The Relation of the Old and New Testaments
The unity and diversity of the Old and New Testaments is an invitation to come and see more of God’s Word.
The Bible is one book, composed of two testaments. Comprised of thirty-nine books, the Old Testament is God’s unfolding promise to his covenant people Israel. With twenty-seven books, the New Testament fulfills all the promises of the Old Testament in Christ, for Jew and Gentile alike. The New Testament explains the person and work of Christ by showing how he fulfills the Old Testament. Together these two testaments are a literary unity, progressively revealed. Modern readers must pay attention to the textual, covenantal, and canonical horizons to make sense of this one book.
On the road to Emmaus, the resurrected Christ encountered two of his disciples. Walking with them, he rebuked their unbelief and taught them how to read the Bible. In particular, he said: “‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scripture the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26–27).
In these two verses, Luke captures the way Jesus interpreted the Old Testament. He did not read it as a book for Israel alone; he read it as unified testimony pointing to himself. After returning to the Upper Room, Jesus said again: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). This time, Jesus gives the boundaries of the Old Testament, declaring that each section of the Hebrew Bible (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) pointed to him.
Following Jesus’s lead, this article will outline three ways the two testaments relate to each other. First, we will observe how the whole Bible is one literary unit, progressively revealed in redemptive history. Second, we will consider how the apostles understood the diversity of the Old Testament through the person of Jesus Christ. Third, we will see three practices that the apostles used to relate the Old Testament to Christ and his Church. In the end, we will close with a few thoughts on how Christians should read the Old Testament.1
The Unity of the Bible—Progressively Revealed
Second Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Likewise, 2 Peter 1:21 reads, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Together these two verses anchor the doctrine of inspiration. The Bible is not the product of men but God. Thus, the unity of the Bible comes from one divine author. This divine authorship will support many of the material connections considered below, even as it denies any approach to Scripture that permits men to stand in judgment over the biblical text.
In addition to divine authorship, we find a common message in the Bible—or better, a common person. As Jesus acknowledged, the Scriptures “bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Although God spoke in many and various ways through the Prophets, the common goal was always the Son of God (Heb 1:1). And thus, both testaments point to Jesus Christ.
More inductively, the New Testament fulfills the promises of the Old Testament and completes all God began in the Law and the Prophets (John 1:45). This massive statement finds support from Jesus who said of his ministry, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). Likewise, Paul writes, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20) And again, Paul says that God’s plan was and is “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things in earth” (Eph 1:10).
Truly, we find a clear unity of authorship and intention in God’s Word. Yet, such unity is best organized in the form of a biblical narrative.2 Like a play with many acts, the unity of the Bible is a drama that unfolds over time, forming a living and organic unity.3 What God reveals in the Old Testament is consistent with what he will disclose in the New, but clearly the latter is more clear, explicit, and full. This organic unity is necessary for seeing the unity of the Bible and appreciating the way the New Testament differs from the Old. This difference is often spoken of in terms of mystery and fulfillment (see e.g., Rom 16:25; 1Cor 2:7; Eph 1:9; 3:3, 4, 9; 5:32), and as the apostles teach us, the testaments relate to each other through the person and work of Jesus Christ himself.
The Diversity of the Bible—Unified in Christ
“What does the Scripture say?” This is Paul’s question in Romans 4:3 and Galatians 4:30, when he sought to explain the relationship of the law to the gospel. It is our question also, when we seek to relate the two testaments: What does Scripture tell us about itself? In particular, what does the New Testament tell us about the Old?
From a survey of the New Testament, we find multiple answers to this question, but the testimony of the apostles is that the Law and the Prophets find their terminus in Christ (Luke 24:26–27, 44–49; John 1:45; 5:39). Admittedly, these statements are not without debate. Some limit Jesus’s words to Old Testament passages which speak of him directly (e.g., Deut 18:15–18; Psalm 110; Mic 5:2). The result of this approach is that other passages do not speak of Christ (directly). Many who take seriously the authorial intent of the prophets do not want to force Jesus into passages that are not directly about him.
By contrast, others interpret Jesus’s words to mean that the testimony of the Old Testament, when rightly understood in its canonical context, leads to him. This latter approach appreciates the literary unity of Scripture and the way every messianic promise is embedded in a narrative framework. Isolated verses cannot be read without the full biblical canon and vice versa. While it is correct that not every verse (taken by itself) speaks of Jesus, every passage—when read in its historical and literary context—finds its end in Christ. As Jim Hamilton puts it, “the OT is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective, to sustain a messianic hope.”4 This seems to be the best way to read Jesus’s words in places like Luke 24:27 and John 5:39.
