II. The True Old Testament Focus:
The Person and Work of Christ
Almost all professed believers formally acknowledge that Christ is the focus of the Old Testament. Neither the Dispensational nor the Reformed camp, however, has given adequate attention to the implications of such a view.
How did Christ and the Apostles see the Old Testament? Did they use its "laws" to prepare sinners for the gospel? Did they teach that its "laws" have abiding validity for all areas of societal life? Did they interpret its prophetic content as relating primarily to Israel and the future earthly purpose of God for his "chosen nation"? By examining some representative New Testament passages we will see that the Old Testament was viewed by Jesus and his Apostles, not as an end in itself, but as a foreshadowing of the superceding person and work of Jesus Christ.
Search the Scriptures; for in them you think you have eternal life: and they are they which testify to me . . . For had you believed Moses, you would have believed me: for he wrote of me. (John 5:38-47)
"Scriptures" in verse 39 obviously refers to the whole body of Old Testament writings, with particular focus on the Mosaic books (vv. 45-47). This corpus of literature, Jesus says, "testifies" (stands as a witness) to his person. Thus, according to Jesus, to read the Old Testament without reference to himself is to miss its stated purpose entirely. In 2 Cor. 3:14-16, Paul reflects on this when he mentions the spiritual blindness of unconverted Jews who study the Old Covenant religiously, yet fail to see the glories of Christ. Not until faith restores their spiritual sight, says Paul, is that veil of blindness taken away.
In verse 45, Jesus states that Moses is an accuser of unbelievers. Puritan Samuel Bolton references this accusing function of Moses to the law when "its sentence and curse take hold of us."6 That is a serious mishandling of the passage, however, for Christ does not refer the accusing action of Moses to a conviction brought about by preaching the Ten Commandments. Rather, he refers to the fact that Moses wrote about his person, and yet they would not believe in him. This passage, then, teaches clearly that the Old Testament writings converge on the person of Jesus Christ - they are Christocentric in nature and purpose. To view them otherwise will lead to various errors. R.C.H. Lenski summarizes this important truth:
Jesus says, "Moses wrote of me" (John 5:46), which means that he did so, not in a few direct promises, but in all that he wrote, not a line of which would have been penned save for Christ and the things Christ would be and bring.7
And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself . . . These are the words which I spoke to you, while I was with you, that all things must be fulfilled concerning me, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms. (Luke 24:27, 44)
Again, the Old Testament in its entirety is in view. Our Lord gives his authoritative perspective concerning the Old Testament. He sees this literature as focusing on his own suffering, resurrection (glory) and the universal proclamation of the gospel during this age (vv. 46-47). Our Lord does not view the Old Testament as a "law-word" but as an anticipatory, Messiah-centered work.
It is very significant that this use of the Old Testament by our Lord comes after his glorification in the resurrection. It becomes a usage that is also reflected by the apostles and all other early disciples of the New Covenant. Indeed, in the Book of Acts we find the apostles and prophets freely employing the Old Testament to proclaim both the person and work of Christ (Acts 17:2-3). We greatly err, therefore, if we use the Old Testament as social "case-law" to be applied to culture, or as commandments to be preached as "law-work," or as future promises to be realized in Israel's earthly kingdom. The resurrected Lord Jesus' statements in these verses inform us as to how the Old Testament should be viewed in the gospel age. We must always find "things concerning himself." As Herman Ridderbos put it:
That which was revealed in the Old Testament, of a provisional and passing glory, was already the glory of Christ, and the Old Testament must now be read from the present perspective of its fulfillment in Christ.8
Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come to you: searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ in them pointed when he testified beforehand about the sufferings of Christ and the glory [resurrection] that should follow. To them it was revealed, that not to themselves but to us they did minister the things which are now reported among you by those who have preached the gospel with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. (1 Peter 1:10-12)
In Luke 24:46 we observed that Christ himself interpreted the Old Testament in terms of the two-fold nature of his own work: suffering and glory. In the passage above, Peter also indicates that the Spirit of Christ not only guided the prophets who wrote of things to come, but also filled their documents with prophetic information about the coming Messiah's suffering and glory. He tells those now living under the New Covenant that the Old Testament writers wrote about this age - "the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). Their ultimate focus was not on themselves or their contemporaries, but on "us" who live in the New Era (1 Pet. 1:12). The Old Testament Scriptures were intended primarily for those "upon whom the fulfillment of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:11).
This passage strikes at the heart of Dispensationalist teaching. The Old Testament is gospel-centered and speaks, sometimes clearly, sometimes in types and shadows, of the blessings of this New Covenant age. Moreover, the Old Testament does not "skip over" the "church dispensation" and focus on a separate earthly purpose of God for the Jewish nation after the church is "raptured," as they allege.
