Monday, October 20, 2014

The Formation of the Old Testament Canon

The other day I was perusing books in a local library and came across one titled The Food Processor Bible. I stopped and thought to myself, “What might the author mean by associating “Bible” with a cookbook? We all know what the author meant; The author was telling the reader that this is a definitive text on using the food processor in cooking. Instead of letting the book become a classic on the topic, the author has decided to make it a classic by adding the word “Bible,” referencing it as an elevated text, an authoritative text for cooking with a food processor. But the Bible is more than an elevated text to be coopted by publishers to make a few more sales, it is canon. What do we mean by canon? I’ll give you a hint, we aren’t talking about those forged war machines that launch injurious balls through the air.

The Greek word ‘canon’ has a simple meaning: it means “a rule or measuring rod.”[1] But we would be mistaken to view it as a rule in the sense that parents might tell their children to “stop hitting each other,” or “say please.” It meant instead in it’s original context a particular rule for measurement, a standard if you will like a 12-inch ruler. For example when we use a ruler we can be assured that eight-inches on one ruler is the same as eight-inches on another. This idea of a standard of measurement is something similar to what we mean of the Bible when we refer to it as canon.

Throughout church history the Christian Scriptures have been received in this sense, as canon, a measurement of truth. But what do we mean by this? We mean two things by acknowledging the Bible’s canonicity:

First the Scripture is canon in the sense that it is the standard of the Church’s faith and doctrine. Or as Thomas Aquinas put it and the Westminster Confession later reiterated, Scripture is the standard “rule of faith and life.”[2] Fundamental to the Christian understanding of canon is the inherent authority contained within Scripture as the word of God—the standard for the life of the Christian.

Second the Scripture is canon as regards the precise written works that are to be considered as canon, as authoritative for the life of the Christian. Or in essence, those books which were truly inspired by God as authoritative, the 66 books of both the OT and NT. Canon is the list of books received as Holy Scripture, i.e. that which God has revealed for His glory and our good. And it is this point in particular that gave rise to the need for a Christian canon.

The Need For a Canon

In the early church, a need arose over which books or texts were to be considered as Scripture for the followers of Jesus Christ. An example from the 2nd Century AD reveals the need for a clearly defined canon. A man by the name of Marcion believed that “God the Father of Jesus [was] not the same as Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament.”[3] This led Marcion to claim that the Hebrew Scriptures were not to be considered as Christian Scriptures since they depicted a separate God from that of Jesus’ Father. Marcion’s challenge “required a response, and thus the church at large began to compile a list of sacred Christian writings.”[4] Thus the need for a Christian canon grew out in many respects from claims trying to pin down what Christians should consider as Scripture.

The need for a canon was a Christian problem because they needed to define which texts were authoritative. Thus in the 4th C. AD we see the first real use of the word “canon” with regards Christian Scripture by the great Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius.[5] But before we journey to the process of how the Hebrew Bible came to be the Christian Old Testament, we must first build the foundation for why a written text was needed at all.

A Preserved Canon

Another way for us to think about canon is to think about how God revealed who He is and therefore who we are, particularly the process by which this revelation was recorded. If God spoke to humanity clearly, then the words He spoke and inspired were worthy of being preserved for all generations to hear and know the revelation of God Himself. There is no greater Author whose words are to be preserved than that of the Almighty God.

The Israelites knew this truth and recognized that “if revelation was to be preserved, it needed to be written down.”[6] In an age where the retention of the spoken word far exceeded our current ability to do so, they still valued God’s words enough to write them down. This process of writing down God’s revelation is part of the process of “canonization.”

We see in many places in the OT the Israelites desire to record the divine word of God, not as a human word, but as Holy Scripture, the rule of faith and practice for all of God’s people. In Exodus God commands Moses to write down His words: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua” (Exodus 17:14). Then at the end of the Pentateuch we have Moses’ obedience to God’s command recorded for us,

“When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, ‘Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there as a witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are…assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears and call heaven and earth to witness against them.” (Deuteronomy 31:24-28)

We see clearly here that Moses had written the words of the law, the first of three divisions in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. Not only did he record it, but we see an active role that it is to play in the life of God’s people, it is to ‘witness’ to them, inform them if you will for how God has designed them to live. It has functional authority because it is God’s word.

