I want to open a discussion with you, about how to interpret the Old Testament, which is taught by all Presbyterians, Episcopal, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics, and yet it may be less familiar to you. It’s about how the New Testament shows itself to be the continuation of the Old Testament. Jesus taught that his coming, he himself, his body, and the church he established, was actually the fulfillment and continuation of absolutely everything in the Old Testament. While the New Testament makes it simpler, it also makes it more full and majestic. The details of the Old Testament such as the Temple, Moses’ customs, and the Covenants were always meant to be preparing for and illustrating what the coming of Christ would bring to mankind.
However, there is a pervasive teaching and view that exists now around the world in evangelical circles, because of the growth in evangelical denominations which came from the Revivalistic church growth of the Second Great Awakening in the 1800’s. Many of those churches have adopted and carried on a teaching, relatively new to Christianity, called “Dispensational,” which is a way for how to interpret the Old Testament. This has come about from the teachings of John Nelson Darby(1800-1882) along with Charles Ryrie and others, and promoted from the New Scofield Bible and other Study Bible’s which have followed in its teaching. So many people now have been influenced by these teachings which have widely promoted this Dispensational view for how to understand the Old Testament.
This view has spread so much now, that almost everyone in America it seems has been influenced to some degree by the different works which have adopted this view, such as the books of the Left Behind series that were popular in the 1990‘s.
The Dispensational view, put simply, separates what God was doing in the Old Testament from what He is doing in the New. This view looks to a very symbolic chapter of the Bible, Revelation chapter 20, and sees it as meant to be taken literally, as actual realities that will literally exist in the future, instead of seeing John’s Revelation as a series of symbolic visions meant metaphorically for how to understand our current world. It takes chapter 20 as literal details that will exist at some future event, even though it has to make allowances for some of the wildly symbolic details. This view then takes that and imposes it onto other, clearer passages in the Bible to reinterpret them into this view’s scheme for how to interpret everything. It re-interprets passages and creates a new system for how we can see a future prediction, even though there is no detail in any of these texts to tie any of it to any specific future actual event. This view then separates the church of the New Testament era to be something entirely different from a continuation of the people of the Old Testament. Dispensational teaching sees the New Testament as an altogether different program and way of salvation, from what God was doing with ethnic Israel in the Old Testament.
The Dispensational view sees God working in two completely separate ways. While the more historic view (which is now often called the Covenantal view or Reformed view) has always taken the New Testament to be the continuation and fulfillment of the Old, as taught by Jesus himself in places like Luke 24:25 where it says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
We also hear this better understanding of the Old Testament from the author of Hebrews when he says, “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities,..”(10:1) and “They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.”(8:5) And “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.”(8:7) And then, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”(8:13)
These passages make it clear that the Old Testament ceremonial laws are now obsolete and finished, since Christ, the true form of those old shadows, has now come! These passages show us that we are supposed to see the New Testament way of worshipping and being God’s people as the ‘original’ or ‘true object,’ and that the Old Testament’s details were always meant to be seen as the ‘shadow’ that was previewing what was coming in Christ.
And Paul teaches this as well when he explains, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called "the uncircumcision" by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph 2:11-13). Does it sound like this previous separation of Israelites from Gentiles, which has now been united in Christ, will one day be separated again, as Dispensationalism teaches? Or, does it sound like this separation is gone for good?
Jesus taught that most everyone in his day, had completely misunderstood the Old Testament, “O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!”(Lk 24:25) “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”(Lk 24:45) This means that it must be easy to miss how the New Testament is the fulfillment and continuation of the Old Testament. It also means that the Old Testament, according to Jesus, cannot be rightly understood without an interpretive key. And that interpretive key is Jesus, himself. His coming and fulfilling all of the Old Testament’s pictures, needs, and promises, is the interpretive key to understand it.
When Reformed Theology came along in the 1500’s and 1600’s, it summarized these ideas which had always been believed by Christians almost comprehensively for centuries going back all the way to the New Testament times, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1643, where it explains that the ceremonial details in the Old Testament were, “…all foreshadowing Christ. For that time the covenant administered under the law through the operation of the Spirit was sufficient and effective in instructing the elect and building up their faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of their sins and eternal salvation. This administration is called the Old Testament.”
The Dispensational view, in contrast, is actually very new. It has come about in the last 200 years.
Today, The Reformed view of Scripture is found in many resources like the ESV Study Bible and The Reformation Study Bible by Ligonier Ministries to name a few, in contrast to the New Scofield Bible and newer Study Bibles that have followed in its teaching.
As I said, there’s a good chance that everyone reading these words has been influenced at some point by Dispensational thinking. So, you must judge for yourself, but I want to encourage you to consider the way Presbyterians have always understood the Old Testament, along with Episcopal, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics, which is the more historic way of understanding it, and more importantly is more consistent with and makes much more sense of all the Scriptures.
It is how to understand the Old Testament, if you take what Jesus said and use him as the interpretive key to see that he is the continuation of the plot and one story of Creation – Fall – Redemption - and coming Consummation. The entire Bible, from Genesis 3:15 on, tells us the one story of how the ‘Second Adam’ is foretold and symbolized in all of the following covenants as the one continuing story of how this covenant mediator and head would come to fulfill and complete all of the Old Testament pictures and symbols and promises. The Christ or Messiah, and the church he established, is the continuation of those shadows that are now far simpler but far greater and more exalted.
I recommend it to you, that you would consider this Covenantal, Reformed view of how to understand your Old Testament, so that you might be powerfully strengthened for years to come, as you feast on Christ as the true message, the true hero, and the true point of the Old Testament. And may (the LORD) Yahweh feed you and strengthen you as you do!