According to the New Testament authors, the Old Testament authors knew that they were speaking and writing for new-covenant believers, and they also had some level of conscious awareness about who the Christ would be and when he would rise. With Christ’s coming, anticipation gives rise to fulfillment, and types find their antitype, which means that new-covenant members can comprehend the fullness of the Old Testament’s meaning better than the old-covenant rebel and remnant.
The Old Testament’s Audience
Romans 4:23–24, 15:4, and 1 Corinthians 10:11 stress that the Old Testament author wrote his text for the benefit of believers living this side of the cross. For Paul, the Old Testament is Christian Scripture and fully applicable to believers when read through Christ.
The apostle said this much to Timothy as well. Speaking about the Jewish Scriptures, he wrote that the “sacred writings … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). Thus, Paul asserts, “All Scripture is … profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (3:16–17).
Based on this fact, New Testament authors frequently cite Old Testament instructions, assuming their relevance for believers today. For example, Paul reaches into the Ten Commandments when addressing children (Eph 6:2–3; Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16) and draws on execution texts from Deuteronomy when speaking about excommunication (1 Cor 5:13; Deut 22:21, 22, 24). Peter also recalls the refrain from Leviticus when he writes, “Be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15–16; Lev 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26). Because we are now part of the new covenant and not the old, there are natural questions that rise regarding how exactly the Christian should relate to specific old-covenant laws or promises (see future posts on this topic!). Nevertheless, the point stands that God gave the Old Testament for Christian instruction.
Paul was not explicit as to whether it was only God’s intent, as the ultimate author, to write the Old Testament for our instruction, or whether this was also the human authors’ intent. Peter, however, made this clear when he wrote that “it was revealed to [the Old Testament prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you” (1 Pet 1:12). He emphasized that the human authors themselves knew that their Old Testament words were principally not for themselves but for those living after the arrival of the Christ. Therefore, the Old Testament is actually more relevant for Christians today than it was for the majority in the old-covenant era.
The Old Testament Prophets’ Understanding of Christ’s Person and Time
In John 8:56, Jesus declared that Abraham eagerly expected the coming of the Messiah. Similarly, Peter believed that David himself anticipated Christ’s coming in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:30–31), and David’s last words affirm that he was hoping in a just ruler who would overcome the curse and initiate a new creation (2 Sam 23:3–7). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews stressed, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar” (Heb 11:13). The Old Testament remnant enjoyed some light; they themselves wrote of the Christ and hoped in him.
On the other hand, Jesus also declared that “many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it” (Luke 10:24). It seems that we should understand Yahweh’s prophets of old as truly seeing God’s beauty and purposes and the hope that awaited them, while also affirming that they did not experience and, therefore, comprehend all that we do in Christ. For them, full disclosure awaited a later day.
First Peter 1:10–12 captures both sides of this interpretive framework. According to Peter, the prophets were themselves studiers of earlier revelation. And under the Spirit’s guidance (2 Pet 1:21), they “searched and inquired carefully” to know who the Messiah would be and when he would appear. While they may not have known Jesus’s name, they had a general sense of the type of person he would be and of when he would come, and they often learned this from studying the Scriptures (e.g., Ps 119:2; Dan 9:2). Revelation did indeed progress from the Old to New Testaments, but the development was often from conscious prediction to realized fulfillment, not simply prediction of which only God was originally aware but which we now recognize retrospectively.
As in the case of Daniel (Dan 12:8–10), the full meaning of some Old Testament texts transcends the human authors’ understanding. Nevertheless, the New Testament testifies that these authors usually understood their end-time visions, truly hoped in the Messiah, and knew something of when he would come. Furthermore, interpreters should expect that the biblical authors’ use of antecedent Scripture organically grows out of the earlier materials, never contradicting them, because all Scripture comes from God (2 Tim 3:16) and the prophets “searched and inquired carefully” (1 Pet 1:10) and made Spirit-led interpretations (2 Pet 1:20–21).
