proverbs quite compelling. 
  • The emotional content of the book of Psalms brings comfort in some cultures where emotional expression feels constrained. 
  • In places where women do not have equal value, Esther and Ruth can show God’s perspective on their worth. 

Over and over, we see how God uses every part of his Word to reach people today, both inside and outside the Church.

A New Way of Thinking and Reading

In the Bible translation movement, we are thrilled when the Gospels and the New Testament are completed in a language. But we never see the work as truly done until each people group has the entirety of God’s Word in a language they can clearly understand. We have seen why it matters that we embrace the Old Testament as a critical tool for understanding both God and the fullness of the gospel as demonstrated in Jesus. Here are three things for church leaders to consider as they rightly teach the whole Word of God:  

First, Jesus considered the Old Testament important. 

In the Gospels, Jesus references 14 different Old Testament books and takes seriously the stories found therein (e.g., John 7:22 on circumcision and John 6:31 on manna). He believed them to be central to understanding the character and nature of God. Additionally, in multiple places, Jesus says that He came to fulfill the Law (e.g., Matt. 5:17). How can we know what that means if we haven’t studied the Old Testament? Jesus’ very reason for coming was grounded in what God had been doing for generations among his people. It was not possible to have a new covenant (e.g., Luke 22:20; Heb. 9:15) without an old covenant.