Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Lordship of Jesus and the OT

Recently I have heard it said that if you allow the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament you are committing a hermeneutical error. Frankly I do not understand how anyone who has read the New Testament more than once could say that, nevertheless the idea continues to float around the theological world. From my perspective, the New Testament insists that we read the Old Testament in its light and our commitment to Jesus as Lord demands the same thing. For instance, when Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17), he is claiming Lordship over the Old Testament and telling us that any exposition of the Old Testament that does not interpret the text in light of him is deficient.

This same point is made throughout the New Testament in different ways, but perhaps it is never more clearly and forcefully propounded as in the letter to the Hebrews. The unknown but inspired writer of Hebrews shows us how to read the Old Testament. He reads the text with great care and skillfully connects the theological "dots" that lead us to Jesus and the fulfillment of God's salvific purposes in him. One passage that I recently shared with my seminary Hebrews class is Jeremiah 31:31-34, which is quoted at length in Hebrews 8. It is part of a section of Hebrews in which the author is demonstrating that we have in Jesus the ultimate great high priest who serves in the heavenly sanctuary, the true tabernacle, set up by the Lord, and not by mere human beings. In this passage, he goes so far as to say that the earthly sanctuary was only a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. In other words, the tabernacle and the Levitical priesthood attached to it has no meaning apart from what it temporarily symbolized as God revealed his way of salvation in human history. Then the writer goes on to tell us that this not only applies to the earthly tabernacle, but to the first or Sinaitic covenant (which is not the "covenant of works" but the covenant made with Israel at Sinai). There was something wrong with this covenant because it could not bring the people near to God. It served a purpose in the plan of God for a period of time, but now that Jesus Christ has come, it is obsolete and outdated and has been replaced by a new and better covenant of which Jesus is the guarantor and mediator.

From the development of his argument it is clear that the writer does not believe that the Old Testament has a meaning for Israel that it does not have for the church. If he did, he could not appeal to this passage in support of the new covenant which brings together both Jewish and Gentiles believers in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Without apology, or explanation, he applies Jeremiah 31:31-34 to Christian believers which indicates that he understands "Israel and Judah", to whom the words are addressed, to refer to the spiritual nation which is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. Failure to read Jeremiah in this way will result in a failure to understand what he is talking about. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is about the new covenant that is the result of the superior ministry of Jesus and established on better promises. Any other interpretation of the passage is sub-Christian at best, and at worst, represents a sinful and stubborn refusal to honor and glorify Jesus as the great high priest who has sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven. This is the hermeneutical error we must studiously avoid no matter what our theological tradition.

20 comments:

Allen R. Mickle, Jr. said...

Does that mean I commit hermeneutical heresy? ;)

Just kidding!

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Not you brother! :-)

stauf46 said...

I sat down with a sigh tonight after Bible study knowing that I should do another post responding to ... well, you know.

I checked updated posts on Bloglines and, lo and behold, you have done my homework for me.

Teacher is going to be suspicious, though, because you did a better job than I would have. I was going to amplify a comment I left on my blog in response to a question (my comment included Mt. 5:17).

I'll just link here, if that's okay. Then I'll go read a book.

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Terry, you are welcome to link here anytime! Its a big subject with lots of implications but the more we discuss it and interact with what the Bible is saying, the better our understanding of God's amazing grace.

Trish said...

So do you believe that the Church has replaced Israel in terms of fulfilling the promises re. land and seed?

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Trish... I would want to use the word "replaced" carefully because it can imply that God started off in one direction and then change his plans. I think that the church, or the true Israel of God composed of the supernaturally born children of faith, was the intended object of the promises of God from the very beginning. The land promises ultimately looking forward to a new heavens and a new earth and the seed promises ultimately finding fulfillment in Jesus, the great seed of Abraham, and those who belong to him.

trish said...

Yeah I see what you're saying. But some people are saying that Israel has a divine right to the land because God promised it to them through Abraham. Does the land promise still stick to this day? And if not how do you argue against it?

Anonymous said...

Kirk,

Great word. It is interesting to see how those who oppose such hermeneutics also expouse the authority of Scripture. To let Scripture be authoratative means to allow it to interpret itself. Thus, to truly submit to Scripture is not just in terms of our life, but also our hermeneutics. Does that make sense?

I am curious about your thoughts on a matter that often is debated among those who do hold to this hermeneutic (which I endorse). Did Jesus and the apostles change the meaning of the text in light of the cross event or did their interpretations reflect the original meaning even if it wasn't obvious to the original readers? I guess what I am getting is the debate between Beale and Enns (see the article in Themelios by Beale where he responds to Enns book, "Incarnation and Inspiration").

Chad

DavidR said...

Oddly enough, I was reading Ezekiel 34 recently when this topic came to mind. In v. 15 God announces that he himself will shepherd his sheep. But in v. 23, "one shepherd" is appointed, and that, "my servant David". Obviously contradictory verses!

... or not. :)

David Reimer

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Trish... in terms of a short answer to your very good questions I would say that the land promises do not mean that Israel is still entitled to Middle Eastern real estate as a divine right. If possible a plan should be worked out where everyone can live in peace, although that is unlikely to happen in this age. The land promises, like God's choice of Israel as a nation, are part of God's larger purpose to restore "Eden" and to have a people living in paradise who will know and love him.

The Holy Spirit tells us that this is how the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob understood the promise. In Hebrews 11 we are told that they never saw real estate in Palestine as the ultimate fulfillment of the promise. In fact, even when they were wandering around the so called "promised land" they "admitted that they were foreigners and strangers on earth." The writer then goes on to say that "people who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own and that if they had been thinking of the country they left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country -- a heavenly one" (cf. Hebrews 11:8-16).

