In some sense, it sounds strange to have to say this, but it has become more and more necessary to repeat this to people who wish to understand their Bibles well, and that is: Watch how the New Testament writers utilize Old Testament scripture if you wish to learn how to do this yourself. (It should also go without saying that this must be done with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of course, and that is a subject we will get to later.)
Although this advice might seem self evident, it is not. Generally speaking, the teaching for most new Bible students when they approach interpreting the Old Testament and are listening to their modern trainers has become more of a “Do what we (the modern instructors) say, and not what they (the New Testament writers) do” method. But what seems to make most sense to anyone approaching any new subject for the first time is to go to the source if you want to understand the process correctly. So that will be the tack we take: to learn directly from those who learned directly from Jesus.
There are several different interpretive methods that can be spotlighted in this regard, so we will use two articles rather than just one on this “tip,” giving more coverage to what the New Testament writers are doing.
First of all, there is simply the obvious fulfillment that should be clear to virtually all readers. This happens in places like Matthew 2:5-6 (see Micah 5:2) where the connection is clear. The Messiah was foretold to be born at a certain place (i.e., Bethlehem) which was quite obvious, at least to those who knew the scriptures.
Another instance which seems an easy connection to make can be found in Luke 4:18-19, in which Jesus is quoting a passage about the Messiah’s actions when He comes, and then states to the crowd that He is fulfilling that passage in their presence. But wait. That is not exactly how it is written. As a matter of fact, it seems that Luke (Jesus) has fused Isaiah 42:7 and 61:1-2 together. But even more interestingly, he is paying no attention to the fact that the original writer was writing in the first person and was talking about freedom from Babylonian exile. Jesus applies the passages, without apology, to Himself—something He is not at all shy about doing. Is Jesus saying that He, His own life, ministry of proclamation, and all actions associated with that ministry supersede the original historical context of the passages? Without question, He is. And this is by no means the only place where Jesus uses Scripture in this manner—ignoring original historical context in light of a direct application to Himself and His own circumstances.
In Matthew 13:14, Jesus uses a quote from Isaiah 6:9, which, in its original context, is from God’s commission to Isaiah as He charges the prophet to speak to rebellious Israel about their impending judgment. Yet without hesitation, Jesus applies it directly to those who fail to understand his parabolic (and other) teachings, even saying “in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled.” But wasn’t it fulfilled by those who did not heed Isaiah’s warnings from God and subsequently faced invasion and subjugation by Babylon? Certainly. But Jesus sees an even greater fulfillment than this. One that trumps this earlier fulfillment in both scope and significance.
Of course, there is no question that judgment will fall on those who refuse to listen to Jesus’ teachings and, ultimately, the Jews were devastated as a nation in 70 AD. But the fact that the original point in historic fulfillment is omitted completely in Jesus’ exegetical framework is a bit shocking to the modern Bible student. She has been taught the historical context means everything when it comes to interpretation. In point of fact, it would seem to Jesus the primary fulfillment of scripture is found in Him and far outweighs any other time-bound exegetical considerations.
Jesus brings up “the stone the builders rejected” in Matthew 21:42, taken from Psalm 118:22, and applies it directly to the chief priests’ and Pharisees’ rejection of Him and His ministry. The original context is about a psalmist who feels utterly assailed by enemies and yet trusts completely in the Lord for his vindication. Not only that, but it is written entirely in the first person. Yet, Jesus quotes it as if it must be written entirely of Him. It is as if there is no historical context to bother with. We know the disciples took His cue in this regard because in Acts 4:11, Peter specifically names the “stone” as Christ and the “builders” as the corrupt Jewish leadership. Already, they were learning to read their entire Bible as the story of Jesus. (Of course, they had no New Testament at the time.)
The use of the scriptures, as a whole, was done by Jesus with very specific reference to Himself. Multiple other references are available to us in which it is clear that He was training those close to Him to see God’s Word, in its entirety—both from macroscopic and microscopic points of view—as being all about Him. To fail to do so would be to do an injustice to the primary guiding principle of interpretation which was given and demonstrated to us by Him.
We will continue this line of thought next time as we look further at the New Testament writers’ use and interpretation of the Old Testament, especially in Acts and the New Testament letters.