Further on in the history of Israel, we see King Josiah use the preserved word of God as functionally authoritative, as Holy Scripture for the lives of God’s people:

“And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord.” (2 Kings 23:2)

Still later the Prophet Isaiah picks up this same emphasis in God’s desire for His word, “And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that I may be for the time to come as a witness forever” (Isaiah 30:8). Or similarly the prophet Jeremiah writes, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jeremiah 30:2).

But we must ask “What primarily is the purpose of recording the written word of God?” Psalm 102 clearly spells it out for us: “Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18). So God’s revelation was clearly written down to be preserved that His people, a people like you and me who constitute one of the “generation[s] to come,” would know the prescribed purpose and subsequent conduct for their lives. It was written for our benefit. Therefore John Frame clearly states, “At every stage of Israel’s history, there was a canon, a definite body of divine writings, that spoke to the nation and its individuals with supreme authority.”[7] And if, against Marcion’s claims as we noted earlier, the Hebrew Bible was the same God of the Christians, then it deserved to be in the Christian canon.

The Canonization of the Old Testament

Those who penned the words of God saw the incredible importance of recording and preserving the authoritative divine word of God. The words were Holy because the Author of them was Holy. However what may have been considered as canon for some throughout history might not have been for others (Marcion et. al.). There is a process by which books of the Bible come to be understood as canon, as an authoritative rule for their lives. This process is called canonization, the process by which certain books were chosen as God’s word and others not.

The canonization of the OT is complex. It does not nearly have the same historical record to its reception as canon as the NT did perhaps because there was much less debate and division over which texts should be classified as Scripture. But for Christians today it is important to know something of how the 39 books of the OT came to be considered as canon.


One of the primary means of distinguishing the canon of the OT would be to have a clear divine word from God on whether or not the text is itself Scripture. We have this luxury. Jesus, the God-man, clearly attests to us that the OT is Scripture. There can be no higher authority than His endorsement of the Hebrew Scriptures. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks to the content of the Hebrew Scriptures,

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45)

Clearly then we see that Jesus relegated the Law of Moses (the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Torah), the Prophets, and the Psalms as Scripture. By referencing the Psalms, Jesus most likely was not excluding other books contained within the Writings section of the Hebrew Bible. Instead He was referring to the first book of the last part of the Hebrew Bible which “could be referred to simply as ‘the Psalms.’”[8] Jesus also speaks of the breadth of the OT when He states that it existed “from the time of Abel (from Genesis, the first book of the OT) to the time of Zechariah (a contemporary of Malachi, the final book of the OT).”[9] So it is clear that Jesus had a particular work in mind when He spoke of it as Scripture. There was no dispute in His mind to the content of the OT canon.

We also have testimony of Jesus’ apostles referencing the Hebrew Bible as Scripture. For example Peter in Acts 1:16 preaching to the brothers said, “Brothers, the Scriptures had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.” Or the Apostle Paul later in letter to the Roman Christians, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3).[10] Thus the Apostles referred to the same Hebrew Bible as Scripture.

Therefore if we knew what texts Jesus and the Apostles considered as OT canon we would have a decisive word. Jesus referred to the Hebrew Bible as Scripture, so we can clearly know which books He regarded as Scripture by knowing which were accepted at that time by the Jews and “this is a point about which there is no reasonable doubt. The Jewish canon of the Old Testament included all the books and no others, which Protestants now recognize as constituting the Old Testament Scriptures.”[11] Both “Christ and his Apostles referred to the sacred writings of the Jews—the volume which they regarded as divine—as being what it claimed to be, the Word of God.”[12]


So then, by Christ’s own witness and that of His Apostles, we have a clear declaration of what constitutes the canon of the OT by knowing what the Jews considered to be their Scriptures (the term OT wasn’t introduced until Origen in the 3rd c. AD). The Jews would have considered their Scripture as being divided in three parts,[13] as Jesus already has alluded to.

The Law: First the Hebrew Bible would have contained the Law—Torah, also known as the Pentateuch, comprising the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).

The Prophets: The second portion of the Hebrew Bible would have been the Prophets—Nevi’im, divided with former (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and latter prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the book of the twelve prophets, also known as the minor prophets).

The Writings: The third portion would have been considered the Writings—Kethuvim (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah as one book, and Chronicles).[14]

Given these three portions of the Hebrew Bible, we count 24 books. But when we separate Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles into two each, as well as separate Ezra and Nehemiah, and count each of the minor prophets as one, we get our 39 books of the Old Testament that Protestants claim as canon today.

