From part (2) in the series, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, by Kevin Daly
“A basic problem I see in your hermeneutical principle is you seem to use the New Testament to interpret what the Old Testament says, but I think that is the wrong way to go about it.” ~ Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum
Scripture must be interpreted according to its own requirements. We should consider: What does the New Testament claim to be? Does it claim to be a fuller and more complete revelation of things revealed earlier? Does it present itself as God’s decisive revelation to man – in other words, that revelation which is intended to settle once for all everything that God had planned from the outset? Does it proclaim the fulfilment of what God promised earlier?
A positive answer to these questions requires that we read the Old Testament in light of the New.
Alternatively, does the New Testament simply apply the earlier Scriptures to its own message, a message that is in addition to or separate from prior revelation? Does the New Testament refer to the Old Testament anecdotally when it claims to fulfill its promises? Does the New Testament perhaps fulfill new promises based on Old Testament precedents? When the New Testament claims to reveal what was intended by or understood in the Old Testament, is it merely suggesting one of several possible interpretations?
A positive response to these questions would support Dr Fruchtenbaum’s mode of interpretation.
Firstly, what is the New Testament?
The New Testament comprises the ordained writings that testify to the life and teachings, death and resurrection, and enthronement in glory, of the eternal Christ. It also describes the implications of these events for humanity – the scheme of forgiveness and salvation that God has wrought through them and the consequences that follow, being reconciliation and eternal life for those who believe, and condemnation for those who do not. This testimony proclaims Jesus as
- the One by whom and for whom the universe was created (Col 1:16);
- the Word of God, the fullness and completion of His revelation to man (Col 1:25; Heb 1:1);
- the fulfilment of all God’s promises (2 Cor 1:20) and the means by which God’s eternal purpose has been accomplished (Eph 3:11);
- God’s eternal plan for reconciling all things to Himself (Col 1:20; 1 Pet 1:20);
- the exalted and glorified King who is ruling from heaven with angels and powers in submission to him (1 Pet 3:22).
The New Testament proclaims the unmitigated success of Jesus’ mission.
“Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations,was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16)
Jesus completed the work the Father gave him to do (John 17:4). Even his rejection by the unfaithful segment of Israel was an intended consequence of his mission (Mat 11:25-26; 1 Pet 2:8).
Jesus is proclaimed to be “the wisdom of God, and in him is contained all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). We need to know this in order that “no one may deceive [us] by fine-sounding arguments” (Col 2:4). In Jesus all things hold together (Col 1:17). All things include Scripture.
The New Testament describes those who read the Old Testament without the light of Christ as veiled.
“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor 3:15-16).
The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Revelation 19:10):
“The spirit of prophecy is a general testimony concerning Jesus, for he is the scope and design of the whole Scripture; to him gave all the prophets witness. Take Jesus, his grace, Spirit, and religion out of the Bible, and it has neither scope, design, object, nor end”. ~ Adam Clark commentary on Revelations 19:10.
The Talmud makes a similar claim: “All the prophets prophesied not but of the days of the Messiah”.
How, then, should the revelation of Christ (the message of the New Testament) affect our interpretation of the Old?
Let us consider some of the New Testament’s principal claims:
(i) the light of Christ outshines the prophets of the Old Testament:
God spoke to the Old Testament prophets in riddles, through “dreams and visions” (i.e. not plainly or literally), but spoke to Moses face to face (Numbers 12:6-8). The greater clarity of God’s revelation to Moses requires that later prophesies be read in his light. Jesus was found worthy of greater honour than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honour than the house itself (Hebrews 3:3). In Jesus, “we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19)
The light of Old Testament prophecy (in the allegory of stars shining in the night) is, at first, outshone by the bright Morning Star (Revelation 22:16) and is then made invisible (i.e. altogether superseded) by the light of dawn.
Jesus reveals the reality alluded to by Old Testament types and shadows. What was previously understood only by analogy and allusion becomes abundantly clear in him. Those who believe and whose hearts are open to his truth, may now obtain the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6).
(ii) the gospel of the kingdom supersedes the Law and Prophets:
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. “Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it” (Luke 16:16).
The good news to Israel was that the time of God’s favour, promised and spoken of throughout the Old Testament, was imminent. The Kingdom of God arrives as the age old hope of forgiveness and reconciliation with the Father is secured by the work of the Son. The ascent of Christ into heaven, his enthronement and revelation in glory, inaugurates the Messianic Age. The kingdom of God comes on earth as it is in heaven as individuals respond to His love and voluntarily surrender their wayward hearts to His perfect will and authority.
