Carson: We Need Jesus, So We Need the Old Testament

Carson: We Need Jesus, So We Need the Old Testament

Collin Hansen interviews Don Carson


Collin: If there’s a linchpin connecting the old and new covenant stories, it’s Christmas. Gospel writer, Luke, begins his birth narrative in a temple with the priest Zechariah, a descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses. At the time of Jesus’s birth, the Jews are living under the old covenant and then a baby.

The Messiah’s birth fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. Jesus’ life fulfills the law, and his death and resurrection save believers from God’s wrath. So what happens to Christmas if we unhitch Christianity from the Old Testament, and what happens to the gospel? TGC President and New Testament scholar, Don Carson, joins me on this episode of “The Gospel Coalition” podcast to answer a few questions about law and gospel and about the relationship between the old and New Testaments, particularly in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Thank you, Dr. Carson, for joining me.

Dr. Carson: It’s my privilege.

Collin: Well, why is the Old Testament necessary for us to understand the story of Jesus?

Dr. Carson: The Old Testament establishes almost all of the categories by which Jesus is defined. Begin, for example, with his titles. He’s the king of the Jews. He’s the Davidic king. Who’s David? Where does the Davidic line come from? He’s a priest, sometimes likened to be a priest who offers a sacrifice akin to the Levitical priests of the Old Testament. Sometimes, as in Hebrews, as a superior priest, a priest in the order of Melchizedek. But Melchizedek himself appears in the Old Testament in essentially only two chapters, namely Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, which Psalm is quoted more often than any other Psalm from the Old Testament in the New Testament. And then the language of sacrifice, Passover, the language of forgiveness of sins, and so on is all established from Old Testament texts. When we think of the connection between Jesus and the Old Testament, we must not focus only on titles, but on the very storyline itself.

Consider other world religions. Buddhism, for example, has no personal transcendent God. Their notion of deity is a bit fuzzy, but it’s certainly not a personal transcendent God and therefore their notion of, well, what we would call a new heaven and a new earth, or the consummation, or heaven, or the ultimate reality, or the ultimate hope is entirely different. Their analysis of what’s wrong with human beings is entirely different. And the reason why we take the stances that we do are tied up with the Old Testament. God made everything good. God is personal and transcendent. The nature of the human problem at its heart is rebellion against God, our maker, and redeemer, and ultimate judge. Salvation ultimately turns on being acceptable before this God, reconciled to Him, both in this life and in the new heaven and the new earth. What we’re hoping for is perfect righteousness in the presence of God, enjoying Him and His presence forever and eager to seek glory brought to Him.

All of that is distinctive to a biblical notion of what is good, what is right, what is wrong, what we hope for, and thus is the underlay, as it were, of what it is that Christ by his cross work, by his resurrection, by his life, death, resurrection, ascension to the Father’s right hand achieves in the gospel. So, you simply cannot make sense of the life of Jesus if you cut the Old Testament off entirely. It is simply not possible. That includes not just titles, or his great redemptive acts, but the entire Bible storyline. And on top of that, several hundred instances where the New Testament explicitly or implicitly sites or alludes to the Old Testament and leans on the Old Testament to make sense of what it is claiming.

Collin: So, there are some people who will claim that the Old Testament is completely superseded by the arrival of Jesus. How do you explain or how do you counter that claim?

Dr. Carson: There is a part of me that wants to say I can understand why they say that something is superseded, whether the Old Testament is superseded. In that, the very notion of fulfillment presupposes that that which is being fulfilled is, in some sense, or rather, surpassed. But looked at another way, it’s not surpassed so much as brought to its ultimate meaning, brought to its ultimate fulfillment, brought to its ultimate hope and goal. So, when, in the Old Testament, the Passover sacrifice is inaugurated and the Jews escaping from Egypt are taught to sprinkle the blood of the Passover lamb on the two doorposts and over the lintel and the angel of destruction who passes over the house that is protected by the blood lets the firstborn live, that becomes something that is celebrated year, after year, after year looking back, looking back on how God saved His people by the sacrifice that God himself ordained. The people ate the sacrifice. The blood protected them, and they celebrated year after year, year after year.

