The Tie: Understanding Scripture in Light of Christ

The spring issue of the Southern Seminary magazine, The Tie, has just appeared online, and it takes up the question of reading the Bible Christologically. You can subscribe to the magazine for free, and I think you ought to do so and ask them to send you a copy of the current issue.

The current issue is now online, and it has essays from Stephen Wellum, Russell Fuller, and myself on how the whole Bible preaches Christ, David Powlison writes on how to center counseling on Christ, Russ Moore shows us how to go beyond the Veggie Tales Gospel (you have to read this) to preach Christ ourselves, and David Prince gives us an example of preaching Christ from Judges. And there’s more. Check it out online, subscribe right away, and may the Lord use this magazine to help us fix our eyes on Jesus!

–my short piece deals with how the authors of the New Testament understand the Old Testament.

Here is the text:

The Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New

One sometimes hears people express a desire to know exactly what Jesus said to the two men on the road to Emmaus following His resurrection. But if one wants to know how Jesus interpreted the Old Testament on the road to Emmaus, the easiest way to find out is to read the New Testament. This point is so important that its central implication needs to be made explicit: the New Testament indicates that its authors understand themselves to be reading the Old Testament the way that Jesus read the Old Testament.

Jesus and the Old Testament

When the authors of the New Testament quote, allude to, or in some way echo the language and themes of the Old Testament, several points should be kept in mind by those of us who seek to understand how the New Testament appeals to the Old. First, the New Testament indicates that its authors learned to read the Old Testament from Jesus. All four gospels give many instances of Jesus appealing to the Old Testament in various ways. He claims that He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17). He quotes Isaiah to explain why people do not understand His parables (Mark 4:12). He claims that Moses wrote about Him (John 5:46). After the resurrection, Jesus explained the things concerning Himself in the whole of the Old Testament to the two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25–27), and after that He opened the minds of His followers to understand the Old Testament (24:45).

If the New Testament authors learned to read the Old Testament from Jesus, then wrote their accounts from that perspective, would it not follow that the interpretive stance and methods modeled by the apostles should also be adopted by those who are devoted to the teaching of the apostles? Would it not seem that the authors of the New Testament intend to provide examples of how the Old Testament should be read, so that their readers will learn how to read the Old Testament?

The Apostles and the Old Testament

For various reasons, the way the authors of the New Testament understand the Old is not always clear to us as we read the New Testament today. Because of this, some interpreters of the Bible suggest that only the inspiration of the Holy Spirit enables the New Testament authors to make the claims they do about the Old Testament being fulfilled in Christ and the church. These interpreters hold that if the Old Testament were interpreted correctly (read: the way that they themselves do) it would not lead to the claims made by the New Testament authors. But since the New Testament authors are inspired, they can make these claims, even though these claims really make no sense. This line of argumentation is then customarily followed with the admonition that since we are not inspired by the Holy Spirit, we have no business reading the Old Testament the way the authors of the New Testament do.

I would humbly suggest that perhaps those who make these kinds of assertions have not fully understood the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the methods of interpretation used in both Testaments. I do not mean to imply that these interpreters lack sincere piety, intelligence, training, or academic rigor. The issue seems to be one of perspective.

Interpretive Perspectives

If one adopts the perspective that the Bible should be read like any other book, or that it should be read the same way that any other piece of ancient Near Eastern propaganda would be read, this perspective is going to determine the boundaries of interpretive possibilities. If, on the other hand, one adopts the perspective that the Bible tells the true story of the world, that beginning from Genesis 3:15 God announces his plan for a seed of the woman to break the back of evil by crushing the head of the serpent, that the word “seed” can refer to both individuals and groups, that the Old and New Testaments are full of typological interpretation that highlights the historical correspondence between and the escalation of the significance of divinely intended patterns of events, then the interpretations of the Old Testament seen not only in the New Testament but also in the Old Testament itself begin to make more and more sense.

