The New Testament Needs the Old (and So Do You)

January 28, 2014Filed under theology#devotionsMarkdown source

I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Psalm 28, Proverbs 28, Matthew 1–4.

Having just finished reading through the Chronicles, it is readily apparent how Matthew self-consciously situated himself against the backdrop of the Old Testament as he began composing his gospel. Just as the Old Testament carefully preserved the lineages of the people—most notably in Numbers and Chronicles— so Matthew carefully laid out the descent of Christ, showing that his (adoptive) father’s line ran true back through David.1 If, as some scholars of the canon have speculated, Matthew’s Old Testament canon concluded with Chronicles,2 this beginning seems especially fitting, but in any case Matthew was clearly interested in establishing continuity between his work and the Hebrew Bible.

We pick up this same thread in his constant use of the word “fulfill.” The way Matthew uses the word has been much discussed among scholars, since many of the passages he quotes are clearly not talking about the Messiah in particular. While some see this as evidence of either Matthew’s exegetical failure or the validity of purely allegorical readings, I think3 the solution is simpler. Matthew is using the word in a simpler fashion. He means not “fulfill” in the sense in which we use the word of formal prophecies, but “fill up”. The Greek word pleróō (πληρόω) covers both.4 When Matthew says that some event “fulfills” something from the Old Testament, he is not arguing that the Old Testament bit he references was originally written about Jesus, but rather that Jesus takes that original thing and fills it up with more meaning than it originally had.

The combination of these two things, in any case, is to point us to the Jewishness and the Old Testament background against which Jesus did his entire ministry, and in which the church was born. Last semester and this semester, I have been taking survey classes of the Old Testament, and I find them extremely valuable. The Old Testament is underpreached in most churches, because (I think) it is undervalued in most churches. Whether because of a simplistic and misguided notion that the Old Testament has only law and the New Testament only grace, or because the texts are harder to read for propositionally oriented Westerners,5 or simply because of unfamiliarity on the part of many pastors, we skip over the Old Testament. We might draw on it for moral statements from time to time, or to give some extra explanation for the atonement—but when was the last time you heard someone preach through Isaiah, or Malachi, or 2 Chronicles?

This is a catastrophic loss to th echurch. Paul wrote that all Scripture was breathed out by God and is profitable for us—and the only canon he had at the time was the Old Testament; he and his fellow apostles were still in the process of composing the pieces that became the New Testament! The early church’s Bible, the texts from which they read, sang, and preached week in and week out, were those of the Old Testament. They read the Psalms together, learned from the Proverbs, chewed on Job, sought to imitate the saints of old, and above all looked for the many ways their Messiah had been proclaimed and prefigured in the pages of their book. They found there ample instruction in walking with God and worshipping their risen Lord. Matthew found there the ground of his entire gospel. Perhaps we would do well to do better in our love of the Old Testament, too.

  1. There is much argument about the differing genealogies in Luke and Matthew. This is an interesting discussion… for something besides a devotional post. Contrary to many a scholar, evangelical and dissenting alike, the so- called synoptic problem comes after dealing with each book on its own terms.

  2. All the same books would have been present, just in a different order.

  3. Following an article by G. K. Beale from several decades ago, a link to which I do not have at hand at the moment and which would undoubtedly bore the vast majority of you to stupor in any case.

  4. There is an important issue here for issues of translation, and especially for the idea of “word studies”: namely, that they’re basically unhelpful. Words in different languages have different ranges of meanings. We can see this at the most basic level in the Spanish word “mesa”, which partly overlaps with the English word “table”, but extends to include things (like bluffs) which the English word does not include. This happens all the time, and accordingly just looking up all the places where a particular Greek word is used can often produce more heat than light—it will make you think that authors mean the same thing in places where the context demands that they do not. I really, really recommend that you avoid word studies for this reason.

  5. A factor undergoing rapid change in many parts of the West, as story becomes central again in large parts of the population.