Christ the Meaning of all Scripture, Life and History (Part 1)
Chapter 6 — Christ, the Meaning of Law and Prophets
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.—Matt. 5:17, 18.
There are two main elements in Old Testament Scripture: law and prophets. Both elements are gathered up and reach their goal and perfection in the death and resurrection of Christ.
God's first promise of redemption was given to Adam in Eden (Gen. 3:15). It was repeated to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David. This promise was the message of the prophets. Out of days of darkness and human tragedy, the prophets spoke of a new age. They depicted God's final act of redemption in the light of past history and contemporary events. They promised that in the fullness of time God would recapitulate Old Testament history in one glorious drama of liberation. All history is shown to be moving toward that goal. The Old Testament points forward, crying, "Behold, the days come!" The New Testament brings a dramatic change of tense. The promises of the Old Testament are no longer future but present. They are said to be fulfilled in Christ. The New Testament proclaims: "The time is fulfilled." "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your ears.
Paul proclaimed this message in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia. He preached Christ out of the background of Old Testament history. First he rehearsed the election of Israel, the Exodus and the promises the prophets had kept alive for centuries. Coming to the death and resurrection of Christ, he declared, "We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers He has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus from the dead" (Acts 13:32, 33). In another place Paul wrote, "For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him" (2 Cor. 1:20, RSV).
All the hopes and promises of the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hermeneutical question is not whether we are going to interpret the prophetic promises of the Old Testament literally or spiritually. It is whether we are going to follow the lead of the gospel and interpret them Christologically. It is not a matter of acknowledging that some prophetic promises to Israel were fulfilled in Christ and the rest are left to be fulfilled in another time or place. Either Jesus' death and resurrection fulfilled every jot and tittle of God's purpose for Israel, or He fulfilled none of it and is not God's Messiah.
Jesus is God's new Israel. He is the real Israel God always had in mind. When He raised Jesus from the dead and glorified Him at His own right hand, what more could He do for Israel? Here He fulfilled His promises to Israel far beyond what any Old Testament saint could hope or think. By His death ("It is finished") Christ had fulfilled all Israel's obligations to God. By His resurrection God had carried out all His promises to Israel. The covenantal transaction was fulfilled.
Christ's glorification is of deepest interest to those who believe on Him. By the Spirit they are incorporated into Him and become part of the Israel of God (Gal. 3:27-29; 6:16). All that Christ has been given is for them (Dan. 7:13, 14, 27) and is theirs in Him. With Him they have been given all things (Rom. 8:32; Eph. 1:3). And by the Spirit, through faith, they wait for the visible realization of these things when Christ shall appear (Gal. 5:5; Col. 3:4).
What then can we say about the "evangelical" fashion of taking the Old Testament prophecies and jumping over the New Testament to postulate a carnal fulfillment in a nation now called Israel—which is not biblical Israel? Surely this is one of the most extraordinary heresies ever to roost in the evangelical nest! It is contrary to the whole spirit of the New Testament, which proclaims that all that the Old Testament promised Adam (mankind) and Israel has been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The New Testament is just as emphatic that the entire law—both moral and ceremonial—has met its fulfillment and reached its appointed goal in the death and resurrection of Christ (Matt. 5:17, 18; Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:19-24).
Moral Law.1 The Ten Commandments were a reflection of the righteousness of Christ. They pointed to Him because His perfect life was exactly what their rigorous moral demands required (Rom. 10:4). The law was the gospel of His righteousness enfolded, and the gospel was the law unfolded. Under the Mosaic administration the Ten Words of the covenant (Deut. 4:13) were amplified by additional statutes and judgments and were applied to suit the historical situation of the religious cult. They served to keep alive a sense of sin in the age of Israel's minority. By causing the community to look for a righteousness outside and above themselves, the elaborate legal code kept the community from reverting to a pagan insensibility.
With the coming of the gospel, however, the covenantal community came of age (Gal. 4:1-6). They no longer needed that multitude of cultic laws imposed on them in their minority. The gospel broke through the bounds of sectarian Judaism to become transcultural and a universal world religion.
