CHILDREN’S VERSIONIf you would like to do this with smaller children, a version suitable for them can be had HERE.
The “Jesse Tree” traces the messianic hope throughout the Bible up until the birth of the Christ child. The reference to “Jesse” comes from Isaiah’s expression of messianic hope.
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
Following that line of hope, and hanging an ornament for each day’s lesson throughout the Advent season is a good change-up from opening a little window and eating a chocolate from a Hallmark Advent calendar—and it definitely beats the “twelve days of Christmas.”
These blogs first began as something my wife and did for our two daughters and our young grandchildren. My wife made representative tree ornaments for each of the characters that will follow in this blog, and I wrote a short lesson for each. My daughters used them with our grandchildren, and soon their friends and friends of friends were asking if they could get a copy. So we produced a booklet and some charts for creating decorations each day. Then some of the mothers asked for an “adult” version; so I wrote the original version of these blogs for them.
I’ll follow the same set of lessons that we did for the parents with children, and I won’t modify them much for “Theologizer.” My thinking is twofold:
Many of you have children or grandchildren, or you’re leading small groups or congregations of people with children. Perhaps you’ll want to share this tradition with them during this Advent season.
Even if you’re reading these on your own, it might be useful to see what the biblical-theological approach looks like in a simple form that’s addressing regular congregation members—or even sympathetic unbelievers who love Christmas.
So, I’m hoping you’ll enjoy engaging in some daily biblical-theological reflection at the simple level that’s appropriate for parents with children.
Biblical Theology of the “Jesse Tree”
Scripture: Isa 11:1–10
The Bible says, “God chose [Jesus] as your ransom long before the world began, but he has now revealed him to you in these last day” (1 Pet 1:20).1 In fact, God says, “Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes” (Eph 1:4). God was working his plan of salvation long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And that’s what we want to highlight throughout Advent.
Jesse had seven sons. Some of them may have seemed impressive sorts to Samuel, and God had sent him to anoint one of them as king. But God told Samuel, “Don’t judge by [their] appearance or height…. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). In fact, God had chosen Jesse’s youngest son to become Israel’s greatest king. David was the first royal branch from “the Jesse tree.”
Through thick and thin, the promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty stood true, whether Israel and the Davidic dynasty measured up to God’s expectations or not. Even when the Davidic kings broke covenant with God, his promise to David and his descendants remained in effect. So Isaiah could promise, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit…. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isa 11:1, 10 ESV).
This figurative language about stumps, shoots, and branches promised renewal of the Davidic dynasty. Out of the apparently dead “stump of Jesse” there would sprout a new shoot (Isa 11:1). This new branch would bear “fruit from the old root,” that is the promise to David’s family would yet come to fruition in a “Son of David” (e.g., Matt 1:1). He would rule well, because God’s Spirit would rest on him, enduing him with all the attributes of a righteous king: “the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isa 11:2).
A righteous king should “Fear the LORD and judge with integrity, for the LORD our God does not tolerate perverted justice, partiality, or the taking of bribes” (2 Chr 19:7). So just as God would not look on outward appearances when appointing his chosen king (1 Sam 16:7), this Davidic king would “not judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay”; rather, the Spirit’s anointing would enable him to “make fair decisions.” He would rule like God himself rules over his people (Isa 11:3–6).
And that just rule will establish a kingdom of perfect peace, indeed heavenly peace (Isa 11:7–9). Animals that now fight or fear each other will live in peace (v. 7), babies will be safe even “near the hole of a cobra” (v. 8). “Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (v. 9), which was the site of the ancient Davidic throne.
More importantly, it was God’s own throne, upon which God’s anointed king would rule over God’s people. Under the Old Testament arrangement, that meant theocratic rule over Israel. But even then, it included others who joined Israel in worshiping the one true God. That might be David’s own great-grandmother Ruth the Moabitess, or a resident alien who came to be a disciple of the Lord God. The ultimate goal of this kingdom was not just to bless Israel alone with peace and righteous rule. No, God’s goal was to bless all nations. That was why he called Abraham in the first place (Gen 12:1–3), and it was why he raised up the Davidic dynasty. So the days of fulfillment for the Davidic promise are described this way: “In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, and the land where he lives will be a glorious place” (Isa 11:10).
Each day throughout December, the Jesse Tree lessons will keep reminding us that God keeps his promises, especially his greatest promise. The Bible stories we’ll recount show how God kept on reminding his people that a “Son of David” would come and fulfill every promise God ever made. When we celebrate Christmas, it ought to be with this note: “All of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20). That should be the underlying motivation for our Christmas shouts, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!”
Mechanics of the “Jesse Tree”
“Theologizer” will become a daily blog between the first of December and the day after Christmas.
Each day’s blog will be posted in the earliest morning hours of each day.
Each day’s blog will be a lesson with appropriate “Questions, Reflections, and Commitments”
If you would like to produce ornaments for a “Jesse Tree,” you have two options:
You can get a simple cross-stitch pattern for each ornament and start working on them now. Click here to download cross-stitch patterns for all the daily ornaments.
You can get a paper copy of each ornament for children to cut out, color, paint, or decorate for tree hangings. Click here to download a simple coloring book for all the daily ornaments.
Questions, Reflections, and Commitments
Meditate on the linkage between the Jesse “tree” and our contemporary notion of a family tree. We tend to look backwards when we’re talking about the family tree; however, the family tree of Jesse was very much a forward-looking genealogy.
As you read the description of the messianic kingdom that Isaiah gave us (Isa 11:1–11), refresh your contribution to the prayers of saints in all the ages: “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
Hero visions of rescuing strike a spark in the best part of our imagination. We honor brave warriors who rescue fellow soldiers under fire on distant battle fields. We honor local heroes who rescue people from death by drowning or fire in our own towns. But the work of restoring wayward Christians is an even more important rescue work. I like how The Message puts it:
James shows us various reasons that people wander from truth. They may…
waver in the folly of of divided loyalties (Jas 1:5–6)
go astray into the lustful feedback loop of temptation (Jas 1:14–20)
suffer under the lash of someone’s unbridled tongue (Jas 3:1–12)
get eaten by bitter, ambitious, selfish jealousy (Jas 3:13–16)
succumb to the devil and withhold their loyalty from God alone (Jas 4:7–10)
grumble their way into unbelief (Jas 5:7–11)
These spiritual hazards call for spiritual attentiveness. We must not ignore the spiritual condition of those around us when temporary failure threatens their eternal soul. As James says, “someone should bring him back.” That’s the proper role of spiritual people vis-à-vis sin.
