9 Questions Christians Ask about the Old Testament

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Read the Old Testament

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

Last time we looked at covenants and saw how they connect the Old Testament to the New Testament. We also saw how understanding your relationship to a particular covenant has a huge impact on how you understand what God wrote to and for people under that covenant. This time we will look at some questions Christians often ask when reading the Old Testament.

When Christians read the Old Testament, there are several questions which naturally come to mind for various reasons. These are questions like, “How were people saved in the Old Testament?” “What were the animal sacrifices for?” “Don’t scholars say the Old Testament is unreliable?” “Didn’t Jesus disagree with the Old Testament?” “Did people have the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament” and “Why are there Weird Laws in the Old Testament?” I will deal with these now.

How were People Saved in the Old Testament?

I remember the first time I heard this question answered in a way I understood. The answer I heard was that just as we are now saved by believing that Jesus came and died for our sins, people before Christ were saved by believing that He would come and die for their sins. This is a common answer because it is very easy to fit into our understanding of salvation. I held on to that answer for years until I realized that it doesn’t have the advantage of being true. It’s easy to use because it basically makes Old Testament salvation identical to whatever we perceive as New Testament salvation and doesn’t challenge us in any way.

One thing we should notice is that the Old Testament doesn’t talk about “being saved,” in the sense of going to heaven when we die, very much at all. One reason for this is that people didn’t know much about the afterlife because God had told them nothing about it. They assumed that it was a gray, dusty place where the dead had a kind of twilight existence. Life was something lived now and what was important was that God was faithful to be with them through it all, especially when things were hard. What Old Testament believers did was to trust God, to keep growing in their knowledge of Him, and to try to obey Him.

So, were people in the Old Testament “saved” in the same sense we can be and if so, how? Here are some passages. One of the most famous places we see salvation in the Old Testament is Genesis 15:6, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (NIV). There is also Joel 2:32, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (ESV). Paul quotes these to show that people were saved in the Old Testament by faith, just as in the New (Rm. 4:1-5; Rm. 10:13-14; Gal. 3:5-7). These are good theological verses on salvation because they say a lot in a small space, but they are not the primary way we see salvation in the Old Testament. Old Testament salvation is shown in longer passages in which God speaks or people speak of God.

Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-7 [God is speaking in the first section]

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;”

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (ESV)

Isaiah 44:22

I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. (NIV)

Isaiah 45:22

Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other. (ESV)

Micah 7:18-19

18 Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.
19 You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (NIV)

Many other passages besides these contain accounts of salvation. For example, Rahab and Naaman were both were pagan gentiles who professed faith in the God of Israel. That is, they transferred their allegiance to the God of Israel. These are both presented as instances of conversion. Does this mean that they went to Paradise? Did they know that heaven awaited them? The short answers to these questions are, “Yes, they did go to Paradise,” and “They probably didn’t know it because they knew so little of the afterlife.” The main immediate effect was that they began to have a living relationship with God, which resulted in a changed life in the present world.

People in the Old Testament didn’t know much about what would happen after they died, but they did know that if they trusted God, they would be okay. It is like my friend who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and told another patient in the mental hospital, “I don’t have answers, but I do know that holding on to God is the way through this.” Psalm 49 reflects this type of strong faith which was not as informed as is ours. After writing about how foolish people who trust in riches will go down to Sheol (the place of the dead or the grave), “But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself” (NIV). An Old Testament believer who reflected on the mercies of God could see that since His mercies are without end, they would not end at death, even if they don’t have more information than that.

In the Old Testament, God tells people to trust Him – trust Him to take care of their daily needs, trust Him to protect them from terrible dangers, trust Him with every part of their lives. Those that did trust Him found that He is trustworthy. He did take care of them. They found that when they trusted in God, He also put peace in their hearts. This Old Testament foundation is why Jesus in His teachings can assume that God is trustworthy and that His hearers know it. Jesus’ original hearers had read or heard the Old Testament which is filled with testimonies of God’s faithfulness in the real world.

Jesus taught on Old Testament salvation indirectly when he addressed the subject of resurrection. He said, “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:26-27 ESV). Do you see the assumption he makes? The Lord was Abraham’s God, and, therefore he will always be Abraham’s God. Death will not end this fact. But how was the Lord Abraham’s God? It’s very simple; he had Abraham’s allegiance. Abraham trusted God; entrusted himself to God.

If you live in relationship with God, this will never end because God doesn’t want it to. Would anyone who has a loving and healthy relationship with another person ever say, “I want them to die and go away”? The only times this happens is perhaps when the one we love is suffering; but if we could end their suffering and have them back, then we would do it in an instant. This is even true of beloved pets, how much more people God loved enough to die for? What is true of Abraham is true of everyone before Christ. If the Lord was their God, then He is still their God or, in our terms, they’re saved. As Jesus said, “To Him they are alive” (Luke 20:38 paraphrase).

In summary, in the Old Testament, people related to God by faith and were given righteousness as a gift based on their faith in God, not their acceptance of something they were told about God, but by trusting Him, giving Him their allegiance, entrusting themselves to Him.