The Rebels’ Inability to Understand the Old Testament
The New Testament is clear that the blindness associated with the old-covenant unbelieving majority continued into Christ’s day. We see this incapacity, for example, in the religious leaders whom Jesus confronted numerous times (e.g., Matt 12:3–7; Luke 16:31; John 5:39–40). The Jewish leaders were spiritually blind, unable to see how the Old Testament itself pointed to Christ.
The Gospels indicate the roots of such blindness. In brief, they speak of an innate wickedness that stands hostile to God, of hard hearts, of desires that are aligned with the devil, and of a passion for man’s praise over God’s glory (Matt 16:3–4; 23:6; Mark 3:5; Luke 11:43; 20:46; John 8:42–44). The result was that they could not hear God’s voice or savor God’s beauty and purposes in the Scriptures. And where the leaders went, the rest of the nation went also (John 12:37–41).
Likewise, other New Testament passages teach that the old-covenant age was one of ignorance and hardness (Acts 17:30; Eph 4:18; 1 Pet 1:14), with the devil keeping most of the world blind to God’s glories culminating in Christ (2 Cor 4:3–4). But in Jesus, new creation dawns, with gospel light breaking over the horizon and dispersing darkness and shadow (4:6).
Why would God extend such a season of hardness, ignorance, and blindness? If Romans 9:22–24 is any indication, Paul believes God purposed to move those receiving his mercy to marvel more at his manifold glory in Christ. The Lord made the darkness so deep and the night so long, that we upon whom the light has dawned may be able to savor even more the warmth, brilliance, and merciful glory of God bound up in his gift of Christ.
Some of the Remnant’s Delayed Understanding of the Old Testament
The New Testament is clear that some, such as Simeon, were anticipating Christ’s coming and rightly grasped his person and work, including his mission of suffering (Luke 2:25–35). Nevertheless, many of the disciples closest to Jesus failed to recognize fully who he was and all that their Scriptures anticipated about him (see, e.g., Mark 4:13; 8:31–33).
Luke especially emphasized the disciples’ lack of knowledge of the Old Testament. After his resurrection, Jesus challenged the two on the road to Emmaus for failing to “believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). Nevertheless, he made them wise to the Old Testament’s meaning (v. 27), thus fulfilling what Isaiah and Daniel said would come to pass (Isa 29:18; Dan 12:10). Likewise, Christ later appeared to his remaining followers and “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). The resurrected Christ now allows his followers to see things in the Bible that were there all along but ungraspable without the correct light and lens (see Rom 16:25–26; 2 Cor 3:14). In Christ, God “enlightens” the eyes of our hearts (Eph 1:18).
John’s Gospel in particular highlights how Christ’s resurrection and glorification mark a turning point in the disciples’ understanding of Scripture. In John 2:20–22, for example, Jesus’s resurrection moved the disciples to embrace in a fresh way both “the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” And as John 12:13–16 makes clear, only when the Father glorified his Son did Christ’s followers connect how the Old Testament Scriptures testified to Christ’s triumphal entry.
The New Testament authors affirm that the Old Testament was written for Christians and that the prophets knew they were writing for our benefit. The prophets also knew something about Christ and the time of his coming, but the full meaning of their texts at times transcended their understanding.
Fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah (Isa 6:10; 53:1), the innate wickedness and hard-heartedness of most of the Jewish populace rendered them spiritually disabled. In judgment, God hardened them, so that they were unable to understand his Word or see his purposes culminating in Jesus (Rom 11:7–8). Only “through Christ” is their blindness removed (2 Cor 3:14).
As early as Jesus’s birth, some like Simeon properly understood that the Christ’s triumph would only come through tribulation. However, full understanding of Scripture’s testimony about Jesus’s death, resurrection, and global mission came to most of his disciples only after his resurrection.
This blog series summarizes Jason S. DeRouchie’s forthcoming book, Delighting in the Old Testament: Through Christ and for Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024). You can pre-order your copy here.