Sometimes so-called spiritual people become the quickest and most persistent levelers of charges. They don’t have a taste for the sweet honey in the rock; instead, they have a nose for trouble—and no empathy for troubled souls. But Paul says, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. Watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1–2). Let’s hear Peterson’s reinforcement of this idea.
James says, “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20). The sinner walks the pathway of death (5:20a). The way a person takes when he wanders from truth is by definition the “way of death”; the wages of sin is death. That is true for the one who has made a life-long specialty of filthy practices, when that path has become a well-traveled dark rut in your life. But the way of sin is just as deadly if it’s a new and unfamiliar path into which you’ve wandered in the dark night of your soul’s backsliding. “Death, death, death” is the judgment hanging over anyone who finds himself at the far end of the way of error.
But Jesus came “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Death must claim no more dominion over that wandering brother in Christ. We should exhort the backslider, “This is the way, walk in it.” We should encourage the backslider—if we dare—“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
The one who restores the sinner will “cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20b). Notice that this sin-covering is for reconciliation. Sin-covering does not condemn the one in fault to hopeless destruction; instead, reconciliation moves in the direction of deliverance from death. Sin-covering does not excuse sin as a matter of little consequence; instead, it recognizes that if recovery is not effected, death will result. Sin-covering is not the pagan’s “tolerance” that denies guilt; instead, it is the believer’s compassion that seeks Christ’s forgiveness for the sinner.
We have the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). That ministry should flow from hearts of people who love with a love that never fails (1 Cor 13:4–7). Paul talks of love in ways that speak to this issue of restoration: A believer who loves enough to exercise the ministry of reconciliation…
is patient with someone who wanders from the truth.
is kind enough to cover over a multitude of sins.
does not envy the worldly attainments of people who are languishing in the error of their ways.
does not boast of one’s own spiritual excellence.
is not proud of one’s own spirituality
is not rude to sinners despite their folly.
is not self-seeking but rather seeks to “turn a sinner from the error of his way [and to] save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20).
is not easily angered, not even with that rage which some seek to sanctify with the label “righteous indignation.”
keeps no record of wrongs but hopes to lead the wayward back to the place where there is “no condemnation.” He longs to bring people to an altar of repentance where the record of sin is cleared by Christ’s own justification (Rom 8:1).
does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth—and there is no truth that makes him nearly as happy as the truth that sets men free (John 8:32).
always protects: “[saving people] from death and covering over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20).
always trusts, exercising that kind of faith which casts itself on Christ and can encourage doubters to do the same.
always hopes in the effectiveness the gospel of liberty.
always perseveres, knowing it’s a life-or-death business.
As we near the Advent season, during which I’ll blog every day, I think of Jesus in terms of this blog’s theme, “Rescue the Perishing.” In our case, rescuing the perishing means extending a hand of reconciliation and welcome back into the family of God. In Jesus’s case, it taking up the role of the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13–53:12). He could have extended a lordly invitation from the dignified glory of his throne on high.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”
In the coming days, this blog will celebrate the many ways the Old Testament points forward to the work of Jesus Christ. If you haven’t already checked out what’s involved, here’s the Introduction I posted about a month ago. If it’s something you would like to follow, at least during Advent, click one of the subscribe buttons. If you would like to do this with small children, I post a link to a PDF containing all the devotionals that I wrote for that level.
Typological interpretation of the Old Testament has taught us to see Jesus in not only the broad sweep of the Old Testament story line but also in its details. That’s why Keller looks for Christ in “every major Old Testament theme… promise… image… figure,” and so forth. The rest of this chapter skims the surface of some key Old Testament events, people, institutions, and concepts that foreshadow Jesus Christ. The rest of the book covers several of them in chapter-length treatment.
For example, the story of creation “in the beginning” teaches us to look for new creation “in the last days.” The story of our fall into sin and the eviction from paradise teaches us to hope for a return to paradise and renewed access to the tree of life in Christ. The story of bondage in Egypt and liberation through the exodus causes us to rejoice on the redemption from bondage to sin we have in Christ.
Or, looking at things from the New Testament side, we’re taught to see the flood and the Red Sea crossing as a foreshadow of our baptism into Christ. When we read of the conquest and life in the land, and then of exile and eventual return, we’re reminded that in Jesus Christ we inherit not just little slice of land “about the size of New Jersey” but the earth—more precisely, the renewed heavens and the earth.
Adam was God’s created “image and likeness” (Gen 1:26–28) who foreshadows Jesus Christ, “the exact likeness of God” (2 Cor 4:4) and the “visible image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Of course, we cannot establish a one-to-one analogy between Adam and Christ; indeed, the important typological links often display contrast rather than likeness. For example, while living in paradise, Adam was tempted, fell into sin, and was driven out of the garden; but when the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, he to was tempted, but he didn’t sin. So those who are “in Adam” inherit sin, but those who are in Christ Jesus inherit life (Rom 5:12–21). Or, expanding on this, Paul says,
The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit…. Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man…. Let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:45–57)
After the human race fell into sin, God foretold a history of warfare between the serpent’s offspring and the offspring of the woman, which would culminate in final victory through the seed of the woman:
And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel. (Gen 3:15)
When she gave birth to Cain and then Abel (Gen 4:1–2), Eve must have thought, “here’s a serpent-slaying son”; however, Cain turned out to be a brother-slayer rather than a serpent-slayer—he was offspring of the serpent—and Abel’s innocent blood contributed nothing to the redemptive program that would crush the serpent’s head. So the old covenant saints could only await what the book of Hebrews announced: “You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24).
Old Testament saints awaited the woman’s offspring who would defeat the serpent. In the end, it’s Jesus, offspring of the virgin, whose victory gets announced this way: “This great dragon—the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world—was thrown down to the earth with all his angels” (Rev 12:9; 20:9). And everyone who is in Christ Jesus shares in that victory: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20).