What were Animal Sacrifices for?

You may wonder about the role of animal sacrifices. Didn’t people have to make blood sacrifices in order to be forgiven? Clearly, people offered animal sacrifices. In fact, God gave Israel a religious system that included animal sacrifice in a prominent place. If you committed certain sins, you would have to offer a sacrifice in order to be forgiven. So did you have to offer a blood sacrifice every time you sinned in order to be forgiven? No, you did not.

Remember that Israel’s covenant with the Lord was unique because it meant that this nation alone could be certain that they were acceptable to God and had the favor of God. The instructions spelled out very clearly what the nation had to do in order to maintain this relationship and what individuals had to do to have access to God. These requirements included sacrifices. If you read carefully, then you will see that there were no sacrifices for the forgiveness of serious, deliberate sin. If you intentionally sinned, then your only hope was to confess it, hurl yourself on God’s mercy and hope he forgave you. The overwhelming testimony we see from those who do this is that God forgives everyone who confesses his or her sins to Him. To be forgiven, you just have to ask. We see this in Ps. 51, which is a whole psalm confessing sin and asking for forgiveness. The author, King David, says:

For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. (Ps. 51:16-17 NASB)

In the Old Testament, they did not bring sacrifices in order to be forgiven. God even says that he rejects the sacrifices of people whose hearts are not right.

22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:22, 24 NIV)

What God was looking for was a genuinely contrite heart, a heart that seeks God’s way, the way of righteousness, and not its own way. David also wrote about another time he had sinned.

1 Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them

and in whose spirit is no deceit.

3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

6 Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
will not reach them.
7 You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance. (Ps. 32:1-7 NIV)

So people who brought sacrifices with an unrepentant heart were not forgiven, and people who repented, but did not bring a sacrifice were forgiven, though bringing a sacrifice would be the natural result of a repentant heart. It seems that what actually brought forgiveness was a matter of the heart, not an external action.

Under the Mosaic covenant the sacrifices were a way of maintaining your relationship with God, but what actually brought forgiveness was confession to God (see v. 5 above). No animal sacrifice has ever been the means of forgiveness. When the author of Hebrews wrote, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4 NASB) he was not introducing a brand new idea. The idea is clearly stated in the Old Testament prophets. Before the Mosaic covenant people such as Noah and Abraham offered blood sacrifices to God for various reasons, but one reason they did not do it was to earn God’s forgiveness. Perhaps we should think of it as a very serious way to either express thanksgiving or repentance, though buried in this custom was a powerful sign pointing towards the eventual sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, for the sins of the world. They, however, did not know this.

If we need an analogy, the sacrifices were something like confession of sin today. Nowadays, a Christian that has sinned needs to confess it, to agree that it was sin, in order to maintain a right relationship with God (1 Jn. 1:9). When we don’t do this, we are either like Adam, hiding in the garden, or Jonah, running from God. Neither of these people were relating to God at these times, and neither are we when we refuse to admit that we sinned.

Didn’t Jesus Disagree with the Old Testament?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” and then He goes on to correct this teaching by saying, “but I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38-39 NASB). Since “an eye for an eye” is from the Old Testament, this sounds like He is saying that the Old Testament was wrong. However, Jesus is not really talking about that verse from the Old Testament. He’s talking about what people said about that verse. “An eye for an eye” was a call for proportionate and reasonable responses to injury. It was given to be a limit on retaliation and to stop the spiraling cycles of revenge that are so common. Some teachers had turned this on its head, using the verse as a justification for taking revenge, even though the Old Testament specifically instructs people not to take revenge (Lev. 19:18). This is what Jesus is disagreeing with. He is also going beyond what is taught in this verse by describing how a person who really understands the real presence and nearness of God will naturally react to an insult (since the slap was more an insult than an assault).

When you read the whole sermon in Matthew 5-7, you see that Jesus says in His introduction that He has not come to abolish the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17). In Jesus’ day many Old Testament teachings were being misused by taking them ritualistically or legalistically. This kept the Law from having the good effect it was supposed to. This is what a lot of his “corrections” of the Old Testament really are. Jesus never says that the Old Testament was wrong, only that people have interpreted it wrongly.

Don’t Scholars say the Old Testament is Unreliable?

This is an issue that has disturbed many people, and a lot can be said about it. However, the final answer to it is very simple. Jesus treated the Old Testament as totally reliable. He quoted it and referred to it often and never cast any doubts upon its total trustworthiness. He treated it as the very words of God. He even said that the Scriptures are reliable: “…and the scripture cannot be broken” ( Jn. 10:35 KJV). You already know that the “scripture” Jesus is talking about is the Old Testament.

We have copies of the Old Testament from Jesus’ day, and they are basically the same scriptures you read in your Bible. So no matter what ideas and insights scholars have about the Old Testament, one thing they can not do is show that you should not read it or rely on it. God wants you to read the Old Testament that you have available to you. It is His Word and it is one of the most important ways He wants you to come to know Him better. The Scriptures cannot be broken.