Jesus’s words about the Old Testament are confirmed by many other passages. For instance, Jesus speaks of the way Moses and Abraham both spoke of him. Jesus says, Moses “wrote of me” (John 5:46) and “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” (8:56). Similarly, John himself cites Isaiah saying, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (12:41). Together, these passages present a unified testimony: Israel’s prophets looked to a day when Christ would come and bring salvation to his people.
John Sailhamer observes this point when he says the Old Testament was written “as the expression of the deep-seated messianic hope of a small group of faithful prophets and their followers.”5 In other words, the Old Testament’s messianic message is not dependent on Israel’s ability to understand what the prophets said. Often the people rejected the prophets! Rather, the messianic meaning of the Old Testament is found retrospectively, as the Spirit-led apostles explain how Christ fulfilled all the prophetic expectations.6
The validity of this claim, that the prophets spoke of Christ, is supported by Peter when he says the prophets served future generations when they spoke of Christ’s sufferings and subsequent glory (1 Pet 1:10–12). Again, Peter says in Acts 2:31 that David “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ.” In Acts 2, Peter applies Psalm 16 to Christ’s resurrection and argues that David is a prophet who knew that God had “sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne” (Acts 2:30). From Peter’s statement, we learn how he read the Old Testament. Without denying the historical context of the Psalms, he read Psalm 16 as pointing to Christ.
Paul understands the Old Testament similarly. For example, he says of God’s promise to Abraham: “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ [Gen 15:6] were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also” (Rom 4:23–24). Again, 1 Corinthians 10 speaks of Israel’s sins as warnings for the new covenant church: “They were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (10:11). Romans 15:4 also says, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” And 2 Timothy 3:14 describes the Old Testament Scriptures as “sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” All in all, Jesus Christ is the goal of the Old Testament, and without him, the Old Testament stands incomplete.
Paul even says that to read the law “lawfully” means reading the law as a means of finding grace in the gospel (1Tim 1:8–11). To say it more starkly, to read the Law without Christ is to misread the Law (cf. Rom 3:20). This means the Old Testament has enduring importance for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2Tim 3:16–17) but only as it leads to the revelation of Christ and his finished work.
As mentioned previously, the unity of God’s revelation is organic—i.e., it grows over time. Simultaneously, it is a personal unity—one that coheres in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is how Hebrews 1 frames the relationship between the testaments. The prophets spoke to the fathers about the Son, but now the Son has come, and he is the better Word (1:1–2). As the Word made flesh—Jesus is the One who fulfills all of God’s diverse promises. And for this reason, we must learn how to read the two testaments together, with the Old informing the New, the New illumining the Old, and both being held together in Christ.
New Testament Practices
There are multiple ways the New Testament makes use of and points to the Old, but here we will consider three prominent pathways that unite the Scriptures: (1) promise and fulfillment, (2) the biblical covenants, and (3) typology.7 As we will see, there is a progression in these pathways, moving from more simple (promise-fulfillment) to more complex (type-antitype).
Promise and Fulfillment
First, all that God promised in the Old Testament has been, is being, and will be fulfilled in Christ and his Church. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ].” Likewise, Matthew describes how Jesus “fulfills” the patterns and the promises of the Old Testament.8 Indeed, the gospel itself stands on this promise-fulfillment structure. For instance, in Acts 13:32–33, Luke records the first sermon of Paul, where the latter says, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus.” In these words, the gospel (“good news”) is defined by the pattern of promise and fulfillment.
Taking the gospel as a message with defined content (see 1Cor 15:1–8), Paul says in Galatians 3:8 that God “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham.” Hence the gospel is not something that comes in the New Testament as something new. Rather, through the promises made to Israel, God preached the gospel beforehand to people who looked through the promises to see the promised Son. This is to say—the gospel goes back to the very beginning (Gen 3:15) and is carried along by various covenants that develop God’s first promise (i.e., the protoevangelion). Thus, when we put the Bible together, we should pay close attention to its internal structure of promise and fulfillment, for in this biblical structure we find the bedrock of God’s gospel (cf. Rom 1:1–7).
Old and New Covenants
Second, the Bible is organized around a series of divinely-inspired covenants.9 Observing the multiple covenants within Scripture, Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum identify the covenants as the “backbone” of the Bible.10 Michael Horton also describes the covenants as the “architectural structure” of Scripture, providing the “context within which we recognize the unity of Scripture amid its remarkable variety.”11
We find between five and seven divine covenants in the Bible.12 In the two testaments (which is itself the Latin word for “covenant”), these covenants carry the biblical story forward and lead us to the new covenant. In general, we can say that the Old and New Testaments approximate the old covenant mediated by Moses (see 2Cor 3:14) and the new covenant inaugurated by Christ (Jer 31:31–34; Heb 8).13 Yet, three qualifications should be observed.
First, the old covenant is still in force when the New Testament begins. This means, until Christ’s death and resurrection, along with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the Gospels are a record of events that occur under the old covenant. This includes Jesus’s entire earthly life and most of the events in the Gospels.