It is worth noting at this point, that even some of Jesus’ greatest opponents still held the same Scriptures as He did. Opponents like the Pharisees for example held the same Hebrew Scriptures as canonical in the same way Jesus held them, “they never disagreed about what texts could be authoritatively cited. Evidently, then, we should identify the OT canon as consisting of those books acknowledged by the Jews in the time and place of Jesus’ earthly ministry.”[15] It is of great importance then to note that the Hebrew Bible of Judaism “is virtually identical to the Christian Old Testament [today] with a few organizational exceptions…books are in a different order…and sometimes they combine two books into one.”[16] This is of great weight to knowing what we consider to be the authoritative OT Scripture, the OT canon.


Another means of distinguishing the canon of the OT is to see what ancient writers and councils would have said regarding the OT. For the Christian these historical attestations would be supporting material, since Christ has already given the decisive understanding of what we should consider Scripture.

Josephus, the famous Jewish historian (AD 37-AD 100), attests to 22 books being in the Old Testament, which most likely refers to the same 24 books of the Hebrew Bible with “Ruth being counted as an appendix to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah.”[17] It is important to have the word of a historian, one without a theological agenda, to verify the texts of the OT seeing as they recorded facts to be preserved. Another man, Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-AD 50), was a prominent Jew at the time. He wrote much and from his writings we can be encouraged that the books he considered to be canonical are the books included in the Hebrew Bible.

However not all ancient witness includes the same books we would consider as the OT. Melito, Bishop of Sardis (2nd C. AD), wrote a list of OT books to a friend and included all those in the traditional Hebrew Bible except for Esther, one of two books not to mention God (the other being Song of Solomon). The great Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria (4th C. AD), also omitted Esther from the OT canon. We also have others who have added other books to the OT such as Origen who at one time added a book, the Letter of Jeremiah.

To bring the story of Esther’s inclusion to an end, we travel to AD 363, where a council was held in Laodicea. It is here that the council recognized Esther as being part of the OT canon. A Greek Father named Amphilochius, also includes Esther in the canon sometime in the 4th C. AD.


There are many other texts that have sometimes throughout church history been associated with the OT canon. We call these books the Apocrypha.

The Apocrypha, which originally meant “hidden” as regards to their authority, are those texts which were written between the two testaments, they are intertestamental. They are sort of a “second category of Old Testament books.”[18] However a distinction was drawn between them and the Hebrew Bible. It was the Latin father Jerome that coined this term speaking primarily of those texts which “may not be used for the establishment of doctrine, but…retain great ethical value which makes them suitable for reading the course of Christian worship.”[19] Jerome enshrined these texts in his Latin translation of the OT from the Septuagint (the Greek OT).

Many have wrestled throughout Christian history regarding what kind of authority to render to these books. We see that during the reformation period Martin Luther kept the Apocrypha in his German Bible as an appendix. Ulrich Zwingli’s Zurich Bible did not contain the Apocrypha and instead published them in a separate book altogether. For these reformers the move was partially in response to the Catholic Church’s insertion of these texts as canon. The Catholic church found within the Apocryphal books certain support for it’s otherwise unbiblical doctrines, things such as purgatory, indulgences, and works salvation. In 1546 the Council of Trent (a Catholic council), canonized the Apocrypha defining the OT as “those Old Testament works contained in the Greek and Latin Bibles.”[20] And we have already seen that both the Septuagint and Vulgate included the Apocrypha, unlike the Hebrew Bible.

The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks to the Apocrypha, whose “books are not divinely inspired and are not part of the canon of Scripture. They therefore have no authority in the church of God and are not to be valued or used as anything other than human writings.”[21] This is a clear protestant position on the Apocrypha, building on orthodox understanding of the Apocrypha through the centuries.

The history of the canonization of the OT is not quite as clear-cut as we make it here. But for sake of understanding some of the overall process of how the OT came to be canon it is helpful to give a brief summary of some of the particulars.

The Old Testament Today: Closed

For Protestants today the OT canon is complete. We have a clear list as to which texts are included as authoritative, as a rule for faith and practice for the Christian. Ultimately the formation of the canon did not come down to certain individuals and their well argued and written reasons, nor to councils and their discussion, but to the will of God as He orchestrated it’s reception. The texts were not chosen, but received primarily because they were already recognized as authoritative in the worshipping community.

