Using Jesus to Unlock the Old Testament

Illustration from "Alice in Wonderland" Gutenberg ProjectIn another blog, “Are You Disappointed?”  I said that Jesus believed the Scriptures had something to say about him and that, in fact, Jesus believed he is “The Key” to understanding all the Old Testament Scriptures.

Sidney Greidanus’ book, “Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method,”  begins with 1 Corinthians 1:23-24, “We preach Christ crucified …, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (NIV).  In his book, Greidanus seeks to help readers understand how to preach Christ from any Old Testament passage.

I think this book is helpful to anyone (not just preachers) who wants to understand the Bible from Jesus’ perspective and who wants to be able to contemplate on a grander scale how Old Testament passages reveal the glory of God in the face of Jesus.

Below is my summary of Greidanus’ Christocentric study method.  My intent is not to overwhelm you but to offer you his structure and some guiding questions (taken from or heavily influenced by Greidanus) that will hopefully encourage rather than discourage your study of Old Testament Scripture and help you find Jesus and the Gospel in them.

Greidanus’ Christocentric Method

Objective 1:  Understand the Historical Context of the Passage.

Step 1.  Literary Interpretation

  • How does the passage convey meaning?
    • What genre of literature is this?  Is it narrative, prophecy, proverb, song, legal language, etc?
    • What does it mean and how does it function in the context of the whole book. If the book tells a story, is your passage a description of setting, a point of conflict, the climax, the resolution?  If the book presents an argument, is your passage the thesis, a supporting point, a contrast?
    • What types of literary structures do you notice?  For example Proverbs and Psalms use parallelism, a technique where the second line restates the preceding line in a different way to make a point.  Ezekiel uses satire (ridicule) to expose the sins of God’s people.
    • How does the use of language, sentence structure, noun type, verb form etc., affect the meaning of the passage?  Does the verb indicate a past, future, or ongoing action?

Take confidence that as a reader you already instinctively use genre, context, literary devices, and sentence structure to help you interpret what you are reading. You distinguish a novel from a legal document and a poem from a short story without anyone pointing out the difference to you. You pick up on sarcasm, metaphors, personifications, symbolism, etc., even if you don’t know or remember their technical names. You differentiate between the protagonist (the struggling main character) and the antagonist (the person or thing that provides the conflict). You know who is speaking in a story and the perspective characters are speaking from. And you know if the writer is referring to something that happened in the past, that is happening now, or that will happen in the future.

But you might be asking,  “Why?”  “Why should I try to understand things like genre and literary structures, and the rest when it comes to the Bible? Answer: Literary interpretation strongly impacts the way you comprehend (understand) a sentence, a passage, a story, a document and apply the text to you life.  For example, your response to a letter from an attorney would be markedly different from your response to a detective story, and your response to a legal document written in the 1800’s to your great-great-great grandfather would be different than one written a week ago to you. You see where I’m going with this.

The step that you will most likely need a bit of outside help with is the “Historical Interpretation.”  See below.

Step 2.  Historical Interpretation

  • How does the past inform the future?
    • Who was the audience the writer was speaking to?
    • What meaning did the writer intend to convey to the audience of his day?
    • What need did the writer address that was relevant to the audience of his day?

To get started with historical interpretation you might try looking at the preface or beginning paragraphs of a Bible commentary. Most good study Bibles include this information.  If you don’t have access to a study Bible, you might try a free online site (See links at the end of this blog.).

Step 3.  Theocentric Interpretation

  • What does the passage reveal about God?
  • What does the passage reveal about God’s will?

Greidanus rightly says the Old Testament in mainly about God.  In it we see God’s relationship with his people and how he deals with them.  In it we can find out about God’s power, love, faithfulness, righteousness, justice, kindness, holiness, law, covenant, providence, eternal state, oneness, and more.

Furthermore, as Greidanus points out, God’s revelation of himself is linked to his revelation of himself in Christ.  In one sense – a salvation sense, you can’t get to God without beginning with Christ and in another sense – a story sense, you can’t get to Christ without beginning with God.

Objective 2: Understand the passage in the context of the whole Bible and in the context of redemptive history. 

Step 1.  Canonical Interpretation

  • What does the passage mean in context of the whole Bible? 
    • Are you reading a promise in an Old Testament prophecy that finds its fulfillment in Christ?
    • Are you reading about the sacrificial system in Leviticus that culminates in Hebrews’ description of the once and for all sacrifice?
    • Are you reading a law in Leviticus or Deuteronomy and seeing in the Gospels and Epistles the one who fulfilled the law?
    • Does your passage contain a theme such as God’s righteousness, faithfulness, holiness or power that is demonstrated in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and that culminates in God’s plan for the new creation?
    • If the Old Testament passage talks about how God’s people should behave, how do the New Testament books describe this behavior when life is lived in light of the Gospel?
    • If the Old Testament passage speaks of God’s wrath toward sin, do you look to the New Testament to find the one who took our sin and the wrath that satisfied God upon himself?

