Defining the Big Picture (Part 2)

Tracing Motific Trajectories throughout the Grand Narrative

Weimar ( Thuringia ). Herder church: Altar (1555) of the crucifixion of Christ by Lucas Cranach the Younger

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

Jan Mostaert (1475-1522/23), "The Tree of Jesse"
Jan Mostaert (1475-1522/23), “The Tree of Jesse”

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?”

The New Testament Looks Back

David between Wisdom and Prophecy
David between Wisdom and Prophecy

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


  1. E. P. Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (P&R, 1961), esp. 98–112; Francis Foulkes, “The Acts of God: A Study in the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament” (1975); G. W. H. Lampe, “The Reasonableness of Typology,” in Essays on Typology, ed. G. W. H. Lampe and K. J. Woolcombe, Studies in Biblical Theology (London: SCM, 1957), 9–38; Geerhardus Vos, “Symbol and Type,” in Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1948), 144–48; K. J. Woollcombe, “The Biblical Origins and Patristic Development of Typology,” in Essays on Typology, 39–75.
  2. Gerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Eerdmans, 1948); E. Earle Ellis, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament (Oliver & Boyd, 1961); Leonhard Goppelt, “Τύπος, Ἀντίτυπος, Τυπικός, Ὑποτύποσις,” in TDNT, 8.246–59; E. Earle Ellis, “How the New Testament Uses the Old,” in New Testament Interpretation (Paternoster, 1977), 199–219; Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (Yale University Press, 1989); Richard B. Hays, “Christ Prays the Psalms: Paul’s Use of an Early Christian Exegetical Convention,” in Future of Christology: Essays in Honor of Leander E. Keck (Fortress, 1993), 122–36; Richard B. Hays, “Reading Scripture in the Light of the Resurrection,” in The Art of Reading Scripture (Eerdmans, 2003), 216–38.
  3. Henry M. Shires, Finding the Old Testament in the New (Westminster, 1974); Gleason Leonard Archer and Gregory Chirichigno, Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament (Moody, 1983); Greg K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2007).
  4. That’s if we’re reading an English Bible. The Hebrew Bible ends with Cyrus’s declaration at the send of 2 Chronicles and the Septuagint ends with apocryphal books.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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