All Things Fulfilled: The New Testament's (Re)interpretation of the Old Testament

Some time ago I advanced a thesis for reading the Old Testament in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. My conclusion there was this: “that the cross and resurrection provide us with a hermeneutical key to pick up when history has done its work, a principle which gives us a way to move beyond the old (and slightly Gnostic) spiritualizing method of Origen and Augustine and yet still remain faithful to the apostolic use of the OT.” I suggested my present view cautiously in that post, warning beforehand that “I’m by no means settled on all of this”. But two years have now come and gone, and I’m much more settled now than I was then. So I’d like to take some time and flesh out that paradigm in more detail.

I            The Law and the Prophets: Continuity and Discontinuity

Most Christians would agree that there is both continuity and discontinuity in the New Testament’s relation to the Old Testament. We wear mixed fibers in our clothing, we no longer make annual sacrifices for our sins, and we would never think of kicking anyone out of the church for not being circumcised. There are 613 precepts contained in the first five books of the Bible, and most Christians don’t even know half of them. Why? Partly because we all understand that redemptive history has moved on to some extent, that something changed drastically with Jesus’ death and resurrection. To echo N. T. Wright: God's story has taken a new turn, and while that new turn stands in continuity with the previous acts in the story, those previous acts cannot be repeated.

Point being: No one who takes the NT seriously would argue that the Torah, with many of its time-sensitive and Israel-centric ordinances, carries directly into this new age as it stands. As Paul says, the law served as a schoolmaster to lead God’s people to Christ, but now that Christ has come the schoolmaster is no longer necessary; not because it was a bad thing (or even an irrelevant thing) now to be happily disregarded, but because it was a good thing that has served its purpose. It has fulfilled its role in the story as God intended. But now, through Jesus, God’s people have been renewed and reconstituted into a worldwide and spirit-empowered family: “For as many as were baptized into the Messiah have put on the Messiah. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus. And if you are the Messiah’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:27-29). This is the underlying rationale for why the law cannot govern God’s people as it used to: because Abraham's family has been transformed in the Messiah. To echo Wright once more: the new age has dawned, a new act has begun. The actors cannot simply repeat one of the preceding acts in a new scene with a new setting; God’s people cannot live as if they belonged to the old age.

Again, so far I doubt many would disagree. But the controversy starts when we begin to consider the OT prophets in the same light as the law. Despite the controversy, however, it should be obvious that the prophets often envisaged Israel’s future under the conditions of their own covenantal context, i.e. the conditions of Torah. They looked forward in hope to a renewed earth and a renewed humanity, and they regularly gave God’s people conditional promises concerning their place in the new age based on fidelity to their calling as God's people. The assumed helper toward the fulfillment of this calling was, of course, the Torah (e.g. Isa. 2; Mic. 4; Zech 8). And, under Torah, the assumed place and means of forgiveness, the place where God would meet his people, was of course the Temple (e.g. Ezek. 40-48).

But if we acknowledge this, that Torah and Temple are common features of the future held out for Israel in OT prophecy, then we must admit that a real discontinuity exists between that prophecy and what the early Church believed in the wake of the resurrection. If we are committed to (a) reading the whole of Scripture historically, believing that the Spirit inspired real people in real space and time, and (b) acknowledging the discontinuity between the new age launched by Christ and the old age in which the prophets spoke, then it simply won’t work to try to build a scheme in which prophecies like Ezekiel 40-48 (for instance) can be taken as they stand in light of what Jesus has done. Why? Because Torah and Temple no longer hold the place they once did, because God has been faithful to the covenant apart from Torah, through Jesus, and through Jesus he has done what the Temple could never do. We need not go further than Galatians or Hebrews to see that prophecies given under the Old Covenant must be transposed into the New Covenant in light of the new act in which we find ourselves, as a worldwide and forgiven family transformed through Jesus and the Spirit. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, Christ has become the mediator of a better covenant, established on better promises (Heb 8:6).

With all of this in mind we are now ready to address one accusation head on. Contrary to what the dispensationalists often claim, deciding which parts of OT prophecy can be taken as they stand and which must be transposed in light of Christ’s coming is not at all an arbitrary affair. It’s not as if we can just pick out which bits of prophecy we like at random and then throw away all the bits we don’t like. Rather, prophecy given under the Old Covenant stands in continuity and discontinuity to the New Covenant the same as the law, and therefore it must be treated in the same way. It cannot simply be lifted out of its own context and plugged into ours without either spiritualizing it in some way (and thus doing significant damage to the text) or by greatly downplaying the radical change effected in world history by Christ’s death and resurrection. And therefore it follows that, unless one takes a position toward the OT like that of Paul’s opponents in Galatians, reinterpretation of some sort must be regarded as inescapable.

This last point needs more spelling out, so let’s develop it by taking a closer look at Ezekiel 40-48, which I think presents a good case study of much Old Testament prophecy.

II            The Problem of Ezekiel 40-48

As Christians, when we try to make sense of passages like Ezekiel 40-48, we are faced with at least three coherent options at the hermeneutical level. First, we could accept it as it stands and understand it as still awaiting fulfillment, thus acknowledging that in the future there will be sacrifices made to “atone” for sin so that God might “accept” his people. Or, second, we could spiritualize it like Origen and Augustine and see the Temple as speaking of God’s “building made without human hands” and the continual sacrifices as somehow speaking of Christ's once-for-all-time sacrifice. Or, third, we could simply acknowledge its grammatical-historical meaning under the Old Covenant, thus acknowledging the essential aspects of discontinuity with the New Covenant, and thereby understand the promise as being transformed and expanded through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The first option sits loose to the New Testament and the second sits loose to the Old Testament. The third option, in my opinion, is the only one that does justice to the text of both Testaments, reading them on their own terms and in their own historical settings.

