One Simple Rule for Applying Old Testament Narratives

There is one simple rule to help you apply all Old Testament stories: let them help you fix your eyes on Jesus. Here’s what I mean:

2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV)

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

When we are reading the Old Testament, especially the narratives, it can be hard to know immediately in what way the story is useful, how it is supposed to equip us for every good work.

There Is No “Moral of the Story”

In fact, a lot of interpretive mistakes are made here, and typically in evangelicalism, we tend to moralize or allegorize: We read the story of David and Goliath and conclude that we should Pick out our “five smooth stones”, figure out what our “giants” are, and face them, (with God’s help). or we read the story of Abraham and Isaac and ask: What is it that you need to “lay on the altar” and (almost) kill (though God will probably give it back to you if you are willing to kill it).

Unless the narrator of the passage explicitly gives a moral to the story, or the Apostles give us an allegorical key to the passage, this approach is incorrect, and will give you a wrong understanding of the significance of the narrative for your life.

They Were Written To Give Us Hope

Romans 15 gives us another key to understanding how to apply the Old Testament:

Romans 15:4 (ESV)
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

The purpose of these narratives is to give us hope through the encouragement they give us. How do they bring us hope? Hebrews 11 and 12 tells us.

Hebrews 11 is the classic text on the definition of faith:

Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Faith in God’s promises is being sure of what you hope for (His promises) and certain of the things you can’t see (again, His promises).

Hebrews 11 also gives us great examples of faithful people (sometimes called “The Hall of Faith”) throughout scripture.

They Give Us Examples Of Faith In Action In Specific Situations

It is typical to read through this text, find one of the men or women discussed, then leave Hebrews to go see how we can imitate them. This approach will come up short, every time.

We see that Hebrews 11 mentions Joseph as an example of faith, so we jump back to Genesis to try to find out things about Joseph, his actions, his character, etc, to try and figure out how we can “imitate his faith” and we find things about resisting temptation, so we tell ourselves to resist temptation, etc… (all the while skipping over other things he does that we don’t easily know how to imitate.)

But this is not what Hebrews 11 says to do.

They Give Us Hope and Encouragement to Run OUR Race

Hebrews 12 (an artificial break in the text) begins with a gigantic therefore

Hebrews 12:1–2 (ESV)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Because of the example of the heroes of the “hall of faith” we are therefore to repent of our sin (in the context, fear that God will not be faithful to His promises), and run with endurance the race that is set before us.

Do you see how this ties to Romans 15:4? The scriptures give us hope to run our race with endurance.

So as you read the Old Testament narratives (stories), don’t get caught up in trying to find parallels between their situation and yours. Instead see how they reacted to their situations out of faith in God’s promises. See God come through for His people every time. See people die in faith, and later be vindicated.

What is God’s core promise to us in the New Covenant era we live in? Jesus Christ. All the promises of God find their Yes in Him (2 Corinthians 1:20).

This is why Hebrews says, when you read the Old Testament, let them help you “Fix your eyes on Jesus”.






9 responses to “One Simple Rule for Applying Old Testament Narratives”

  1. Brian Anderson Avatar

    Matt, this is excellent! :)

    I suppose I would just add one more idea from Galatians 3, while not specific to narratives, still applies to the purpose of much of the Old Testament. “… the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ.” The demonstration of man’s failing, entrapped by sin, and the need for a savior to rescue us. There overwhelming failing of man, and the surpassing Hope of a (future, from the Old Testament) coming redeemer.

  2. Nathan Meyer Avatar
    Nathan Meyer

    When I think of Old Testament narratives, I think of three key things:
    (I think you covered two of these, but in a different manner. I’m not sure if you covered the first one. Maybe you disagree with it.)

    1. They teach us about, or give us insight into the character of God.
    When reading the Old Testament, the stories show clearly the holiness, the righteousness, the justice, the mercy of God.

    2. They teach us about the extent and depth of human depravity.
    When I heard the Old Testament stories as a kid I thought, “Man these Israelites are idiots. How come they so easily forget God and run back to their idols.” Now, I see the very same tendencies in myself. Even the “Heroes” of the Old Testament are flawed, even deeply flawed with sin. (David, Abraham, Isaiah, etc.)

    These first two points, I believe point very strongly to the need for a savior, Jesus Christ, by establishing the clear difference between God as holy and man as sinful.
    But it doesn’t stop there.

    3. The third point I see (as you pointed out) is that even very flawed people are used by God. This is one thing that gives us hope. If God continued to send judges and prophets to rescue and warn Israel, his chosen people, how much more so will He pursue, his chosen ones through Christ.

    It seems in this article you were also trying to warn against applying a “secret formula” from an Old Testament story, as you said, “Pick out your five smooth stones” or “face your giants”.

    The verse that has been meaningful to me regarding this is
    Hebrews 13:7
    “Remember your leaders, who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

    As a young Christian, it was easy for me to idolize my spiritual leaders. I wanted to “live the life” they did. What I noticed was that I was to consider the outcome of their way of life, but not to imitate their life. I was to imitate their faith. I believe this clear call to imitate faith is the difference you are speaking of. (Albeit, Hebrews 13:7 doesn’t directly apply to Old Testament characters, since they aren’t “my leaders, who spoke to me the word of God.” I still believe the principle holds true.)

    Anyway, I enjoyed your article and it provoked me writing this much.

    1. Matt Heerema Avatar


      I totally agree with all this! I was trying to keep the post intentionally short to spark discussion. Thanks for chiming in :)

  3. Trillia Avatar

    Thanks for this. Very helpful.

  4. Laurel Avatar

    This is the reason I have so appreciated the book Show them Jesus by Jack Klumpenhower. I am teaching children at church & also my grandkids, I don’t want them to just learn a moral lesson but reach their heart with the gospel! thanks for the article

  5. the Old Adam Avatar

    I like it!

    We ought use the New…to rightfully interpret the Old.

    Thank you!

  6. […] Heerema gives One Simple Rule for Applying Old Testament Narratives. And it’s a superb one: allow them to allow you to repair your eyes on Jesus. […]

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