The Gospel and the Old Testament
The New Testament cannot be understand in isolation from its Old Testament background. The Scriptures which Jesus and the apostles used in the authoritative proclamation of their message were those of the Old Testament. "The gospel of God" is that "which He had promised afore by His prophets in the Holy Scriptures [the Old Testament]." Rom. 1:1, 2. We miss so much of the force as well as the richness and depth of the gospel when we fail to see it against the backdrop of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is written in the context of the tragic human situation. Man, who was made in the image of God to inherit thrones and dominions and to enjoy God forever, is in a tragic situation. He is enslaved, oppressed and afflicted. His fallen condition is no phantom. There is a startling flesh and blood realism about the Old Testament. It depicts man as he really is. Most story books are novels which are diversionary—they help us to forget our personal involvement in the appalling human predicament. The Old Testament rudely reminds us that we are victim to countless disorders and prey to the cruel tyrants of sin, misery and death.
There is no question but that the people of God represented in the writers of the Old Testament abhor death. Death is an overwhelming, unspeakable disaster. It is an unmitigated evil, "the king of terrors." Job 18: 14. It is the negation of life and everything that God had in mind for man and also what man's own heart aspires to. Yet it is this great enemy called death which confronts us everywhere in the Old Testament. Adam and Eve bury their son, so prematurely cut down by the murderer's hand, under the cold sod. Abraham weeps for Sarah and buries her in the cave of the field of Machpelah (Gen. 23:2, 19). Jacob's bereavements threaten to bring down his "gray hairs with sorrow to the grave." Hebrew children are snatched from their mother's arms and thrown into the Nile by the action of a monstrous king. The prophet Jeremiah hears not just the weeping of mothers in Bethlehem, but the cry of the great heart of humanity across the centuries when he says, "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not." Jer. 31:15.
The Great Captivity
The Old Testament is the story of the great captivity. The Hebrew slaves build the treasure cities Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. The Jewish exiles hang up their harps beside the river of Babylon and refuse to sing the songs of Zion. Yet these only serve to illustrate the larger captivity of every son and daughter of Adam's race. Since the day our first father sinned and was expelled from Eden, the whole of Adam's race is born subject to the real king of Babylon (Isa. 14). They are forced to serve him with rigor and receive the miserable wages of death. He keeps them in his prison house (Sheol) and lets none escape.
Out of this night of bitter humiliation and bondage, there shines the light of God's prophetic promises. A star of hope illuminates the future. Even as Adam and Eve stand under sentence of death, they hear the promise that the "seed of the woman" shall defeat their captor (Gen. 3:15). The promise is reiterated to Abraham, and his posterity are made custodians of the promises of God. The dying words of Jacob fill the hearts of his children with hope: "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come . . . " Gen. 49:10.
Not always will the people of God's covenant be oppressed, trodden down and afflicted:
There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth ["the sons of tumult"] . And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come He that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.—Num. 24:17-19.
Not always will death reign and stand over God's people to negate all that they love and aspire to. The faithful God of the covenant will act on behalf of His people and defeat their enemy:
Thou shalt bring down the noise of strangers, as the heat in a dry place; even the heat with the shadow of a cloud: the branch of the terrible ones shall be brought low.
Then the prophet continues:
And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of His people shall He take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it.
And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation. For in this mountain shall the hand of the Lord rest, and Moab shall be trodden down under Him, even as straw is trodden down for the dunghill. —Isa. 25:5-10.
In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
"We have a strong city;He sets up salvation as walls and bulwarks.
Open the gates, that the righteous nation which keeps faith may enter in.
Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusts in Thee.
Trust in the Lord for ever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.
For He has brought low the inhabitants of the height, the lofty city.
He lays it low, lays it low to the ground, casts it to the dust.
The foot tramples it, the feet of the poor, the steps of the needy." . . .
O Lord, Thou wilt ordain peace for us, Thou hast wrought for us all our works.
O Lord our God, other lords besides Thee have ruled over us, but Thy name alone we acknowledge.
They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise;
to that end Thou hast visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them.
—Isa. 26:1-6, 12-14, RSV.
We must remember that the prophets penned these bright visions of future glory at a time of darkness and calamity. Isaiah wrote the preceding words when the cruel Assyrian king and his rapacious armies were descending from the north upon the hapless residents of Palestine. But if there was ever a prophet who wrote in days of crushing sorrow and bitter heartbreak, it was Jeremiah. He saw Jerusalem destroyed and Zion plowed as a field by the Babylonians. The people of God were bereft of king, city, sanctuary and homeland. Thousands were either killed or taken captive into foreign lands. It was like the fall of Adam all over again. Yet nothing could kill the prophetic spirit nor quench the light that God had put among the chosen people. Declares Jeremiah:
Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border. . . .
Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; As yet they shall use this speech in the land of Judah and in the cities thereof, when I shall bring again their captivity; The Lord bless thee, O habitation of justice, and mountain of holiness. And there shall dwell in Judah itself, and in all the cities thereof together, husbandmen, and they that go forth with flocks. For I have satiated the weary soul, and I have replenished every sorrowful soul. Upon this I awaked, and beheld; and my sleep was sweet unto me. — Jer. 31:16,17, 23-26.
Yes, the prophet had dreamed of a better day. The future still belonged to God's people, and it was a future big with hope and full of glory:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass, that like as I have watched over them, to pluck up, and to break down, and to throw down, and to destroy, and to afflict; so will I watch over them, to build, and to plant, saith the Lord. . . .
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. . . .
Thus saith the Lord; If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the Lord.
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that the city shall be built to the Lord from the tower of Hananeel unto the gate of the corner. And the measuring line shall yet go forth over against it upon the hill Gareb, and shall compass about to Goath. And the whole valley of the dead bodies, and of the ashes, and all the fields unto the brook of Kidron, unto the corner of the horse gate toward the east, shall be holy unto the Lord; it shall not be plucked up, nor thrown down any more for ever. —Jer. 31:27, 28, 31-34, 37-40.
The words of the prophets kindled a hope in a glorious destiny for the Israel of God that nothing, absolutely nothing, could kill. The hope of Israel was a unique miracle which survived centuries of set backs, disappointments, failures, captivities and conquests by foreign armies. They had an unshakable hope that one day God would act and bring to pass all His promises to His people.
The Old Testament is forward looking. As prophet after prophet illuminated the promise of God's bright tomorrow, there gradually crystallized in the minds of God's people the concept of "the day of the Lord"—the day when God would finally act and fulfill His word of promise. The present age was evil, frustrating and tragic, but God and the future were still with the chosen people. There would be an "age to come" in which God would finally act for the full salvation and deliverance of His people. The key words of the Old Testament are: "Behold, the days come. . . ." "In that day. . . . " "It shall come to pass in the last days . . . " This forward looking stance is not only the key to understanding the Old Testament, but as we will shortly see, it is the key to the gospel.
Old Testament Realism
Before we turn to consider how the gospel so dramatically and joyously bursts onto this stage which is set by the Old Testament, let us first pause to consider how Hebrew inspiration conceived of salvation and redemption.
Due to a certain Grecian influence on Christian thought, the church has tended to lose much of the biblical realism about salvation. So often Christians think of salvation in terms of the salvation of man's "soul-box," which is finally freed from the hindrances and encumbrances of corporeal existence and flies away in some form of spirit existence to enjoy the rewards of salvation. The humorous cartoons of a ghost of a man sitting on a cloud strumming a harp are an obvious caricature, but our "Christian" ideas on salvation and "the life to come" often lend some support to these distortions.
The Hebrew prophets knew nothing about this kind of salvation. There is a refreshing, down-to-earth realism about the Old Testament's picture of the blessings of redemption in "the age to come." To start with, it depicts a salvation of the whole man—to be man as man was meant to be. Human existence is corporeal, or somatic, existence. When we think in Hebraic or Old Testamental categories, we cannot tear off a part of man and say, "It lives." Man is not saved unless the whole man is saved.
The prophets depict the glorious future in very corporeal terms. The desert will rejoice and blossom. Instead of briars will be flowers and fir trees. A little child will play with vipers and lead the beasts which at present are dangerous and vicious. The redeemed of the Lord will build houses and inhabit them, plant vineyards and eat the fruit of them. In short, nature herself will fulfill the divine intention of being subject to man's rule even as man is subject to God's rule.
The New Testament Change of Tense
The New Testament does not present a new message or a new ethic. Jesus did not come to destroy the hopes of the Old Testament, but to fulfill them. The stage is fully set in the Old Testament. In the fullness of time Jesus breaks in upon that stage "preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand [that is to say, it has arrived and is here]: repent ye, and believe the gospel." Mark 1:14,15.