But as this is repeated year, after year, after year, eventually, Israel goes through other crises: crises of faith, crises of rebellion, crises in which they need to be brought back to God, crises in which they need to be liberated, set free, redeemed once again. And so, instead of only looking backward, Passover gradually begins to look forward as well. Once the people are in Israel, it’s not long before Passover looks back to the exodus, but looks forward to the time when they will return to the land next year in Jerusalem, next year in Jerusalem. It becomes a sacrifice that looks back and looks forward. And that means that thoughtful people are asking, “To what does Passover point? It points backward, but how does it point ahead to new redemption?” And of this, Paul has no doubt whatsoever when he writes to the Corinthians. It says, “Christ, our Passover has been sacrificed for us.”

And so, anybody steeped in the Old Testament understands, therefore, that that initial Passover sacrifice in Paul’s mind not only looks to be celebrated year, by year, by year but the celebration then eventually points forward to a new sacrifice where the blood of the sacrificed lamb protects his people from the wrath that otherwise would fall upon them. And that’s how Paul reads the Old Testament. Now, in one sense, I suppose you could say that supersedes the Old Testament, but it’s much better to use biblical language and say it fulfills the Old Testament. It’s of a piece with it. It’s not identical to it. Christ is, after all, not an animal with a lot of white curly wool. But on the other hand, it’s of the same species. It’s the fulfillment. It is that to which the old was pointing. So, I don’t like the language of supersession quite. It’s not quite right. But on the other hand, it’s not all of a straight piece either. There is movement, development, and ultimately, fulfillment, which we claim is brought to bear in the new covenant.

Collin: You’ve been using Passover as one really concrete example that we can use to trace these movements. How about the Ten Commandments? We see them in all of these reformations, catechisms that are taught to our children or have been over the centuries. Do such areas of the Old Testament like the Ten Commandments still apply to Christians today? And if so, how?

Dr. Carson: Well, at the time of the Reformation, the dominant view in reform thought, the Lutheran thought was just a bit different, but the dominant view on reform thought was that the law is usefully divided into three parts: moral, civil, ceremonial law. And moral law continues unchanged right across time. And thus, since the Ten Commandments are considered to be the apex of moral law, therefore, as moral law, the Ten Commandments are to be observed, whether in the time of Moses, or the time of Isiah, or the time of Jesus, or today. I would say that the Ten Commandments need to be observed outright, but in my view, the structure of how you get there is a wee bit different. There’s a remarkable passage in Romans 13 where Paul writes, “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery. You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not covet.” All four, which after all, are on the second tablet of the Ten Commandments, of the Decalogue, and whatever other commandments there may be are summed up in this one command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, Paul does not say, “Well, this list belongs to the Decalogue, you don’t have to obey that anymore. Just love one another and don’t worry about the rest.” Rather, what he says is, “List them, by all means.” And obviously, they’re to be observed, whatever other commitments there might be. But precisely in the summary that takes them all up together, they’re fulfilled, we’re told, in this command to love one another. In other words, the individual specifications of the Decalogue point forward to something which, in fact, is more holistic than what is formally said in the Decalogue as law.

So, how you get from the Decalogue to moral commitments today is a long discussion that’s going to outstrip a podcast. But on the other hand, it’s worth remarking that Paul can say writing to another church, he can say, “One man views one day above another, another man views all days the same, let each be fully persuaded in his own mind.” But he does not say something like, “One man views it as being immoral to sleep with somebody else’s spouse, another one views it as perfectly all right, let each be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Adultery is out. Full stop. Period. And no doubt that can be seen just as a demand, a law, and it is. But it is also seen as part of a larger structure that means a person who’s committing adultery is breaking the command to love one another. He’s stealing someone else’s spouse or she is. There’s a failure in love. In fact, it’s an even deeper failure in love for God because the first commandment is the first commandment. It’s the most important commandment and that it’s the one that is always broken. We fail to love God with heart, and soul, and mind, and strength when we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves.