As a recognized canon of God’s word to His people, we recognize the 39 books as a closed canon, the same closed canon the Jews recognize as their Scriptures today. Nothing is added to or taken from it. Already we see this principle in the conclusion to the Law, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2). The same principle bears divine authority on the canon of the OT. Josephus’s account as a historian attests the same principle of a closed canon, “Although such long ages have now gone by, no one has dared to add anything to [the Hebrew Bible], to take away anything from them, or to change anything in them.”[22]

Therefore, when we pick up our Bible today, we can be assured of the orthodoxy of the books contained within the OT. They are those books which Jesus Himself claimed to be a divine word from God, claimed to be Scripture, canon for the life of the Christian. They deserve an authoritative place in our lives, the place of canon.

*     *     *

JT Holderman is Associate Pastor of Bellevue Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Gap, PA.

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1988), 17.
[2] Westminster Confession of Faith 1.2 and F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 18 fn. 5.
[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1—The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 61.
[4] Ibid., 62.
[5] New Bible Dictionary, ed. I. Howard Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, D.J. Wiseman (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 165.
[6] Understanding Scripture, ed. Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway 2012), 77.
[7] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 135.
[8] Bernhard Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 7.
[9] Mark Driscoll, A Book You’ll Actually Read On The Old Testament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 30.
[10] All references to “Scripture” in the NT refer to the Jewish Scriptures, except for the mention in 2 Peter 3:16 which refers to “the other Scriptures,” most definitely in reference to NT documents that had been received and recognized as Scripture. For further detail see Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 309.
[11] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 153.
[12] Ibid., 152.
[13] The Hebrew Bible most likely was organized into these three sections by 165 BC when Judas Maccabaeus “collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war which had come upon us, and they are still in our possession” (2 Maccabees 2:14).
[14] For detail see F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 29.
[15] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 135.
[16] Mark Driscoll, A Book You’ll Actually Read On The Old Testament, 29.
[17] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 33.
[18] Ibid., 93.
[19] Ibid., 93.
[20] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 160.
[21] See the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.3.
[22] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 23.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A New "Left Behind" Movie? Why I'm Skipping This One...

I have no plans to see the new Left Behind movie, and it is not because one of my least favorite actors is the star (Nicholas Cage). No, I'm afraid I'm skipping out on this one for theological reasons.

First of all let me say, Yes! I believe Jesus is returning. Yes! I believe it is a literal, personal return. Yes! I believe that He is coming back to judge the living and the dead.

But not in the way that Left Behind popularly portrays the rapture. I think they've got it seriously wrong, at least judging by the first movie (did we really need a new one?) and the fictional book series by the same name.

Instead, I want to recommend a book on eschatology (study of the end times) that I think interprets the Bible's real view of the endtimes much better. (See review below).

It is taken for granted that pretribulational premillennialism (or dispensationalism) is gospel truth in most quarters of the evangelical world today. This, however, has not always been the case.

Pretribulational premillennialism, popularized by such fictional works as the Left Behind series and fantastical works as The Late Great Planet Earth--not to mention the Scofield Reference Bible--has quickly infiltrated the center of evangelicalism. This despite the fact that it is less than 200 years old!

Many evangelicals are not even aware that there are any "alternative" positions on the end times. That these alternatives held the majority consensus among the Puritans and Reformers is lost on most. If many today are aware of these other eschatological options at all, they have likely been taught that they are the positions held by liberals who do not "take the Bible literally."

In Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative, Sam Storms destroys these preconceptions by powerfully asserting the Biblical force of the historic position that the millennial kingdom--mentioned explicitly only in Revelation 20:1-10--is symbolic of Christ's present reign in this age.

Storms begins the near 600-page work by advancing the hermeneutical principles on which he will build his case. In these early sections of this book, Storms makes clear that bald literalism is not always the best interpretive grid, especially for apocalyptic literature. Genre, literary conventions, and OT usage of language are also crucial factors when we interpret Scripture.

Using a redemptive-historical and grammatical-historical approach, Storms then wades through the most important Bible texts related to eschatology: Daniel's 70 weeks, Jesus' Olivet Discourse, 2 Thessalonians and the Antichrist, and of course, a volume of passages in Revelation.

While Storms works through these passages as a master exegete, he calmly (and without a divisive spirit I am glad to report!) shows how many of these texts have been misread through the dispensational lens, often without the critical reflection that the texts themselves demand. Storms reveals an absolute mastery of Biblical Greek, and employs this trade in the most intricate details of these Biblical passages.