Whereas the Old Testament proclaims, "Behold, the days come . . .," the New Testament electrifies us with the announcement: "This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." "The time is fulfilled. . . ." ". . . the hour is coming, and now is. . . . "
Unless we utterly deny what the New Testament gospel is all about, we must see that its message is that God has at last acted, gloriously acted, in fulfillment of what the Old Testament prophets looked forward to in hope. Old Testament expectations have become present tense. The long-looked-for, hoped-for kingdom of God has arrived in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. The hope of Israel has become present fact in Jesus Christ. In His Person and work the new age has broken in upon human history. The miracles of Jesus were not just a case of His proving that He was the true Messiah—for the false Christ is the one who ostentatiously shows himself off as Christ by signs and wonders (2 Thess. 2:1-9; Matt. 24:24)—but the miracles of Christ are the incontestable evidence that the powers of the new age have broken into history. Here is the Son of man, the new Adam, the Man as man was meant to be, who is subject to God and therefore Himself is Lord of the whole created order. Whether it is an unbroken donkey, the sea and the waves, disease or demons, even death itself, all are subject to this Man who fulfills God's plan of being Lord over God's creation (Gen. 1:26-28). The marvelous works of Jesus are thus the manifestation that the kingdom of God has come among men (Luke 17:21).1
The Old Testament with all its hopes and promises finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This is the united testimony of all New Testament witnesses. The great hermeneutical question is not whether we are going to interpret the Old Testament promises and prophecies (prophetic promises) either "literally" or "spiritually". These terms are often red herring that cloud the real issue. The issue is whether we are going to follow the lead of all the apostles and interpret the Old Testament Christologically!
We say again that the gospel announces that God has acted in Jesus Christ to fulfill what He had promised through the prophets. According to all He had promised, the New Testament records that He has indeed "visited and redeemed His people." Luke 1:68. He has put away sin, abolished death, brought in everlasting righteousness, and restored human nature to acceptance and glory at God's right hand (Heb. 9:26; 2 Tim. 1:10; Dan. 9:24; Eph. 2:1-6; Col. 2:10). What God promised to the Hebrew fathers He has fulfilled in raising Jesus from the dead (Acts 13:32, 33). That was Paul's startling message to the Jews after they had read the prophets again in their synagogue on the Sabbath day.
He told them that these things are no longer future tense, for God has acted to do all He said He would do in Jesus Christ.
If one says, "Wait a minute, there are a lot of promises in the Old Testament that have not come to pass yet," then he does not see how gloriously God has fulfilled all, accomplished all, indeed given to Israel absolutely all things in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:32). Paul declares that all the promises of God have found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).
Did God promise Israel wisdom, peace, victory, power, an inheritance? Well, He has given them all that and much more in the gift of Jesus to be King of the Jews. The fact that the majority of Jews refused the gift and the way God fulfilled Old Testament hopes, makes no difference (Rom. 3:3). They are not all Israel who are of Israel (Rom. 9:6). Those who did accept Jesus as the hope of Israel were the prophesied remnant, the only true Israel of God.
The blessings of God's Messiah could not be contained in Jewry alone, for had not God said that in Abraham's seed all families of the earth would be blessed? Israel's table would overflow with more than crumbs for the Gentile "dogs." God's Christ was not only the Servant of Israel as depicted in Isaiah, but the second Adam. He was therefore not alone the hope of Israel, but "the Desire of all nations." Hag. 2:7. This is a beautiful title for Jesus. It means that Jesus Christ is what every human heart needs. In the gift of His only Son to Adam's lost race, God has answered every true cry for help and consolation. He has answered every prayer that has ever ascended or ever will ascend to God from any human heart.
Let the imagination again take in that tragic human situation so realistically depicted in the Old Testament scriptures. Let us again survey all their bright hopes of a better future in the age of the life to come. Then let us see that the gospel of Jesus is the message that God has acted to do all He said He would, and to do it exceedingly above all that any man could ask or think. If that gospel is not exciting and the most joyous thing that was ever conceived, then there is absolutely nothing in this whole world to be really cheered or excited about. And if we still think we can read the Old Testament and find any part of its fulfillment anywhere or in any event outside of God's action in Jesus Christ, then we put ourselves in the position of a Christ denying rabbi who says that Jesus is not God's Messiah. Either the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, or no part finds its fulfillment in Him!
The Gospel Must Determine Our View of Everything
It is on the basis of the gospel that we look for a new heaven in the age of the life to come. This is no vague hope. This new creation is already a reality in Jesus Christ. The end of the world and the great consummation at the second coming of Christ will merely be the open disclosure and empirical realization of what God has already done in Jesus Christ. More than that, as we grasp this salvation by faith, God gives us even now a foretaste, a first fruits, of that life of the age to come (Rom. 8:23). Although still living in the world that is passing away, we are already part of that new order in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). This is why the believer cannot give ultimate significance to anything in this world of the old order. Faith in God's holy gospel demands total and radical obedience of those who belong to the new creation which has already come in Jesus Christ and which will be manifested shortly when Jesus returns. This gospel must now determine our entire existence. It must determine our world view, our view of Old Testament prophecies, and our view of Christian ethics. If we may summarize the essence of Paul's message to the churches, it is this—believe the gospel and act accordingly.
1 We suggest that "the kingdom of God is among you" is the better reading for Luke 17:21.