How to apply the Old Testament: New Testament Contexts

Fra AngelicoFor any Old Testament passage a crucial interpretive context is that surrounding the advent of Jesus. This has two dimensions, it involves understanding both how the people who were reading the OT and calling on God to be faithful to his promises anticipated and reacted to the coming of Jesus; and, how Jesus himself interpreted and applied the scriptures in the context of his life, death, and resurrection. Here we have the whole Old Testament word reinterpreted and applied afresh.

We could never really responsibly undertake this task of understanding on our own. Fortunately we’re not. There has been brilliant work done, particularly in the last 50 years, on understanding the extra-biblical Jewish context into which Jesus spoke and acted. But this extra-biblical material (useful as it might be) pales alongside the remarkable treasure of the four-fold Gospel. In these strange, overlapping, dependent-yet-having-a-mind-of-their-own accounts, we get a narrative of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection/ascension that is embedded into an unsurpassed interpretation of how Jesus’ life fulfils and applies the Old Testament. Don’t miss this: each of the four Gospel writers takes the application of the Old Testament to the life-work of Jesus as a major aim of their writing. And yet they all approach the task slightly differently. There is so much to be gained in carefully reading the Gospels as an unparalleled school for the content and method of Old Testament application. Ultimately they are able to do this because the Gospels are the genuine apostolic voice, the words of those who had their minds opened to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:44-45) by the one who himself exegetes God (John 1:18).

Check out Luke in all his sneaky goodness, using an Old Testament phrase from Isaiah to characterise the two elderly ‘waiters’ at the Temple. How do you think Luke applied Isaiah 52:9? But look at how he applies it, just slips it in there in passing… wild stuff:

There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking forward to Israel’s consolation, and the Holy Spirit was on him. (Luke 2:25 HCSB)


At that very moment, she [Anna] came up and began to thank God and to speak about Him to all who were looking forward to the redemptionof Jerusalem. (Luke 2:38 HCSB)


Be joyful, rejoice together, you ruins of Jerusalem! For the LORD has comforted [consoled] His people; He has redeemed Jerusalem. (Isaiah 52:9 HCSB)

But the New Testament gives us a further interpretive context for understanding the Old Testament: the life and ‘reading-together’ of the first Christians. The early church was predominately Jewish and familiar with the Old Testament. As such, it was constantly engaged in reflecting on the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for understanding the history of God’s love and purposes for Israel, and in teaching and defending this application of the Old Testament. Most of the sermons in Acts follow this model, Stephen’s martyrdom sermon being a particularly shining example. The Book of Hebrews is an extended application of the Old Testament to the work of Christ and the life of the Church. It’s a major theme of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians. It’s even there in subtle ways as Paul structures and argues his way through the Letter to the Corinthians.

The New Testament age is also the ‘age’ to which we belong. We live in the light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection while we await the final unveiling of his reign. In theological terms, the canonical context of the New Testament churches is our context. These are applications tailor-made for us.

I realise that much more could be said about how canonical interpretive contexts shape our Old Testament applications. If you’re really desperate to know what to do with Baalam’s Ass, simply being told to read more Bible might be cold comfort. But strangely it is a comfort. Because when you read the Bible you’re not reading it alone, you’re reading it as part of a fellowship. And this fellowship is itself written into the text and invites you to join. The Bible is an inviting book. And you’re always reading with the family.

The glorious company of the Apostles : praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets : praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs : praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world :
doth acknowledge thee

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