This does not mean that New Testament ethics are less rigorous and demanding than Old Testament ethics. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus radicalized the demands of the law. Now it is clearly seen that the law has always demanded nothing less than the perfect righteousness found in Him. But in the New Testament we do have a new administration of the law. In the Old Testament the words of the covenant were administered by the Torah, which literally means the instruction or teaching. In the New Testament they are administered by the Spirit, who comes to us clothed in the gospel of Christ (2 Cor. 3). If we look carefully at the ethics of the Pauline Epistles, we will see that Paul always shows that the gospel demands a certain type of behavior. He, of course, is still moving within the framework of Old Testament ethics. (And all the great historic churches have followed the biblical tradition by including the Ten Commandments in their catechisms or articles of faith.) But instead of having the words of the covenant hedged about and expanded by a multitude of cultic laws designed for "children," the New Testament believer lives as a grown son who can see these moral principles refracted by the gospel of Christ.
When Paul uses the expression "under the law" in a pejorative sense, he means at least three things: under condemnation of the law, under a law-keeping method of salvation or under the elaborate rules and regulations of the religious cult (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 3:24, 25; 4:1-6, 21). While the consciences of Christians today are not bound by the Old Jewish national taboos, they are often bound by peculiar denominational taboos or special evangelical taboos. We are too prone to measure piety by adherence or nonadherence to things which have assumed a cultic religious significance. The breaking of one of these taboos is often regarded as more serious than breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Paul would identify this as being "under the law."
Ceremonial Law. Like the historical acts of God in the Old Testament, the ritual law was a typology of Jesus Christ. It prefigured how Christ would become Israel's righteousness and take away her sin. The tabernacle ceremonial was a typology of the gospel.
No part of the law—whether circumcision or feast days—could pass away until all of it had met its fulfillment in Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:17, 18). Since the law of the priesthood has been changed (Heb. 7:12) and circumcision and Jewish feasts are no longer binding on Christians, we know that every jot and tittle of the law have met their fulfillment in Christ—whether Passover, Tabernacles, Jubilee, the offering of the red heifer, peace offerings, sin offerings, Day of Atonement sacrifices or the service of priests and the high priest.
The main emphasis in the Gospels is that the Exodus Passover was fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ (Luke 9:31). But allusions to the climactic feasts of the seventh month are also present. Derrett says:
On the Day of Atonement Aaron laid aside his pontifical vestments and donned the plain white robes of the common priest. In these garments he offered the Day of Atonement sacrifice and entered the holy of holies to make the atonement by sprinkling the blood upon the mercy seat. Having made full satisfaction to the claims of the law of God beneath the mercy seat, he came out of the holy of holies and laid aside his plain linen garments. Then, reclothing himself in his glorious vestments, he came forth and blessed the waiting people (Lev. 16).
They [the synoptics] linked Jesus's sufferings with the usual dramatic preparation of the High Priest, on the Eve of the Day of Atonement. The latter was taken to an upper chamber, where he communed with the 'elders of the priesthood', having left the custody of the 'elders of the Court'. He was adjured, and was kept awake all night . . . During the ceremonies the High Priest was robed and disrobed several times and his final vestments were glorious. The gospel texts have retained the coincidences, some of them trifling in themselves, because the role of the High Priest and the outlines of his ritual were perfectly well known, and because a succession of mere hints was enough to make the point that Jesus was the real High Priest and was just about to effect the real (and everlasting) Atonement. . . . That the Day of Atonement and Passover have little in common seemed irrelevant, on the theory that Jesus's life summed up and gave meaning to all the Torah.2
In His incarnation Jesus laid aside His royal robes and took the garment of frail human nature. At Calvary He was the sacrifice, the High Priest and the mercy seat all in one. Veiled in the awful and impenetrable darkness which enveloped the cross during His dying agonies, He was like Aaron making atonement beyond the sight of any human eye. As deep silence fell over the congregation of Israel when Aaron stood before the mercy seat, so every voice was hushed when Jesus was enveloped by the thick darkness of Calvary. The darkness and earthquake (and probably thunder and flashes of lightning) were a recapitulation of the theophany at Mount Sinai, which was a type of the day of judgment. According to Jewish tradition the Day of Atonement was celebrated on the anniversary of the day their mediator Moses entered the thick cloud and ascended the mountain into the presence of God.
