Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Defense of Single-Fulfillment Christ-Centered Prophecy

And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me

Luke 24:44

            The entirety of Scripture centers on the Lord Jesus Christ. He is its Author and Scope, and plainly testifies that He has been revealed in the Old Testament thousands of years before His incarnation. Yet, the precise way He is revealed there has become a contentious issue in modern scholarship. Many scholars struggle to see Him in the texts that Christ and His Apostles declare to prophecy Him, and those scholars have come up with various ways of explaining how those texts may be messianic. Michael Rydelnik compiled a list of their various theories, which include sensus plenior (or dual fulfillment), typical fulfillment, epigenetic fulfillment, relecture fulfillment, and midrash fulfillment. All of these have advocates today in the evangelical academy.[1]

            Fortunately, we have not been left to ourselves to develop the best method of preaching Christ from the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit has testified, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tm. 3:16-17). As Sam Waldron shows, the phrase, “man of God,” is used in the Bible to designate a minister or spokesman of God, so these verses are especially stressing the sufficiency of Scripture to equip God’s under-shepherds for all their duties.[2] Therefore, we can trust that Scripture shows us how to preach Christ from itself, because rightly handling the word of truth to minister the Lord Jesus is one of the primary duties of the man of God. If Scripture did not equip the pastor to preach Christ from the largest part of the Bible – the only Bible Christ’s original disciples had to preach from – then its claims of sufficiency for the man of God would be moot.

            We, therefore, must reject out of hand those approaches that deny we should follow the hermeneutical method used by Christ and His Apostles in favor of methods grounded only in human reason. Graeme Goldsworthy rightly asks, “If we cannot determine our hermeneutics of the Old Testament from the way Jesus, the apostles and the inspired authors of the New Testament interpreted it, have we any firm basis at all on which to proceed?”[3] We must embrace the method that our risen Lord gave to His disciples that they subsequently carried out (Lk. 24:44).  This method is not fully consistent with either the grammatical-historical approach (as most commonly applied) or even sensus plenior, but rather is best identified with what is sometimes known as the pre-critical, direct fulfillment approach. This approach is not only what appears in the pages of the New Testament, but also is the consensus of Christian commentaries before the modern era and – in my experience – it still dominates the pews.

            The topic of Old Testament prophecy regarding New Testament realities is often prejudiced as a conundrum, as if the majority of God’s people struggle to find Jesus in the texts the New Testament finds Him in.[4] But a survey of church history suggests that it was not the norm to have such a difficulty, and even today, my own experience has found that laymen receive the Old Testament prophecies with joy. The difficulties, I believe, largely stem from certain unbiblical presuppositions that have crept into modern scholarship rather than any true difficulty in seeing Christ in the Old Testament. As such, this paper requires us to first approach those presuppositions, including a brief exploration of the nature of inspiration and prophecy. Next, a few examples of the New Testament interpreting the Old Testament using biblical presuppositions will be provided, demonstrating the precedent the Bible establishes for the direct fulfillment view. Finally, an example of what it looks like to rightly interpret messianic prophecy will be given and contrasted with other approaches.

Scripture as true revelation

            Today, the prophetic writings are often treated as if they were little more than theological reflections by the prophet under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In other words, while not denying the role of the Divine, many evangelical interpreters nevertheless imply that the prophetic writings have a real genesis in the minds of the prophets, who have a personal intention in their prophecies with an eye to having a specific effect on their immediate audience. Some evangelicals, like Francis Foulkes, will even say that their predictive capability often largely depends “on the warnings, the promises of the covenant, and on the fact that prophets were convinced that, as God had done in the past, so He would do in the future.”[5] This heavy emphasis on the role of the human author is quite contrary to treatments of inspiration by earlier men like John Owen, who says,

