Should I Interpret the Old Testament like the Apostles Did?

One cheeky thing I do with my students is take them through some New Testament passages to see how the Old Testament is being interpreted by the apostles. I get them to read the infancy narratives of Matthew 1–2, the Johannine passion narrative in John 19, Paul’s lengthy discourse about Israel in Romans 9–11, Paul’s polemical argumentation in Galatians 3–4, and John’s vision of the woman and the dragon in Revelation 11–12. I then ask them, “Should we interpret the Old Testament like the early church did?” These chapters contain some genuinely perplexing examples of how the apostles, evangelists, and early church, in general, interpreted the Old Testament. I mean, Paul mentions taking things “allegorically” (Galatians 4:24 NRSV); John the Seer says his vision should be understood “spiritually” (Revelation 11:8 CEB); many of Matthew’s Old Testament citations do not strike you as obvious messianic texts when read on their own terms; and Paul’s argumentation about Israel is densely packed with an avalanche of citations and allusions to the Old Testament to the point of being overwhelmed by them. It is no wonder that many of my students feel conflicted, confused, and apprehensive, and that many are reluctant to follow the apostles in their biblical interpretation.

Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married.”
(Galatians 4:24–27 NRSV).

Their dead bodies will lie on the street of the great city that is spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. And for three and a half days, members of the peoples, tribes, languages, and nations will look at their dead bodies, but they won’t let their dead bodies be put in a tomb.
(Revelation 11:8–9 CEB)

The early church’s interpretation of the Old Testament appears so foreign to how most Christians have been taught to read Scripture. Some suppose that the apostles are able to undertake their intricate interpretative maneuvers with christological cartwheels because they have a special license to do some crazy things. As a result, we should obey them, but we should not follow them in their interpretive methods.

However, in defense of apostolic biblical interpretation, I tell my students this: if Jesus is the climax of the covenant, if Jesus is the fulfilment of the law, if Jesus is the one who the prophets were pointing ahead to, if the Scriptures indeed testify to Jesus, if the Old Testament is filled with types that anticipate Jesus as Lord and Saviour, then it is not merely legitimate to read Scripture in a christotelic fashion, it is demanded as an article of faith. To read Scripture as a Christian is to regard Scripture as finding its substance, coherence, and unity in Jesus Christ.

As Christians whose faith was established on the foundations of the prophets and the apostles (Ephesians 2:20) we are obligated to follow after their strategy for preaching and teaching Scripture. So, yes, you should interpret the Bible likes the apostles did if you claim to belong to a church that is based on the gospel that the apostles preached. What is more, after 2000 years of interpretation, this apostolic manner of Christian reading, with its spiritual dimension and christotelic focus, is far more stable, enduring, and coherent than the endless fads and fragmentation that has characterized secular approaches to the Bible.

NB: Seven Things About the Bible That I Wish Christians Knew released last week!

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