A New look at the Old Testament

It’s been a while! Here are some ramblings of thoughts I’ve been having recently.

I once heard a well-educated Christian telling a new Christian that “you won’t understand the Old Testament until you understand the New Testament”. He was saying that the Old Testament has shadows of things and only with the light of the New Testament can we understand these shadows.

I don’t think I agree with this. In fact, if anything, I think a better statement would be “you won’t understand the New Testament until you understand the Old Testament”! I wouldn’t make the point that strongly, but to say that we need the New Testament to understand the Old Testament strikes me as rather odd.

First, for hundreds of years God’s people had the Old Testament but the New Testament hadn’t been written yet. Did these people have no idea what was going on? Did they have no anticipation of what the promised Messiah would be like based on what they had of the Bible? Did God decide for the Bible to be written the wrong way around? Chronologically it makes no sense that God would first give his people something that they wouldn’t be able to understand until hundreds of years later.

Also, the way the New Testament is written shows that a lot of it assumes that the reader understands the Old Testament. The New Testament isn’t usually saying “let me explain those things in the Old Testament that you didn’t understand”. More often it is saying “you know that stuff in the Old Testament that you do understand, well Jesus is the person that it’s about – he’s the one you’ve been expecting”.

In Acts 26:22-23, Paul says

“I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles”.

Paul was simply repeating what the Old Testament said about Jesus.

In Acts 13:26-27, Paul says

“Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.”

Those who rejected Jesus were those who didn’t understand the Old Testament. Those who did understand the Old Testament knew who to expect and were able to recognise Jesus as being that person when they saw him.

Some parts of the New Testament explain the significance of Old Testament things and how they tell us about Jesus. However, some parts of the New Testament don’t come with an explanation, and it is expected that the reader will understand the significance already.

For example, Matthew (27:51), Mark (15:38) and Luke (23:45) all report that during Jesus’ crucifixion the curtain of the temple was torn in two. However, none of them explain the significance of this. They must have thought that the readers would already know what the curtain and the temple were about already. They assume Old Testament knowledge and don’t feel the need to explain it.

Therefore, if we read the Old Testament overly cautiously, only doing so through things that the New Testament explicitly confirms, there will be some things we miss because the New Testament authors thought it too obvious to explain!

For another example, let’s look at Matthew 16:5-12:

“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

The number of baskets gathered after the feeding of the five thousand was twelve (14:20) and the number of baskets gathered after the feeding of the four thousand was seven (15:36). Jesus, talking to his Old-Testament believer disciples, couldn’t believe that the disciples hadn’t picked up on the significance of the number of baskets that were left over. He expects them already to know the significance of these numbers without him having to explain it to them. Matthew (or the rest of the New Testament) doesn’t say “ok, so here’s the significance of the numbers seven and twelve so that now you can understand their use in the Old Testament” – instead the knowledge is assumed of the reader.

So how can we get this knowledge today? I find it quite frustrating as most of the good Bible teachers out there are too conservative to go into aspects of Old Testament symbolism that aren’t explicitly stated in the New Testament, even though there are clearly aspects of this that the New Testament authors thought were too obvious to have to explain! On the other hand, if you search on the internet for an explanation of the significance of the numbers seven and twelve in the Bible, you will almost invariably find some crackpot website coming out with all sorts of rubbish. It would be great to see some more conservative Bible scholars stepping out of their comfort zone a bit so we can recapture some of the “obvious” stuff that’s become a little less obvious to folk like us in this day and age.