Thursday, May 19, 2011

Guidelines for Finding Christ in the Old Testament

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
-- Luke 24:27

The Old Testament is chock-full of Jesus. How do we preach him from its pages in a way that both honors Christ and the text? First things first:

What Is Allegory?

One of the first things we ought to do is ditch the language of "allegory." What we mean is that Jesus is symbolized by Old Testament types, but while allegory is a form of symbolism, they are not synonymous any more than animal and dog are. We armchair exegetes make this mistake all the time, referring to a literary work as allegorical when it is no such thing. The Narnia stories are the most common modern victim. We tend to do to "allegory" what we've done to the word "ironic." (No, Alanis, it's not ironic that you got a bunch of spoons when all you wanted was a knife. Just unfortunate. And weird.)

According to the classical definition, allegory occurs when the original symbol exists primarily as a vehicle for what is symbolized and maintains little to no intent of its own, and/or when what is tangible symbolizes something intangible. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory because his characters correspond to intangible virtues like courage and the like. But Aslan is not allegorical because he does not symbolize an intangible virtue like sacrifice or nobility but is meant to be Jesus, albeit in that other world.

We ought not use the language of allegory in referring to the Old Testament for these two main reasons:

1. It diminishes the original text, treating it as merely a vehicle to something real, rather than real itself. There is a danger in that of turning the Old Testament into folk stories, fables, and myths rather than a history of real people doing real things. Even when Paul interprets Sarai and Hagar "allegorically" in Galatians 4, he is not saying Sarai and Hagar weren't real people. He is using them as an illustration. This is typically not what we do when we begin allegorizing the Old Testament stories.

2. It demonstrates a misunderstanding of the way the Old Testament is the shadow of the things to come (Heb. 10:1). If the shadows correspond to Jesus, then they are not allegorical, because Jesus is not an intangible idea but a very tangible Person.

How then ought we to navigate these brilliant shadows and see Christ in them?

Maintain the Primary Intent and Meaning

The worst thing that can happen in seeking out Jesus in the Old Testament text is that we lose the Old Testament text itself. We are not looking for Jesus instead of David. We are looking at Jesus behind and beyond David. In this sense "true and better," a la Keller, is a good template to keep in mind.

In Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon writes:
[E]mploy spiritualising within certain limits and boundaries, but I pray you do not, under cover of this advice, rush headlong into incessant and injudicious 'imaginings,' as George Fox would call them. Do not drown yourselves because you are recommended to bathe, or hang yourselves on an oak because tannins is described as a valuable astringent.
In his rules on appropriately spiritualizing a Bible passage, Spurgeon insists that we not "violently strain a text."

Ted Donnelly, in his talk "Preaching Christ from the Old Testament" warns us this way:
Many of us have a shiver of anticipation when we hear the word ‘typology.’ It has encouraged a Platonic view of the Old Testament. They are ‘shadows’ pointing to ‘reality.’ They are not reality themselves. The institutions seem to have no value in themselves but point forward to Christ. C. H. Spurgeon in his chapter on ‘Spiritualizing’ in Lectures to My Students is still valuable. It gives typology a bad name, as someone said, 'Surely some of the ropes and pegs in the Tabernacle were meant to hold the tent up.'
Donnelly's words are a good segue to the next guideline:

Look for Patterns More Than Jots and Tittles

We ought to be looking at stories and actions, not necessarily props and "items." Certainly Jesus is the lamb of sacrifice, he is the rock of Moses, he is the brazen serpent, etc., but these are more obvious foreshadows with redemptive functions. Those tent pegs? Not so much. What about that scarlet thread in the story of the birth of the twins in Genesis 38? It's possible that is a referent to the blood of Christ, but not likely. Given the context and the function of the thread in the story, it certainly just looks like a thread. It has no redemptive function in the immediate context. It's just there; a prop in the plot.

Furthermore, many of the "props" that correspond to Christ are revealed as such in the New Testament. We know the rock of Moses is Jesus, for instance, because Paul tells us so in 1 Corinthians 10:4. We know the tabernacle is Jesus because John 1:14 tells us Christ "tabernacles" with us. We know that the manna is Jesus because he makes the connection himself in John 6.

In general, however, we have to look for patterns and functions, not every little jot and tittle. Sometimes plates are just plates, robes are just robes, etc. This is perhaps the greatest danger in reading the Scriptures this way: missing the forest for the mushrooms under the trees.

Work From Instinct, Not Mechanics

In his 2007 Gospel Coalition message, "What is Gospel-Centered Ministry?", when Tim Keller finishes reading a list of how Jesus is the "true and better" Old Testament types, he says, "That's not typology, that's an instinct." What does he mean?

