Imagine taking someone from Europe, who had no clue what American football was, and bringing them to play a backyard game with some friends. Before they can begin to figure out how to play the game, they would need to first understand what the game is and that football is not soccer.
When we interpret Scripture, we must understand what Scripture is before we can understand how to interpret Scripture. Our rules for interpretation and approach in interpretation derive from our belief concerning what Scripture is. For instance, if we assume that Scripture is just a collection of random books full of truisms and wise sayings that help people live moral lives, then that will shape the way we handle Scripture?
Scripture is God’s authoritative self-revelation, which unfolds the singular organic story of salvation and gives us a unified doctrine of truth to believe and live by. All Scripture is God-breathed and without error. Scripture is not a compilation of random blocks of doctrinal truths or moral stories. John Murray reminds us of this,
The Bible’s revelation should never be compared to a pile of blocks, even should we think of these blocks of the finest granite, well-shaped and masterfully hewn, arranged in the most symmetrical order. The Bible is an organism; its unity is organic. It is not a compilation of isolated unrelated oracles. The Bible is something that grew over a period of some fifteen centuries. It grew by a process of divine revelation and inspiration. At Sunday times and in divers manners God progressively revealed himself and his will until the fullness of time God sent forth his Son who is the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person.1[John Murray, Collected Writings, vol 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 5.
Scripture is an organic unity, a singular story from Genesis to Revelation that unfolds the glory of God in the establishment of his kingdom through covenant by Jesus Christ for the salvation of the church. The structure of Scripture is covenant, the shape of Scripture is kingdom, and the substance of Scripture is Jesus Christ. All that Scripture says concerning covenant, kingdom, salvation, etc. find its culmination in Jesus—the covenant keeping, enthroned King, who has secured the salvation of his people and the kingdom of God as a true and better Adam.
However, interpretation often focuses solely on the exegetical tools which evaluates the grammar, syntax, structure, genre, culture and geography around the text within the book of the Bible it is found. The exegetical tools are vital since God has chosen to reveal Himself through coherent and intelligible words according to the normal rules of grammar. This means the inspiration of Scripture does not magically transform the words and paragraphs of Scripture to mean something contrary to the clear and normal usage of language.
But we must also use redemptive tools. If we believe what Jesus told the disciples on the road to Emmaus concerning the Old Testament (Luke 24:13-48), and if we believe that all of Scripture is centered on Christ, the incarnate Son who is the fullest revelation of the Father (John 1:14-18), then we must interpret every text in light of the whole redemptive story. Scripture organically unfolds this story from seed to the full bloom of a flower, from an acorn to a mighty oak. Jesus is the fulcrum upon which the whole Bible pivots. Revelation moves to and from Jesus Christ in redemptive history. Jesus Christ is the skeleton key of Scripture. The Old Testament is the gospel promised, and the New Testament is the gospel established. If the exegetical tools situate the text within the context of the book where it is found, then the redemptive tools situate the text within the context of the whole of Scripture, especially when in the Old Testament.
What redemptive tools are at our disposal?
- Plot/Meta-Story – Where does this text fit within the whole meta-story of Scripture?
- Covenant Context – What covenant context is our text in, and how does it relate to the other covenants, especially the New Covenant?
- Themes – What themes are found in the text that are littered throughout Scripture, repeatedly emphasized, and unfold in fulfillment in the New Testament?
- Typology – Are there any types in the text?
Sam Renihan notes, In summary, types reveal that which is greater and other than themselves. They have a purpose and meaning in their own context, and when their fulfillment arrives, they are removed. Interpreting the relationship between the Old and New Testament in this way is the apostolic hermeneutic, it is a Christ-centered hermeneutic, and it is a necessary hermeneutic.”2Sam Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant and His Kingdom (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2019), 35.
- Promise/Fulfillment – How are the promises of the text fulfilled in later revelation?
- Continuity/Discontinuity – What elements in the text continue into the New Covenant, and what discontinue?
The redemptive tools help us to read the Old Testament in light of the New with Christ at the center. Imbedded in all of these tools is simply the principle of seeking to interpret Scripture with Scripture, with the assumption that there is an inherent unity and organic unfolding of the story of salvation that moves from shadow to substance.
Brief Test Case
The offering of the son of promise Isaac in Genesis 22 gives us a nice test case. The testing of Abraham by God to sacrifice Isaac is a climactic point in the Abrahamic covenant narrative. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram and promises to give him land and make him a great nation through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. In Genesis 15, God establishes this promise through a covenant bond, wherein God takes the oath of the covenant, vowing to keep the promises of the covenant lest he himself incurs the curse of breaking the covenant. God would provide Abram offspring through whom the promise would be fulfilled. In Genesis 17, God marks the promise of the covenant with the sign of circumcision which is a symbol of the obedience required of Abraham’s offspring in order to remain amongst the people of God in the land. This brings us to Genesis 22 where God tests Abraham’s faith by calling him to sacrifice the son of promise. The son whom Abraham waited in faith for, and the son through whom the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant would unfold.
Above is the immediate plot within the context of Genesis 12–22, but when we take a step back further we see the significance all the more of Isaac being offered. The promise of a seed, an offspring that would bring redemption, began not with Abraham but with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. God speaking a word of judgement to the serpent gives the first promise of the gospel, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Gen 3:15).” The Flood of Genesis 6 and the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 seem to dim the hope of this seed coming, but when God calls Abram that hope brightens because now the offspring of Genesis 3:15 would come through Abraham, and by the end of Genesis, the seed would come through Abraham’s son Judah. At the height of Israel’s history, we find out that the seed will come through David. Even as Israel is in exile, the great hope is that this seed/son of David will come and redeem God’s people. Then, Matthew opens his gospel by explicitly tying Jesus to both David and Abraham (Matt 1:1; He is their true heir and true seed. I hope that you are seeing that when we situate the text within the storyline, the significance of the text glows with the glory of the gospel.
