How To Read the Old Testament According to Jesus

Jesus said, “If you had believed Moses, you would have believed me, for he wrote of me” (Jn 5:46). As he trained the disciples on the road to Emmaus on how to interpret the Bible, Jesus said, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn’t it necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Lk 24:25-26). Jesus’ words to the disciples on Emmaus were a rebuke. They had been reading their Bibles, but they had not been reading the appropriately.

            Jesus said that for us to read the Old and New Testaments appropriately we should read with an eye toward what the Text reveals about Jesus. This is a Christ centered or Christotelic reading of Scripture. The best way for us to learn how to read the OT and NT is to allow the writers of Scripture to teach us how to read Scripture. In this study, we will look at how some NT writers interpreted OT passages to show us how we should read the OT to see Jesus.

Basic Hermeneutical Principles

            Before we dig into Christological hermeneutics, it is important to remind ourselves of how to read the Scriptures. We read and interpret every day. As we read and interpret the Scriptures, we are applying similar principles that we use every single day of our lives.

            First, we recognize that the text has meaning. Meaning is not created by the reader. Meaning is not determined by how the reader reacts to the text. The text means something. This meaning that is in the text of Scripture is seen when Jesus said, “you do err, knowing neither the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt 22:29).

            Next, we want to discover the meaning of the text through understanding the meaning of words, clauses, paragraphs, and books. Words are important because words have meaning. Words have meaning only in their context. Jesus built an entire argument for his deity based on the tense of the word “I AM” (Mk 12:27). Words have meaning as they are put into sentences and grow into larger contexts. As we learn the meaning of words and the placement of those words into sentences and paragraphs, we can comprehend the meaning intended by the original author.

            We also want to read the Scriptures with their historical context in mind. The importance of historical context is demonstrated in passages like 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul based his argument on “the present distress.” The historical situation of the seven churches of Asia addressed in Revelation is especially important to grasp the meaning of the text (the poor water situation in Laodicea, for example).

            Finally, we must also accept what the passage teaches us about God. Not every passage will be a Messianic prophecy, but we should expect to learn something about God from most passages in Scripture. The preeminent way we learn about God is through Christ. We should expect to learn about God through Jesus since Jesus is the Word of God, the radiance of the glory of God and exact imprint of his character, and the Son of God. But how do we learn about Jesus in the Old Testament? Let us learn how to read Christologically from the New Testament writers themselves.

Learning to Read in Matthew’s Gospel

            Matthew’s Gospel is famous for the phrase “that it might be fulfilled.” The word “fulfilled” (πληρωθῇ) is used 16 times in the NASBU 95 translation of Matthew. The first time we find the word “fulfilled” it is used in Matthew 1:22 to describe the virgin birth of our Savior first described in Isaiah 7:14. The Isaiah prophecy is a bit more direct than other prophecies which are fulfilled. The next time we see a prophecy of Christ fulfilled in Jesus’ life is in Matthew 2:15 which quotes Hosea 11:1 (and also alludes to Num 24:8). The passage in Hosea 11:1 does not immediately point the reader to the then expected Messiah. However, we remember that Jesus is the archetypal Son of God and that Israel is the ectypal son of God, then we can see how that the history of Israel is recapitulated in the life of Christ. More simply, major events in Israel’s history were “recycled” and improved by similar events in the life of Jesus. These OT events were seen by the NT authors as typological prophecies or foreshadows of what Jesus would do.

Matthew 8 records another great fulfillment of an OT prophecy. When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, Matthew said Jesus’ healing was to fulfill Isaiah 53:4 quoted in Matthew 8:17 as “he himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.” According to Matthew 13:35, Jesus’ use of parables in his teaching and preaching fulfilled the words of Psalm 78:2. Again, Psalm 78:2 does not immediately lend itself to a Christological prophecy based on the grammar alone. However, when we remember that Jesus said that the OT is about him, then we are better equipped to understand that the OT prepares us for Christ by giving glimpses of Christ throughout the OT Scriptures.