Step 2.  Redemptive-Historical Interpretation

  • Think: Creation Story – Redemption in the Old Testament – Redemption through Christ – New Creation and ask:
    • “What happens to a concept, ordinance, law, etc., contained in a passage as redemptive history progresses?  “How does the idea of temple, of sacrifice, of priest, of circumcision, etc., develop from Old Testament to New?

In the Old Testament, we see repetitions of concepts such as a remnant being saved, judgment followed by restoration, mercy and justice, salvation, a savior, a holy people, God’s provision of power and grace, and on and on that all point to ultimate salvation through Christ for God’s chosen people.

    • “How does a personal story (narrative) fit into a Bible character’s national history?  How does the story connect to redemptive history?”

Greidanus points out that, for narratives, there are three levels from which you should think about a story within the Creation – Redemption – New Creation Story framework:  (1) the personal-history level, (2) the national-history level, and (3) the historical-redemption level.

When you stop on the level of personal story, “David slays Goliath,” you end up with a “be like David” conclusion. When you don’t consider the historical level, you miss the point that “David, God’s anointed king, delivers Israel and secures its safety in the promised land” (p. 238). And when you don’t consider the redemptive history level, you miss the point that David is a type of Christ who has (via his life, death, and resurrection) defeated the enemy of his people and who will ultimately throw Satan into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10).

    • How was a promise fulfilled in national history? How was it fulfilled in redemptive history?  How will it be fulfilled in the new creation?

Here Greidanus notes that “God usually fills up his promises progressively” until the promise is “filled up” – fulfilled (p. 242). He points out that this is true in the prophets, the psalms, and in narratives.  Greidanus gives the following examples:

In Luke 4:21 Jesus said of Isaiah’s prophecy (Is. 61:1-4 below), “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (ESV).

 1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
     and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
     to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

Greidanus points out that this prophecy was filled in one sense on the national history level following 538 B.C. when a remnant from Israel returned from Babylonian exile to restore their city. Jesus came bringing salvation and therefore fulfilled it on a different level. And, finally, in the new creation, we will experience the “filled to the full” of it.

Likewise, in the Psalms we see promises about what God will accomplish for and through his anointed king. On different levels these promises refer to the reigning king, to David, to David’s descendents, and ultimately to Christ.

Finally, as mentioned previously, in narrative, we also see people like Moses and David as types of Christ that point us to the Old Testament promise of the ultimate Savior. We also see the idea that God chooses the most unlikely people to lead us to Christ. When we read about women such as Leah (Judah’s mother) Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, we realize that these unlikely women show up in the lineage of Christ (Matthew 1:1-6).

Step 3.  Christocentric Interpretation

  • What does the passage reveal about Jesus?
    • Does the Old Testament passage provide …
      • a historical-redemptive act of God that culminates in Christ?
      • a type or model that points to Christ?
      • a promise whose fulfillment is Christ?
      • an analogy that corresponds to Christ?
      • a person, thing, or situation that demonstrates a contrast to Christ?
      • a theme that culminates in Christ?

If you have gone through the other steps with Christ in mind, you have probably already considered the questions in the above step.

Why should we study the Bible this way – with Christ as key?

 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him 2 Cor. 1:20 (ESV).

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ 2 Cor. 4:6 (ESV).

Online Resources for Historical Interpretation:

Monergism.com has some good free resources.

A good all around site is Studylight.org  also has several to commentaries to choose from.  My recommendation would be to start with Matthew Henry’s Commentary and the Geneva Bible Study.  You can choose from their dictionary section and search for a word like, “Isaiah” to find historical information about this prophet, his times, and his message.

Studylight.org also has wonderful tools for searching out the meaning of Hebrew words that are used in a specific verse.  I suggest the following method:

  1. Type in the passage you are studying in the search box on the home page and press the “search button.”
  2. When your passage appears, select “Original Hebrew/Greek.”  (You will see this option beside the chapter and verse number.) The original Hebrew text will appear under and to the right of each verse.
  3. Click on an underlined English word in the verse and a“Strong’s Number” information box will appear where you will find all kinds of information about the word – it’s part of speech, it’s origin, it’s definitions, and how it is translated in different English versions of the Bible.

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