From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-16)
What is the primary function of Old Testament revelation? Verse 15 tells us that the Scriptures are designed to lead us to "salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus." This coincides with John's stated purpose in his gospel: "But these are written in order that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life through his name" (20:31). The Scriptures are not designed just to stimulate us intellectually, or to present us with an interesting history of redemption for our bedtime reading pleasure. The Scriptures - if handled rightly - are specifically designed to elicit faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 10:17). Gutbrod writes,
Genuine faith with regard to Moses and with regard to the law, genuine listening to this revelation, must lead to the acknowledgement of Jesus . . . Genuine listening to the law leads to faith in Jesus [and] rejection of Jesus is at the same time rebellion against the law.9
Once salvation has come to the heart, these God-breathed Scriptures are also profitable with reference to our obedience (v. 16). In this context the emphasis falls on the "man of God" (v. 17) who is to experience this function of Scripture in his own life so that he can be holy in life (v. 17b) and accurately apply the gospel to the lives of others (1 Tim. 4:2).
It can be seen from these representative passages that Jesus' person and work stand at the center of the Old Testament. The Old Testament was used in the early church to "preach Jesus" (Acts 8:35). In light of the Christ-centeredness of the Old Testament, two important implications need to be emphasized.
The Old Testament is Not Israel-Centered
Dispensationalists allege that Israel as a nation has a divinely appointed earthly purpose entirely separate from the heavenly purpose God has in store for the church. In their hands, the Old Testament becomes Israel-centered. Their "prophetic timetable" revolves around what happens to Israel. The Old Testament promises to Israel cannot be fulfilled, they teach, until the church is "raptured" out of the earth. The glory of Christ that actually commenced with his resurrection they "postpone" until God's earthly purpose for Israel is resumed. The verses we have studied are fatal to such an approach to the Old Testament. In fact, a Dispensational approach to the Old Testament effectively destroys any possibility of "rightly dividing the Word of Truth," for it mistakenly perpetuates what God has once and for all abolished - the earthly institutions of Israel.
The Old Testament is Not Law-Centered
The Mosaic administration was certainly replete with "laws," and therefore was law-centered in terms of its temporary function in the history of redemption (Gal. 3:17-26). However, with the coming of the New Covenant, this law-centered Mosaic economy is now viewed in retrospect as Christ-centered. Thus, the name most historically connected with law (John 1:17) Christ regards as a witness to himself: "[Moses] wrote of me" (John 5:46). When early believers came to understand the Old Testament in the light of Christ's incarnation and resurrection, they no longer used it as a law code, but rather to "show by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ" (Acts 18:24-28).
We are blessed with examples of New Covenant preaching in the Book of Acts and receive glimpses of the content of apostolic preaching in the Epistles (1 Cor. 15:3-4). I have searched the New Testament data in vain to find the "preaching of the law" advocated by the Puritans. Samuel Bolton dogmatically asserts, "we cannot appeal to Christ until first we are found guilty and condemned by Moses."10 By this he means that the Ten Commandments must be preached to sinners as preparation for the reception of Christ. But where in the inspired documents do we find servants of the New Covenant isolating the Old Covenant "moral law," and preaching it to men before and in connection with the proclamation of Christ? Rather, we find them using Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms to preach Christ! (Luke 24:27, 44).
Furthermore, the New Testament writers never command us to use the Old Covenant law to bring our socio-political order under the "dominion" of Christ, as Reconstructionists like R. J. Rushdoony teach. Such a use of the Old Testament is contrary to the clear function assigned to it by our Lord in the passages we studied. The exhaustive details of the Old Covenant law belong to a past age, and are now designated by Paul as being among the weak and beggarly elements of the world.11
An undue focus on Israel, therefore, is common to both Dispensationalism and Reconstructionism. The former absolutizes the nation of Israel, while the latter absolutizes the law of Moses. Again, the former restores the nation of Israel to a place of prominence in the future while the latter tries to re-impose her laws in the present age. It is neither Israel nor her laws, however, that offers the key to understanding the Old Testament. It is the person and work of Jesus Christ! 12
6. Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, London: Banner of Truth, 1964, p. 38.
7. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1964, p. 127.
8. Herman Ridderbos, Paul and Jesus, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1958, p. 60.
9. W. Gutbrod, Law, London: Adam & Charles Black, 1962, pp. 133-134.
10. Bolton, p. 34.
11. Gal. 4:9-10; A.J. Bandstra, The Law and the Elements of the World: An Exegetical Study in Aspects of Paul's Theology, Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1964, pp. 3l-72.
12. Norman Geisler, "Christ: The Key to the Interpretation of the Bible," A Popular Survey of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1977. pp. 19-25.
This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 3-7.