The Message of the Old Testament

November 09, 2016

by Iain Duguid

Dr. Iain Duguid summarizes the New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament in his pamphlet “Is Jesus in the Old Testament” [from pages 6-9] :

The New Testament teaches us to read the Old Testament as a message about Christ. Recall the words of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. On that occasion, Jesus caught up with two despondent disciples who were leaving Jerusalem after the crucifixion, unaware of the resurrection. As they walked in the gathering gloom of evening, he took them back on a tour of the Old Testament Scriptures, exposing their woefully inadequate knowledge and understanding, saying:

“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25–27)

In other words, Jesus unfolded the Old Testament, showing them how it is fulfilled in him. According to Jesus, it seems that we should expect the message of “Moses and all the prophets” (that is, the whole of the Old Testament) to be Jesus Christ. Notice too that the disciples’ response was not to be amazed at his cleverness in uncovering references to himself in such a wide range of sources. Rather, they were astonished at their own dullness in not having recognized before what these familiar books were about.

Nor was this simply Jesus’s message on one particular occasion to those two disciples. In that case, the connection between the Old Testament and Christ might simply be an interesting footnote or sidelight to Jesus’s main message. However, Luke 24:44–48 gives us the substance of Jesus’s teaching to all of the disciples in the forty-day period between his resurrection and ascension:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, 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 and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

According to Jesus, then, the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures constitute a message about Christ.

This is a summary of Jesus’s master class in Old Testament interpretation, given during the climactic last days of his earthly teaching ministry. Notice how comprehensive the language that Jesus uses is: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled”. “The Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” make up the three divisions of the Hebrew Old Testament, what Luke later designates “the Scriptures.” In other words, the focus of his teaching was not on a few “messianic” texts here and there but rather the entire Old Testament. According to Jesus, then, the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures constitute a message about Christ.

Yet the Scriptures are not just generally a message about Jesus. More specifically, Jesus told his disciples that the central focus of the entire Old Testament is his sufferings, his resurrection and the proclamation of the gospel to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. The Old Testament is therefore a book whose every page is designed to unfold for us the gospel of Jesus Christ, accomplished by his sufferings and resurrection and applied through the outpouring of the Spirit upon all nations.

There are many aspects of Jesus’s teaching that his followers struggled to understand during his earthly ministry. Yet this part of his message was very clearly communicated to his disciples. Thus Peter says:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. (1 Pet. 1:10–11)

Paul likewise declared to King Agrippa:

I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:22–23)

According to Jesus and the apostles, then, when you interpret the Old Testament correctly, you will find that its focus is not primarily stories about moral improvement, or calls for social action, or visions concerning end-times events. Rather, the central message of the Old Testament is Jesus: specifically the sufferings of Christ and the glories that will follow—both the glorious resurrection of Christ and the glorious inheritance that he has won for all of his people. Certainly, understanding this gospel should lead to a new morality in the life of a believer, just as it will motivate and empower us to seek to meet the needs of the lost and broken world around us, and engage our passion for the new heavens and the new earth that will be realized when Christ returns. But the heart of the message of the Old Testament is a witness to Christ, which centers on his suffering and glory, his death and resurrection.

This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, Is Jesus in the Old Testament, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2013), 6–9. Used with permission of the publisher.

Iain Duguid

Dr. Duguid (PhD, Cambridge) is professor of Old Testament at WTS.

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