After the fall, sin spread throughout the human race (Gen 6:1–8). Eventually, “The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil” (v, 5); so he determined, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth” (v. 7). “But Noah found favor with the LORD” (v. 8), who used him to save a remnant from the flood and make a new start—a renewed creation (Gen 6:9–8:22). Indeed, when the flood waters had receded from a cleansed earth, God renewed the creation mandate in terms that echoed his earlier charge to Adam and Eve:
Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground." So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground." (Gen 1:26-28)
Then God blessed Noah and his sons and told them, "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth. All the animals of the earth, all the birds of the sky, all the small animals that scurry along the ground, and all the fish in the sea will look on you with fear and terror. I have placed them in your power. I have given them to you for food, just as I have given you grain and vegetables." (Gen 9:1-3)
Even after that restart, the contagion of sin cropped up immediately, in Noah’s own tent (Gen 9:20–22), and it spread throughout his descendants, who fathered the nations. Genesis 10 is the first time in the Bible that we hear anything of nations, and chapter 11 depicts them fomenting a conspiracy against God at the tower of Babel, a conspiracy that God squelches by confusing and scattering the nations. And that sets the scene for the call of Abraham in chapter 12.
God’s “Friend”The Old Testament records the life and work of five men that God calls “my servant.” The first is Abraham (Gen 26:24), the second is Moses (Num 12:7–8; 2 Kgs 21:8; Mal 4:4), the third is David (2 Sam 3:18; 7:5, 8; 1 Kgs 11:32; 14:8; 2 Kgs 19:34; 1 Chr 17:4, 7; Isa 37:35; Ezek 34:23–24; 37:24), the fourth is Job (Job 1:8; 2:3; 42:7–8), and the final one is the one whom we know as the Servant of the Lord (Isa 42:1–9; 52:13–53:12). In each of these figures, we see a rich trajectory that points forward to ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
God told Abraham, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous” (Gen 12:1–2a). After reading the flood story and then the international death spiral, you might think, “God is blessing Abraham and moving him out of harm’s way before he judges the nations, perhaps by raining down fire on them.” But the call of Abraham concludes, “all the families on earth will be blessed through you” (v. 3b). Yes, God would protect and bless Abraham and his offspring (vv. 2–3a), but he preserved and commissioned them to bless the nations of chapters 10 and 11, which we already know to be undeserving. Here’s how Paul explained what was going on: “The Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, ‘All nations will be blessed through you'” (Gal 3:8).
And what will we say of Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham, who went to the altar as a sacrifice (Gen 22)—at the apparent cost of obliterating the Abrahamic covenant. As Hebrews explains this, “It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, even though God had told him, ‘Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted'” (Heb 11:17–18). And Abraham didn’t go to Moriah in obedient despair, he went in the obedience of faith: “Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead” (v. 19).
Bloodshed signals all divine covenants (Exod 24:8; Heb 9:20), and this act of obedience signaled ratification of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 22:16–18); however, it wasn’t to be Isaac’s blood that signalled the covenant. As Abraham approached the altar, “Isaac turned to Abraham and said, ‘Father?’ ‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied. ‘We have the fire and the wood,’ the boy said, ‘but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?'” (v. 7).
Abraham’s answer spoke more than he knew: “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). Then he continued in obedience with altar stones, firewood, and knife—even a knife raised over the beloved son on whom all covenantal hopes rested (vv. 9–10). At that point, God stopped proceedings and provided the needed substitute. For Abraham, it was a ram caught in a thicket (v. 13); for us it is the beloved covenantal Son, whom John introduced this way: “Look! The Lamb of God!” (John 1:29, 36). Abraham and Isaac could never have announced, “This is my blood, which confirms the covenant” (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24), and the blood of bulls and goats could not establish the new covenant, but only that of Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). But Abraham could rename Moriah “Yahweh-Yireh (which means ‘the LORD will provide’)” (Gen 22:14).
God did provide, and Isaac survived to sire Jacob, the next covenantal son of Abraham. And by grace—and after a rocky start as a bit of a con artist—the heel-grabbing trickster (yaʿqov) got a new name, “Israel” (yisraʾel).1 More importantly, God was pleased to call the nation of Israel “my son,” deliver them from Egyptian bondage (Hos 11:1), and lead them through thick and thin into a land that flowed with milk and honey.
The Moses-Jesus typology proves to be particularly rich. God chose Moses to lead his people from bondage to paradise, a task that Jesus Christ fulfills in a deeper way. God saved Moses from slaughter in the crib (Exod 1–2), as he would later do for his liberating Son Jesus Christ (Matt 2). God used Moses to give bread and water to his people on their journey to the promised land, an Old Testament shadow of the bread (John 6) and water (John 4:14; 7:38; Rev 7:17) of life that Jesus gives. Because of this “new Moses,” we hear this: “Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…. The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who hears this say, ‘Come.’ Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life” (Rev 22:1, 17).
God told Israel he would speak through Moses and a succession of prophets like Moses (Deut 18:15, 18), and he proved faithful to that promise. Throughout Israel’s history, he sent them a succession of prophets at key junctures; then he brought that promise to climactic fulfillment when he sent Jesus (Acts 3:22; 7:37). So, just as God used Moses to deliver the law of the old covenant on Mount Sinai, he later led his people to another mount, where Jesus delivered the law of the new covenant, which we know as the Sermon on the Mount.
And what shall we say of David, the king of God’s own choosing (1 Sam 13:14), whom God designed as “my son” to rule over his own people (Ps 2:6–7). The messianic typology is richly sown throughout David’s story, this scion from Judah, and we’ll expand on that later, at chapter length. Suffice it for now to say, it comes to fulfillment in the Christ after this fashion: As far back as when Jacob was passing along his patriarchal blessing, he said, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor” (Gen 49:10). In the end, we hear John the revelator reporting these words out of heaven itself: “Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, has won the victory” (Rev 5:5). The prophet Isaiah had looking forward to one who would received ultimate Davidic authority: “I will give him the key to the house of David—the highest position in the royal court. When he opens doors, no one will be able to close them; when he closes doors, no one will be able to open them” (Isa 22:22). Again, John heard these words resounding from heaven: “This is the message from the one who is holy and true, the one who has the key of David. What he opens, no one can close; and what he closes, no one can open” (Rev 3:7).
When David made plans to build God’s “house” (i.e., palace-temple), God told him no, I’ll build your “house” (i.e., dynasty, 2 Sam 7:1–17). He told David that he would put his son on his throne after him (v. 12), his son would build the “house” (vv. 12–13a), and God would call royal sons from David’s line “my son” (v. 14a).
Well, Solomon fulfilled that in one measure, including what God said he would do if the Davidic sons sinned (v. 14b). But there is one greater than Solomon who has come (Matt 6:29; Luke 12:27). Solomon started out great in wisdom (1 Kgs 4:29–34; 5:7) but fell into folly and sin. On that count alone, Jesus proved greater in wisdom than Solomon did (Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31). But he’s not just greater by fractions or even multiples; rather, “In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3, cf. Rom 11:33; 1 Cor 1:24, 30).
