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:
- Divine authority
- Progressive revelation
- 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)
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.
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).
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,Ps 119:17–18, KJV
that I may live, and keep thy word.
Open thou mine eyes,
that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.
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!