Why the Old Testament?
B.B. Warfield famously described the Old Testament as a room “fully furnished but dimly lit.” By that he meant that all the fundamental elements of the gospel were revealed in the Old Testament but awaited the coming of Jesus Christ to bathe that revelation in glorious light. As Jesus walked alongside the Emmaus disciples after the resurrection, He began shining His light on the Scriptures. Who these two were, we do not know; but what they were is evident: “they stood still, looking sad” (Luke 24:17). His diagnosis of their condition was their misinterpretation of the Old Testament and its clear evidence that “the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (v. 26).
Jesus’ solution for them was to take them right back to the earliest sacred writings of Holy Scripture — the books of Moses — to highlight the messianic themes of the Pentateuch. The details are not supplied. Did He refer to Genesis 3:15 with its first prediction of a savior of mankind who would deal a deathblow while receiving injury himself? Did He refer to the promise to Noah that God would be the God of Shem’s line (Gen. 9:26)? Or to the promise to Abraham that his offspring would be blessed by God (17:7)? Or to the prediction of Jacob that a son of Judah would wield a royal scepter (49:10)? Or to Balaam’s forecasting of a star that would rise out of Jacob (Num. 24:17)?
We cannot be sure, but — to paraphrase C.H. Spurgeon — this was a remarkable moment in which the best teacher used the best textbook to teach the best lesson. The teacher was the Lord Himself, as He was the lesson. That is always the reality of our gospel learning — the Christ of God opens our eyes to the glory and wonder of His own work. And His textbook was the Old Testament Scriptures — Jesus began with Moses and the prophets and went on to show that He Himself is the meaning of the Old Testament, the key to unlock it, and the one to whom it leads. Not every part of the Old Testament is explicitly messianic, of course, but the Messiah stands behind every theological concept, every word picture, every historical event, every birth and death, every poem and psalm, every aphorism and metaphor, every jot and tittle of our Old Testament.
And as He stands before us in the Old Testament, we realize that it is not just some vague notion of Him that is presented to us, but the specifics of His suffering and His consequent glory. We understand that a host of Old Testament passages do not merely pave the way for the Savior but present to us the particulars of His work as mediator, showing us that there were things He had to suffer and that there was a consequent absolute necessity of His being exalted after His suffering and death. The light may not have been filling the room, but the essential elements were there all the time.
All of which means, for us, at least three things: First, we are not simply New Testament believers. We are whole Bible believers. We read, preach, and meditate on the whole of the inspired Word, because in every part it is our access to the eternal, incarnate, and glorified Word. We come to the Scriptures in every part, as the Greeks came to the feast in John 12, saying “we wish to see Jesus” (v. 21). And bathed in the light of the finished work of Christ, the Old Testament shows us things about Jesus that we might otherwise have missed, as the Psalms (for example, in Psalm 22) tell us what Jesus was thinking on the cross.
Second, understanding the Old Testament is often the key to our understanding the New. The disciples of Emmaus needed to hear exposition and application from a sermon based on a string of Old Testament texts in order that they might better understand the cross. And the New Testament labors the point that what happened in the Old Testament happened for our benefit (1 Cor. 10:11). Can we make sense of Hebrews or Revelation without knowing our Old Testament?
Third, biblical theology is the best cure for spiritual depression. Sad hearts can be turned into burning hearts by meditating on the messianic theme of the Old Testament. Nothing can dispel gloom or lift us out of despair quite like having the story of the Bible unfolded. For that reason, every Bible preacher has a duty to follow the example of the Savior at this point and to direct his hearers along the roads that lead to Jesus. When it comes to opening the understanding (Luke 24:45), Jesus stands alone; but in opening the Scriptures He commits His own prophetic spirit to the preachers of the gospel, and in unfolding the Word of Christ, the hearts of believers are warmed, stirred, and drawn to the Christ of the Word.
What began as a journey to Emmaus ended up as a tour of the furnishings of the Old Testament. And when these two disciples finally recognized Him in their home (Luke 24:31), it was only because first they had been shown the portrait of a suffering and glorified Messiah that had always been hanging amid the rich furniture of the room we call the Old Testament.
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