Why Pastors Should Engage Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

by Edward W. Klink III January 7, 2019

In my study at church, just above my desk, hangs a wood-crafted plaque with older English words from 2 Timothy 2:15: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The plaque formerly hung in the study of Gleason Archer, the well-known twentieth century Old Testament scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary and later Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It was a gift to me from his extended family. I hang it in my study to keep present the command of God regarding the treatment of Scripture, but also to remind me of the heritage of the office of the pastor-theologian in which I now reside.

There is not (and has not been) a pastor who does not feel the magnitude of the Apostle Paul to Timothy: “rightly divide the word of truth.” This is especially the case when “the word of truth” is an ancient text spanning multiple centuries, written in foreign languages, and constructed in the form of two testaments that each contain dozens of books. And while pastors have been provided many helpful resources for the social-historical contexts necessary to the reading Scripture and many helpful tools for translating and understanding its original languages, there have not been many guides to help the pastor interpret and handle the Bible in its two-testament form.

The two-testament form of Scripture is not simply a challenge for pastors, but has for nearly two centuries been a dividing wall of hostility for the academy. Because of the vastly different social and historical contexts of the Old and New Testaments, modern critical study has reinforced the distinction between the two testaments. Yet the relationship between the two Testaments stands as one, if not the, central issue in the discipline of biblical theology, and therefore in the practice of biblical interpretation.

This becomes immediately relevant in the interpretation of the New Testament, which not only stands upon the Old Testament in a historical sense, but is also related to it in an organic sense. Augustine summarized the organic nature of the relationship this way: “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” How does the pastor rightly handle the organic interconnectivity of the Old and New Testaments in interpreting and preaching God’s Word? It is here that the benefits of Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, are most apparent. In this one volume, every Old Testament citation and probable allusion is addressed and explained, guiding the pastor through the process of interpreting the two-testament message that culminates in the New Testament.

A Tutor for the Two-Testament Bible

The commentary intends to address six aspects of every Old Testament citation and allusion:

1. New Testament Context. Each citation/allusion is housed in a particular section of the New Testament that needs to be understood. The topic of discussion, the flow of thought, even the literary nature of the context needs to be presented so that the citation/allusion can be properly evaluated.

2. Old Testament Context. A citation/allusion may now be housed in a New Testament context, but it originates from an Old Testament context that needs to be understood. Its first occurrence is needed either to explain its originating meaning or to track its thematic trajectory. Regarding the latter, at times a citation/allusion is more complex in that it is not a once-stated phrase but is a theological theme that extends across several Old Testament books and contexts. In some cases a theme may even have to be interpreted with a sensitivity to the Old Testament use of the Old Testament, as in, for example, how the “exodus” motif begins in Exodus but is developed and nuanced in the prophetic books (e.g., Isaiah), ultimately culminating in its application in the New Testament (e.g., Mark).

3. Second Temple Judaism Context. Each citation/allusion may have an interpretive history in parallel texts (contemporaneous Jewish or Christian texts) that might assist its interpretation in the New Testament. Such comparisons might not only assist interpretations and applications of an Old Testament citation/allusion, but can at times also be necessary when a New Testament text is borrowing from Second Temple sources themselves.

4. Textual Factors. Each citation/allusion may have an original source (e.g., Masoretic Text, Septuagint, or a Targum), be a mixed citation, or even have a significant difference from an original text that is important for its interpretation and appropriation in the New Testament.

5. New Testament Appropriation. Once the text and the contexts have been explored, then the citation/allusion can be examined for its function and its application. Is the citation/allusion being used to show fulfillment of a promise/prophecy or expansion of its original meaning, for its thematic function, because it has verbal parallels that provide a helpful linguistic framework, or as an analogy for a moral lesson? The citation/allusion can now be in fully explored for its force and intention in the specific context of a New Testament text.

6. Theological Intention. The New Testament use of an Old Testament citation/allusion ultimately has as its goal a theological message, driven by the force of the whole Bible in its two-testament form. The combination of a two-testament textual trajectory within the larger doctrinal constellation of Scripture yields rich fruit for exegesis and ultimately, therefore, the church’s ministry of teaching and preaching.

Canonical “Hyperlinks”

Every user of the internet is familiar with a “hyperlink,” a link from one document to another that is activated by clicking on a highlighted word or phrase. A hyperlink provides a helpful analogy to Old Testament citations and allusions in the New Testament. A hyperlink directs the reader to a whole or specific document that is called in the computing world, an “anchor text,” similar to the original text of a citation/allusion in the Old Testament. Even more, some hyperlinks can be bidirectional, or flowing in two directions, acting as an anchor and a target, just as certain Old Testament citations/allusions are derived from themes that flow in both directions across the Old Testament before being used by the New Testament. The wise pastor will become familiar with New Testament hyperlinks to the Old Testament and learn to move between anchor text(s) (original contexts) and their target(s) (both later Old Testament contexts and use in the New Testament) so as to rightly divide the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).

But the analogy cannot fully contain  the two-testament form of Scripture, which is not simply connected by shared documents but by a shared essence – an organic connection that unites the two testaments into a union that involves an equality in distinction only possible in the inspired Word of God. The two testaments progressively explain the one covenant of grace and powerfully announce a singular subject matter: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Standing upon the apostles and prophets, the pastor has the honor and responsibility to herald the biblical message of gospel grace to this generation, rightly dividing the word of truth so that the fullness of Christ is proclaimed through the unified two-testament canon for the glory of God and the good of the church.​

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the Credo Magazine blog and is used with permission.

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