Solomon built and dedicated a glorious temple (1 Kgs 6–8)—and a fine palace for himself to boot (ch. 7). Solomon himself recognized that it couldn’t really contain the God of heaven and earth (1 Kgs 8:27–30), though God was pleased to dwell there. But by the incarnation, God fully came to dwell among us (John 1:1–14). Jesus promised to raise up the greater temple in three days (John 2:19–21)—and he did. So we call the church the “body of Christ” and “temple of God” (1 Cor 3:16–17), and an individual believer is “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19)—no man-made temple of stone, but one made of living flesh. In the end, we hear of the ultimate fulfillment of that promise: “I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever'” (Rev 21:3–4). More than that, when John looked to see what this situation looked like, he reported, “I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (v. 22).
One last Old Testament figure, the prophet Jeremiah. Looking backward from Jeremiah into Old Testament history, the promise to Moses that God would raise up a prophet like himself (Deut 18:15, 18; Acts 3:22; 7:37) is fulfilled in considerable detail in Jeremiah. He can almost be called a “second Moses.” Looking forward from Jeremiah to Jesus’s ministry in the New Testament, we note so many analogies that we might call Jesus a “second Moses” and “second Jeremiah” as well as “last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45). Jeremiah wept over Jerusalem’s sins and her punishment (Jer 9:1, 10; 31:16), denounced the profaned temple, and predicted its destruction (Jer 7:1–15); likewise, Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Matt 23:37–39; Mark 13:34–35), denounced its temple practices (Matt 21:13), and foretold its destruction (Matt 24:1–2; Mark 13:1–2; Luke 21:5–6). But Jesus, one greater than Jeremiah, also promised to raise up a cleansed and eternal temple in three days (John 2:19–21, cf. Matt 26:61; 27:40; Mark 14:58; 15:29).
We could make the same kind of Christological connections between institutional types found first in the Old Testament whose trajectory came to climactic fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Here we would speak of the tabernacle and temple of stone, the fulfillment of which we have already described. We could look at ceremonial law with its early provisions promises of cleansing, redemption, and purification that come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who is our absolutely pure great high priest (Heb 4:14), the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” whose sacrifices provides sanctification “once for all” (Heb 10:10). As we’ve noted already in talking about David, we could say the same for Israel’s monarchy, which comes to fulfillment in the kingdom of heaven.
Speaking more broadly, we would say that Jesus Christ brings a whole range of concepts to their ultimate fulfillment by blessing or judgment. Both light and darkness manifest themselves throughout the Old Testament from creation to exile and then come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world (John 1:9; 4:29; 8:12; 9:5). This means two things: On the one hand, “people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine” (Isa 9:2; quoted in Matt 4:16). On the other hand, those who reject Christ are consigned to darkness in this life (John 12:46; 2 Cor 4:4) and will spend an eternity in “outer darkness” (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).
Paradise and the land flowing with milk and honey come to their fulfillment by Jesus’s offer of paradise for the thief on the cross and the promise of new Jerusalem and the new heavens and earth for saints and angels. Likewise, expulsion from paradise and exile from the promised land finds some New Testament fulfillment in excommunication from the church and ultimate fulfillment eternal exile from the presence of God in hell.
Blessing and cursing both manifest themselves throughout the Old Testament (Lev 26; Deut 28) but come to their culmination in the woes and blessings of Jesus Christ. We see the blessings in the Beatitudes (Matt 5) and in the consummate blessing: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world'” (Matt 25:34). Likewise, we see the curses in his repeated pronouncement of “woe” upon those who fought against the kingdom of God (e.g., Matt 11:21; 18:7; 23:13–29; 26:24).
Throughout the Old Testament wisdom literature, Wisdom and folly pair up closely with blessing and cursing. And just like blessing and cursing come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ, so too wisdom and folly climax in him. On the one hand, Jesus is the one who’s wisdom is greater than that of Solomon (1 Kgs 4–5; Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31). On the other hand, Jesus subjected his own life to futility to free us from futility—even took up the curse on our behalf.
Finally, Sabbath and Jubilee come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Sabbath begins as a creation ordinance: “On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation” (Gen 2:2–3). Sabbath comes to fulfillment in the work of Jesus Christ, who issues this invitation: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Just as God the Father had called creation “finished,” Jesus Christ cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:28–30); and the work he had completed guarantees our rest. Of course, the author of Hebrews warns against failing to enter that heavenly rest (Heb 3:11, 18; 4:1–11). Indeed, our ultimate destiny is defined by the presence or absence of rest. Those who forsake the true Christ for the Antichrist have this fate: “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Rev 14:11, esv). But thanks be to God, John said, “I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this down: Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!'” (Rev 14:13).
We could extend this kind of discussion ad infinitum, and we would have had license to do so from Jesus’s notice that he is found in all of Scripture (Luke 24:25–27, 44). For example, we could point to many incidentals that find fulfillment in Jesus Christ. We could find it in David’s complaints and petitions about…
Not being left among the dead to rot in the grave (Ps 16:10; Acts 2:31; 13:35)
Being forsaken (Ps 22:1; Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34)
Being mocked (Ps 22:6–8; Matt 27:39, 43; Mark 15:29)
Having his hands and feet pierced (Ps 22:16)
Having his clothes divided (Ps 22:18; John 19:23–24)
Being offered sour wine (Ps 69:21; John 19:28–29).
Or we could treat Zechariah’s visions of…
Jerusalem’s restoration and future when the Lord promises, “I, myself, will be a protective wall of fire around Jerusalem,… and I will be the glory inside the city!” (2:5; Rev 21:23).
Jerusalem restored as habitation of God and the nations (2:10–11; Rev 5:9–10; 7:9–12; 21:3)
The Lord’s promise of “my servant, the Branch” and a day when he would “remove the sins of this land in a single day” (3:8–9)
Zion’s king riding a donkey (9:9; Matt 21:5)
The Lord’s prophecy, “They will look on me whom they have pierced” (12:10)
The promise “On that day a fountain will be opened for the dynasty of David and for the people of Jerusalem, a fountain to cleanse them from all their sins and impurity” (13:1)
The enigmatic, “What about those wounds on your chest?” to which the response is “I was wounded at my friends’ house” (13:6)
“Strike down the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (13:7; Matt 26:31; Mark 14:27)
Or what if we talked of the Christology and restoration promised throughout the book of Hosea, the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31–34, the cleansing promised in Ezekiel 36:25–27, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit promised in Joel 2:28–32? Or what of the judgments against the nations foretold in the Obadiah, Amos (1:1–2:3), and Jeremiah (chs. 46–51), or great work of restoration described and foreshadowed in Ezekiel, Nehemiah, and Haggai?