Second, the new covenant is introduced in the Old Testament. Jeremiah 31:31–34 is where the “new covenant” is mentioned, but the hope of a new covenant goes back to Moses. In Deuteronomy, Moses speaks of a day when God will circumcise the heart (Deut 30:6). Likewise, Isaiah 53–55, Ezekiel 36–37, Joel 2, and Zechariah 9–14, to name only a few places, all speak of realities that will be fulfilled in the new covenant. So, the New Testament describes the inauguration of the new covenant, but its content is described in the Old Testament.
Third, the relationship between the old covenant and the new is typological. In other words, Christ’s new covenant is the substance to which all the covenants in the Old Testament are the shadow (cf. Col 2:17; Heb 10:1). Therefore, when we pay attention to the covenantal structures of the Bible, we are helped to understand how the Bible is organized.
Type and Antitype
Third, biblical types are a primary way God has revealed himself over time. If we define typology as “the study of patterned correspondences in Scripture,” types are the historical persons, events, and institutions that escalate in covenantal history and terminate in Christ and his church.14 Jesus is the antitype—i.e., the one who fulfills the earlier patterns of the Old Testament.15 It is important to see the way biblical patterns (“types”) contribute to God’s progressive revelation in Scripture. So, here are three basic principles about typology that help us to see how types contribute to relationship between the testaments.
First, typology is a biblical idea that crosses both testaments. In the New Testament, the Greek word typos is used to speak of a pattern, type, or example from the Old Testament. The basic idea is that there are types that pattern something that a later, greater antitype will correspond to and supersede. Typos is used to speak of Adam as a type of Christ (Rom 5:14), the tabernacle as a type of heaven (Heb 8:5), and Noah’s passage through the flood as a type of Christian baptism (1Pet 3:20–21). From these uses, we can discern how the biblical writers understand historical types prepare the way for later antitypes.16
Second, biblical types are inspired by God as prophetic symbols preparing the way for Christ and his church. In his Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, G. K. Beale notes how many types are recognized “retrospectively.” Every Old Testament type, as provided by inspiration of God, was created to point forward to Christ and his church. In other words, typology is best understood as a feature of God’s providential working in redemptive history.17 In Israel, God established various types to prepare the way for his Son. Put differently, typology is forward-looking and various types are designed by God to redemption to its completion in Christ.
Third, types follow the terrain of the biblical covenants. Not only do Old Testament types point forward, but they also rise and fall with the covenantal history revealed in Scripture.18 More specifically, any typological structure (e.g., king, sacrifice, temple) is comprised of multiple “types.” Put negatively, typology does not emerge from superficial connections between a type and its antitype. Rather, the biblical pattern is an escalating chain of persons, places, events, or institutions, which ultimately find their fullness in Christ. He is the substance; the types are the shadows (cf. Col 2:17; Heb 10:1).
Typological structures, therefore, run from the Law, through the Prophets, to Jesus Christ, and they correspond and escalate as Israel’s history progresses. By tracing a certain type across the canon, we discover how Scripture is unified through a series of typological structures. Certainly, typology does not exhaust the ways both testaments relate, but it is a significant way that Old and New Testaments are held together.19
Let the Reader Understand
In the end, this introduction to the unity and diversity of the Old and New Testaments is an invitation to come and see more of God’s Word. Just as Philip told Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth,” and then invited him to “come and see” the Lord when Nathanael doubted (John 1:45–47), so a thorough consideration of both testaments invites us to come and see more of Christ from the Bible too. Indeed, many interpretive battles are waged over this very question: How do we put the Bible together? Yet, as we learn from Philip’s invitation to Nathanael, the goal of reading both testaments is not purely academic; it is an invitation to see Jesus, the Word made flesh.
Though there will be differences of opinion on exactly how the two testaments relate, there are few disciplines more profitable than learning to read the Bible on its own terms so that God’s Word leads us to Jesus. For truly, knowing Christ is what the Bible is all about, and when he is the hinge that holds Scripture together, Jesus not only brings to light all that Scripture holds, he also holds together a people who might be separated by various methods of interpretation. Such interpretive decisions matter, but Christ matters more. For he is the one by whom the Old and New Testaments find their perfect relationship.
- Craig G. Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).
- Gregory K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).
- Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).
- Richard M. Davidson, Typology in Scripture: A Study of Hermeneutical TYPOS Structures (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1981).
- John S. Feinberg (ed.), Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship between the Old and New Testaments (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988).
- Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
- Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
- Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Handbook (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), esp. 203-77
- Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1989).
- Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
- David Schrock, “From Beelines to Plotlines: Typology That Follows the Covenantal Topography of Scripture,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 1 (Spring 2017): 35–56.
- Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975).
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