The Impact of New Testament Mystery Revelation on Old Testament Hermeneutics
When Paul quoted Genesis 2:24 in Ephesians 5:31, and expounded upon it thus: â€œThis mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the Churchâ€; he was engaging in a hermeneutical process that had definite roots in Old Testament revelatory processes, as exemplified most notably in Daniel chapter two; and also, in the exegetical methods of the Qumran community. In the Danielic passage, King Nebuchadnezzar receives divine revelation in the form of a dream, which lacks the information necessary to arrive at a thorough understanding of all the implications which inhered in the revelation from the beginning. At this stage it is called a â€œmysteryâ€ (Aramaic, razah, translated musterion in the ancient Greek versions), until Daniel receives from God the vital information that was lacking, by means of which he is enabled to give to the King the full significance of the revelation. Similarly, the Qumran expositors regarded the texts of scripture as so many â€œmysteriesâ€ which lack one vital element, namely, the person or time ultimately referred to, without which the full meaning inherent in the text could not be apprehended. Of course, this missing element could only be received by divine revelation (see F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [NICNT], pp. 394-395, together with his footnotes).
This basic paradigm, in which the deep truths of Old Testament revelation remain obscure until the time when an additional revelation should serve as a key to unlock the full meaning, is frequently assumed and exemplified by the New Testament authors. Not only in our example in Ephesians 5:31-32, but also in Romans 11:25; I Corinthians 15:51; Ephesians 3:1-12; Colossians 1:24-27, and several other notable passages, we find the same basic method of interpretation clearly followed. By a close comparison of these texts, we may ascertain, first, that the mysteries revealed by Paul were previously contained in the text of scripture, but had not yet been brought to light (notice that many of his mystery revelations are either explicitly based on Old Testament revelation, as with our case in Ephesians 5; or derived elsewhere by Paul from a grammatical study of the scriptures, as is the case with Ephesians 3:1-12, the major heads of which doctrine is exegetically defended in passages such as Romans 9:23-10:21 and Galatians 3). The clearest summation of this reality is found in Romans 16:25-26, which indicates that the truths having been hidden until the days of Christ were at that time revealed through the ancient scriptures. Second, we notice that the previously hidden truth by means of which the fuller meaning of the Old Testament scriptures was unlocked, was received by revelation from the Holy Spirit (e.g. Ephesians 3:3); and third, we discover that the content of this mystery-unlocking revelation comprises the great historic-redemptive realities of the gospel (I Timothy 3:16), and is so bound up with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, that Paul refers to the mystery which has now been made known, by way of apposition, as Christ himself (Colossians 2:2). Christ is the key to understanding the full depths of meaning inherent in the Old Testament scriptures; and it is particularly the events and circumstances surrounding the historic Jesus, that is, Christ as he was revealed to mankind in the confines of a specific space-time venue, that constitutes the missing information for which the prophets themselves were awaiting (see I Peter 1:10-12). All this leads us to the inescapable conclusion that the final revelation of God in the sending of his Son (see Hebrews 1:1-3) must color our exegesis, as New Testament era believers, of the Old Testament scriptures, which contained many truths previously indiscernible. The Christ-revelation is the key by which we are able to ascertain the full implications of previous prophet-revelations.
At this point, it may be suggested that this method of interpretation, while appropriate for the New Testament authors who did in fact receive divine revelation, is no longer possible for the believer today â€“ which certainly has an element of truth, in that the apostles received the key by which the Old Testament mysteries may be unlocked, and there is no other â€œkeyâ€ of divine revelation which may come to the modern believer. However, the apostles did not exhaustively exegete the Old Testament scriptures in light of this new revelation, but simply began the task which the Church has been in the process of carrying out from that time until this; and in order to be confident that we are proceeding in a legitimate fashion, we must approach the text in the same manner that they did. In other words, the apostles received the key and unlocked the first doors; but they left that same key, the gospel-knowledge of Christ, with us; and there remain many Old Testament doors which can only be unlocked with that one key. In defense of this assertion, let me suggest a few reasons that we as modern believers ought to be pursuing the same mystery-unlocking hermeneutic that the apostles displayed in their writing of the New Testament.