“The doctrines they [the human writers of Scripture] delivered, the instructions they gave, the stories they recorded, the promises of Christ, the prophecies of gospel times they gave out and revealed, were not their own, not conceived in their minds, not formed by their reasonings, not retained in their memories from what they heard, not by any means beforehand comprehended by them, (1 Pet. 1:10, 11,) but were all of them immediately from God … Their tongue in what they said, or their hand in what they wrote, was עֵט סוֹפֵר, no more at their own disposal than the pen is in the hand of an expert writer.”[6]

To modern ears, Owen’s heavy emphasis on the primacy of the Divine author may be so jarring that it sounds like mechanical dictation theory. But it cannot be rightly classified as such, because Owen’s view does not include a suspension of the writer’s faculties in the process of inscripturation – he says in the same spot that the process included “a passive concurrence of their rational faculties in their reception.”[7] Rather than suspending their faculties, Owen confesses that God “acted their faculties, making use of them to express his words, not their own conceptions.”[8] In fact, while he denies Scripture is ever truly a product of the writers’ memories, he does not even deny that the Spirit would use their memories in their writings on occasion (cf. Lk. 1:1-4).[9] Owen’s point is simply that Scripture is not a result of men plumbing their own memories and thoughts to get across their own message. Rather, Scripture is a result of God speaking immediately in His human authors to get across His ideas and His words, which may have sometimes involved the confirmation of their memories and the use of vocabulary suitable to His instruments.

Scripture’s own attestation to its origin confirms Owen’s view. Not every book or genre of books in the Bible is equally clear in how the Divine author crafted it, but the prophets – which we will mostly concern ourselves with here – are quite explicit. Suffice it to say for the other books, they are equally described as the product of the supernatural breath of God (2 Tm. 3:16).

 When we take the words of the prophets at their face value, they do not at all suggest that their message is their own theological musings meant to accomplish their own agenda. Rather, they repeatably say, “a vision appeared unto me” and “the word of the LORD came unto me,” emphasizing that their message came to them externally. It was no vague internal impression of being led to say something; it was so tangible that, for Jonah, the word of the LORD was like a physical location that he thought he could flee from (Jon. 1:1-3). This has led many to understand that the phrase, “the word of the LORD came unto me,” is actually a reference to the pre-incarnate Word speaking to the prophets. This interpretation is strengthened by the New Testament witness, which states that the prophets were communicated to by the Spirit of Christ Himself (1 Pet. 1:11).

Far from getting across their own thoughts, the prophets sometimes would express bewilderment over their message and their ministry. Daniel often did not understand his visions, and when he asked for understanding at the end of his prophecies he was denied, “for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end” (Dan. 12:9). Jeremiah had no motivation to speak himself, but God said, “whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak” (Jer. 1:6-7). The very structure of Jeremiah (and several other prophets) reflects what one would expect if he was simply faithfully recording the messages delivered to him rather than presenting his own work; scholars have had a notoriously difficult time constructing an outline for that book, with some giving up on the idea of making an outline at all.[10]  Ezekiel was forbidden to say anything on his own and would only be allowed to speak when God supernaturally opened his mouth and gave him words to say (Ezek. 3:27). He also clearly did not choose the way he would be used to express God’s message symbolically, which is proven by his petition to God to change what he was instructed to do (Ezek.4:13-15). That the prophets were not expressing their own minds is likewise confirmed by the New Testament, which says, “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). The Bible denies that prophecy came in any way that would make it come by the will of man. Rather, the God of Scripture suddenly and powerfully makes Himself known to His prophets in various ways, instructing them what to write and what to speak through the influence of His Holy Spirit in them.

