Three Ways Old Testament Theology Points to Jesus

Our course, ‘The Storied World of the Bible’, follows the threads of key ideas throughout Scripture. Our  friend, Dr. Dennis Edwards, helps us identify these threads. 


A recent kerfuffle following a sermon by popular pastor Andy Stanley highlighted the difficulty some Christians have with the Old Testament (OT). The Christian Post story about Andy Stanley’s sermon went viral. Pastor Stanley attempted to explain the role of the Old Testament in the lives of Christians, but some suggested that Pastor Stanley was dangerously close to the ancient heresy known as Marcionism. Marcion was a second century bishop who regarded the God of the Old Testament as an inferior deity to the God of the New Testament. Marcionism has little use for the OT.

The New Testament (NT), however, assumes its readers not only to be familiar with the OT, but also to depend upon it. Second Timothy 3:16-17 reads, ‘All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.’ The word ‘scripture’ (Greek: graphē) primarily refers to the Jewish Scriptures. Christians need to be familiar with the OT in order to understand much of the NT, particularly to appreciate the person and work of Jesus Christ. While there isn’t space here to discuss all of the ways we might relate the OT to the NT, we will look briefly at how OT prophecy relates to Jesus.

Christians need to be familiar with the OT in order to understand much of the NT, particularly to appreciate the person and work of Jesus Christ. @RevDrDre Click To Tweet

The OT Story Finds its Climax in Jesus

The writer of Hebrews deliberately connects Jesus to the OT: 

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds’ (Heb 1:1-2). 

These verses point out that God spoke to the Jewish people through the prophets, and we can presume that most—if not all—of those oracles had meaning to those who first heard the messages. Yet, as we continue to read through Hebrews, we can see that the author understands that in light of the person and ministry of Jesus, the Old Testament has meaning even beyond its original setting. New Testament scholar David deSilva observes, ‘Since Jesus is the self-expression of the Father that brings together all God’s former partial revelations (Heb 1:1-2), the author uses Jesus as a reference point from which these older oracles take their meaning.’

First Peter 1:10-12 connects OT prophecy to the ministry of Jesus:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look!

According to 1 Peter, Old Testament prophets were given some insight into the salvation of God’s people and the sufferings of the Messiah. Although the prophets searched intently and investigated, they did not know details concerning the time or circumstances surrounding the suffering and glorification of Christ. The picture would become clearer after the early Christians had time to reflect on the ministry of Jesus along with their ancient writings. Christopher Wright offers a fitting summary: ‘So Jesus came, then, as the completion of the story which the Old Testament had told, and as the fulfillment of the promise which the Old Testament had declared.’ 

So Jesus came, then, as the completion of the story which the Old Testament had told, and as the fulfillment of the promise which the Old Testament had declared. Click To Tweet

The OT Points to the Ministry of Jesus

Near the end of the Gospel According to Luke, there is story of Jesus after his resurrection, where he joined two people who were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. These people, however, were unable to recognize Jesus at first. Jesus prompted them to recount ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people’ (Luke 24:19). After they recall how the women disciples found the tomb of Jesus empty, the Lord rebukes them saying, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ (Luke 24:25-26). 

Luke then says about Jesus, ‘Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the Scriptures’. No one knows what particular passages from the Jewish Scripture Jesus offered while making his argument, but Luke wants to highlight that the OT points to Jesus—particularly his suffering—and anyone paying attention should have noticed as the events were unfolding. 

The NT portrays Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, and that designation has a rich background in the OT. Therefore, Christians should become increasingly familiar with the story of Israel as portrayed in the OT, and certainly with the OT’s presentation and description of Messiah.

In The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, N. T. Wright makes frequent reference to 1 Cor 15:3-4,

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

Wright notes that the phrase ‘in accordance with the Bible’ has little to do with isolated proof-texts and everything to do with the meaning of the long, dark, puzzling narrative of Israel ending with the question mark at the end of the books of Malachi and Chronicles’ (p. 280).

