9. New Testament practice
‘For [Apollos] vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the scriptures that Jesus is the Christ’
Last month we began to consider the subject ‘Preaching Christ from the Old Testament’. I asked two questions — firstly, should we always seek to present Christ when preaching from the Old Testament, whatever the passage in view; and secondly, how may we do so in practice?
I answered the first of these questions in the affirmative. Among the most telling of the NT Scriptures supporting this view is 1 Peter 1:10-11 — the Old Testament writers themselves ‘inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what … the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when he testified beforehand of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow’.
Having confidence, therefore, that the whole Old Testament does indeed testify of Christ, we now turn to the second question: How may we find Christ in the OT Scriptures that we might preach him from them? This enquiry will occupy the remaining articles in this series.
Reasoning from the Scriptures
All would agree, I imagine, that we should be guided in this matter by New Testament practice. The only ‘Bible’ available to most of the NT writers and preachers was the Old Testament. What better instructor could we have, therefore, than the New Testament if we want to preach Christ from the Old!
New Testament practice in this matter is exemplified by two statement in Acts. Firstly, when Paul arrived in Thessalonica and went to the synagogue, he ‘reasoned with them from the [OT] Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ”’ (17:2-3).
Secondly: ‘[Apollos] vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ’ (18:28).
But exactly how did the New Testament writers and preachers ‘find’ Christ in all the Scriptures? They did so at three levels — in direct references to the Messiah, in types and pictures, and in what I will call ‘obscure references’.
Firstly and most clearly, they found Old Testament references that speak plainly of the Messiah and his kingdom. The many prophecies of Christ’s coming are obvious examples, often reflected in the refrain ‘That it might be fulfilled…’.
These or similar words are found no fewer than 16 times in Matthew’s Gospel, beginning with Matthew 1:22-23: ‘So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel”, which being interpreted is, God with us’.
Likewise in Luke 4:21 Jesus declares concerning himself, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ (he was referring to Isaiah 61:1-2). Similar statements occur throughout the Gospels, Acts and Revelation.
Another kind of direct reference is found where the NT takes up an OT passage concerning Jehovah (or JAHWEH) and applies it — without any reticence or apology — to Christ. An outstanding example is God’s statement in Isaiah 45:23: ‘I have sworn by myself; the word has gone out of my mouth in righteousness and shall not return, that to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath’.
Paul applies this Scripture to Christ, not once but twice — in Romans 14:10-11 and Philippians 2:9-11: ‘God also has highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’.
A further example is John 12:37-41, which tells us that Isaiah’s temple vision was of Christ enthroned (Isaiah 6:10).
Types and pictures
At the second level, the New Testament writers and teachers discovered Christ in Old Testament types and pictures. Buck’s Theological Dictionary defines a type as ‘an impression, image, or representation of some model, which is termed the antitype’. Biblical antitypes include Christ himself, the death of Christ, the church and kingdom of Christ, salvation, and other spiritual realities.
A type can also be defined as something that is self-evidently symbolic — for example, the mercy seat symbolised Christ crucified as both the cause and locus of God’s mercy to sinners.
Needless to say, the Old Testament teems with such types and pictures which (as we saw last month) were specifically given to provide insight, instruction and illumination in relation to their new-covenant antitypes. This is why they constitute such a rich store of material for Christ-centred preaching today.
Such types and pictures include: animal sacrifices representing Christ’s atoning work (e.g. ‘Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us’); OT kings, priests and warriors representing Christ’s kingdom, priestly intercession and spiritual conquests; Moses representing Christ’s headship; the tabernacle representing Christ’s ministry; the Shekinah representing Christ’s glory; the rock representing Christ in his eternal power; Israel representing Christ’s people; the promised land representing salvation; and the temple representing Christ’s church.
The third level at which the New Testament writers found Christ in the Old is less clear-cut but just as real. There are places in the NT where OT texts are applied to Christ which would otherwise seem to have no Christological significance.
One example is Galatians 3:16, where Paul interprets the promise made to Abraham’s ‘seed’ as referring to Christ in person, when we would more naturally understand it to mean Abraham’s descendants generally. Again, in Galatians 4:21-31, he uses the story of Sarah and Hagar as a profound allegory concerning the old and new covenants.
Another case is Isaiah 8:16-18: ‘Bind up the testimony. Seal the law among my disciples … I will hope in [the Lord]. Here am I and the children whom the Lord has given me!’ Hebrews 2:12-14 apply these words to Christ, even though their messianic import is far from clear in the OT text. The same is true of other Scriptures cited in Hebrews, such as Psalm 8:4-6 (Hebrews 2:6-9) and Habakkuk 2:3-4 (Hebrews 10:36-39).
Peter takes up Proverbs 26:11 — ‘a dog returns to his own vomit’ — and applies it to those who apostasise from Christ. And who would recognise Christ and his gospel in the personified ‘wisdom’ of Proverbs 8 unless Paul had written, ‘Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:24)? So we could continue.
Clearly, this ‘obscure’ category is broad, embracing everything from a single proverb to a lengthy narrative like the story of Joseph — where there is an ‘obscure’ but discernible pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection. We probably need to include here also the ‘theophanies’ (appearances of God) where the Lord appeared to Old Testament believers in human form (e.g. Joshua 5:13-15; Daniel 3:24-25).
A problem that confronts us with ‘obscure texts’ is that the NT authors wrote under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit — ensuring that their interpretations are reliable. But if we ourselves impose Christological interpretations on ‘obscure’ OT texts that are not specifically mentioned in the NT, we have no such guarantee.
This is true, and we need to be cautious in approaching such texts. However, we must also remember that we have a general remit to interpret the OT in a Christological manner, as we saw last month. It is important to keep this balance in mind.
A classic example is the centuries-old debate over the interpretation of the Song of Solomon. Is it just a beautiful and instructive love story? Or is it an allegory concerning Christ and his church?
I believe it speaks of Christ and the church. Why? Because the church is pictured in several NT Scriptures as the bride of Christ the bridegroom. From this new-covenant perspective the Song of Solomon makes most sense if understood in this way.
This is instructive. We need to justify our interpretation of an OT text in terms of overall NT teaching. But provided we can do so, we should not hesitate to expound it in a Christological manner.
As a preliminary to preaching Christ from the Old Testament we need to discover Christ therein. How may we do so? By following the practice of the New Testament writers and preachers, who for the most part had no Scriptures except the Old Testament.
Of course, they were themselves in the process of receiving fresh revelation (Ephesians 3:5) — which is no longer the case with us. But they were careful to demonstrate that this new revelation was wholly consistent with the Old Testament, and commended those like the Bereans who ‘received the word [the NT gospel] with all readiness and searched the [OT] Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so’ (Acts 17:11).
At each level, therefore, we should adopt a New Testament perspective and follow New Testament practice as we seek to find Christ in the Old Testament — in direct references, typology and even obscure texts.