Reading the Old Testament on This Side of the Cross, Part 1

The Apostle Peter once said, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16). I really hope I have an opportunity in the age to come to ask Peter what exactly he had in mind when he said that!

Have you ever had that feeling reading through Paul’s letters? For my own part, I would include these words in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians among those hard things to understand:

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:1-4)

The Rock was Christ? What does Paul mean by this? He does explain himself in part a little later when he says that “these things took place as examples for us.” That is to say, the stories we read in the Old Testament happened for our benefit; we have much to learn from their examples, or patterns.

Now, that may make sense to you, but you’re probably still wondering how Paul can jump from the Old Testament stories being examples to the Rock that followed Israel being Christ. And that would be a good thing to wonder about. It can be a challenge reading the Old Testament on this side of the cross, especially as we try to see how it all points forward to Jesus (Luke 24:44).

I think the key for us is found in the way that the writer to the Hebrews describes the “examples” of the Old Testament for us in Hebrews 8-10. He says that Moses built the tabernacle in the wilderness after the “example” or “pattern” that God showed him on Mt. Sinai. He also says that this same tabernacle is a “copy” and a “shadow” of the heavenly reality that we see in the life and work of Jesus Christ. To get a feel for what Hebrews means, picture in your mind all of history laid out in a long line from creation to the crucifixion. Along this timeline of history, the cross looms large and casts a shadow backward in time. But, rather than looking like a cross, the shadow that is cast backwards looks like the Old Testament Tabernacle.

When you stand in the shadow of the cross, you stand in the Tabernacle. Said another way, you stand in the midst of the Old Testament stories. However, when you stand on our side of the cross, you see both the cross and the shadow that it casts back into the Old Testament. This picture in your mind should help you to see that, when we read the Old Testament on this side of the cross, what we are reading are “examples” or “patterns” that find their true meaning in the life and work of Jesus Christ.

What this all means for us can be grouped into three summary points. First, as a shadow, the Old Testament does not make everything clear. Just as your own shadow when it is cast on the ground doesn’t capture anything more than an outline of your figure, so also the shadow of God’s plan of redemption doesn’t provide intricate details in the Old Testament. What we read in the Old Testament is only a partial glimpse of God’s plan of redemption; it is only an anticipation of what we see more clearly in Jesus. Second, we nevertheless behold the unchanging pattern of God’s redemptive plan in the Old Testament. While the tabernacle is only a shadow, it still describes in its own way many details about God and his plan of salvation. The same teaching that is pictured in the tabernacle is found in the person and work of Jesus. Third, when we read the Old Testament on this side of the cross, we should expect to see God’s plan revealed more clearly. Using a different metaphor, when you compare an early sketch with a complete painting, you see far more detail in the complete painting. These details were suggested in the sketch, but they are vivid in the final product. In a similar way, the New Testament gives the detail and the color to the shadow of the Old Testament.

Next week, we can dive back into Paul’s words, but a final word about these “patterns” that gives us boundaries as we read the Old Testament. They are always identifiable as a consistent pattern that spans both the Old Testament and the New Testament; they are always rooted in historical people, places, actions, and institutions; the fulfillment of the pattern is always greater than the pattern itself. These are important boundaries to remember, and we’ll use all of this to aid our understanding, not only of Paul’s words but also of how to read the Old Testament on this side of the cross.