So, the topic of how these various laws are fulfilled rightly under the terms of the new covenant is something that shows up in the New Testament again, and again. Another crucial passage that is often disputed is 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where Paul sees himself as if we’re in a third position. He’s a Christian. He’s a Christian who’s got to flex in order to win Jews to the Jew. He says, “I became like a Jew in order that I might win the Jews to those who are under the law.” He says, “I became like one under the law.” He was prepared to do kosher things. “Though I am myself not under law.” In one sense, he’s broken free from the law covenant. But then, on the other hand, he says he’s got to flex also to win gentiles. “To one without the law,” he says, “I became as one without the law though I am not myself lawless.” In other words, there is some sense in which he is under the demand of God.

And then he explains a little further. He says, “But rather, instead of being lawless, I am anemos Christou,” he says in Greek, I think it means “Under the law of Christ.” So that raises immediately the question, “How do you tie together the demands of Christ with the demands of the Mosaic Covenant?” And so, once again, you address all of those questions about how law is fulfilled in a wide variety of ways in complex ways, simple ways, sweeping ways that are bound up with the first and second greatest commandments that demand to love God with heart, soul, and mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. So, that’s a big issue. But what you cannot legitimately do is cut free from the Old Testament as if none of it’s there, as if none of it shapes anything. A lot of reform thoughts speaks of the third use of the law. I think that can be abused, but it’s also pretty insightful. The third is the use of the law to shape Christian morality and ethics, not simply because it’s law under which we find ourselves as if we are under the law of covenant, but it is that which we are under by virtue of its fulfillment in the terms of the new covenant.

Collin: You’ve mentioned several examples, specifically from the Apostle Paul. I’m wondering, do we notice any interesting different emphases either when it comes to say, Jesus, when he’s talking to the Sermon on the Mount, or to the rich young man, or on the other hand, from other apostles such as Peter or James?

Dr. Carson: Yes. I think you can argue that with variations. This is found in different ways across the entire New Testament. In fact, I would argue that proleptically, predictively, it’s found in the Old Testament too. But let’s start with Matthew since you mentioned it. In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus insisted he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Fulfill in the context, I think, does not mean to keep it, or maintain it, or show its interior meaning, but rather to bring to pass that to which it points. The verb to fulfill is used more than 20 times in Matthew far more than in any other book of the New Testament and regularly has this notion of bringing to pass that which has been announced. In other words, the command not to murder is pointing to something beyond refraining from murder. It’s pointing to a situation where there won’t be any hate in the new heaven and the new earth and resurrection existence. There are not going to be signs posted saying, “You shall not commit murder.” For a start, it’ll probably be pretty hard to bump off people with the resurrection bodies.

In addition, no such malice, whatever dark in any heart where we’ve been glorified. We’ve been purified at that point. And so, there is a sense in which the command, “You shall not commit murder” no longer applies because there’s no one to apply it to. Yet in another sense, of course, it still applies in a sense that it is pointing to something that outstrips the mere prohibition. Namely, it’s anticipating a situation where people love one another holy and love their neighbors as themselves and so on. That’s what it’s like to be restored to perfection with clean consciences, forgiven, and down now, not only with the Spirit but with glorified existence.

So, to speak of the prohibition of murder as still applying, you want to say, yes, in one sense it does. In another sense, it doesn’t. But you can see that to which it points. It points to such a perfection of relationship that it outstrips the mere prohibition. And I would argue that that’s the case for the treatment of all of the laws that are mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, Chapter 5, where after the crucial paragraph to which I’ve alluded, Matthew 5:17-20, there are those antitheses. You have heard that it was said such and such, but I say to you… And in some respects, Jesus is correcting misapprehensions, but in some ways, he’s pointing beyond the formal structures of the law to that to which it points.

Collin: What about James and Peter? I mean, they had different kind of formative times than Paul did. Paul formally trained in the law, but James having been in Jesus’s household, Peter having been one of his lead disciples, as they’re observing these teaching from Jesus and seeking to apply that and to put the testaments together as they are themselves writing them under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, how does that look for them? For Peter and James, in particular?

