The following post is by Dr. Dale Brueggemann, Contributing Editor at Faithlife Corporation.
Christ in the OT
Do we know for certain that Jesus can be found in the OT? In our efforts to “read backwards,” are we finding Christ where perhaps he should not be found? Or do we have license as Spirit-led interpreters of Scripture to allegorize as we see fit, and as it benefits our listeners?
In this post I’m going to address these questions by discussing the biblical mandate for a method of interpretation called “Christotelic” hermeneutics. Look with me first at the evidence from the NT directing the church to engage in Christ-centered exegesis of the OT.
How Paul and Jesus Interpreted Scripture
Paul aimed to “preach the gospel,” to “preach Christ” (Rom 15:20; 1 Cor 1:17, 23; 2 Cor 2:12; Eph 3:8; Phil 1:15). But he directed Timothy to “preach the word” (2 Tim 3:16; 4:2), which meant the OT. For the early church, that meant preaching the gospel of Christ from the OT.
On the Emmaus road, Jesus modelled an approach to expositing the OT Christologically: “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
Jesus’ key statement was this: “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44, italics added).
Two questions come to mind: 1) did the church continue to follow Jesus’ example? and 2) what example did they follow, if we don’t have the actual transcript of his exposition to the unnamed disciples?
I’m going to show you how the church historically attempted to follow Jesus method of interpretation, and argue for one in particular as especially valuable today.
Christotelic Hermeneutics in the Church
Historically, the church has employed three methods to discern “everything written about [Jesus] in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Proof-texting and Lists
Proof-texting isolates Christological prooftexts in the OT. This can result in lists of direct predictions that are said to have come to pass in the life and work of Jesus.
These lists might entail 40 messianic prophecies, or even claim that Jesus fulfilled over 300 prophecies from the OT. Often, these lists begin with the “seed promise” to Eve (Gen 3:15) before listing others, such as the “promise of the prophet” to Moses (Deut 18:18).
Almost all of these lists include substantial material from the Psalms (e.g., Pss 2, 16, 22, 23, 110, etc.) and from Isaiah. These include the Immanuel promise (Isa 7:14-16); the promise of a child that would bring light to the nations (Isa 9:1-7); and the great Servant passages (Isa 52:13-53:12).
This proof-texting approach can be useful, because the lists of relevant passages focus the OT pre-witness to Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. However, they fail to match Jesus’ own example. Jesus showed them Christ from all the Scriptures, rather than a human-catalogued subset of Scriptures.
We might imagine that he took a bigger-picture approach, covering key narrative moments in the Torah, highlighting Psalms that they disciples sang on the Sabbath, and reciting the words of Isaiah. There may have been proof-texting involved, but there are other ways to find Christ in the OT, such as allegorization.
Allegorize isolates texts, just as with proof-texting, but this method reads Christ into passages where a natural reading would not, at first glance (or second or third), indicate Christ. A favorite example is the Song of Songs, where interpreters rework the sensual meaning of the details with hard-won connections to Jesus.
Allegorical connections to Christ are found in everything from the dimensions of Noah’s ark to the names of Abraham’s wives and the itinerary of his journeys. One interesting example uses “gematria” and interprets Abraham’s 318 fighting men as a reference to Jesus crucified. Here’s how the numbers work out:
300 = Τ (tau)
10 = Ι (iota)
8 = Η (ēta)
318 = a cross-shaped letter Τ followed by ΙΗ, the first two letters of ΙΗΣΟΥΣ; therefore, “Jesus’ cross”
This approach has often yielded quite creative interpretations, as in the example above. This isn’t to say that these methods, or their resulting interpretations, are necessarily wrong. Indeed, there is no way to know if Jesus used allegory himself on the Emmaus road. But as anybody who has read Origin (as one example) knows, allegory can sometimes get a bit too creative, to put it nicely.
There is, however, one additional method of interpretation prominent in the history of the church worth serious consideration today: typology.
With typology, the grand narrative of Scripture has its “center” or “telos” in Christ. This approach interprets both testaments typologically, sourcing truths that are symbolized in the OT, and then identifying the fullest expression of those same truths in the NT.
Here are some examples:
- First Adam → second Adam
- Figurative sacrifice of a lamb in the OT → “the Lamb of God” of the NT
- Figurative dwelling for God, the handmade tabernacle and temple of stone → God’s incarnate presence, spiritual presence within believers and among the church, and final dwelling where the “temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22)
- Sons in the Davidic dynasty, with all their faults and every one dying → the “Son of David” who ever lives to fulfill the promise of David’s eternal dynasty
This typological approach plays out because, in both the OT and the NT, we’re reading revelation that comes from “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas 1:17).
The bottom line is this: God’s self-revelation throughout the OT foreshadows his final self-revelation in Jesus Christ the Lord. Thus a Christotelic hermeneutic is not simply to be preferred; it is the method of interpretation inherent in the revelation itself.
Where does this leave us, then, concerning the question regarding a proper hermeneutic for interpreting the OT in the church today? Unfortunately, we do not have the transcript of Jesus’ exposition on the road to Emmaus, so we cannot be so presumptuous as to promote any particular technique as more or less aligned with Jesus’ method.
But we can state with confidence the following: Jesus made it very clear that the OT spoke about him, and not just in the Psalms, or Torah. The reality of Christ Jesus, though awaiting the revelation of God (Rom 1:16-17 et al), was present all the time, albeit hidden.
This, then, is our task as interpreters of Scripture who live this side of the cross. We follow the lead of the crucified one by lifting the ancient veil of mystery, seeking Christ throughout the OT as the light of Christ himself illuminates those secret treasures kept hidden for long ages (Rom 16:25-26).
Dale A. Brueggemann did his PhD in Hermeneutics/Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and has worked in theological education for forty years. For twenty years he was Executive Director of the Eurasia Education Office for a missions organization. During that time, Dale helped establish Bible schools and seminaries throughout Eurasia, helped them gain their relevant accreditation or validation, and facilitated curriculum and faculty development. Since 2014, he has worked as Contributing Editor for Logos Mobile Ed.