Read Like an Apostle
The early disciples gave evidence of the concept of Christ as the target of the Old Testament; but, should we read the Old Testament like they did? That is an ever pressing hermeneutical question. I want to suggest that the answer is a resounding "yes!" Consider John 2:13-22 as a case study:
"The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business." His disciples remembered that it was written, "ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME." The Jews then said to Him, "What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken."
John 2:17 begins, "His disciples remembered that it was written..." This is John's commentary on the thought process of some of Christ's disciples in the first century prior to the writing of the New Testament. The words "it was written" refer to what was already written at that time. John tells us what "was written" and what Old Testament text these disciples were thinking about by quoting Psalm 69:9, "ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME" (see John 15:25 and 19:28 where Jesus applies this Psalm to himself). The disciples were interpreting the Old Testament (independent of the New Testament) during the life of our Lord. John's comment informs us that they started connecting the dots from the Psalms to Jesus while our Lord was on the earth. In other words, their minds were making hermeneutical moves while Christ's zeal for God's temple, his Father's house, was being manifested. As the Word who became flesh manifested himself among men, those who believed in him began to interpret Scripture in light of him (or him in light of Scripture!).
In John 2:22 we read, "So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken." Note first the time when "His disciples remembered that He said this," that is, "when He was raised from the dead..." The resurrection, among other things, triggered the memories of these disciples. Note second what "this" of "He said this" refers to. It refers to what Jesus said as recorded in verse 19, where we read, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Note third John's comment about what Jesus said. "But He was speaking of the temple of His body" (John 2:21). Note fourth that "they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken" (John 2:22). The "Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken" are not the same thing. The "word which Jesus had spoken" is recorded in John 2:19. The Scripture must refer to the Old Testament. The disciples were interpreting the Old Testament (not only during the ministry of our Lord, but also after his resurrection and prior to the writing of the New Testament, and surely during and after its writing). The resurrection became an interpretive event through which the early disciples "believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken." Just as they began connecting the dots during our Lord's life-unto-death sufferings (John 2:17), so they continued to connect the dots when he entered into his glory, his resurrection (John 2:22; see John 12:16 for the same phenomenon with reference to connecting the dots between our Lord and the book of Zechariah).
Though it is true that we interpret the Bible in our day, it is also true that the early Christians interpreted the Bible of their day-i.e., the Old Testament. Some of their interpretations made it into the New Testament, as illustrated above. Though this does not mean that all of their personal interpretations of the Old Testament reflected the divine intention of the ancient text, it does mean that their interpretations recorded in the New Testament and affirmed by the authors of the New Testament (e.g., John) are infallible interpretations (This is not the same as claiming they were infallible interpreters.), reflecting the intention of God who first gave the text. This is so because "All Scripture [i.e., Old and New Testament] is inspired by God" (2 Tim. 3:16) and inspiration implies infallibility.
It is obvious that interpreters of Scripture today have an advantage over the first-century interpreters mentioned above. We have God's own interpretation of the historical sufferings and glory of Christ-our New Testaments. But I think there is a good lesson for us to learn from the discussion above. When our Lord Jesus was on this earth, the Spirit of God was causing the disciples of Christ to recall texts of Scripture due to the presence and ministry of Christ. What their musings on the Old Testament contained in the New Testament show us is that the Old Testament points to Christ. The early disciples saw this more and more as they contemplated our Lord and the Old Testament. The inspired documents of the New Testament confirm that they were right. Not only was Jesus Christ the promised One, he was that to which the Old Testament pointed (e.g., Luke 24:44ff.). The early disciples did not reinterpret the Old Testament in light of Christ; they interpreted it as pointing to Christ. And our New Testament is God's confirmation that they were right to do so. If it was right for them to do so, then it is right for us to do the same. The Old Testament is not about Christ simply because the New Testament says so. It is about Christ because that was God's intention from the beginning. This is how the early Christians (and our Lord) read the Old Testament. This is how we ought to as well.
The disciples were interpreting the Old Testament as their Lord did (e.g., John 5:39, 45-47). The entire New Testament is based on Jesus' view of himself in relation to the Old Testament. The sinless Son of God saw the Old Testament as that which pointed to him. The authors of the books of the New Testament not only agreed with this assessment, they wrote in light of it. And since the writings of the New Testament are inspired documents, this is also the divine view of Jesus and the Old Testament. In other words, the New Testament is the infallible interpretation of Jesus in relation to the Old Testament. This is no small matter, indeed! Jesus understood the Old Testament to be the Word of God and he understood it as pointing to him. Jesus' view of the Old Testament became the view of the writers of the New Testament. It seems to follow that Christian interpreters ought to follow the lead of Jesus and the authors of the New Testament. Unfortunately, not all agree. But the conclusion seems inescapable. If Jesus viewed the Old Testament as a witness to himself and the authors of the New Testament did as well (utilizing the same hermeneutic as Jesus), then all Christian interpreters ought to follow them.
Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA, and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.