Dr. Carson: I don’t think that James, for example, is as analytic in putting together these things as either the synoptic gospels or Paul. On the other hand, there’s an intuitive emphasis on similar points of morality that is really quite striking. Many, many, many people have pointed out similarities between what James says, for example, and what appears in the Sermon on the Mount. And that truly is right. So, this is not unique to Paul or come to the apocalypse, many have pointed out that there are one or at most, two explicit quotations from the Old Testament in the apocalypse, in the book of Revelation. That’s it. But there are scores and scores, doubtless hundreds of illusions.

It’s hard to read more than two or three verses without picking up language that is steeped in Old Testament context, notably Daniel, Zechariah, Ezekiel, and two or three other books where, clearly, the author has thought about these things for a long time and sees their fulfillment coming together in the person of Christ. So, sometimes in highly synthetic ways. The four living creatures, for example, in Chapter 4 and elsewhere, the four living creatures that surround the throne are clearly in their descriptions, a sort of joint product of the set of theme that surround the throne in Isaiah 6 and of the cherubim that support the mobile throne chariot of Ezekiel Chapters 1 and 10.

And the symbolism of four living creatures is drawn from both of those to say this is the highest order of angelic being which surrounds the throne. These are the things that you can learn in a symbol-laden way from this Old Testament Revelation and so on. This sort of thing is going on all the time in the book of Revelation. You simply can’t understand much of the book of Revelation without being steeped in the Old Testament or else you’ll misunderstand it. And that kind of dependence upon the Old Testament is rife throughout the cannon.

Collin: One of the most notorious examples, I think, we see about confusion between the Old Testament and the New Testament comes when we’re talking about sexual morality. We’ve probably all heard the “Shellfish arguments” that, of course, we can’t really trust anything that, say, Leviticus would say about sexual morality because after all, it includes many other laws related to shellfish and things like that. I wonder if that’s one of the motivations behind some Christian pastors arguing that Paul does not teach, that his morality, including sexual morality, is based at all on the Old Testament. So, let’s just try to narrowly look at that range there in that claim that Paul does not base his morality on the Old Testament. How do you address that argument?

Dr. Carson: Well, let’s even outstrip Paul on this one. When Jesus deals with marriage, interestingly enough in a passage like Matthew 19, he does not refer simply to what Moses says. He says, “From the beginning, it was not.” So, talking about divorce. In other words, he goes back to the pattern that God established in creation. So, far from saying, “Oh, I don’t really wanna consider the Old Testament here, I’m just gonna make this one up as I go along. We’ve got something better. He actually goes back behind the Old Testament law, that is the Mosaic code, time of Moses, God’s self-disclosure at the time of Moses and what we now call the Sinai code, or the Mosaic Law, or whatever, all the way back to creation ordinance.

So, there is no loosening up. If anything, there is a strengthening of the foundations. And Paul explicitly says some pretty firm things about what will prohibit you from getting into the kingdom. In 1 Corinthians and elsewhere with the so-called vice lists that includes what we would call, generically, sexual immorality. And he does not use this sort of vague argument. Provided people love each other, it doesn’t matter what they do because love itself is faithfully expressed finally within the context of covenant relationships that God himself approves in line with what we were designed to be.

I think that many people who want to take a lighter way out are succumbing to the spirit of the age and not listening very carefully to what the tech say. And nowadays, there is a great deal of speculative, imaginative, hermeneutically clever exegesis that tries to get Romans 1 and other passages to say something that they don’t really say. But the most rigorous, faithful, careful exegesis, it seems to me, does insist that’s God-approved marriage is between a man and a woman, one man and one woman. And the attempt to get around that is not only against Scripture, it’s ultimately against our own good. And it’s going to reap repercussions in the culture, in the country, in the land, in the Church, in the family, that will carry on and do us harm and bring shame to the glory of God for generations to come.