Though most will doubtlessly disagree with at least a few of Storms conclusions (I doubt all readers will be convinced of his partial preterist interpretation of Matthew 24, for instance), it will be impossible to suggest any longer that amillennialism is built upon either a lesser view of the authority of Scripture in particular, or a liberal theological framework in general. No, it will no longer do to simply dismiss amillennialism (or postmillennialism for that matter) as though they do not take the Bible seriously enough.

On the contrary, the reader--who must do significant work alongside Storms with Bible and pencil in hand throughout--will see a cumulative case building for amillennialism. This is spelled out clearly and finally in the last chapter of the book where Storms gives 30 reasons that he believes pretribulational premillennialism is not Biblically defensible. Storms' amillennial construct (actually the simplest and cleanest of the four major end-times positions) holds up remarkably well when tested by the WHOLE of the New Testament rather than conditioned by one admittedly difficult and highly symbolic text (i.e. Revelation 20).

For me, the most compelling Biblical data summoned by Storms can be summed up in the following points:
  • The NT never splits up the Return of Christ (that it, His Second Coming) from the Rapture as though they were two separate events. (Dispensationalism demands this). 
  • Neither the OT nor the NT ever split up the resurrection of the dead into two events (or possibly many more!) separated by a thousand years as dispensationalism requires. 
  • The NT teaching on Jesus' parousia (Greek: return, presence, coming i.e. the Second Coming) demands the end of all sin, death, and rebellion, along with the immediacy of the judgment; all of which dispensationalism denies. 
  • The NT  does not make an irreconcilable distinction between the Church and Israel (which dispensationalism requires) but rather shows repeatedly that the elect people of God are made into one Body of Christ with the inclusion of the Gentiles.
  • The NT does not admit of a secret pretribulational rapture, allowing Christians to escape the great tribulation mentioned in Matthew 24 (as dispensationalism holds), but rather describes the trials and tribulations of the present church age as the necessary path of all Christians, through which Christ will preserve His people. 
If one's doctrinal convictions will not allow him to fully adopt Storms' view on all of these important matters, at least the reader will grant that Kingdom Come is a paradigm shifting volume. Although most of our dispensational brothers and sisters in Christ will resist the force of Storms' arguments, they must at least return to the drawing board to patch up the holes Sam Storms has lovingly poked in their charts. 

-Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Reformation Reading List

In light of our coming Reformation Sunday celebration at Faith Church, here is a brief suggested list of resources for the hungry soul.

(Reformation Sunday is the closest Lord's Day to October 31st, the date on which Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. Traditionally, many churches use this day to preach on the doctrines and history of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century).

Of course, these recommendations are my own opinion, only. Feel free to add your suggestions to the list in the comments below!

The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day (Justo L. Gonzalez).  A very standard history textbook used in most Christian and Bible colleges still today. Readable and helpful at about a college freshman level.

For Kirk and Covenant: The Stalwart Courage of John Knox (Douglas Wilson).  A pretty easy read about the life of John Knox, focusing on his character traits and faith. A brief, and light book for a first time dip into Knox's difficult age.

Reformation Sketches: Insights Into Luther Calvin and the Confessions (W. Robert Godfrey). Various insights - essays really - about the Reformers and their writings.


The Expository Genius of John Calvin (Steven J. Lawson).  A very easy read about Calvin's preaching and sermons, for those interested in the pulpit ministry of the Genevan Reformer.

John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God (John Piper).  A great (tiny!) introduction to who Calvin was and why he matters. This short book is only about 60 pages tops. You'll love it as I did.

Martin Luther (Martin Marty).  This one was written by a noted liberal theologian, but it is still a very good introduction to the life of Martin Luther. Marty's liberal views don't wreck this book.

The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God's Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (John Piper).  I loved this work by John Piper. Three longer essays on three important men.

Portrait of Calvin (T.H.L. Parker). This is one of the better (and brief!) biographies of John Calvin. I really appreciated Parker's attention to the main events of Calvin's life without being distracted by details.


The Institutes of the Christian Religion (John Calvin, unabridged).  Obviously, this one is the longer one. It took me a year to read it through. Very much worth my time and energy though.