But we must stop, because if we attempted to write it all, “I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25)—-let alone a single chapter in a single book.
Watch for my upcoming Advent series on the Jesse Tree, which will run daily throughout Advent, beginning December 1. The series will apply this understanding of how biblical theology works to the Old Testament’s way of looking forward to Christ.text
Tracing Motific Trajectories throughout the Grand Narrative
Traditional thematic approaches to biblical theology often just borrow the categories of systematic theology to build out a biblical theology, but I’m not talking about that kind of topical approach. What I propose is developing a biblical theology that traces key representative themes that sprout in the Old Testament but come to full bloom only in the New Testament.
The Old Testament is Jesus’s family story
In the mid-twentieth century, renewed attention to the legitimate role of typological interpretation provided some methodological underpinnings for such an approach,1 and by the end of the century, studies on the New Testament use of the Old had begun to flourish. I think of the work of Gerhardus Vos, Leonard Goppelt, E. Earle Ellis, and Richard Hays.2 Nowadays, it’s a simple matter to find indexes on the New Testament’s use of the Old, commentaries on that usage, and their electronic equivalents embedded in the data of various Bible software programs.3 This motific approach to the Old in the New may not serve to cover the biblical content comprehensively in any particular work—how long would that book have to be? But it will provide a tool for reading the Bible theologically wherever you land in it, from Eden to Egypt and Babylon, from the mount of transfiguration to Golgotha and on to that great high mountain in new Jerusalem. This approach has the innate capacity to deal adequately with any of the Old Testament material—just not all of it at once.
The Old Testament Is Jesus’s Family Story
Before we focus in on individual themes that come to fulfillment in Christ, we should note that the whole story line moved in that direction; so Jesus picked up every strand of the Old Testament story and spoke of himself as its fulfillment. He’s the fulfillment of the purpose of Adam’s race, he’s the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to bless the nations, he’s the fulfillment of the Davidic mandate to rule the nations, he’s the fulfillment of Suffering Servant’s mediating role in redemption, he brings the Sabbath law to fulfillment, he brings what the tabernacle and temple symbolized to fulfillment—and so forth.
Even if we hadn’t recognized this upon finishing our first read of the Old Testament, we would be forced to reckon with it as soon as we read even the opening words of the New Testament. In our English Bibles, the Old Testament ends with these words:4 “Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the LORD arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). At that stage, redemptive history stands poised at the decisive choice: repentance and blessing, or refusal and curse. Then we turn a page and the New Testament begins, “This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham” (Matt 1:1, see vv. 2–16). And Luke’s version of this family record even goes back to Adam: “Jesus was known as the son of Joseph…. the son of Adam… the son of God” (Luke 3:23–38). Without the Old Testament, we would open the New Testament and immediately have to start asking, “Who’s David?” “Who’s Abraham?” “Who’s Adam?” For that matter, we would wonder, “Who’s God?”—or more likely, “Why are we talking about only one God?”
Beyond that, the New Testament presents the work of Jesus as the fulfillment of so much in the Old Testament. If we didn’t have the Old Testament, what would we do with New Testament phrases like these?
“It is written…”
“For it stands in Scripture…”
“This happened to fulfill…”
“Scripture cannot be broken”
“…according to the Scriptures”
“You know neither the Scriptures, nor the power of God…”
“Have you never read this Scripture/in the Scriptures…?”
And that would only scratch the surface of New Testament use of the Old. If we branch out from those signals of direct citation and quotations, cataloging and explaining the breadth of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament turns into an exhausting challenge.
Watch for my upcoming Advent series on the Jesse Tree, which will run daily throughout Advent, beginning December 1. The series will apply this understanding of how biblical theology works to the Old Testament’s way of looking forward to Christ.text
Reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture requires a biblical-theological approach to the Old Testament, and a Christian approach needs Jesus Christ as that focal point, not just as one more character in its story line. So Jesus taught his disciples to find him “in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). That means it just won’t do to think we’ll meet him for the first time in the New Testament.
Jesus taught his disciples they would find him “in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27), so it just won’t do to think we’ll meet him for the first time in the New Testament.
Many refer to Christocentric interpretation, but I prefer the concept of Christo-telic interpretation. It’s not that Jesus is the actual topical center of any and every text in the Old Testament; rather, everything in the Old Testament leads to him by one means or another. But perhaps it’s best to settle for “Christological” rather than coin another bit of theological jargon, so will stick with that. Following a Christological line of thinking, Tim Keller says we’re looking for Christ…
What are the assumptions we should bring to the Old Testament when we read it as faithful Christians? We can break down our answer to that question by speaking of three things:
Clarity of God’s self-revelation
We assert the complete divine authority for the Old Testament for all of the Scriptures. This was the position of Jesus and Paul, and it must be ours.
Jesus (Matt 5:17–19)
Jesus triumphed over the devil saying, “It is written… it is written,… it is written,… it is written” (Matt 4:4–10).
As Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount, he warned against any idea that he would abolish or ignore the Old Testament:
Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matt 5:17–19)
Even in Jesus’s infancy, his life was fulfilling the Old Testament promises (Matt 1:22; 2:5, 15, 27, 23). As entered adulthood and launched his ministry, he triumphed over the devil saying, “It is written… it is written,… it is written,… it is written” (Matt 4:4–10). If the Logos made flesh relied on the written Logos to vanquish the enemy of our faith, how much more ought we to rely on it. And as Jesus continued his ministry, he and the Gospel writers who recorded this work sent Jesus’s disciples to the Old Testament with the repeated note, “it is written.”1
Jesus noted that heaven and earth would pass away, but not his word (Matt 24:35; Luke 13:31; 21:33); and it’s interesting to note that he said the same thing about the law of the Old Testament (Matt 5:18; Luke 16:17).
Paul (2 Tim 3:16)
Paul fought against Judaizing tendencies that would impose the works of the law upon Gentile converts, but that didn’t mean abandoning the authority of the Old Testament. So he reminded Timothy,
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. (2 Tim 3:16–17)
Clearly, he was referring to the Old Testament. He had told Timothy to stick with what he had been “taught by the holy Scriptures from childhood” (2 Tim 3:14–15). That couldn’t have referred to other New Testament books, since Paul’s own writings were the earliest books that came to be included in the New Testament.
