Reading Old Testament Narratives Christologically
When we refer to the Scriptures, we are accustomed to think of two divisions: the Old and the New Testament. These two parts of the Bible have their own distinctive features, but together they provide a unified witness to who God is and who we are as His creatures. Both are confessed to be inspired and inerrant – truly God’s own words to us. We receive them as the very oracles of God.
For Jesus and the early Christians, however, the term “Scriptures” did not refer to the Old Testament and New Testament. What we call the OT they simply called “the Scriptures”. In reality, these holy writings were neither “old” nor a “testament”. On the contrary, in them one heard the ever-new, living, life-giving word of YHWH. They certainly bore witness to the “testament” that God had made with His people, but they themselves were not that testament. Furthermore, they recorded what God had done of “old”, but they themselves were the words of the ageless Lord. These writings were simply the Scriptures, the Bible of the Church.
Thus, when Jesus preached in the synagogue, He read and preached from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. When He quoted the Scriptures in His teaching, He quoted from the Torah, the Prophets, or the Psalms. When He explained all things concerning Himself that had been written in the Scriptures, He interpreted what we – for better or worse – call the OT.
It was no different for Saints Peter and Paul. When Peter preached at Pentecost that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the only biblical texts from which he quoted were OT texts. Similarly, when Paul preached in the synagogues or wrote letters to various churches, he quoted time and time again from the Scriptures of Israel.
The Bible of Jesus and the apostles was therefore the Old Testament. On the basis of these writings, they confessed the totality of who the Messiah is and what He does. To be sure, they interpreted and applied these sacred books, but the writings themselves were the OT Scriptures. Nothing else had to be added. Nothing else had to be written for these Scriptures to be complete. They were the definitive word of God concerning His Anointed One. In this Bible Jesus was confessed fully, truthfully, definitively.
Although the New Testament is also Holy Scripture, it might more precisely be called an “inspired commentary” on the OT Scriptures. Luther makes the same point in his Preface to the OT, where he states that the New Testament is “but a public preaching and proclamation of Christ, set forth through the sayings of the OT and fulfilled through Christ,” (AE 35:236). Luther goes on to say that the writings of Moses are “a well of all wisdom and understanding, out of which has sprung all that the prophets knew and said. Moreover even the NT flows out of it and is grounded in it . . . ,” (247). The Gospels are a narrative Christology, a commentary on the life of Jesus set within the context of biblical fulfillment and interpretation. The Gospels demonstrate that who Jesus is and what Jesus did flowed from and fulfilled the Scriptures. The Acts of the Apostles recount how Jesus continued to act in His church through His apostles. He continued to fulfill the promises of the Scriptures, pouring down His Holy Spirit, spreading His Gospel, granting salvation to Jew and Gentile alike. In Acts you see the promises made in the Old Testament coming to their divinely given end. Thus it also continues in the rest of the New Testament. Paul, the author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and John all write to churches that have in their possession the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament. Every Sunday they heard these Scriptures read and interpreted by their pastors. As the apostles addressed contemporary problems or concerns in the churches, they did so on the basis of the OT – the Bible of the early church.
Therefore, when we read the OT, we are reading the text from which the Jesus preached about Himself and His Father. Interpretation that somehow “brings Jesus into” the text or superimposes Him on an OT account is not only wrong-headed but unnecessary. If Moses wrote about Christ – as Jesus Himself testifies (John 5:46) – then Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are all about Jesus. It is that simple. This is the ABC’s of Christian interpretation. Jesus does not need to be “read into” these texts anymore than He needs to be “read into” the Gospels. He is already part of them. These words testify about Him, to Him, of Him. They tell us who He is and what He will do.
When we read these texts, therefore, we must ask ourselves: How in these words is Christ speaking of Himself to His Church? That is the question that must reign supreme in Lutheran exegesis. For instance, how is the account of creation about Jesus? How is the story of the Flood about Jesus? How is the affliction in Egypt, Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna, the tabernacle, the sacrifices, and everything else in the Exodus about our Lord? These types of questions must be asked of every verse of the Pentateuch, for Moses wrote about Jesus.
The same interpretive question applies to the rest of the OT. No part is excluded. No part is somehow “less messianic”. Of course, not all parts are so easily understood as being about Christ. The disciples certainly needed to be instructed on how all the Scriptures – Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:25) – spoke of the Christ. But what does that mean? It means only that God had to give eyes to sinful men to see what is already there, but to which they were blind. It is certainly no different with us. We are often tone-deaf to the beautiful messianic music that is played by the prophets. Our eyes need to be opened to understand the Scriptures, just as much as the eyes of the disciples needed to be. “O Lord, open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things in Thy Torah,” prays the Psalmist, and we do well to join him (119:18). This must be our prayer as well. “O Lord, open my eyes to see Jesus in the Psalms. O Lord, open my eyes to see Jesus in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. O Lord, open my eyes to see Jesus everywhere in the Scriptures for these are they which testify of Him.” And He does. He “opens our eyes to behold wonderful things in [His] Torah,” (Psalm 119:18), for He is the Wonderful One of whom Isaiah spoke (9:6). He removes the “veil of Moses” (2 Corinthians 3:12-18) that obscures our vision. As He interprets the “scroll of the book” which is written about Him (Psalm 40:7) , He “shows us the proper method of interpreting Moses and all the prophets. . . He shows that all the stories and illustrations of Moses point to [Himself],” (Luther, AE 22:339).
As we seek to read the Scriptures Christologically, there are several questions which we might ask of a text to help us to see Jesus therein. These questions are not hermeneutical principles. One might reshape them into prayers that accompany exegesis. That is their intent. They beseech the Spirit to lead us to read the Scriptures rightly, that is, as words of Christ and about Christ. They are questions that lead us to ask the right questions of Holy Writ for they all direct us to the One subject of all that the prophets and apostles have written – the Messiah.
Questions the Interpreter Asks:
1) QUOTATION: Is the OT narrative referenced or alluded to in the NT (or later OT texts) in connection with Christ? If so, what is the purpose of the reference or allusion?
2) THEME: How do the theological themes that are present in an OT narrative unfold in the life and ministry of Jesus?
3) ACTIONS: How do the actions of people in the OT narrative parallel the actions performed by Christ or done to Him?
4) OFFICE: What are the connections between the offices and/or vocations held by people in the OT narrative and the offices and/or vocations of Christ (e.g., prophet, priest, king, son, brother, husband, redeemer, judge, servant)?
5) METAPHORS: Is there a connection between the metaphors employed in the narrative and the same (or related) metaphors used in the ministry of Jesus?
6) LXX: Does a LXX narrative use specific language that is also employed in the NT?
7) GEOGRAPHY: Is there a connection between the geography associated with a specific event and geography in the life and ministry of Jesus?
8) NUMBERS: Is there a connection between the numbers in an OT narrative and the numbers connected with the ministry of Jesus?
9) CHRISTOPHANY: Does Christ reveal Himself in the OT narrative in visible form?
10) SACRAMENTS: How are various OT sacraments related to Christ and the NT sacraments?