Interpreting the Prophetic Words of the Old Testament

This blog post continues on from my last blog post in regards to the nature of the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophetic words. There is much debate amongst Christians today of how to interpret the prophetic words of the Old Testament. And, of course, we should probably expect such questions to arise when considering the difficult nature of such portions of Scripture. Those Old Testament words are not the easiest in deciphering a clear cut understanding.

Therefore, when we turn to the prophetic words of the Old Testament, such as Isaiah or Amos, we must first remember that the Old Testament is not an entity in and of itself. It is part of the whole of Scripture, with the New Testament being the end of the story. The prophetic words of the Old Testament were spoken into a specific time in history, but were part of God’s overall redemptive plan for all peoples.

Think of it this way – Have you ever walked into a movie an hour late? It isn’t ideal, is it? But, if you pay close attention, you could probably catch the main storyline of the film. But, how much more devastating would it be if you had to leave a movie that had about thirty more minutes of play time? For me, though I might be able to guess the ending, that would seem much worse than the former.

It’s similar with the Scriptures. We need the whole story, and the Old Testament is the beginning of that story and the New Testament is the ending of that story. As new covenant believers, we cannot approach the Old Testament and look to simply interpret it without the ending of the story. Therefore, all Christians should keep in mind that the ultimate and best interpreter of the Old Testament is Christ Himself and the New Testament.

I love this short, yet poignant, statement found in 2 Corinthians 1:20:

For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.

For me, it would seem tragic if we considered trying to interpret the Old Testament without the New Testament. In his book, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, F.F. Bruce has this to say:

‘They [the Old Testament writings] found their fulfillment and had their meaning made plain in Christ; when people read them without using this key to unlock their significance, “a veil lies over their minds” (2 Corinthians 3:15).’

This has relevancy when we come to the topic of eschatology, for many a beliefs are founded upon the prophetic writings of the Old Testament such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah. But we must understand that, as new covenant followers of Christ, we are called to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. We are called to see the beginning words of Scripture interpreted through the living and final Word, that is Christ.

Specifically regarding the prophetic words of the Old Testament, another theologian states:

‘The Old Testament is no longer the last word on end-time prophecies since the Messiah of prophecy Himself has come as the last Word. The New Testament has been written as the ultimate norm for the fulfillment and interpretation of Israel’s prophecies. A Christian would deny his Christian faith and Lord if he reads the Old Testament as a closed entity, as the full and final message of God for Jews irrespective of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, and apart from the New Testament explanation of the Hebrew writings.’ (Hans K. LaRondelle. The Israel of God in Prophecy: Principles for Prophetic Interpretation)

These are pretty harsh words – ‘a Christian would deny his Christian faith and Lord’ – maybe a bit too strong. But in all, we must remember that we can never read the Old Testament without first seeing that Christ is the great fulfillment of such. Though we refer to this passage mainly when discussing the relationship of the Law to the Christian, I think there is something bigger going on in Matthew 5:17:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Did you catch that? Christ didn’t just say He came to fulfill the Law, but also the Prophets. The phrase ‘the Law and the Prophets’ is synonymous with the whole of the Old Testament canon (see also Luke 24:27, though the word ‘Moses’ is used in place of ‘Law’). Thus, for a first-century Jew, it would have been clear that Jesus was declaring that He was the fulfillment of all that was written beforehand in the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament). He came to fulfill it all through His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And that is good news!

God has never failed in fulfilling His promises, but we must not limit the fulfillment of God’s word. Fulfillment has come, but it has come in an even greater way than the prophets could have ever imagined. For as Paul said, ‘all the promises of God find their Yes [or Amen] in him’ (2 Corinthians 1:20). God truly is faithful to far more abundantly than all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20)!

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