We’ll leave it there for now, but when we come to the chapter on a Christian approach to the law, we’ll say much more about both Jesus and Paul’s language about the revealed usefulness of the Old Testament, and the law in particular.
The Scriptures recount an inspired—and irreversible—story line that worked itself out in history.
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Gal 4:4, ESV). God didn’t hang the tablets of the law in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, hand some tablets to Noah as he left the ark, or dictate them to Abraham during a vision. God didn’t station the apostles John and Paul just outside Eden’s gate with copies of the law—plus John, Romans and Galatians, and the book of Revelation. Jesus didn’t appear with Peter, James, and John the Baptist on Sinai; rather, Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. The Scriptures recount an inspired—and irreversible—story line that worked itself out in history.
When we speak of progressive revelation, we don’t speak of progression from the shades of error toward the light of truth; rather, we speak of progression from inspired shadow to perfect reality. So in the Old Testament, God revealed his plan of salvation by repeated sacrifices that kept foreshadowing atonement that could only find fulfillment in Jesus’ once-for-all offering (Heb 7:27; 9:26; 10:10). He revealed his presence in the tabernacle and temple, but they were only a “copy and shadow” of the heavenly real heavenly temple (Heb 8:5). He appointed the Davidic dynasty to declare his intent to rule via human vice-regency (2 Sam 7; 1 Chr 17), but this foreshadowed his victorious rule through Jesus Christ the Son of David.
This kind of progression leads us to speak of unity and diversity when we describe the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. We certainly find diversity. We read the grand narrative of creation, fall, and flood. We read the national story of Israel’s origins, enslavement, and deliverance. We read the record of God’s law for his people, of their long record of disobedience, and of the prophets that God sent as prosecuting attorneys and preachers of repentance. As the book of Hebrew says, “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets” (Heb 1:1).
But we also find unity in its singular divine authorship; we don’t hear that in olden days various gods said a whole lot of mutually contradictory things. No, “Long ago God spoke.” This was the voice of the in-the-beginning God, a message from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the self-revelation of the “Holy One of Israel.”2 The whole of the Bible is God’s word (logos), from Genesis to Revelation; and Jesus is the highest manifestation of the divine Logos.
So the summary of God’s self-revelation follows on: “And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb 1:2b). The Gospel of John describes this climax of God’s self-revelation this way:
In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son…. From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. (John 1:1, 14, 16–18)
Jesus himself put a Christological framework around all of the Scriptures from original creation to new creation, from the garden of Eden to Gethsemane and Golgotha, from David’s Jerusalem to the Son of David’s new Jerusalem. When Jesus’s followers figured they had lost the one they had reckoned to be the Messiah, he rebuked them, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25). Notice that he didn’t rebuke them for failing to listen to his preaching and take it to heart; rather, he rebuked them for their ignorance of the Old Testament, which “clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer… before entering his glory” (Luke 24:26).
So to straighten them out, he didn’t give them a new Sermon on the Mount; instead, he gave them a eye-opening Christological lesson on how to read the Bible: “Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). As he continued in fellowship around the Word and the table, “their eyes were opened” (Luke 24:31). This lead them to marvel: “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
They went to report this to Jesus’s disciples, and mid-report, Jesus appeared among them (Luke 24:25–36). In response to their fearful unbelief, he invited them to look at him, to touch him, to eat with him (Luke 24:37–43). And again he prescribed Christological lenses for Bible reading:
He said, “When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44–45)
The Apostle Paul didn’t attend that class on the Emmaus road; however, Jesus did appear to him on the Damascus road, and in some fashion, Paul swapped out old and clouded rabbinic lenses for crystal clear Christological lenses. He learned to exult: “All of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20).
It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”—Mark Twain
A hallmark of Reformation Christianity is the insistence upon the perspecuity (“clarity”) or Scripture. It’s not an occult book requiring dark arts—or PhDs—to read. Believers can, like the open-minded Jews in Berea, “search the Scriptures day after day” and arrive at the truth (Acts 17:10–11). Believers, like the psalmist, can pray, “Open my eyes so I can truly see the marvelous things in your law” (Ps 119:18).
So we can chuckle with Mark Twain, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” Nonetheless, we also join Peter in noting that Paul wrote some things that are “hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:15–16a)—and so did Daniel, and Ezekiel, and Zechariah, and and John.
What do we make of this? Wayne Grudem warns:
In a day when it is common for people to tell us how hard it is to interpret Scripture rightly, we would do well to remember that not once in the Gospels do we ever hear Jesus saying anything like this: “I see how your problem arose—the Scriptures are not very clear on that subject.” Instead, whether he is speaking to scholars or untrained common people, his responses always assume that the blame for misunderstanding any teaching of Scripture is not to be placed on the Scriptures themselves, but on those who misunderstand or fail to accept what is written. Again and again he answers questions with statements like, “Have you not read…” (Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:14; 22:31), “Have you never read in the scriptures…” (Matt. 21:42), or even, “You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29; cf. Matt. 9:13; 12:7; 15:3; 21:13; John 3:10; et al.).3
Peter’s own note continues, “and those who are ignorant and unstable” get it wrong and end up destroying themselves (v. 16b). When Jesus’s Emmaus road followers were getting it wrong, he didn’t whisper, “I see how your problem arose, I’m sorry I wasn’t quite clear on that bit.” No. He said, “So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said?” (Luke 24:25, The Message). Paul mirrored that when he warned that bad Bible reading comes from hearts that are hardened and veiled, a condition that the coming of Christ should correct (2 Cor 3:14–18).
Whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. (2 Cor 3:16–18)
Even the Old Testament itself presumes that you can teach it to your children (Deut 6:6–7), that it can give the simple wisdom and understanding (Pss 19:7; 119:13).
Of course that doesn’t mean everything is equally clear. Even after God softens our hearts and clears our eyes, we still confess, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). We must recognize this: “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Cor 3:12).
So what God has not yet revealed, we don’t see; but what he has revealed within his Scriptures he has truly revealed. We confess,
The Bible is written in such a way that all things necessary for our salvation and for our Christian life and growth are very clearly set forth in Scripture…. the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it.4
Even believers may still misunderstand the Scriptures—or fail to grasp their full implication. Jesus’s own disciples often failed in this.5 Sometimes it was because further revelation was needed, which would come only with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. But often it was that they needed teaching. And Jesus Christ has not left his church without teachers (1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11).
