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How Did Jesus Read the Old Testament?

There has been something of a biblical-theological revolution over the past several decades. It is not a revolution in which new doctrines are being uncovered so much as it is one by which our understanding of a Christ-centered and redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture is being refined. Many in Reformed and Calvinistic churches have welcomed this development with opened arms precisely because the fundamental principles of redemptive-history are already scattered throughout the large corpus of writings of the English Puritans, Dutch theologians of the 17th Century and other post-Reformation Reformed theologians. In essence, Biblical Theology is nothing more, and nothing less, than historic Covenant Theology. While much of what is being written today has already been articulated in former days, there is still more refinement and progress to be made within this particular realm of biblical interpretation. One such refinement comes as we attempt to answer the question, "How did Jesus read the Old Testament?" Surprisingly, this is one question that has seldom been asked and answered. It is my desire to help us briefly think through this question and the implications it has on our Christian lives.

One of the chief reasons why this question has not been asked more frequently is that Reformed, Calvinistic and Evangelical Christians sometimes err on the side of thinking of Jesus as merely being God, but downplay his human nature and Covenant membership as an Israelite born under the Law to redeem His people (Gal. 4:3-5). Certainly, believing that Jesus is the second Person of the Godhead is the most important tenet of the Christian faith--and something that can only be known and believed by the supernatural and gracious work of God; however, believing that He is also fully man, and the Covenant keeping representative Israelite, is equally fundamental to the Christian faith. He is both David's son and David's Lord (Matt. 22:41-46). In addition to the truth of the Triunity of God, all the truths of Christ's Person, work and saving benefits form the epi-center of Christianity.

There is almost nothing so difficult as understanding the Person of Jesus--two distinct but inseparable natures in one eternal Person. Yet, the Scriptures teach this truth, historic Christianity affirms it and we will spend eternity worshiping the Christ who is fully God and fully man. Theologians have spent much time seeking to explain what has been called "the hypostatic union." The eternally pre-existent Son of God created a human nature for Himself in the womb of the virgin Mary, "and so became, and continues to be, both God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever."1 In His human nature, Jesus had to "grow in wisdom and stature" (Luke 2:40; 52). He had to learn, just like any other man. Though in the Divine nature He was omniscient, in His human nature He was finite and subject to growth and development. At each stage of human experience He had to grow in His capacity to experience sinless human experience to the extent of His ability. He never ceased to be God, yet willingly laid aside access to what was His by Divine right in order to be our representative second Adam. We needed a Redeemer who was fully man. We need a Redeemer who entered into the same experiences, put Himself under the same Law and who was "tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin." One of the things that He had to experience as man--and that He had to do as human mediator and covenant keeper--was to study and understand the Scriptures. 

There is deep mystery here. Jesus never studied in the Rabbinical schools like all the other religious leaders in Israel (John 7:15). We can safely assume that Mary and Joseph faithfully taught Him the Scriptures from His earliest days. We know that He would have been in the synagogues often as a boy; and Luke tells us that He went with Mary and Joseph to the Temple every year. We find Him there as a 12 year old boy astonishing the teachers with His questions and answers about the Scriptures (Luke 2:41-52). So, how did Jesus read the Old Testament? Did He read it as a book of morals or character development? Did He read it like the Pharisees and Scribes read it? Far from it! Jesus read the Old Testament as the Covenant revelation of God written to Him and about Him. We have frequently rushed to this latter part and rightly rejoiced in the fact that Old Testament was written about Jesus, but have failed to see that, at the same time, it was written, first and foremost, to Jesus. 

Another reason why this question has not been asked more frequently is that the Reformed are rightly zealous for application and experientialism. The Bible should make a difference on my life. The precious truths contained in it should lead me on to godly living. This is taught everywhere in the pages of Scriptures (e.g. Titus 1:1 and 1 Timothy 4:16). Some have mistakenly thought that if we say that the Scriptures are first and foremost written to and about Jesus that this will somehow lead on to a denial of my need for transformation. In fact, it is only as we see that the Bible is written to and about Jesus that we will experience Gospel transformation in our lives.  

With these things in mind, here are 10 ways to help us understand how Jesus would have understood the Old Testament to have been written to and about Himself:

1. Jesus understood that the entire Old Testament revealed that He would be the law-keeping Redeemer of His people. We know this from Psalm 40:7 and Hebrews 10:7. He would be the willing servant of the LORD who submitted Himself to all of His Father's commands and who always did His Father's will for His people. 

