Christ and the Old Testament

Christ’s relationship to the Old Testament is generally understood in one of two ways, both of which lie at opposite ends of the hermeneutical continuum and both of which are incomplete. When the Old Testament and Christ’s relationship to it is reduced in either of these ways, the beauty of the Old Testament narrative is diminished and the wonder of Jesus’ redemptive work is hidden.

The first incomplete understanding of Christ and the Old Testament is that the Old Testament, save a few overtly Messianic texts (e.g., Psalm 2), is largely disconnected from the person and work of Jesus in the New Testament. As such, the temptation has been to reduce the Old Testament to a collection of unrelated, disconnected stories whose heroes we, as New Testament believers, ought to emulate. For example, the narrative of David and Goliath is reduced to an exercise in identifying the “giants” in your life and an encouragement to hurl “well-chosen stones” at their heads. Further, in viewing the Old Testament this way, the Old Testament is sidelined and even deemed unnecessary in favor of the New Testament. The production and distribution of “New Testament Bibles” is tangible evidence of this, but it is no more egregious than the downright disregard for and ignorance of the first 39 books of the Bible by those possessing all 66 books. The fullness of the Messianic picture is developed in the Old Testament. The apostles proclaimed Jesus as the Old Testament Christ (or Messiah) before a sentence was written of the New Testament. The person and work of the Christ promised in the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

To counter the prevailing nearly Christless understanding of the Old Testament, there has been a helpful renewed eagerness to behold and preach “Christ in the Old Testament.” While this has been a helpful bridge connecting the Old and New Testaments which in recent times have stood divorced from one another, it too is incomplete.

Jesus is not merely a true/greater/better Esther/Ezra/Nehemiah/any other Old Testament character. Certainly there is biblical testimony that Jesus is a greater Moses (see Hebrews 3.1.1-7). And undoubtedly, there are ways in which Jesus’ person and work resembles the person and work of people in the Old Testament, but primacy must be given to the profound reality that Jesus is (to use the language of the Old Testament) Yahweh incarnate. The Old Testament unveils patterns and types of the person and work of Christ. For example, Jesus is like Esther in the sense that both are qualified to go before the king and obtain redemption for their people. But to only say Jesus is the true and better Esther is to marginalize (if not ignore) the fact that Jesus is Yahweh incarnate. He is not merely another mortal like Esther. Yahweh is the one who redeems His people through Esther. Esther is not the cause but the instrument of Yahweh’s redemption. So the redemption Yahweh accomplishes through the person and work of Esther pictures for us the eternal redemption He ultimately and finally accomplishes through the person and work of Jesus who is Yahweh in the flesh.

Therefore, we must focus our reading of the Old Testament on the principal agent of its narrative, Yahweh, who later takes on flesh in the person of Jesus to fulfill and complete His Old Testament work. We can see Jesus in the Old Testament because He himself is Yahweh. This is why the angel can announce to Joseph prior to the birth of Jesus, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus means “Yahweh saves.” But Jesus does not bear this name (like Joshua) as a mere proclamation of the truth that Yahweh saves, but because He is Yahweh and He, as Yahweh, will save.

May God be gracious to give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand to beauty of the Old Testament narrative and the wonder of Jesus’ redemptive work.