Some teach in pulpits before congregations, some in seminary classrooms, and some through writing. I trust reading this will encourage you “with wholesome teaching” (Titus 1:9). And I hope this finds readers who follow the noble pattern of some Jews in Berea: They proved to be “more open-minded,… and they listened eagerly,” and then “they searched the Scriptures day after day” to check out what they were being taught (Acts 17:11–12).
Should God bless us all with that due diligence, we may together find our eyes and minds opened and our hearts set aflame. So with the psalmist, let’s pray,
Deal bountifully with thy servant, that I may live, and keep thy word. Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.
Ps 119:17–18, KJV
Let’s have no truck with Marcionte rejection of the Old Testament or with moralistic legalism—let alone some romantic notion of a return of Judaism. Let us find the Christotelic straight and narrow and never turn away from it. If we do that, we’ll find our eyes and hearts opened, we’ll find that dim shadows of Old Testament imagery blaze into light through the fulfillment in Christ Jesus. The law written on crumbling stone and ricochetting off stony hearts can be written on the fleshly tablets of hearts and set aflame by the Holy Spirit. The promises to the seed of woman, to the seed of Abraham, to the Davidic dynasty find fulfillment in Christ. The promise of deliverance from Egyptian bondage and return from Babylonian exile find fulfillment in deliverance from slavery to sin and in reconciliation in Christ Jesus. Oh yes! The coming of Christ is God’s resounding “Yes!” to his whole plan of salvation. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!
We once visited a church once where my wife heard the pastor’s wife boast, “I don’t read anything but the Bible.” Staking that claim to illiteracy was bad enough, but she dug herself in deeper: “In fact, I just read the New Testament—not the Old Testament.” Janice waited until we were many miles down the road away from that church before she reported that conversation. She feared I might turn right around head back for an argument.
The New Testament itself treats the Old Testament as authoritative Scripture, useful for doctrine, practice, and teaching. That was Jesus’s approach (Matt 5:17–19), it was Paul’s approach (2 Tim 3:16–17)—it’s the approach of historic orthodoxy. The Bible without an Old Testament purges the very Scriptures that Jesus and the apostles used. They argued, “It is written…” and used the Old Testament as the very word of God.
A “Bible” without an Old Testament is not a Christian Bible. Studies that consistently avoid the Old Testament are not biblical Bible study. Bible translations that begin with the New Testament and move slowly to include the Old Testament pass along this unbiblical infection to new audiences. They give Christian converts the Bible in an order that contravenes the order of divine revelation; it gives them the New Testament in a context that differs critically from the context in which God himself set it.
On the other hand, we must advance beyond Old Testament revelation, or we risk opting out of God’s salvation in Christ Jesus.
Generally speaking, finding the happy medium isn’t an apostolic mandate for the church. But in this matter, the church must avoid extremes, from the Marcionite rejection to moralistic legalism or even Judaizing apostasy.
One extreme that genuine Christianity has always avoided is that option that the Gnostic heretic Marcion (AD 75–155) propounded. He rejected the Jewish Scriptures and their God, because he viewed any God that would get his hands dirty with the grubby material world as inferior to a God who was pure spirit—in the way Marcion saw “pure spirit.” So he taught a total distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the Christians, rejected the Old Testament entirely, and accepted only an abbreviated and mutilated New Testament. And once he had weaned his New Testament of obvious Old Testament influence, he didn’t have much left.
This view still hangs on around the fringes of Christianity. I can remember arguing with one of my faculty colleagues years ago. He would have stoutly insisted that he was an orthodox Christian, but he wasn’t. He adamantly refused to attribute the same authority to the Old Testament that he recognized in the New Testament—despite what the New Testament itself declares about the Old Testament’s authority. I argued, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true” (2 Tim 3:16); but he responded, “Yes, but not as useful.” My rejoinder was, “as useful as the Bible can be!” When I pressed my colleague on this essential issue of early Christian orthodoxy, he told me that he could understand how Marcion could take the position that he took.
The believing church has refused to go there.
The opposite error, which genuine Christianity has struggled with from apostolic times till today, is to approach the Old Testament as the source of a moral code that will keep God happy with us if we’re pretty much able to obey its commands and manage to emulate its heroes. Paul fought against this in his doctrinal battles with the Judaizers who tried to impose the old covenant sign of circumcision upon the Gentile believers in Galatia. Beware of any form of Christianity that accepts that God provides our initial salvation, but then says we must then employ the works of the law to work our way into a sanctified life.
The final danger, is one that the book of Hebrews addressed. It’s necessary to highlight it again these days, with people who talk about going back to our “Hebrew roots.” If they meant “back to our Scriptural roots in the Old Testament,” I would fully concur. But they appear to mean back to the Old Testament types and shadows even though the reality has come. I warn that the least of the dangers this siren call poses is legalism, and the worst is the apostasy about which the book of Hebrews warns us.
The book opens, “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb 1:1). This opening implies that the Old Testament is the word of God. But it also speaks of moving to a different level of revelation and a message that poses a greater manifestation of God’s salvation. We now have one greater than the angels (Heb 1–2), better than Adam (Rom 5:12–21), better than Melchizedek (Heb 7). We now have a better covenant with a better priest (Heb 8), a better tabernacle (Heb 9), and a better and final offering (Heb 10). Trying to return to old covenant forms is not just a matter of going back to what’s old and familiar—or even ancient and exotic. It’s rejecting the only salvation there is. This salvation revealed in Jesus Christ isn’t just an optional development of the salvation foreshadowed in the Old Testament; it’s the only true fulfillment of God’s biblical plan of salvation. It’s the final work of salvation that which came in Christ Jesus (Heb 2:1–3; 10:19–13:25).
Fairbairn deals with the problematic idea of a “double sense,” which he rejects in his comments on the second, third, and fourth possibilities for relating prophecy and type. Basically, he treats it as an issue of the unity of the Old and New Testaments.