First, the mystery knowledge that the apostles received was not received for their own sake, but explicitly for all of â€œthe saintsâ€ (Colossians 1:26; cf. also Matthew 13:11 where the logical antecedent of â€œyouâ€ may be broader than just the disciples and include all the elect of this era). Along these lines, it must be noted that when Jesus unlocked to his disciples the mysteries of the scriptures, by explaining to them the things related to himself, and particularly to the events of his passions and resurrection, from their pages, it was with explicit instructions to take that message to all the nations (Luke 24:44-49). Second, when the author of Hebrews is unfolding the Christological significance of the tabernacle furniture, by means of the final revelation in Christ, he indicates that there remain truths which might be uncovered in the same way, but which he would not take the time so to uncover (Hebrews 9:1-5). That he suggested that these things remained to be discovered strongly implies that they indeed ought to be discovered; this was not an irrelevant observation, but a hint for profitable endeavors when the foundational truths had again been laid (see Hebrews 5:11-6:3). And that he confessed his own lack of intention to do so for them implies that he considered them capable of doing so on their own, provided they understood the foundational things of Christ. Third, although the scriptures may not be naturally understood, in light of this mystery paradigm, and divine revelation is necessary for full undertstanding; yet, the clear teaching of the New Testament is that every believer has the Spirit of God, who enables him to discern spiritual truths hidden to the eyes of natural men (I Corinthians 2:6-16; I John 2:20-21). This teaching indicates, first, that there is a level of knowledge hidden within the scriptures that is not discernible within the paradigm of naturalistic hermeneutics; second, that this knowledge may only be revealed by divine grace; and third, that this knowledge may only be revealed through the gospel-truths of Christ, since the teaching ministry of the Spirit is specifically centered on bringing to the minds of believers the truths about Jesus, which he himself spoke when he was on earth (John 14:25-26; 15:26; 16:12-15).
It is a common objection to the ongoing implementation of this Christ-centered Old Testament hermeneutic that it leaves the expositor with no definite canons to tether him to the plain teaching of the text. If one is at liberty to â€œseek Christâ€ in Old Testament types and shadows, he must be bound, finally, by the limits of his own imagination alone. As a case in point, recall the fanciful interpretations of the Medieval exegetes before the Reformation.
However, the fact that a hermeneutic may be (and has been) abused does not automatically negate its validity. For the validity of any hermeneutic per se, we have no other recourse than to determine from the pages of the scriptures themselves how they ought to be understood and interpreted â€“ which is precisely what we have just been doing. But granted that the possibility of abuse is a genuine danger, letâ€™s close by recognizing a few key safeguards against misusing the key of the gospel-truths of Christ to open the pages of the Old Testament scriptures: first, the old Reformed principle of the analogy of faith must be stressed; the scriptures are inspired and inerrant throughout, and at no point contradict themselves. Neither are they blatantly in discrepancy from one era to the other with regard to their primary emphases; there is certainly a movement from one degree of clarity to another, and certain emphases are, to an extent, different in various places. But ultimately, the centrality of the person and work of Christ, as integral as it is to the New Testament accounts, cannot be absent from the Old Testament either. Christâ€™s centrality always shows up in ways appropriate to the degree of revelation, but from the beginning it is always there, undergirding and giving meaning to every text. Second, we have the writings of the New Testament apostles and the recorded teachings of Christ himself, which provide us with definite exemplary warrant to understand the Old Testament in a particular way. A brief survey of the exegesis of Old Testament quotations in New Testament passages reveals that every genre and every basic time period within the Hebrew scriptures has been given a Christological explanation at some point; and it is no great step to interpret scriptures in accordance with the manner in which their like passages have been interpreted. Third, we have the exemplary warrant of the Old Testament. A brief perusal indicates an astonishing variety of ways in which revelation is given through various obscure means, and later interpreted explicitly; to cite one example of many possible thousands, the actions of persons may be prophetic of future realities in the nations to which they give rise, even as Jacob and Esau struggled within the womb of their mother, in indication of the coming rivalry between Israel and Edom (Genesis 25:21-23). Now consider: if the obscure means of revealing truth in the Old Testament (types, dreams, symbols, visions, etc.) are clearly made manifest at many points; and if the central event to which these scriptures testify, the coming person and work of Christ, is likewise made known at many points, from Genesis 3:15 and onwards; then do we not have warrant from the Old Testament itself to be seeking for shadow-revelations of this greatest of all events in a manner consistent with the shadow-revelations of lesser events? The Old Testament itself demands a Christ-centered reading, but is unable to provide any of the precise details of that reading until the missing piece of revelation, which the prophets themselves were wondering about (I Peter 1:10-12), finally came, in the last revelation of God through His Son, to bring all to light. It is because of this that the Pharisees were rebuked for not using the scriptures to look to Christ, and to confirm him in his Messianic role when they found him (John 5:39). And finally, the rigors of a thoroughgoing, grammatical and historical hermeneutic are the rock-solid foundation to which the Christ-centered truths of the Old Testament must be anchored. The truths of the Old Testament are not suprahistorical fable and parables, but real history, founded upon real manifestations of the divine will and power, looking ahead to the real coming of a seed really from a woman, and specifically, a woman in the line of Abraham and David. The Old Testament is real, redemptive-historical truth, which reveals in a deeper and inexplicable way the truths towards which it is hastening, through mysteries and shadows; but when the events to which it looked were finally accomplished, the depths of its shadow-revelation was brought to light in the circumstances surrounding the incarnation and redemptive accomplishment of the Son of God, the promised Christ. Since his epoch-defining advent, Christian hermeneutics has largely to do with the illumination of the grammatical-historical sense of the Old Testament scriptures through a comparison of the concrete realities of which they spoke to the future redemptive realities they foreshadowed. This is the method of the New Testament authors, and must remain the method of the Church today, as she seeks to see Christ from the pages of the scriptures, as illuminated by the Spirit who testifies of him.