Sunday Meditations: Reading Forwards

Throughout my life, my relationship to the Old Testament has changed.

I grew up Free Will Baptist, which is what you might think of when you think of fundamentalist fire and brimstone sorts of churches (#NotAllFreeWillBaptists).  I was a licensed minister in this denomination at the ripe old age of seventeen.

In this climate, the Old Testament was a collection of stories to establish general moral truths or truths about God.  The story of David killing Goliath was to teach us that trusting in God means we can overcome big problems.  Or, alternately, that God uses the small and weak people of the world to do great things.  Although I don’t recall any sermons ever framing the issue this way, basically all Old Testament sermons came down to, “And the moral of the story is….”

When I became Reformed, the Old Testament became the conceptual building blocks for theology and doctrine.  Predestination.  Total depravity.  It’s all there in the proof texts of the Old Testament.

As time went on, I became exposed to the idea that the Old Testament pointed forward to Jesus.  It was still, secondarily, a stockpile of doctrinal proof texts, but now we read the Old Testament as a sort of allegory that really happened, and the meaning of the allegory was to portray the things revealed in the New Testament.  This is the basis behind the little rhyme, “The New is in the Old, concealed.  The Old is in the New, revealed.”

A key passage to understanding the Bible in this way was the Emmaus road story in Luke 24:13-27, which ends with, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

At any of those points, all of which I would say have a facet of truth to them, the Old Testament was never irrelevant, exactly, although it’s difficult to say that it was necessary.  All of those things I described could be supported just fine purely on New Testament scriptures.  The Old Testament was basically there for backup.  You could, in theory, hack out the Old Testament and just read the New Testament and still do just fine.  Although the flannelgraph industry would tank hard (if you get that joke, we probably have a lot in common).

These days, I’m at a point in my journey when it appears to me that the Old Testament lays down an important conceptual framework for understanding the New Testament.  In other words, we understand the New Testament best when we read forward from the Old Testament.

For instance, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul refers to Christ as the Passover lamb.

One way to approach this concept is to take what we know about Jesus and read it back into the Passover account.  Let’s say, for example, someone has the typical evangelical understanding of original sin and penal substitionary atonement.  This is a big part of Jesus’ meaning, that he dies to take our place (sinners) under the destructive wrath of God.  So, when we look at the Passover account, we might see it the same way.  The Israelites sacrifice a lamb to substitute for their firstborn under the wrath of God that would rightly fall on their firstborn.  The Egyptians, who do not provide a substitute, have their firstborn slain.  In this way, the Passover becomes a picture, or foreshadowing, or type of what Christ has done.

But there are a couple of problems with this.

The first problem is that there is no evidence from the Exodus texts that God would have killed the firstborn of Israel or that the lamb was intended to be a substitute.  In fact, we read the exact opposite when Moses proclaims the last plague:

Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.

Exodus 11:4-7 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

God has no intention of harming the Israelites.

While the Israelites do kill and eat a lamb, and this vaguely looks like the sacrificial laws that will come later, they also eat unleavened bread.  The only function the lamb’s blood is said to provide is to identify the Israelite houses.

The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:13 (NRSV)

There is nothing that is said about the lamb being killed in the place of the Israelite firstborn.

When God institutes the Passover as a regularly occurring observance (presumably not to continue to substitute for the firstborn), here’s the rationale He gives:

And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed down and worshiped.

Exodus 12:26-27 (NRSV)

Why continue to observe the Passover?  Not as a substitution for your firstborn, but to make an offering to the Lord in gratitude for what He has done.

So, when we try to read back into the Passover from what we know about Jesus (or what we think we know about Jesus), we find we may be trying to force a square peg into a round hole, and if you have ever heard a sermon on a more prosaic Old Testament passage where someone has tried to force it to “point forward to Christ,” you have probably experienced this first hand.  And it comes from that basic vector of taking what you know about Jesus and trying to find it in the Old Testament.

But this brings us to our second problem – in 1 Corinthians, Paul is expecting us to understand his instruction on the basis of what we know about the Passover; he isn’t trying to get us to understand the Passover on the basis of his instruction.

The whole reason Paul thinks he can ground his command about sending the unfaithful out of congregations on Jesus being the Passover lamb is because he is depending on the knowledge the letter-reader already has about Passover.  He is expecting you to read forward.

“Remember the Passover when God said we would have nothing to do with leavened bread, and whoever did would be cut off from the community?  Well, that Passover is now.  Jesus was the sacrificed lamb.  Now we need to make sure our bread is unleavened as well.”

Regardless of the merits of Paul’s argumentation, it is clear that he expects us to bring to his instruction our knowledge of the Passover.  He isn’t trying to redefine the Passover in terms of what Jesus did.

And I would say that, at least for the most part, this describes any of the New Testament use of the Old Testament.  The writer expects us to bring our knowledge of the Old Testament to their words.  They aren’t trying to explain the Old Testament to us; they’re trying to explain what is currently going on by using what we know about the Old Testament.  In light of this, I would say it is very likely that this is what Jesus was doing on the road to Emmaus – not going through the Old Testament and going, “See this?  This isn’t what you thought.  This is really about me.”  But rather, “See this?  See what has happened for Israel in the past?  That’s what I’ve done, for you, now.”

Even when you take a look at the passages where Jesus or the apostles chastise their audience for not recognizing Jesus on the basis of the Old Testament, the criticism is not that they are failing to understand their Old Testament in new ways in light of Jesus; the criticism is that, knowing the Old Testament, they should have been the first to recognize Jesus and what he was doing.  Jesus is acting in the stream set up by the Old Testament, not establishing brand new categories that we are supposed to use to reinterpret the Old Testament.

Does that mean that Jesus does everything as expected?  No.  Does that mean that we shouldn’t read the Old Testament and connect it to Jesus?  I believe we should.

But I believe the Scriptures were given historically and progressively to God’s people for a reason.  I believe the Old Testament is indispensable.  It is in the Old Testament light that we see Jesus for who he truly is, and we run a serious risk of allowing our own theological constructions to control our Bible reading if we start with our understanding of Jesus and push it backwards into the Old Testament.

But, you know, check back with me in ten years and see where I’m at.