Problems with the Idea of a double sense
Fairbairn rejected the common theory of double sense for prophecies.1 He warned that we can’t operate as if the double sense of prophecy were like the double sense of allegory, as if there were a sense proper to the Old Testament but yet another sense proper to the New Testament. He said accepting this idea would foreclose on our ability to understand any prophecy that we identified as having this double sense. Indeed, it would preclude our understanding of any prophecy—at least until the consummation, which would finally close off the options for any additional sense being added to a prophecy. He considered it better to talk of a single sense, which might be applied to more than one event (1.133). Here he noted that some prophecies are in fact more typical and specific:
There are prophecies which were not so much designed to foretell definite events, as to unfold great prospects and results, in respect to the manifestation of God’s purposes of grace and truth toward men. Such prophecies were of necessity general and comprehensive in their terms, and admitted of manifold fulfillment. (1.134)
In fact, he thought it impossible that there should be prophecies with a double sense, in the strictest sense of the word:
We dispute the fact on which it is founded, that there really are prophecies… predictive of similar though disparate series of events, strictly applicable to each, and in each finding their fulfillment…. The terms of several predictions are more to be put to torture, in order to get one of the two senses extracted from them. (1.134)
Actually, this notion of double sense arises from prophecies of such a general nature that they are obviously unlikely to be fulfilled exclusively in any particular example. All this double sense idea does is complicate the interpretation of prophecy and cast doubt on the proper understanding of any prophecy (1.135).
Relation between Predictive Prophecy and Typology
As a special consideration, we should look at how two forward-looking feature of Old Testament revelation relate to each other, how predictive prophecy and forward-looking typology overlap.
Not all notices that something in the New Testament happened to fulfill something in the Old Testament are referring to an Old Testament prediction.
Jesus Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets
We see that in various places, such as the repeated use of the fulfillment formulas in his birth narratives, the Gospel according to Matthew repeatedly notes that something happened in Jesus’s early life “to fulfill” (ἵνα πληρωθῇ/hina plērōthē) something that something the Old Testament spoke of. And later in the book, Matthew records Jesus’s own notice, “I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish (πληρόω/plēroō) their purpose (Matt 5:17).
Although fulfilling the prophets might actually involve Jesus doing something that a prophet had predicted; certainly fulfilling the law wasn’t about that. And for that matter, fulfilling is set over against the false option of “abolishing” (καταλύω/katalyō), not over against a false prophet’s failed predictions. Matthew’s fulfillment formulas do indeed refer to things prophets had said; however, most lack any sense of earlier prediction and later performance. Instead, they participate in a typological pattern of foreshadowing and fulfillment.
When Ahaz doubted God’s word, Isaiah announced, “For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign.2 Look, this young woman3 is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14, NET).4 This was a sign for Ahaz, to be fulfilled in his own lifetime, even before the baby got out of his youth. But Matthew construed this as a type of Jesus’s virgin birth as the ultimate sign-child (Matt 1:22–23; quoting Isa 7:14 LXX).
“Out of Egypt have I called my Son”
Jesus’s escape to Egypt until Herod’s death typologically fulfilled Israel’s escape from Egypt, which Hosea had recorded not as a prediction but as prophetic interpretation of the exodus, which was seven centuries in Hosea’s past (Matt 2:15; quoting Hos 11:1).
“He will be called a Nazarene”
Jesus’s home in Nazareth fulfilled an Old Testament expectancy that “he will be called a Nazarene.” This cites not Old Testament text at all but rather “the substance of more than one OT passage.”5 Some suggest wordplay linking Nazareth (Ναζαρέτ/Nazaret) and Nazarene (Ναζαραῖος/Nazaraios) with the totally unrelated Hebrew term נֵזֶר/nēzer, whether the term for the Nazirite vow of consecration and abstention6 or for the “branch,” standing for a remnant of the nation or the surviving representative of the Davidic line.7 Note that the second of these suggestions works only in Hebrew and that the Gospel according to Matthew is written in Greek.8 Perhaps Daniel Harrington’s note is as good as we’ll get on this:
The alleged quotation is neither a direct quotation nor adaptation of any known OT text. The term “Nazorean” has three principle derivations: from the place-name Nazareth, from nāzir as one devoted to God (see Judg 13:5, 7), and from nētser meaning “branch” and used with reference to the Messiah (see Isa 11:1). It is likely that the readers were expected to keep all three connotations in mind rather than one alone. The latter two would qualify the expression as a biblical quotation, and the first would tie them into the place in which Jesus lived.9
And the connection to Nazareth would have had to do with its obscurity, which Josephus didn’t even list as a town in Galilee, a fact that the New Testament rhetoric reflects (John 1:45–46; see also 7:41, 52.10
And so it went with most of the fulfillment formulas in Matthew, Mark, and John; most adopted a typological approach to fulfillment of Old Testament language from the prophets messages and from the psalmist’s life.11
Predictions can be related to typological patterns rather than a single conclusive fulfillment.
Sometimes predictions establish further typological patterns.
Daniel’s Antiochus Epiphanes
Daniel’s prophecy of an arrogant ruler (Dan 8:9–14, 23–25) was initially fulfilled in the deeds of Antiochus Epiphanes.12 But Antiochus became a symbols (S) of the arrogant royal office-holder who attempts to usurp divine prerogatives (T1), which finds further fulfillments in the “many antichrists” (T2…) and some kind of final fulfillment in the Antichrist (Tn). This (T) has its background in Adam disobeying and grasping the divine prerogative of determinative knowledge of good and evil,13 the throne usurping king of Babylon,14 and the prince of Tyre, the last of which Ezekiel actually describes with a backward glance at the usurper’s spirit manifested in Adam’s disobedience.15 And Jesus echoes some of the associated imagery in what I take to be a prediction of AD 70.16
God promised Ahaz a sign-child born to an עַלְמָה/ʿalmâ.17 This sign-child (S) would signify that God was with his people, so people would call him “Immanuel.”18 In the context of this prophecy, Isaiah says, “I and the children the LORD has given me serve as signs and warnings to Israel from the LORD of Heaven’s Armies who dwells in his Temple on Mount Zion” (Isa 8:18), so perhaps this was the prophet’s own sign-child named “Mahar-shalal-hashbaz” (Isa 8:3). The other option would be a royal son born into Ahaz’s royal household, which would have been Hezekiah. But whatever the case, this prophecy must have been fulfilled at one level during Ahaz’s immediate future, or Isaiah would have been prophesying Ahaz and sign he would never see (Isa 7:10–25, esp. vv. 16–18). Whoever that child was, he served as a symbol (S) of the “Immanuel” principle (T1), which found its ultimate fulfillment when Jesus was born of the virgin Mary and was indeed “God with us” (Tn), not bearing it as a symbolic title but as eternal ontological identity (Matt 1:23).
Here’s a wonderful “little bibliography” on biblical theology. It provides suggestions for everything from ministry to little children to the reading and study for the intellectually curious adult. Some of you may even find in it a textbook for a small group or Sunday school class study.