In one sense, God eventually fulfilled his promises to the patriarchs as Joshua affirms in Joshua 23:14. But this did not exhaust the fulfillment of the promise, nor was it ever intended to do so. To see the ultimate realization of the promise we must turn to Revelation 21-22 where we are given a glimpse of glory to come and the fulfillment of the promise in a renewed universe.

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Good point David! A one-dimensional reading of the text is a misreading!

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Chad... I will look into the Beale and Enns debate when I go into Toronto this coming week. I would never want to say the Jesus and the apostles changed the meaning of the text in light of the cross event. Such a suggestion raises all kinds of questions about biblical inspiration and authority. I'm fully persuaded that everything which is later developed in the NT is already there in the OT if people are reading the OT properly. That people had trouble putting the pieces of the puzzle together prior to the coming of Christ and the apostolic exposition of his ministry is hardly surprising. Look at the confusion that exists today in spite of the fact that we possess both the Old and New Testaments!

Anonymous said...

Kirk, I agree with what you've said. With that said, how would you explain changes in the text by the NT authors? For example James quotes from Amos 9:11-12 in Acts 15 and changes the word Edom to Nations. Would you say that James understood Edom as representative of the nations in light of Christ and what he did for all peoples (this is what I think)? Of course we don't want to suggest that James changed the text to be misleading or simply proof text, but clearly he does change word(s) to suit a theological position (Paul does this as well on numerous occasions).

Thanks, Chad

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry Kirk, I meant James changed Edom to Mankind.

Chad

Anonymous said...

I guess one thing I forgot was that James quoted from the LXX. Anyway, disregard the immediate question(about James), but perhaps another example would be Paul's change in Rom 11:26-27 from Isaiah 59:20, where the word "to" is removed and "from" replaces it.

Thanks, Chad

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Hi Chad... with regard to the quotation of Isaiah 59:20 in Romans 11:26-27 it could be that Paul is quoting a textual tradition which we no longer have access to. However, I think it is more likely that Paul is paraphrasing Isaiah 59:20 to indicate that a Redeemer will not only come to Zion but from Zion. In the context of Isaiah 59 it is the Lord as a heavenly warrior who works righteousness and so Paul may be thinking of Zion along the lines of Hebrews 12:22 as the heavenly city from which help comes. Thus the salvation of Israel, in the sense of a great work of grace among them at the end before the return of Christ, will be brought about by God himself for the honor of his name. See Moo's commentary on Romans 11 and Motyer's commentary on Isaiah 59.

In all of this I have no problem with a NT author elaborating on the text to bring out the fuller meaning in light of the unfolding of redemptive history. I do not think that we need to require them to quote the text verbatim as is born out by the frequent quotations of the LXX text as opposed to the Hebrew text. But this is quite different from saying that they are changing the meaning altogether. My contention is that they are interpreting and expounding the scriptures in light of the larger sweep of redemptive history. They are taking what is already there and bringing out what we might call its "fulfillment significance."

Trish said...

Just a follow up question: Re. that Joshua 23:14 text, in what sense is it an immediate fulfillment of promises to the patriarchs? I read it and it does read like it's a direct fulfillment of the Abraham covenant from Gen. 12; it's like it ends the discussion on the Isreali's inheritance of the land. But I've been doing Amos in my devotions and I think he wrote later than whoever wrote Joshua but it's like God was still going to give Israel her land as a permament possession in the future (Amos 9:13-15). I don't get how to think about this now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reponse.

Kirk, you write:

"Thus the salvation of Israel, in the sense of a great work of grace among them at the end before the return of Christ, will be brought about by God himself for the honor of his name."

I know you're not disp., but by this statement do you see a final salvation of Jews prior to the coming of Christ? Just curious.

Chad

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Trish... that is a great observation and your question shows that you are reading the Bible along a salvation-historical timeline, which is the right way to read it. The fact that the "land promise" is picked up again in Amos reveals that the Joshua fulfillment does not bring the promise to its ultimate fulfillment. Just as the "rest" that Joshua brought to Israel does not exhaust what God has in store for his people in terms of "rest" and this is indicated by David's reference to rest years later in Psalm 95 (cf. Hebrews 4:1-11).

The question that must be asked however is: what is the nature of the further fulfillment that is spoken about. In the case of the land is it merely real estate in Palestine? In Acts 15:15-18 the passage you mentioned in Amos 9 is referenced in connection with the work of Jesus Christ that extends to the Gentiles. It seems that James understands the rebuilding of David's fallen tent in Amos 9:11-12 to refer to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the true Israel of God. Given that kind of fulfillment I think that the promises of Amos 9:13-15 refer to blessings that will ultimately be realised in the new heavens and earth.

Kirk M. Wellum said...

Chad... I think that it is possible that God might do a great work among the Jewish people before the parousia of Jesus. This is one possible interpretation of Romans 11 and a view that has been held by many Christians down through the years. If God does do such a work it will involve bringing them to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus and incorporating them into the church. There are not two peoples of God with two separate destinies. Of that I am certain. However, I realize that there are other ways to take Romans 11 and other Christians who believe that all the chapter requires is that God continue to save Jewish people till the end when all God's elect have been gathered in. Time will tell! That much I do know! Although I would not be surprised if God has a surprise or two in store for us all before the end! When Paul begins the last part of Romans 11 with "I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery..." it tells me that I need to keep my options open.