As Christians, the Bible is the foundation and source of our faith and truth. The Word of God feeds our soul. But let’s be honest, feasting on the New Testament is a lot easier to digest than feasting on the Old Testament! The Old Testament – with all the technical laws, foreign history, and strange names – is often difficult to apply to our lives. And yet, if we believe what the Bible says about itself, we can be assured that the events of the Old Testament “were written down for our instruction” (1Cor. 10:11). In fact, these “sacred writings…are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” because “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable (2Tim. 3:15-16).
And so, we can and should read the Old Testament expecting God to speak to us, the followers of Christ, in ways that are meaningful and relevant to our salvation and life in him. That doesn’t change the fact that it can be hard!
Thankfully Jesus knows that, and so he helps us. After he rose from the dead, he appeared to his first disciples, and “he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). He goes on to explain to them that the entire Old Testament points forward to, and finds fulfillment in, his death and resurrection. He said that:
“…everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations’” (Luke 24:44-47).
Scholars note that Jesus is referring to the three Jewish divisions of the Old Testament – the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings (including the Psalms and Poetic Books) – and therefore bringing into view the entire Old Testament. Jesus says it’s all about him! “For all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in him” (2Cor. 1:20). Just as the climax of Jesus’ life was his death and resurrection, his redemptive work is the climax of the entire Old Testament. Every promise, prophecy, and theme is ultimately fulfilled in him!
And so, how do we as Christian read the Old Testament? We read it with Jesus in the center. The characters, symbols, and themes prefigure Christ; they are shadows of him. Speaking about the temple, priests, and the sacrificial system, the author of Hebrews says they are “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (8:5).
We can call this the Fulfillment Approach to interpreting the Old Testament. We don’t just find good moral teaching, or godly examples to follow, or theological truths about God – we find Jesus! As a seminary professor of mine used to say, we don’t interpret the Old Testament like they would in a synagogue – we look for a distinctly Christian meaning!
Another way to describe this approach to reading the Old Testament is called “typology.” There are not just a few “Messianic prophecies” sprinkled into the Old Testament. Every part is filled with shadows, prefigures, and “types” leading us to Christ. Vern Poythress explains that a “type” in the Old Testament is “a special example, symbol, or picture that God designed beforehand, and that he placed in history at an earlier point in time in order to point forward to a later, larger fulfillment.” He says that the entire Old Testament is filled with the “anticipation” of Jesus. (See his article “Survey of the History of Salvation” in the ESV Study Bible.)
So, how do we practically read and interpret the Old Testament is a way that is Christ-centered and therefore applicable to the lives of Christians? Try using the four step approach laid out in this diagram:
Let’s say you’re reading the story of Noah in Genesis. The first step is to Identify the key themes, characters, or symbols of the text. We could use the flood as a key theme, Noah as a key character, or the ark as a key symbol.
Secondly, we need to Interpret the deeper theological meaning of the flood, Noah, and the ark. We discover that the flood represents God’s judgment on sin, Noah represents God’s chosen agent, and the ark is the means of salvation for those on board.
Thirdly, because Christ is the center of history, the climax of God’s story, and the fulfillment of everything in the OT, we want to Reveal how the larger truth of the text is fulfilled in Christ. Of course in this story, we can see that the flood was an act of judgment against the people in that age, just as all people face God’s judgment. We also see that Noah, and his obedience to achieve salvation, prefigures the coming Messiah. And the ark was a shadow of God’s saving work through the cross.
Only once we have taken the long way around the diagram – and seen fulfillment in Christ – can we rightly apply the story of Noah to our lives. We must avoid taking the short cut across the bottom of the diagram – just reading the Old Testament and trying to make it apply to us without going through Christ. The OT only applies to us because it was first fulfilled in Christ! So then, finally, we can Apply what we have seen in Christ to our lives. The flood of God’s judgment threatens all people. Our only hope is to follow God’s appointed agent Jesus (the fulfillment of Noah), and trust in the cross for refuge (foreshadowed by the ark).
Yes, the Old Testament is challenging, but make no mistake: it is the Word of God! It is Christian Scripture! Read it, feast on it, and let the Holy Spirit guide you to see Jesus as the climax of every story, every law, every prophecy, and every promise! (Oh, and don’t underestimate the value of a good Christ-centered Study Bible or commentary.)
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”