Lesson 4: How do I use the Old Testament as a volunteer?
The Old Testament
By Dr. Amy L. Peeler
I happened to read this during my Bible reading yesterday:
“The bull shall be slaughtered before the LORD; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; but its entrails and its legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.”
(Leviticus 1:5–9 NRSV)
Killing animals, lots of blood, burning suet . . . what could this possibly have to do with me, and, moreover, why is it so disgusting?! Passages like these remind us why many people find the Old Testament confusing or irrelevant. We don’t practice such things like sacrifice anymore, so why should we read about them? The people and stories in this testament lived thousands of years ago (if they lived at all) in cultures extremely different than our own. What could they teach us? Teaching from the Old Testament is not always easy, but it is essential for the full and robust formation of your youth.
A temptation to avoid (and even disdain) the Old Testament is an ancient one. Marcion, who lived in Rome around 150 AD, made his own canon that did not include the Old Testament, nor any sections of the New Testament that were too friendly to the Old. The other members of the Church roundly and vigorously rejected this approach. Tertullian, who writes against Marcion, asserted that there was “peace between the gospel and the law” and “the God of both law and gospel was none other than the Creator.” The authors of the New Testament and the vast majority of the early Church agreed that they could not adequately understand what God had done in Jesus Christ without knowing what God had done with Israel, and the same is true for us today. Our understanding of God will be seriously impoverished if we avoid the first several thousand years of God’s words and actions.
You may already be convinced of the importance of studying and teaching the Old Testament, but based on passages like the one above, you are not quite sure how to do it responsibly. I’ll offer two suggestions for bringing the Old Testament into your youth ministry service.
Telling stories is the easiest way to familiarize your youth with the Old Testament. It is no accident that children’s Bibles are predominately stories from the first half of the canon. (By way of comparison, how many times do children’s Bibles ever discuss the book of Romans?) Who doesn’t enjoy hearing about the days of creation, the strength of Samson, or the rise of Esther, not to mention talking donkeys, the stopped sun, and dancing bones? Teenagers aren’t too old for stories, so tell them the great stories of the faith all over again.
Telling these stories well, especially for a more mature audience, depends upon two strategies. First, to get the full power of these stories, they need to be told in context. Children raised in the faith may have heard of Noah, Abraham, and Moses, but may have a hard time putting them in the right order. If you don’t have a clear sense that God made a covenant with Abraham and only several hundred years later redeemed the people through Moses, you’ve lost some of the primary points of their stories. Chronology matters here, a great deal, in fact. In order to see how the small stories fit into God’s great story, I recommend contextualizing the story every time you teach from the Old Testament. What major events happened before and after the one you are discussing today? Even better, possibly, is to spend a period of time telling the great story, beginning with creation and culminating in the prophets. My church did this as a part of our Wednesday night program this year. The pastor had a timeline created that was left up all year. Each week she could point to where we had been and how it led to what we were discussing that evening. The consistent teaching and visual reinforcement brought insights for the many churched adults, in addition to the youth and the children.
Second, members of your youth group are ready to hear the whole story that they might not have thought about (or even heard) as children. Noah includes the cute idea of lots of animals, but also the sobering reality of mass death. The Old Testament is not a G-rated text. Instead of being old fashioned, it offers a gritty and realistic picture of the fallen world, often darker than the one we live in today. You will need discernment and the support of your whole youth team to know how to approach the hard stories, but you shouldn’t avoid them. Church offers a safe place for your young people to ask hard questions about the reality of sin and God’s ways of dealing with it.
Teaching from the New Testament also offers ample opportunity to appeal to the Old. You can hardly read two sentences in any book of the New Testament without running into a citation from or an allusion to a passage in the Old Testament. Often your Bible will set that text apart in some way or at least provide a note directing you back to the Old Testament reference. When you are studying and you notice one of these, go back and read the passage from which the citation comes. New Testament authors rarely prooftext. Instead, the entire Old Testament passage usually informs how they are shaping their story or argument. Since they are speaking to an audience that knew their Old Testament better than most people do today, they might be assuming that the audience would have the Old Testament passage in mind. A good example of this is Mark and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last words from the cross, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:36; Mark 15:34). What sounds like a cry of abandonment is actually an honest prayer from Ps 22, the end of which proclaims the deliverance of God. Readers who know the whole Psalm will hear Jesus’ words very differently than those who don’t even know that his cry comes from a Psalm.
What, then, to do with passages like the text from Leviticus presented at the beginning? You do not have to teach everything from the OT, but if you are up for the challenge (or bound to do so by a reading plan or lectionary) great reward awaits. These texts offer insights on their own standing. All of the detailed instructions in Leviticus show God’s desire to relate to his people, even providing different levels of sacrifice so that all economic classes can participate. The Old Testament also points forward to the New. Just as Israel offered sacrifices, we too are called to offer the sacrifice of ourselves (Rom 12:1) and our praise (Heb 13:15). The Old Testament passages help to make sense of what the authors of the New Testament mean with that language. Finally, the Old Testament also points forward to God’s action in Christ. The blood of the animal shed on the altar foreshadows the blood shed on the cross.
Everyone loves to be a part of a great story, and as believers in Christ, your young people are a part of the greatest story ever told, the foundation of which lies in the first half of the canon.
 Tertullian, Against Marcion, 19.
Dr. Amy L. Peeler is an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. She is presently pursuing ordination to the Priesthood with the Episcopal Church, USA.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- What is your favorite Old Testament story? Why?
- Watch Video together
- Off the top of your head, what Old Testament themes/Scriptures do you know are present in the New Testament?
- Let’s look at this passage from the OT: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:18) How might you use these as a volunteer?
- How does Jesus use these passages in Luke 10:25-37? What point is he trying to get across?
- How can you mimic Jesus’ use of the OT in your ministry?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- How will this impact our church, our youth, or our team?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)