The Institutes of Christian Religion (John Calvin, abridged by Lane and Osborne).  Abridged = shorter! This small version removes most of Calvin's polemical (argumentative) chapters against the Catholics and Anabaptists and focuses on the positive doctrine he preached and believed.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Redemptive History: OT Fulfillment in the NT

The Bible is literary in nature. It uses words to tell a story. One story. The story of a broken people and the redemptive unrelenting grace of their God. Some have drawn a line between the Old and New Testaments, highlighting their disjunction and distinct differences instead of their unity, maybe even accepting one and rejecting the other, functionally at least. However both testaments when struck ring like a tuning fork in harmony together. The OT leads to the conclusion of the NT and the NT is out of context where it does not stand upon the OT. They are an inseparable whole, a unified narrative, the story of redemptive history.

In the previous two chapters we attempted a summary of both the Old and New Testaments giving us a framework to understand each. In this chapter we will synthesize the story of the OT and NT into one unified narrative, highlighting in particular the various ways the OT has been fulfilled in the NT as we unpack the term “Redemptive History.”

Redemptive History

Redemptive History is a term that is used to refer to the entirety of God’s plan of redemption for His people from their sin.[1] It encompasses the history of God’s promise of an everlasting covenant with His people through His Son, Jesus Christ. Redemption history includes everything God orders by His sovereign hand before the coming of Christ in time and space and everything He orders for the salvation of His people after Christ’s coming. Redemptive history is His-story, God’s story of how He redeems His people from sin. It reads all of Scripture through the lens of what God is going to do (when reading the OT) and what God has done (when reading the NT) thereby emphasizing God’s gracious initiative for sinners by underlining every line of the story in the red merciful blood of Christ.


The story of redemptive history surrounds the question, “How does the Old Testament link to the New Testament?” Redemptive history seeks to synthesize the two testaments, to find the link between Malachi and Matthew, a link between the varying genres of the Bible, a link between what may seem at first differing purposes from book to book. Redemptive history seeks to bring clarity to the Scripture as a whole thereby answering these questions emphatically. And it does so by tracing the crimson thread of God’s grace through Jesus Christ in the life of the sinner. Here is a synthesis of the OT and NT highlighting the story of redemptive history.

Both testaments fundamentally address the reality of the human condition. They plainly lay out the disruption of original sin and it’s transmission to all mankind. This disruption to the intended order of creation posed an eternal dilemma: mankind’s relationship to their Creator was disordered through sin and therefore disrupted their created purpose. Instead of living in worship under the Lordship of their God, mankind has sought to worship the created rather than the Creator. This fundamental problem of sin plagues the characters in both the OT and the NT.

In the midst of this problem, both testaments witness to the need for restoration, the need for redemption in their relationship with their Creator. In the OT we see a pregnant hope of a future reconciliation between Israel and their God. In the NT we live in the realization of this hope that has been disclosed. What is this link between this hope and it’s realization? Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Messiah.

“Jesus Christ is the link between the Old Testament and the New. God’s revelation reaches its climax in the New Testament—and this climax is not a new teaching or a new law, but a person, God’s own Son.”[2]

See the OT speaks of a coming Messiah, as we have seen in the previous chapters, who will one day reconcile the disordered people of God to their proper created purpose—the worship and glorification of their Maker. Or as the word of the Lord speaks to this coming hope through the prophet Ezekiel,

“I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them…My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. The nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.” (Ezekiel 37:26-28)

Upon this OT promise the NT builds. The NT recounts the life of the Messiah in the Gospels, the link between the two testaments, and the implications of the redemption He brings for God’s people. The NT lives not in anticipation of God’s grace over sin, as Ezekiel prophesied, but in the realization that God has atoned for our sin and reconciled us to Himself.

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2a)

“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:8-9)

The OT anticipates the coming grace of God and the NT unpacks the realization of this grace. This linking relationship between the two testaments is grace. Both exist in unity to tell the same story, the story of a merciful and loving God. Both testaments are linked by this grace, the Messiah, the savior, Jesus. When read through this lens Scripture presents a unified encounter between humanity and their gracious God.

This is the story of redemptive history. It is fundamentally God’s story of how He reconciled his broken people to Himself. Redemptive history is a term that emphasizes the important of context. Therefore every text in Scripture, because of it’s overall context, is linked by Christ to the good news of the Gospel for sinners.