The less sense these things make to us, the more time and patience we must give to the careful study of these texts. We must not prematurely conclude that the internal logic of these texts is fallacious — the authors of the Bible wrote to persuade their contemporaries. Some think that human intelligence has evolved such that modern man finds the logic of ancient man to be utter nonsense. This is nothing more than what C. S. Lewis dubbed “chronological snobbery,” and it owes more to a Darwinist than to a biblical worldview. If we will take the time to understand the biblical authors, the internal coherence of their claims will be vindicated.

Jesus modeled the interpretation of the Old Testament pursued by the apostles and others who wrote the books of the New Testament. In other words, the authors of the New Testament learned to read the Old Testament from Jesus. These interpretive methods, however, were not new to Jesus, but may also be seen in, for instance, the way that Isaiah interprets Deuteronomy.

A Messianic Perspective

If a modern scholar suggests that Jesus’ interpretation of the Old Testament is somehow illegitimate, stick with Jesus and His interpretation. After all, as Christians we believe that he is God! Not only did the New Testament authors learn how to interpret the Old Testament from Jesus, the Holy Spirit inspired them as they wrote. Jesus promised His followers that the Spirit would teach them all things (John 14:26) and lead them into all truth (16:13). If a modern scholar suggests that an interpretation learned from Jesus and inspired by the Holy Spirit is somehow illegitimate, stick with the inspired guys.

This does not mean that we automatically understand the Old Testament, nor does it mean that we automatically understand how Jesus interpreted the Old Testament. It does mean that we will commit ourselves to reading and re-reading both the Old Testament and the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old. This reading and re-reading is best pursued under the assumption that there is an internal coherence to the New Testament’s understanding of the Old Testament, an internal coherence that we might not yet see but that is nevertheless there. We must read and re-read until, rather than understanding the Bible in terms of our world and our experience, we understand our experience and world in terms of what the Bible says. The closer we get to that end, the more we will see that the Old Testament is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective in order to provoke and sustain messianic hope, and the New Testament claims that these hopes are fulfilled in Jesus and the church. Indeed, all the promises of God are yes and amen in Jesus.

4 Comments

Filed under Bible and Theology, Messiah in the OT, Messianism, OT in the NT

4 responses to “The Tie: Understanding Scripture in Light of Christ

  1. dave

    While I agree with many of your statements, I assert that the “division” of the Old and New Testaments is artificial; hence, reading either in light of the other ends with a method that is not Biblical.

    The ENTIRE Bible is the work of one Creator Who influenced the physical writers to write exactly what He wanted. These writers (not authors) were deeply connected to the Holy Spirit, the Son, and the Father in ways that we cannot comprehend until we see His Bible as a total work and the total work interprets itself.

    What this technique would end up doing is something like the following:

    Assume that the entire universe is filled with one substance, carbon…one big, universal block (shaped like the universe) of carbon. What’s to compare? Well, carbon is made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons, forces (and who knows…science?…unlikely…probably more than those). How, then to interpret the whole carbon block than by itself? Those protons, neutrons, electrons, and so forth are the tools by which carbon is compared, described, analyzed, etc. Those elemental pieces of carbon are like the so-called “books of the Bible” that are really only chapters. Without an understanding of the chapters and how they fit into the whole, there’s really no possibility of understanding the whole.

    I think that you understand that my point is that the Bible is a whole and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We have done ourselves a disservice by infusing an artificial separation (Old & New Testaments) and in so doing, have forced Biblical “scholars” to take their eyes off the prize.

    d.

  2. It seems that both Paul (2 Cor 3:14) and the author of Hebrews (Heb 8:6-7) viewed the Old Testament as the Old Testament as compared with the New Testament,

    JMH

  3. Formless Substance

    I’m a little off-track here?
    Why are there not 12 Gospels of the 12 disciples and one of Mary..Jesus favourite girl..in the New Testament?

  4. Formless Substance

    Sorry, I’m not a ‘Christian’ by faith..but I do love the teachings of Jesus the Christ.

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