To see Christ in the Old Testament is not to mechanically connect symbol to referent, as if the Scriptures were a flattened map with a legend. The Bible contains a variety of genres, but all together it is not a code book but a story. A true story, yes, but a story nonetheless, one with texture and narrative arcs. In The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament, Edmund Clowney writes, "[I]t is possible to know Bible stories, yet miss the Bible story. The Bible is much more than William How stated: 'a golden casket where gems of truth are stored'." Keller puts it this way:
Don’t get to Christ artificially. This is a big subject of course, but I believe two of the best ways are (a) by identifying in your text one of the many inner-canonical themes that all climax in Christ (Don Carson’s language), and (b) identifying in your text some “Fallen Condition Focus,” some lack in humanity that only Christ can fill (Bryan Chapell’s language).
To see Christ in the Old Testament, then, is to see the person Jesus present as orchestrator of events and "actor" in the scene in the same way he is today with his people. David Murray recently explored this reality in a way that gave me goosebumps.

Seeing Christ in the Old Testament is not about figuring out a code but having a feel for the biblical story.

So: You are you. You are not not-you. But Christ is in you, the hope of glory. Christ is your mediator, substitute, and righteousness. In that sense, Jesus is the true and better you too. He is the vine; you are a branch. And that is the sense in which we ought to see him behind and beneath and over the Old Testament stories. He is Abraham's righteousness. He is David's hope. He is Isaiah's vision. He is present in their lives and actions not as a flat symbol or literary device; he is present in their lives as their salvation, and thus is their truer and better. Their intangibles culminate in his tangibility.

It is not a bad thing to see Jesus everywhere. Let us just be mindful of not turning this fixed vision into an exegetical parlor trick.

Smarter guys than me have written much better about this subject than I -- you can read two online examples here and here -- but I hope you find this offering helpful.


Melanie said...

Great post, Jared. Thanks for taking the time to explain this topic. It reminded me of an ancient way to interpret scripture. The acronym in Hebrew is PRDS. From

P – Pashat – Simple. This is the first level of understanding, the literal meaning. This is where you apply the historical grammatical rules. This is the keystone to Scriptural understanding and without PASHAT, we lose any real chance at an accurate understanding. It is no wonder that the Talmud twice warns us: “No passage loses its PASHAT” (b.Shab.63a, b.Yeg 24a)

R – Remez – Hint. The next level is the implied meaning of the text. Peculiarities in the text are regarded as hinting at a deeper truth than that are conveyed in PASHAT. For example when the old Testament makes a reference to the eyes and we see the passage referring to eyes literally, we may also see a will hint at a possible spiritual or symbolic reference to eyes. Also the Hebrew text may have what appear as irregularities that could be viewed as mistakes in writing but are actually viewed as divine inspiration, such as an enlarged letter or one that is raised above the line of the text. It is believed that these idiosyncrasies are actually hints to deeper meaning in the text.

D – Drash – Search. If you agree to a deeper meaning you then search for an allegorical, typological or homiletic (spiritual) application. Creativity is used to search the text in relation to the rest of Scripture or life. Another way to put it might be “What is God saying to me personally through this verse?”

S – Sōd – Hidden. This is the final level of understanding, the final chamber into the treasure room. In I Corinthians 2:7-16 Paul suggest that had the Sages really entered into SOD, they would not have crucified Jesus. This process often involves returning the letters of a word to their prime-material state and giving them new form in order to reveal a hidden meaning. An example is found in Revelation 13:18 where the identity of the Beast is expressed by its numeric value 666.

Does this go along with what you are saying about finding Jesus in the OT? If we are to find Jesus in the OT, I believe we need to start with the surface, and allow the Holy Spirit to take us deeper. Again, thanks for the post.

Andrew Faris said...


Great post.

One question, and it's one that gets thrown around a lot, I think: regarding the desire to stay away from allegory, what of Paul's use of Sarah and Hagar in Gal. 4?

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

Jared said...

Andrew, good question. You must've read this post in your RSS reader, b/c I updated it shortly after posting to mention Galatians 4. Look at point #1 on the blog post under the Allegory section.

I think two things:
a) Paul is not interpreting allegorically in the literary sense; meaning, he isn't saying Sarai and Hagar weren't real people. He is using them as an illustration.
b) He's Paul. ;-)

No, what I mean is, Scripture interprets Scripture. We ought to have a legitimate clue elsewhere in the text that Joseph is allegorical of perseverance before we say the Bible wants us to see him represent perseverance. Paul tells us that Sarah and Hagar correspond to the covenants, so it's okay to go there. Outside of the text helping us make these leaps, we shouldn't make them, I think.