First Corinthians 15:3-4 functions much like Luke 24, which is to say that rather than focusing on particular OT passages, readers must become familiar with the entire story of the OT because it is from the entire OT that we would understand why the Messiah ‘died for our sins’ and the significance of his resurrection on the third day.

 OT Prophecy Points to the Second Coming of Jesus

In several places in the Pauline corpus we can find the phrase ‘Day of the Lord’ (e.g., 1Cor. 5:5; 1Th. 5:2; 2Th. 2:2), or ‘the day of Jesus Christ,’ (e.g., 1 Cor 1:8; 2 Cor 1:14; Phil 1:6, 10). Other NT writers do similarly (e.g., Heb 10:25; 2 Pet 3:10). The ‘Day of the Lord’ is a popular expression found in the Hebrew Bible. 

The oracles of some prophets focus almost exclusively on the Day of the Lord (e.g., Joel, Obadiah). The Day of the Lord is in essence a time when God intervenes more definitively and clearly in human affairs in order to exercise judgment. This judgment means punishment for the enemies of God, but vindication for the people of God. 

Much more could be said about the Day of the Lord, but my main point here is that NT writers saw a connection between the OT prophecies of the Day of the Lord and the parousia, or second coming of Christ.

NT writers saw a connection between the OT prophecies of the Day of the Lord and the parousia, or second coming of Christ. Click To Tweet

A Few Considerations for Further Study

Here are three areas related to OT prophecy and Jesus that could be places to start for deeper inquiry:

  1. Matthew’s Unique Portrayal of Jesus. During Advent and Christmas, many Christians read Matthew 1-2. Several times Matthew uses the term ‘fulfill’ to connect events surrounding the birth of Jesus with Jewish Scriptures (e.g., Matt 1:22; 2:15, 17). Yet Matthew’s emphasis on fulfillment is found even beyond the birth narrative of Jesus, as when Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill’ (Matt 5:17). It is true that all four Gospels demonstrate in some way or another how OT prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus. Yet Matthew’s fulfillment motif is unique among the Gospels; it is part of a larger strategy of connecting the story of Jesus to the story of Israel and is worthy of deeper examination.
  2. Typology. There are times when NT writers connect Jesus to OT objects, people, or events in ways that might seem odd to us. For example, in 1 Cor 10 Paul reflects on the Exodus narratives and writes this: ‘For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ’ (1 Cor 10:4). Similarly, the writer of Hebrews makes a connection between King Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20) and Jesus (Heb 5:6—7:22). Christopher Wright defines typology as ‘a way of understanding Christ and the various events and experiences surrounding him in the New Testament by analogy or correspondence with the historical realities of the Old Testament seen as patterns or models.’
  3. Eschatology and Apocalyptic. Many have seen connections between the books of Daniel and Revelation, oftentimes proposing end-time scenarios by forcing those connections to mean more than what they might actually be saying. There are many OT passages that could be considered eschatological (e.g., Isa 2:2-4) and some besides Daniel that contain apocalyptic imagery (e.g., Zech 14). Further study of the Day of the Lord as well as OT and NT eschatological passage could shed more light on how we might understand the significance of the return of Christ. 

Hopefully we can see that there are many reasons for Christians not to jettison the Hebrew Bible. We increase our understanding of Jesus when we connect his story to Israel’s story found in the Old Testament.

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Dennis Edwards
Rev. Dr. Dennis R. Edwards is Associate Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary (Lisle, IL) and the author of 1 Peter in the Story of God Bible Commentary series. Until recently he was the senior pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, MN. Dr. Edwards has also ministered in Brooklyn, NY as well as Washington, DC. Dr. Edwards holds a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University and has been a high school science and math teacher. He also earned a Master of Divinity degree in Urban Ministry (from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) as well as Master of Arts and PhD degrees in Biblical Studies (from the Catholic University of America). He has been an adjunct instructor of Bible and New Testament Greek at various seminaries and is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Dr. Edwards has been married to Susan Steele Edwards since 1982. They have four adult children and one grandchild. Dennis enjoys playing his flute and saxophone, as well as weightlifting, cycling, and playing racquetball and as much as possible.
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