Did people have the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament?

For this question I have to give a very short answer. For some reason this question requires an answer that is very short or pretty long. I’ve written a longer one and will post it later outside of this course for those who are interested.

The very short answer is that believers in the Old Testament did not have the Holy Spirit in the same way Christians do today, but they had access to God’s empowering when He chose them to do a particular job (Ex. 31:1-5 ). However, the Spirit might also withdraw from this person. When Saul was made king, the Spirit came upon him (1 Sam. 10:6-9), but later, after Saul had turned from God, the Spirit left him (1 Sam. 16:14).

Old Testament believers also could have the Holy Spirit if they asked. This is what Jesus taught (Luke 11:13). So it seems that the Holy Spirit was available to believers in the time of the Old Testament, but was only present to the degree that people sought connection with God. What kind of empowerment He gave them is also not clear.

Why are there Weird Laws in the Old Testament?

The Law of Moses has some very odd laws, such as not being allowed to yoke two different species of animal together to plow a field, or not being allowed to plant more than one kind of seed in a field, or not to make fabric out of different types of material (they couldn’t weave linen and wool together, for example). Then there are the food laws. They may eat fish as long as they have both scales and fins. They may not eat insects except for certain types of unwinged locusts and grasshoppers.

These laws and others seem very strange but there is an underlying concept which explain most of them. This is the concept of holiness.

Israel was a special people, separated out and dedicated to God. He had a particular plan to use them to bless the world, so it was important they kept themselves separate and different from the world. Many laws reflect this truth symbolically. One major explanation for “weird” laws is that some seem to have been aimed at keeping Israel from specific pagan religious practices, such as shaving the sides of the head (Lev. 19:27-28). This was a way that Israel’s pagan neighbors mourned for the dead. God’s people were not to imitate their practices, but were to be different.

Understanding holiness sheds light on more of the “weird” laws than any other. Look at what God says in Leviticus.

24 But I said to you, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.

25 “‘You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those that I have set apart as unclean for you. 26 You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (Lev. 20:24-26 NIV)

To be “holy” means to be “set apart,” to be complete and whole. Perhaps we should say that to be holy means to be a complete, whole, unified thing and so to be set apart or separate because it isn’t mixed with other things. It does not always mean “morally clean.” Here the idea is that in order to be the tool God would use to save all nations, Israel had to be different from them. We would say that the most important way they should be different was morally, but God went much farther and called His people to be different in some cultural ways and also symbolically.

It is because Israel was to be separate and unmixed that the Law forbids mixing seeds in a field, fibers in a fabric and yoking different species together. It also explains many of the food laws. The children of Israel were to eat meat from animals that belonged entirely in one category as the people of the time conceived them. A “proper” fish has scales, gills and fins. If an animal lives in the water, but doesn’t have one of these, then it crosses categories and is not a proper fish. A proper flying thing is a feathered bird that eats seeds and insects. Birds that hunt animals or eat dead animals are forbidden, as are bats and flying insects.

There are other factor to keep in mind as well. One factor is also symbolic. It has to do with where an animal gets its own food. Shellfish and scaleless fish such as catfish are bottom-feeders and live off trash and excrement and so are not permitted to be eaten. Predators that feed off of other animals are also forbidden, as are animals that feed off of dead things. None of these things are worthy of drawing sustenance from. The other factor is the mercy of God. It was not okay to eat an insect, with the exception of locusts and their relatives. At this time, locusts would sometimes swarm and devour large portions of the crops a family depended on to survive. God relaxed the prohibition on eating insects to allow people who were afflicted in this way to at least partially offset the loss by eating the locusts themselves (Lev. 11:20-23) This is a subtle illustration of human need being more important to God than ceremonial requirements.

Another common explanation for these laws is that they reflect God’s true “scientific” understanding of the world. Today we see that some of these laws “accidentally” required the Israelites to enforce good practices that relate to public and private health. The law requires quarantine in the case certain kinds of illness, public sanitation, clean food and the avoidance of contact with dead bodies. These things make sense to us today and so we don’t think of them as “weird” laws. However, we should remember that in Moses’ day, they were as unexplained as were the laws mentioned above. Israelites were supposed to bury their excrement, not because of bacteria or flies or to keep themselves healthy, but because God was among them and shouldn’t have to see something dirty like that (Deut. 23:13-14). This ceremonial law had the side effect of enforcing sanitation, but the stated reason for the law is not good public health practices. Another example is that Israelites understood that they were to avoid contact with dead things because they were dedicated to the God of Life. They didn’t know anything about bacteria.

It is easy to take the “accidental benefit” point too far. Some Bible teachers assume that since we can see a scientific sense for some of the laws, that, therefore all of them have a hidden “scientific” basis. What ends up happening is that Christians then return to being under the Mosaic Law because it’s taken to be a scientific description of how we should live. This is not the point of the Mosaic Law.


Famous stories and people


Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood


Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph

Fulfillment and Failure

Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering

Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth


Saul, David, Solomon


Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah

Kicked Out

Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace

Came Back

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

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