If the message neither came from the prophet’s mind nor was necessarily understood by them, it follows that the message was not necessarily given to be understood by the immediate audience either. This is rather explicit in Isaiah, where God tells Isaiah, “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not” (Is. 6:9). The message was not given to be understood by its hearers, but served as a testimony against them, revealing their hardened hearts and blind eyes until the coming judgement (Is. 6:10-12). Ezekiel’s audience likewise did not understand him and said of him, “Doth he not speak parables?” (Ezek. 20:49). Again, Daniel was told that his visions were sealed up until the end, and this was certainly no less true for his immediate audience than for himself. Aside from Moses and the One who would be a prophet like Moses, God said that some obscurity would be a trademark of prophecy (Num. 12:6-8). There is nothing indicating that it was normative for prophecy to be fully understood in the context it was given in.

The New Testament is unambiguous that the Old Testament prophecies did not fully reveal the subject matter they addressed. Scripture says it was revealed to the prophets, “that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Pet. 1:12). It further testifies that, without the light of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament was read with a veil on, and still is by those who do not read through the lens of His revelation (2 Cor. 3:14-15). It describes the revelation of Jesus Christ as a “mystery…which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:3,5). As the Expositor’s Greek New Testament notes, the “as” (ὡς) of Ephesians 3:5 has a comparative force,[11] indicating that while the mystery was given to the Old Testament saints, it was not revealed to them with the clarity of the New Testament era – it was a mystery.  These passages teach us both that the prophets were prophesying of New Testament realities and that those realities were not fully revealed to them. Each of their writings will be somewhat cryptic if viewed alone.

It has been necessary to defend these conclusions because they contradict what is taken for granted by much of contemporary scholarship: namely, the conclusions contradict the presupposition that Old Testament prophecies were given to be plainly understood by the original audience and that therefore an exegesis considering only the immediate, human context of each text is sufficient to determine its meaning. It is understandable that scholars who hold to this have difficulty finding Christ in the Old Testament, because that presupposition comes close to ruling out the possibility of Him being there in the first place, especially when it is combined with a tendency to almost reduce inspiration to a bare providential phenomenon. Scripture, however, presents its composition as a miraculous intrusion of the Primary Cause into the normal workings of the secondary causes to form a self-sufficient Book. Accordingly, we are free to give up the task of reconstructing what we think the prophet may have intended in his local context through the use of scant secondary material, because the rest of Scripture provides sufficient interpretive light. The Bible claims God – not the human instrument – supplies the meaning of the text, and that His concern is not for the immediate audience alone, but also for His Church in all ages, especially His New Testament saints reading in light of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. When we do this, we will begin reading the Old Testament like the Apostolic Church did.

Scripture’s interpretation of Scripture

            Having established that Scripture is fundamentally God’s words with a prophetic bent towards the revelation of Jesus Christ, we will see that Scripture indeed exercises those hermeneutics. Naturally, the New Testament provides us with the best and clearest examples of how to preach Christ out of the Old Testament, but even in the Old Testament we see the hermeneutical principles established, which we will first explore. We see, for instance that the typological events accompanying the message of prophecy were not seen as the fulfillment of the prophecy. Scripture teaches that the destruction and abandonment coming on God’s people because of the curse of the Law would be followed by Him bringing them out of all nations, circumcising their hearts, pouring out His Spirit on them, and causing them to obey His commandments under His peace and perpetual blessing (e.g., Dt. 30:1-6, Ezek. 36:24-27, Jer. 31:31-34). Given the emphasis on this message by the prophets prior and during the Babylonian exile, one may make the mistake of thinking that the exile and the return from it are the fulfillment of those prophecies. However, one can see in the post-exile prophecy of Malachi, for example, that these things have yet to be fulfilled. Far from having circumcised hearts, the prophecy bashes the corruptions of the Levitical priests, and the prophet hangs the threat of the curse over them and Judah (Mal. 3:4-5, 11-12, 4:6). The promise of the perpetual blessing still awaited fulfillment. Thus, when we see events near the time of the prophecies that in some ways resemble their fulfillment (but in other ways fall short), we should conclude that they are not true fulfillments of those prophecies, but rather types pointing to their real fulfillment.