God Designed Redemptive History For His Glory

In light of our understanding of redemptive history, the story of the Old and New Testaments are not mere happenstance. The events recorded were not merely accidental through the exercise of human will. The narrative of both testaments were a planned reality. Redemptive history is His story, designed for His ultimate end for all of creation: His Glory. Redemptive history, the thread of redemption in Christ between the Old and New Testaments (prefigured in the OT and realized in the NT), is the fulfillment of this design.

As the Author of the story, God timed the linking event of Jesus life and death according to the purpose of that which might display His glory most. Some people may ask why Jesus came in time and space when He did, they may say “Why didn’t Jesus come in the garden after Adam and Eve sinned?” We may not be able to give a definitive answer, but we do see two dispensations of history, one in which God’s people know how desperate they are for His saving grace, and one in which they know how gracious God has been towards them in Christ.

Knowing our need is essential for giving praise. If you were sitting at home with a glass of cold water from the tap, your thirst would not be dire. But if you were in a desert far from water, you would know your need. How much more glorious would be the stranger you come across with a glass of cold water in the desert than that person in your home. The same proves true with our praise of God. Only when we know how destitute we are in our sin do we know the weight of praise God deserves from us. And so God in His sovereign will brings about the culmination of our salvation according to His sovereign timing for His glory.

“In him we have redemption through his blood…making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:7a, 9-10)

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5)

Scripture is a story of a created purpose. The entire OT leads to this reality, that the people would “Know that I am Lord.”[3] Then in Christ the grounds for our boasting in God was accomplished, “The work of Christ on earth, and especially his crucifixion and resurrection, is the climax of history, it is the great turning point at which God actually accomplished the salvation toward which history had been moving throughout the OT.”[4] The end of redemptive history is God’s glory. Another way of putting it would be that God’s glory is the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan in Jesus Christ.  How is God glorified as the OT is fulfilled in the NT?

God is Glorified Through the OT Fulfillment in the NT

The story of redemptive history highlights the awe-inspiring connection between the OT and the NT, the grace of God in Jesus Christ. At the center of both testaments is the theme of God’s promises and their fulfillment. The OT surrounds the promises of God for His people. It isn’t until the NT that the fulfillment of these promises and institutions are finally realized. As one thirsts for water and rejoices in a cold glass, so too as we look at the OT promises fulfilled in the NT we will rejoice in God’s goodness towards us and raise our praise of thanks. Let’s turn to the progression of a few of the ways God plans in the OT are fulfilled in the NT.


A covenant is a binding promise between two individuals. God makes a covenant in the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve, a promise based on works. Adam and Eve were promised an eternal relationship in the presence of God if they would submit to refraining from eating “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). We call this promise the “Old Covenant” or the “Covenant of Works.”

The Westminster Confession puts it this way, “In [the old covenant] life was promised to Adam and through him to his descendants, on the condition of perfect, personal obedience.”[5] However the fall of Adam and Eve by disobeying God through eating of the tree shattered the covenant of works. It did so for every person as this single act of sin spread to every descendant of mankind. No person, because of the far reaches of sin in every area of life, could now fulfill this covenant through a life of perfect obedience. It is impossible to earn our salvation by works, “so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16b).

But in the midst of our rebellion, it pleased God to institute a “New Covenant,” a “Covenant of Grace.” Jeremiah records God’s promised covenant of grace:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people…For I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31, 33b, 34b).

Now in the NT, at the Last Supper, Jesus declares that He is the fulfillment of this new covenant, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25).[6] Through Jesus’ death on the cross God promises us redemption—not through a fulfillment of legal demands and works—but instead now through faith which is itself a gift from God. The new covenant is an emphatic fulfillment that God is a God of grace to His people. In Christ the promise of relationship that God gave to Adam is fulfilled to all whom by faith rest in the promise of God. When God’s people through faith experience this grace, God becomes increasingly more glorious to them.


The entrance and subsequent universal spread of sin to all mankind is the problem that God deals with throughout all of redemptive history. Atonement is the means by which God redeems His people from sin. In the OT atonement happened primarily through the sacrificial system. Once a year on the Day of Atonement God’s people through the high priest would offer a blood sacrifice, two male goats, for the forgiveness of their sins as a whole (see Lev. 16). In the giving of the law to Moses, God provided this means of atonement that His people might know the seriousness of their sin, the seriousness bloodshed symbolized, and the graciousness of God to forgive them.