2. Covenant Context
Our text in Genesis 22, as already noted, is dealing directly with the Abrahamic covenant. The question we must ask is how does this covenant first relate to the other covenants of promise—Moses and David (Eph 2:12), and more importantly, how does this covenant relate to the New Covenant? I’ll simply pose these questions here because they will be addressed below.
There are several rich biblical themes present in the Genesis 22 narrative (sonship, offspring, sacrifice and salvation). We will focus on sonship for our example. Isaac is the promised son of promise. Sonship is a theme littered everywhere in the Old Testament. The book of Deuteronomy is a book that repeatedly focuses on sonship, obedience, and covenant blessing. Jesus comes onto the scene in the gospels as the eschatological Son who unlike the first son Adam (Gen 5:1-3; Luke 3:38) or the typological son Israel (Exod 4:22-23), does not fall to temptation and completely obeys the work that the Father had given him to do (Luke 3:38-4:13; John 17:1-4). The theme of sonship and obedience with Isaac’s trust and obedience to Abraham his Father and Abraham’s obedience and trust in the LORD (Gen 22:7-10) grabs us by the face and says “look” at Calvary! Look at the Eternal Son of God clothed in flesh who perfectly obeyed and trusted the Father for your sin!
The clearest type, though there may be a few here, is the ram the LORD provides, that Abraham offers up as a sacrifice in the place of his son (Gen 22:13-14). Do you see Christ here? Do you smell the sweetness of the gospel here? Isaac was bound to be sacrificed but the LORD provided a way of salvation through a sacrifice in his place. Do you hear the parallels and connections with Christ’s atonement for our sins in our place through his suffering for us? He is the lamb slain from eternity, our great high priest who secured our redemption by the sacrifice of himself definitively and eternally through his own blood (Heb 9:11-14). All of the sacrifices in the Old Testament point us to Christ. They are all types and shadows (Heb 10:1) that point us to the substance.
When we look at the Abrahamic covenant, we have to ask the question, how does this covenant connect to the gospel covenant, the New Covenant? To ask the question more pointedly, how is the promise and principle of offspring bound within the covenant (Gen 17:9-14) fulfilled in the New Covenant? In answering these questions, the first thing we should do is search to see if the New Testament anywhere interprets the Old Testament passage we are in for us. Genesis 22:17 reads, “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies.” Notice in the verse there seems to be a movement from a plural offspring (as numerous as the stars of heaven and sand on the seashore) to a singular offspring “his enemies.”3T. Desmond Alexander, “Further Observations on the Term ‘Seed’ in Genesis” (Tyndale Bulletin 48.2, 1997), 363-365. This at the very least ties Genesis 22:17 back to the first “seed” mentioned in Genesis 3:15.
The reason I point this out is that Paul interprets Genesis 22:17 in this very way in Galatians 3:16, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” The true singular offspring of Abraham is Christ. Certainly, Abraham’s physical offspring seen in its fullness in the nation of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant are a typological and temporary fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. They are children of Abraham according to the flesh, but the true children of Abraham are those of faith, who are united to the true offspring of Abraham, Christ (Rom 2:25-29; 9:1-13; Gal 3:7-9, 29; 4:21-31). The true children of God have always been those of faith and not those of birth, since the first mention of the gospel.
This brings us to our final tool: continuity and discontinuity. This tool helps us to rightly apply the Old Testament, and ensures that we do not draw conclusions or principles from the Old Testament that were typologically bound to their respective Old Testament covenants. If Christ is the true and singular seed of Abraham and the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, then this shapes the way we interpret and apply in the New Covenant the “offspring principle” of giving the covenant sign of circumcision to Abraham’s physical seed.
The promise to fulfillment movement in Scripture helps us to see that the sign and application of circumcision of the Abrahamic covenant is unique to Abraham and the physical descendants of Abraham in the Mosaic Covenant. The physical seed of Abraham and the national identity of God’s typological people Israel in the Old Covenant was temporary in setting up the stage for Christ’s work of redemption. All of Abraham’s descendants indiscriminately without consideration of their faith received the sign. In the New Covenant, only those who profess faith should receive the covenant sign of baptism. To apply baptism to those who have not professed faith is ignore the clear commands of the New Testament and the promise/fulfillment structure of Scripture. Therefore, we should not import the “offspring principle” into our New Covenant practice when administering the sign of baptism.
In short, these redemptive tools help us to read the Old Testament in light of Christ and to apply the Old Testament in a manner that is consistent with Scripture’s nature and structure. Ryle writes,
Christ is the central sun of the whole book. So long as we keep him in view, we shall never greatly ere. . . . Once losing sight of Christ, we shall find the Bible dark and full of difficulty. The key to Bible knowledge is Jesus Christ.4J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, Vol. 2 (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1879), 500-501
Let us handle Scripture carefully and seek to see Jesus Christ in the whole of Scripture.
|1||[John Murray, Collected Writings, vol 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 5.|
|2||Sam Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant and His Kingdom (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2019), 35.|
|3||T. Desmond Alexander, “Further Observations on the Term ‘Seed’ in Genesis” (Tyndale Bulletin 48.2, 1997), 363-365.|
|4||J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, Vol. 2 (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1879), 500-501|