There is a fourth option which I did not mention, however, which is kind of a hybrid of options (1) and (2). Most conservative Evangelicals throughout the last century have held this hermeneutic, whether consciously or subconsciously. This view is similar to option (1) in that it sees prophecies like Ezekiel 40-48 as still awaiting fulfillment in the future, but it varies in that it tries to make them compatible with the terms of the New Covenant. While proponents of this view often pride themselves in taking the text “literally” and by its “plain sense meaning”, they regularly shoot themselves in the foot by denying that ideal in favor of making Old Testament prophecy compatible with the New Covenant.  Put another way, those who take this route inevitably commit themselves to a spiritualizing hermeneutic of their own, simply by imposing NT meaning onto an OT text in which it has no place. Saying that the “sin offerings” of Ezekiel 45 are merely “memorials looking back to the sacrifice of Christ” is, of course, the classic example of this, but there are many more.

But if we are to be truly faithful to what the text of Ezekiel 40-48 really says, reading it on its own terms and in its own covenantal context, then we simply cannot think that this vision still awaits a one-to-one fulfillment under the New Covenant. Rather we must conclude that there is a fundamental discontinuity between what Ezekiel saw and what will now come to pass under the New Covenant, in light of the greater salvation which Israel’s god has brought about by the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. Under the Old Covenant Ezekiel saw a 10-mile-wide city with God’s presence inhabiting a beautifully rebuilt temple where sacrifices for sin take place continually, but under the New Covenant John saw a 1,500-mile-wide city where God’s presence is everywhere, there is no need for a temple because God in Christ is the Temple, and as the “Lamb” Christ died for sin once and for all. John’s vision is self-consciously dependent upon Ezekiel’s vision, but at the same time it completely transcends it. John understands, in other words, that the promise of Ezekiel 40-48 has been expanded by the grace of God revealed in Christ.

III            Implications For All Old Testament Prophecy

These observations from Ezekiel obviously have implications beyond Ezekiel to how we must read the rest of OT prophecy, and even further implications for how we must reread that prophecy in the light of what God has done through Jesus. So, for instance, when we attempt to read passages like Isaiah 2 or Zechariah 8 faithfully and honestly, as they were written, we must acknowledge (first) that the “law” going forth from Zion meant the Jewish law, i.e. the Torah, with all its civil and ceremonial aspects included, and that (second) far from reflecting a special sub-calling or “leadership role” within the body of Christ, the reason why a Gentile would “grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man” and “seek the Lord in Jerusalem” is precisely because the covenantal vantage-point of the prophet included as a basic tenet of its worldview the belief that Israel was God’s chosen people amongst all the peoples of the earth, that they were given the grand vocation of being a “kingdom of priests” for all the nations.

When we turn to the NT, we find that Paul quotes from the Zechariah passage about the Gentile grasping the sleeve of the Jew and applies it to his largely Gentile audience, saying that the witness of the Spirit in their midst will lead outsiders to fall down on their faces, worship YHWH, and “report that God is truly among you” (1 Cor 14:25). In other words, Paul sees the eschatological renewal of God’s people taking place now through the work of Spirit, and he intentionally includes Gentiles in the renewed “Israel” that God is using to bear witness by his Spirit to the nations. This is supported by how Paul speaks of these Gentile Christians throughout 1 Corinthians. In 10:1, for instance, Paul includes the Corinthians into the history of Israel by saying that “our fathers” came out of slavery, passed through the Red Sea and received the law at Sinai. The apostle takes it for granted, in other words, that the family of God in Corinth simply is the family rescued by God from Egypt, now transformed and expanded, but still the same family. Later in the same chapter he contrasts this renewed family with “Israel according to the flesh” (v. 18), and two chapters later he tells these believers that they “were once Gentiles, carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led” (12:2). This demonstrates that within Paul’s first century context the term “Gentile” effectively meant “outside the covenant” or “pagan”, and the clear implication is that Paul now thinks of these Gentile believers as “Jews”, inasmuch as the semantic range of the term “Jew” included the opposite sense of “within the covenant” (cf. Est 8:17; 9:27; Rom 2:28-29; Rev 2:9).

It’s passages like these, which are myriad throughout the NT, that simply won’t let the hermeneutical question go to rest: How can we do justice to the details of both the OT (Zechariah’s original meaning) and the NT (Paul’s re-appropriation of Zechariah’s meaning to Gentiles) except by concluding that something dramatic has occurred in history, something which was previously “hidden” and is only now “revealed”, something that, in the long-range wisdom of God, necessarily changes the way God’s previously revealed plan finds its fulfillment?

One thing at least is clear: What is really at stake in debates about the ongoing role of Israel is a particular way of understanding the relationship between the OT and the NT. For many American evangelicals, being faithful to Scripture entails finding a way for all “unfulfilled” OT prophecies to find their (more or less) literal fulfillment in the future, regardless of how uneasily those prophecies might sit with the NT. For an increasing number of Bible-reading Christians, however, being faithful to Scripture means first and foremost reading the text of both Testaments on their own terms and in their own historical settings. This paradigm allows these Christians to trust what the text really does say and not try to force it into a place where it does not fit. Instead of trying to figure out a complex scheme whereby every OT prophecy might come true as it stands under the New Covenant, and in some way or another doing damage to its historical meaning, the great virtue of this view is that it frees us to acknowledge the historical meaning while recognizing that the scope of what the prophets saw has been greatly expanded by the grace of God revealed in Christ. Nothing has been lost; everything has been gained.

In Christ,

Matt