While Scripture never acknowledges dual fulfillments when interpreting previous revelation, it does acknowledge types, which is another area where the Old Testament sanctions forward-looking, messianic hermeneutics. Like the New Testament, the Old Testament treats the events of B.C. history as absolutely historical, but nevertheless understands those events as foreshadowing the future. Psalm 78, for example, traces the working of God in redemptive history and shows how His previous works point to and culminate in the establishment of the throne of David (ultimately, the throne of the Messiah) and that at that throne we finally find blessing. In Jeremiah, likewise, God marks the redemption out of Egypt as pointing to the greater deliverance He will accomplish by the hand of the Messiah, and that only then would the prophesied deliverance of God’s people from all nations truly occur (Jer. 23:5-8). Thus, the Old Testament itself is sufficient to provide the Christological hermeneutics exercised in the New Testament.

            Turning now to the New Testament, the Old Testament prophecies likewise are never depicted as having multiple fulfillments – a near and a far one – but only one, centered on Jesus and His inauguration of the last days. This highly Christological hermeneutic follows from an understanding that the Old Testament is first and foremost God’s words. Since God is not chiefly concerned with isolated, historical events for their own sakes, but rather is chiefly concerned with magnifying His Son for whom all of history was created (cf. Jn. 5:20-23, Col. 1:16), it follows that all Old Testaments Scripture ultimately ties back to Him who is the true Apple of God’s eye. Thus, in the New Testament, even the precise choice of words is demonstrated to have predictive, Christological significance and Christ is shown to be the key to understanding otherwise obscure passages in previous revelation. An example of each of these will suffice.

            In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek is one of the many Old Testament events cited as prophesying Christ and His priestly work. The original passage in Genesis makes no explicit reference to the Messiah (Gen. 14:17-24), but Hebrews follows the already scriptural pattern of Psalm 110 in identifying the episode as Messianic. This follows because the Bible is about Christ, and so Scripture gives us the example that it is not so much a matter of proving whether a given passage relates to Him, but understanding how it relates to Him. In the case of Hebrews, there is an insistence that it is not only the subject matter of a passage that is important, but also the manner in which it is presented. Hebrews tells us, “[Melchizedek is] without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually” (Heb. 7:3). The author is not saying that Melchizedek literally had no father or mother, but simply that the way narrative frames him makes him “like unto the Son of God.” God here tells us, then, that it is significant that He did not introduce Melchizedek as “the son of [X]” in Genesis 14. He crafted the narratives of His people’s history in a precise way to point ahead to the fulfillment of everything in Jesus Christ.

            Acts 2 gives us the principle that when the words of the Old Testament do not fit a local referent, we should look to Christ as our hermeneutical key. Peter references Psalm 16, where the writer is said to have been delivered from Hades with his flesh saved from corruption. Rather than having a sensus plenior perspective, Peter bluntly points out that David “is both dead and buried,” and so it could not have been about David; it is a prophecy of Christ, who spoke through David (Acts 2:29-30). Many other psalms and several places in the prophets share that feature of no local referent sharing the characteristics of the subject speaking, with the characteristics only perfectly matching Christ. In such cases, the Bible uses prosopological exegesis.[12] This method was embraced even by pre-Christian Jewish commentators to recognize messianic texts.[13]