Collin: And the last question I had here is… Let’s turn this toward, especially the church leaders, the elders, and the pastors listening to the “Gospel Coalition Podcast,” asking you to help them to better connect the faith of their congregation to the Old Testament. One of the things I would strongly recommend is that people distribute widely the devotional for the love of God that you’ve done, which is built off the “M’Cheyne Reading Plan,” which along with Dr. Carson, studying with you and Dr. Cole and others at Trinity was the best thing that I’ve had to be able to begin to piece all the scriptures together. That’s one thing I would recommend. Print versions, online versions. There’s a blog version at “The Gospel Coalition,” but maybe are there some other recommendations, either specific or general about how to, you know, help congregations to connect their faith to the Old Testament?

Dr. Carson: The first thing I’d say is that if it’s a pastor Bible teacher who is thinking about these things, spend more time teaching the Old Testament. And don’t teach it merely as exemplary stories, but constantly ask the question, “How is this passage picked up and used in the New Testament?” A book that I’ll dare to mention, I’m one of the editors, that’s all. I only wrote a very small part of it. But a book that’s very helpful in this regard is by Gregg Beale and myself called “Commentary on the New Testament, Use of the Old.” So, it comments on every passage in the New Testament that either quotes or alludes to the Old Testament. But if you use the indexes and you’re reading from or preaching through Old Testament texts, use the Old Testament index and see if there’s any place in the rest of the Bible that this Old Testament passage has been picked up, and used, and developed. And gradually, you begin to see patterns of the way these things are done.

Moreover, there is, in the last several decades, a resurgence of Biblical theology, which is interested in how themes… It’s interested in several things, but one of the things that it’s interested in is how themes are developed across the cannon. And, again, nowadays, there are lots, and lots, and lots of books that help you become aware of how these things are put together, the risk of sounding like a book peddler. You can start with the series, “New Studies in Biblical Theology.” Not all of them trace themes, but a lot of them do. And there’s something like 45 volumes in the series.

So that if you take, for example, Greg Beale’s really fat volume in the series on the temple, it tracks the theme of the temple right through from the Old Testament to the new. And it deals with such crucial passages as Jesus saying, “Destroy this temple in three days. I will raise it again,” John 2. And the disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about. The opponents didn’t understand what he was talking about. They didn’t have a clue. But John comments, “After Jesus had risen from the dead, then they remembered his words and they believed the scriptures,” and they saw how things were put together. And until you finally come to the new heaven and the new earth, I saw no temple in that city for the Lord God Almighty, and the lamb are its temple.

How do these things work together thematically assuming that there’s one God behind all of scripture, one coherent focus? How do these things hang together? Are they just disparate little snippets? If they hang together, how do they hang together? And as you track out such themes in your preaching, in your teaching, then you’re teaching people how to read their bibles coherently instead of as merely illustrative moralizing stories or the like. They are a part of the sinews, the tendons that tie together, the diverse forms, and books, and periods of time that constitute the books of the Christian Bible.

And I think that’s really, really important to develop your grass with biblical theology. There’s a new dictionary of Biblical theology, which not only looks at the theology of individual books and corporate, the theology of John, the theology of Isaiah, the theology of minor prophets, and so on, but also tracks through a lot of these themes and can give you some overview, so help along these lines. Nowadays, there are quite a lot of helps out there, and it’s worth taking the time and expending the energy to master some of these themes and incorporate them into your preaching and teaching so as to teach people who are listening to you how to read their bibles coherently.

Collin: Wonderful counsel, Dr. Carson. My guest in “The Gospel Coalition Podcast” has been TGC president and New Testament scholar, Don Carson. Thanks for joining us.

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If there’s a linchpin connecting the old and new covenant stories, it’s Christmas. Gospel writer Luke begins his birth narrative in the temple with the priest Zechariah, a descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses. At the time of Jesus’s birth, the Jews are living under the old covenant. And then, a baby. The Messiah’s birth fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. Jesus’s life fulfills the law. And his death and resurrection save believers from God’s wrath.

So what happens to Christmas if we unhitch Christianity from the Old Testament? And what happens to the gospel?

TGC president and New Testament scholar Don Carson joins me on this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast to answer a few questions about law and gospel, and about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, particularly in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

You can listen to our conversation here.