On the resurrection morning John and Peter ran to the tomb and found only Christ's linen garments, which He had laid aside (John 20:5-8). In choosing to record this incident, John was probably thinking of Leviticus 16. Our High Priest had made the atonement and had laid aside His common linen garments. On His resurrection day He came forth and blessed His waiting disciples (John 20:22).
The fascinating allusions in the Gospels become emphatic dogma in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Passover imagery is present in the mind of its author (Heb. 13:20; cf. Isa. 63:11). But his main theme is to show that the high-priestly ministration on the Day of Atonement had met its fulfillment in the Christ event.
An important feature of biblical typology in the book of Hebrews must not escape our notice. Although features of the type are always gathered up and recapitulated in the antitype, the antitype always supersedes the type. There is correspondence between type and antitype, but there is also contrast. For instance, the high priest of the old Aaronic order went into the sanctuary to make the atonement before the mercy seat. But according to Hebrews the High Priest of the Melchizedek order made the atonement and then went into the heavenly sanctuary.
After He had provided purification for sins [an expression corresponding to the Old Testament word atonement], He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.—Heb. 1:3.
Again using the Day of Atonement imagery, the writer to the Hebrews says:
He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.—Heb. 9:12.
But now He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself.—Heb. 9:26. (This act on Calvary is contrasted with Aaron's entrance into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement.)
He had to be made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in service to God, and that He might make atonement for the sins of the people.—Heb. 2:17, NIV.
The word the New International Version translates as "atonement" is hilasterion, the same word used to designate the mercy seat in Hebrews 9:5 (KJV). What the King James Version translates as "mercy seat," the New International Version more accurately translates as "place of atonement." (The same word is used in Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:20.) From the total New Testament witness, we can say the New Testament teaches that the cross of Calvary fulfilled the type of the high priest sprinkling the blood on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement. On the cross Jesus Himself became our mercy seat or place of atonement. Daniel's prophecy of the Messiah also takes several key expressions from Leviticus 16 and applies their fulfillment to the Christ event (Dan. 9:24).
All Old Testament Scripture—law and prophets—is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ. All the promises of the prophets, all the demands of the moral law and all the types of the ceremonial law find their end in Christ crucified and risen. Calvary gives meaning to the entire Old Testament.
Consider how great was this act of God in Jesus Christ. It was all that God had ever promised the human race. It was our passover, day of atonement, mercy seat, jubilee. In fact, it was the reality of all offerings and feasts in one. It was the new creation, the ark which saves from the flood of wrath, the exodus from sin and death, and the restoration of the desolate sanctuary (Dan. 8:14). All that came before Calvary was a picture of Calvary. It all existed for the sake of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16).
We must not conclude that God often acted to deal with sin in Old Testament times but was unsuccessful until He acted in Christ. God planned one great saving act from eternity (Rom. 16:25). As far as God is concerned, Calvary does not come after Creation or the Flood or the Exodus or the giving of the law. It comes first. Before God did anything, there was Christ, the eternal Mediator, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (John 1:1-4; Rev. 13:8). "He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Col. 1:17). Calvary was God's predestined act (Acts 2:23; Eph. 3:11). So surely as there was never a time when God was not, so surely there was never a time when it was not the delight of the eternal Mind to manifest His grace toward us in the gift of Christ.
All the power, love and wisdom of the Godhead were manifested in the death and resurrection of Christ. It was an act so great that the universe is small in comparison to it. God planned this one act to deal with sin. And when He did it, it was done forever (Eccl. 3:14). It was a thorough work. God gave everything with Christ (Rom. 8:32). There was nothing more He could do.
Calvary has become the watershed of history. It is the event of all events. All events before it point forward to it. All events after it point back to it. The death and resurrection of Christ give meaning to everything else. Nothing in itself has any meaning unless related to the death and resurrection of Christ. "All things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Col. 1:16, 17).
(To be continued)
1 Although the New Testament generally makes no precise distinction between the moral and ceremonial aspects of the law, the Christian church has always been able to assume a distinction between the two. Texts like 1 Corinthians 7;19 imply a distinction. And no one could successfully argue that Romans 7:7, 12, 22, Romans 8:7 and 1 John 3:4 are talking about Jewish ceremonies.
2 J. Duncan M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament; pp 410-11.