Now in the NT, the OT atonement sacrifices have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In the OT only the high priest could offer sacrifice on behalf of the people as their mediator. In Christ we have an eternal high priest who advocates for our redemption, “We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places” (Heb. 8:1).

In the OT the sacrifice was a continual sacrifice, done year in and year out. But as John Stott so clearly puts, “The Old Testament blood sacrifices were only shadows; the substance was Christ. For a substitute to be effective, it must be an appropriate equivalent.”[7] Jesus was an appropriate equivalent; He was fully human and completely righteous. Therefore God offered Himself as a sacrifice through the bloodshed of His Son on the cross once and for all, not to be repeated year by year, “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).

The means of atonement has been perfected, it has been fulfilled through Jesus. We are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-24). Our redemption stands now upon a God who took Himself out of grace and mercy to the cross, to die the death we deserved, so that we might have the life with Him that we were created to share in. God is glorified by overwhelming the hearts and minds of His saints by displaying what lengths He will go through to redeem them.


In the OT there were three prominent leadership offices, prophet, priest, and king. The prophet’s task was to speak God’s word to His people. God did this through such prophets as Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, and Daniel. God promised that another prophet would come,

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the Lord your God…I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deuteronomy 18:15-16a, 18).

Jesus is the promised coming prophet. Whereas all OT prophets spoke a word from God, Jesus was the Word from God, the logos, because He was God. He came as His own prophet to declare the good news of the fulfillment of God’s promise to His people. The fulfillment of redemption in Himself. Jesus did not need to say “Thus says the Lord,” instead he simply spoke with authority and every word spoken was a “Thus says the Lord.” Jesus fulfills the office of prophet and we have the privilege of His authority and declarations recorded for us in Scripture.

The OT also spoke of the office of the Priest. Priests existed to offer sacrifices to God on behalf of His people for their atonement. They mediated the relationship between the people and their God. However instead of continuing a succession of priests from the Levitical line, God brings a fulfillment to the office of priest through Jesus. As priest He is our eternal mediator, “always [living] to make intercession for [us]” (Heb. 7:25). As priest, as we have just looked at, He offers atonement for our sins, not by means of animal sacrifice, but by displaying His love and mercy towards us by offering Himself as our atoning sacrifice. The fulfillment of the priestly office in Christ is of great consolation for no sinner could mediate as Christ does.

Whereas the prophets and priests were God’s idea to instituted, the office of King in the OT was not, it was a slap in the face to God. Judges were not good enough for Israel. They wanted to be like their neighbors who had kings rule over them. But God was their king. However in God’s grand story of redemption He institutes a human kingship under His own kingly and sovereign rule. Kings Saul, David, and Solomon rule somewhere between faithfulness at times and rebellion at others. The long line of kings from onward from them is a ghastly portrayal of power and human wickedness. Kingship is abused.

But the kingdom of God is not ruled by sinful human kings. Instead Jesus comes as the Messiah, the righteous human king. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38). He is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16). He rules God’s sovereign kingdom in righteousness. He fulfills our desire for a king, a ruler to govern us for our wellbeing and flourishing. He is the eternal king whom we are to joyfully bow our knee to every day.


So throughout the story of both the Old and New Testaments we see a unity, a vivid portrayal of God’s plan of redemptive history enacted through His love and care for His people. The institutions of the Old Testament give way to their fulfillment in the New through God Himself entering the story in the person of Jesus. Redemptive history is the greatest story ever told and we have the privilege of each being cast a role as it moves closer and closer to it’s ultimate fulfillment at the end of the age.

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JT Holderman is Associate Pastor of Bellevue Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Gap, PA.

[1] For a further exposition on the subject of Redemptive History, see Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2012); Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption contained in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), pp. 532-619.
[2] Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ From the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 49.
[3] Scripture speaks in many places of God ordering all of history so that the nations will know that He is the Lord: cf. Exodus 6:7, 7:5; Isaiah 49:26, 60:16; Ezekiel 5:13, 20:42; Joel 2:27, 3:17.
[4] The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 23.
[5] The Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.2.
[6] However the Covenant of Grace is prefigured in the OT: It begins with Adam and Eve. God had every right to simply wipe them out for their sin, but instead he extends grace based on nothing they have done to deserve it. God also extends a covenant of grace to Abraham in Genesis 15 and 17 in which God promised him progeny and the promised land apart from any works. The covenant of grace abounds in many other places in the OT.
[7] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 138.