Those who become rightly related to God in this way are co-heirs with Christ to the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21) – which is the hope of the redeemed. The mundane expectation that Jews will be restored to a geo-political state and enjoy perishable benefits in the mortal world is eclipsed as the ultimate reality comes to light: namely our return to Paradise, God’s full and perfect restoration with its incorruptible inheritance in the eternal state. The faithful must no longer look to things that are seen, for they are passing away (2 Cor 4:18).
The gospel of the kingdom is the good news of the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope and promises (Acts 13:32). At the dawning of the kingdom to which they testify, the Law and Prophets ceased to be proclaimed (Luke 16:16). This would not be the case if the gospel were only a part fulfilled, or an analogous fulfillment of the Old Testament promises and predictions. In that case, the proclamation of the earlier Scriptures would surely not have terminated, but should have continued in tandem with the gospel in order to sustain our expectations and equip us for the fulfillment of those Old Testament promises and predictions that are yet to be fulfilled in the future.
(iii) the New Covenant replaces the Old:
Israel could not obtain righteousness to enter the kingdom of God through the Law of Moses, which contains the terms of the Sinai Covenant. A new and better covenant was established with Israel, rendering the earlier one obsolete (Heb 8:6-13)
“For what was glorious has no glory now, in comparison with the surpassing glory” (2 Cor 3:10).
What had come before was gradually fading until it passed away.
(iv) The work of the Holy Spirit:
Man understands God’s intentions only as the Holy Spirit reveals them to us. The man without the Spirit cannot discern the deep things of God, for they are foolishness to him. He cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned (2 Cor 2:14). The out-pouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost would naturally lead to a much greater understanding of the earlier prophesies, and of God’s eternal purposes, in a way that God had not previously permitted to be seen or known. As prophesied by Isaiah: in that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.
We speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” (2 Cor 2:7-10)
Jesus taught Nicodemus: unless a man be born again, he will not see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3). We need Spirit of wisdom and revelation (Eph 1:17; Isaiah 11:2) to understand what God has freely given us (2 Cor 2:12). The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:16-17).
Examples of New Testament claims on the meaning of the Old
The New Testament insists, concerning Jesus, that all the prophets testified of him (Acts 10:43) and Jesus claims that he came to fulfill all of these, i.e. to satisfy their expectations and requirements (Mat 5:17).
The Scribes and Pharisees were condemned for failing to recognize Jesus from the Books of Moses – not for rejecting him as a subsequent revelation. “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:45).
When Jesus states that Moses wrote about him, he is suggesting the original meaning of Old Testament scriptures, i.e. what God had intended by them at their inception. Jesus was not suggesting that he should be recognised on the basis of an ancillary or derivative meaning of these scriptures, in which case the Pharisees could be excused if they failed to perceive it. On the basis of their own contextual exegetical views of Old Testament scripture, the Pharisees were clearly expecting a different type of Messiah – one who would rule in the mortal world to bring about the restoration and elevation of ethnic Israel in geo-political terms. Jesus did not commend the Scribes and Pharisees for such an expectation, with the assurance that it was completely legitimate and yet to be satisfied more than two thousand years later.
Instead they were given forty years to repent of their unbelief before Jerusalem was destroyed at the time of God’s judgment.
“If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mat 6:23)
Paul equates the gospel of the kingdom with the promise to Abraham. When Paul asserts that God “announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’,” this is not merely adding information that leaves our understanding of the original promise unaffected. It tells us what God had intended by that promise from the outset, namely that the Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith (Galatians 3:8).
Jesus similarly explained: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).
We cannot remain unaffected in our views of what Abraham understood from God’s revelation to him, if Jesus is telling us that the Recipient of the Promise fixed his hope on the day of Christ. In the letter to the Hebrews we learn that Abraham fixed his hope on the eternal city (Heb 11:10, 16), had not received what was promised him before he died (Heb 11:13, 39), believed in the resurrection of the dead (Heb 11:19), and will only receive his inheritance together with us (Heb 11:40).
Those who profess to believe in the New Testament cannot simply ignore these claims in order to arrive at a different view of how the promise was to be fulfilled or of what it was that Abraham understood by them in his lifetime. If Jesus taught that flesh gives birth to flesh and counts for nothing (John 3:6, 6:63), we cannot simply ignore this teaching and define Israel ethnically, as if the flesh counts for something.
“For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh … Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:3-20).
*The manner in which God fulfilled His promises to Israel is discussed in part three of this article “Israel and the promises of God”.