2. Jesus understood that all the promises of God were made to Him--first and foremost--as the Son of Abraham and Son of David. The Apostle Paul explicitly tells us that the promises made to Abraham and his Seed, were made to Christ--prior to being made to anyone else (Gal. 3:16). He had to first be "the heir of all things" (Heb. 1:1-4) before any of those who have faith in Him become "heirs of all things." Jesus said, "Yes" to the promised curses of the Covenant (curses that we deserve for our sin) in order to merit the Covenant blessings for us. Paul tells us that "all the promises of God are 'yes' and 'amen' in Him." This means that Jesus read the legal demands of the Law--with their promised blessings and curses--as dependent upon His becoming a curse for us so that we might inherit the blessings (Gal. 3:10-14). 

3. Jesus understood that the Old Testament spoke preeminently of His own sufferings and glories (1 Peter 1:10-12), as revealed by His Spirit through the prophets. He knew that this was written in part to carry Him through His ministry. For instance, Psalm 22 could only be read experientially by Jesus. David was not crucified. David was not forsaken of God. The Spirit of Christ revealed the sufferings and glories of Christ to prepare Him to experience them in His Messianic experience. We see this same principle at work in what is said by and of Christ in Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 (Psalm 16; Acts 2:23-36). In this sense we can say that Jesus knew that the whole of the Old Testament was related to His death and resurrection. He told the two on the road to Emmaus that "everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled"...and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead" (Luke 24:44-46).

4. Jesus understood that the Old Testament saints were not--first and foremost--examples of moral uprightness for fallen sinners to emulate, but were themselves sinners who were looking forward to Him by faith (Heb. 11). He explained this to the Pharisees when He told them that "Abraham saw My day, and rejoiced to see it and was glad" (John 8:56-58). Additionally, He explained that David, Solomon and Jonah existed to point to Him (Matt. 12). 

5. Jesus understood that all the Old Testament types, shadows and symbols pointed to some aspect of His saving work or benefits. We know this because he pointed to Jacob's ladder, the serpent on the pole, and water from the rock (John 1; 3 and 7) as examples of this principle. 

6. Jesus understood that every prophecy was about Him. We see this from his persistent appeal to OT Messianic prophecies as verifying who He is (e.g. Zech. 13:7 in Matt. 26:31; and, Zech. 9:9; Matt. 21:5).

7. Jesus understood that He was the True Israel, who came to recapitulate Israel's history for the redemption of His people. We know this from Matthew's citation to Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 (see Matt. 2:13-15); but we also see this from Jesus' quoting from the book of Deuteronomy when he was tempted in the wilderness by the devil (Luke 4). Jesus took up Scripture that was given to Israel in the wilderness where they were tempted. He prevailed where they failed. He is the true Israel (see this post and this post). He went down into Egypt, out of Egypt, through the waters, into the wilderness, up on the mountain, down from the mountain, etc. 

8. Jesus understood that His ministry was to be one of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and the Good News of redemption to hopeless and helpless sinners. We see this from His first sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) where He appealed to Isaiah 61:1-2: "The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor..." 

9. Jesus understood that all the festivals and feasts in the Old Testament were pointing forward to what He would accomplish in the work of redemption. We know this because in that first sermon in Nazareth, He alluded to the Year of Jubilee and explained that He had come to give the reality of what that feast typified. The Year of Jubilee happened once every fifty years--once in a lifetime in an average lifetime (Ps. 90:10). Debts would be cancelled and the inheritance would be restored. Jesus does that very thing spiritually for His people through His death and resurrection. 

10. Jesus understood that marriage was ordained at creation in order for Him to have a spiritual bride in the church that He would redeem. He repeatedly referred to Himself as "the Bridegroom" (Matt. 9:15 and 25:1-10).

While much more could and should be considered regarding this subject, understanding that Jesus read the Old Testament as being written to and about Himself should give us a greater appreciation for the extent to which our Savior went to redeem us. It should help us fix our eyes more steadfastly on the One who is the author and finisher of our faith. It should motivate us to seek Him more fervently. It should encourage us to trust Him as our Redeemer more fully. It should help us understand that all life and godliness are found in Him and in Him alone. It should produce in us shouts of thanksgiving and songs of praise for the loving wisdom of our God in revealing His Covenant revelation to the Covenant keeper. 

 

1. Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 21

 

Related Resources

David Murray Jesus On Every Page 

Nick Batzig "The Emmaus Sessions" (audio and video of lectures on redemptive-history)

Nick Batzig "Death and Resurrection: The Key to the Old Testament

Ligon Duncan "Covenant Theology" (RTS audio lectures from iTunes U) 

Rick Phillips "What Is Covenant Theology?" (audio lectures)

Edmund Clowney Preaching Christ in All the Scriptures

Edmund Clowney's lectures on Typology Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Peter Lilback "Finding Christ's Virtuous Wife" (a sermon on Prov. 31 read from the perspective of Jesus)