Case study: Accurately interpreting 2 Samuel 7:4-17

            Lastly, we will examine what it looks like to freshly apply the principles we have defended to an Old Testament passage, noting dissimilarities with other methods along the way. 2 Samuel 7:4-17 is a classic go-to text for establishing the Davidic covenant. In it, David is promised that he would have an heir to establish his throne forever and build God a house. But who is that heir? One perspective would say that Solomon alone is in view and that he simply typifies the Messiah, another would say that both Solomon and Christ are in view (the human author seeing an immediate fulfillment in Solomon with God intending a greater fulfillment in Christ), whereas the view defended here contends that Christ alone is the referent of this prophecy, and that Solomon only typifies the fulfillment. I take this perspective because it is aligned with the biblical hermeneutics already discussed and because Solomon frankly could not be said to fulfil several aspects of this prophecy. Most glaringly, Solomon did not establish David’s throne forever, as the Son in question is promised to do (2 Sam. 7:13,16). Some argue that “forever” (עוֹלָֽם) sometimes does not literally mean without end, but just like the English word, “forever,” circumstances reveal when this is the case. When we say something will last “forever,” there is an implicit exception if it subsists in a greater, perishable organism. This can be seen in the case of practices part of the perishable Mosaic Covenant and also in the case of the voluntary Hebrew slave, who is said to be his master’s “for ever” (Dt. 15:17). For the slave, an unspoken terminating condition of this “for ever” would be the perishing of a greater organism that the master-slave relationship exists in – e.g., the life of the master or slave. This unspoken condition is understood in Hebrew and English and should not lead us to assume that “forever” may merely mean “a long time” apart from the clear presence of similar unspoken conditions. Far from having contingency in a perishable organism, this promise for an everlasting throne was the latest step in God’s eternal, unconditional, and trans-covenantal promise to provide a Seed to permanently redeem mankind from the forces of evil, even using the same word as found in Genesis 3:15 for “seed” (2 Sam. 7:12). This promise was previously narrowed down to a Seed from the line of Abraham (Gen. 17:7), then the line of Judah (Gen. 49:10), and now it is further narrowed down to the line of David. But Solomon did nothing to establish this everlasting throne, but merely received his throne from David and passed it on to a son that he so ill-equipped for leadership that the kingdom was almost immediately divided afterwards, perishing altogether within a few hundred years. Hence, the prophecy advises us to look to someone in the future, to One who would only be set on the throne after David had died and gone to “sleep with [his] fathers” (2 Sam. 7:12). This is in contrast to Solomon, of whom David remarks, “Blessed be the LORD God of Israel, which hath given one to sit on my throne this day, mine eyes even seeing it” (1 Kings 1:48). For these reasons and several others, Augustine remarks, “He who thinks this grand promise was fulfilled in Solomon greatly errs.”[14]

Conclusion

            The biblical presentation of inspiration helps to make sense of a passage like 2 Samuel 7:4-17. When we understand that the prophet Nathan was not expressing thoughts he had formulated beforehand, but rather was being a faithful ambassador of the Lord, it is understandable how the prophecy did not fit anyone in their lifetime but rather fits only the One the Father is committed to exalting in Scripture. These biblical presuppositions allow us to straight-forwardly preach Christ from the Old Testament alongside the Apostles and Christ Himself.

Note: the above essay was originally written by me for a class at CBTS.


[1] Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 28-32.

[2] Sam Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. 5th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: EP Books, 2016), 57-58.

[3] Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 106.

[4] For example, see Jonathan Lunde, “An Introduction to Central Questions in the New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 7.

[5] Francis Foulkes, “The Acts of God: A Study of the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament” The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 15-16.

[6] John Owen, Of the Divine Original of the Scriptures, in The works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 16 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), 298. Logos.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Owen, Book III, in The works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1862), 133. Logos.

[9] Ibid, 132.

[10] Peter Y. Lee, “Jeremiah” A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, ed. M. V. Van Pelt, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 280. Logos.

[11] W. Robertson Nicoll, “Commentary on Ephesians 3” The Expositor’s Greek Testament. (New York, NY: George H. Doran Company, 1897), accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/egt/ephesians-3.html.

[12] Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018). 192-201.

[13] For example, see the messianic citation of Isaiah 61:1-3 in 11QMelch: Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “Further Light on Melchizedek from Qumran Cave 11” Journal of Biblical Literature 86:1 (1967), 28, accessed August 31, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3263241?seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[14] Augustine, City of God, ed. Philip Schaff and trans. Marcus Dods, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol 2. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. XVII.8, accessed August 31, 2021. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm.

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