Learning to Read in Hebrews

            The book of Hebrews has received a great deal of recent scholarly study on how the writer interprets the OT. At the very beginning of the book, the preacher of Hebrews quotes Psalm 2:7 (CSB) “I have become your Father (ילד to father or beget)” to demonstrate the Sonship of Christ. In Hebrews 1:5, the preacher quoted 2 Samuel 7:17 in which God promised David that there would be a future ruler from God. This prophecy can easily be seen as the coming Christ, until 2 Sam 7:14b when we read that this ruler would commit sin and be punished by God. These cannot said of our sinless Savior. We must understand, then, that 2 Samuel 7 ultimately points us to Christ but that it is also fulfilled in David’s son.

Hebrews 1:8 quotes the powerful passage from Psalm 45:6-7. There Jesus is described as the Son to whom the Father said, “but to the Son: Your throne, God, is forever and ever, and the scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of justice. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; this is why God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joy beyond your companions.” An important aspect of this description of Jesus is that the Psalmist is said to have recorded a conversation between the Father and the Son.

Principles for Reading with an Eye Toward Christ

            One of the best scholars on the relationship of OT and NT passages is G. K. Beale has written an incredible resource titled Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament which I highly recommend. He has also written the Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation. In Beale’s Handbook he listed 9 steps for interpreting the OT in light of the NT:

1.   Identify the OT reference. Is it a quotation or allusion? If it is an allusion, then there must be validation that it is an allusion, judging by the criteria discussed in the preceding chapter.

2.   Analyze the broad NT context where the OT reference occurs.

3.   Analyze the OT context both broadly and immediately, especially thoroughly interpreting the paragraph in which the quotation or allusion occurs.

4.   Survey the use of the OT text in early and late Judaism that might be of relevance to the NT appropriation of the OT text.

5.   Compare the texts (including their textual variants): NT, LXX, MT, and targums, early Jewish citations (DSS, the Pseudepigrapha, Josephus, Philo). Underline or color-code the various differences.

6.   Analyze the author’s textual use of the OT. (Which text does the author rely on, or is the author making his own rendering, and how does this bear on the interpretation of the OT text?)

7.   Analyze the author’s interpretative (hermeneutical) use of the OT.

8.   Analyze the author’s theological use of the OT.

9.   Analyze the author’s rhetorical use of the OT.[1]

These are incredibly helpful steps which will help us take seriously the immediate meaning of OT passages and their ultimate connection to Christ.

            Modern readers are most familiar with the grammar and history of the OT and NT texts. We are not quite as familiar with the process of showing how the OT (and NT) passages teach about Jesus. Beal helps modern readers to understand how ancient readers saw Christ in OT passages through the presuppositions which the readers held. These five presuppositions which help us to understand how and why we should see Christ in OT passages the way NT writers did are:

1.   Corporate solidarity or representation is assumed.

2.   On the basis of point 1 above, Christ is viewed as representing the true Israel of the OT and the true Israel—the church—in the NT.

3.   History is unified by a wise and sovereign plan so that the earlier parts are designed to correspond and point to the later parts (cf. Matt. 11:13–14).

4.   The age of eschatological fulfillment has come but has not been fully consummated in Christ.

5.   As a consequence of point 4, it may be deduced that the later parts of biblical history function as the broader context to interpret earlier parts because they all have the same, ultimate divine author, who inspires the various human authors. One deduction from this premise is that Christ and his glory as the end-time center and goal of redemptive history are the key to interpreting the earlier portions of the OT and its promises.[2]

In these five presuppositions, there is an emphasis on Christ’s connection to his people as a representative. The life of the people is connected to Christ just as the life of Christ is connected to the people. These presuppositions will help us to see how NT authors, like Matthew and the writer of Hebrews, saw Christ in passages we might not using only grammatical studies.

[1] G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 42–43.

[2] G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 53.

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