No person should attempt to interpret Old Testament prophecy or types without considering the effect, as announced particularly in the book of Hebrews, of the abolition of the old covenant, of the Old Testament earthly tabernacle, priesthood, and sacrificial system. Further, we should keep in mind the New Testament summarizations of Old Testament teaching or promises (chapter 3) and specific New Testament references to fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Because we now have the New Testament, the word of prophecy (including its predictive aspect) is made more “sure” to us. The light is now greater. Without due regard for the New Testament teaching, we are apt to err in our understanding of Old Testament prophecy.
We noticed in chapter 3 of this book that in chapter 3 of Genesis we have an example of a prophecy that is not to be taken too literally (the enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent and bruising of head and heal) and one that is to be taken more literally (the labor of man, travail in childbirth and returning to dust). We cautioned that it would be necessary to distinguish between Old Testament prophecies that are to be fulfilled in more literal fashion and those that are not. The New Testament is of great assistance in our attempt to distinguish.
Many prophecies of the Old Testament have, according to the New Testament, been fulfilled literally. For example, Christ was born in Bethlehem; he did preach to and teach the people; he did enter Jerusalem on a colt the foal of an ass; on the cross he did experience the pains intimated in the Psalms; his garments were parted; none of his bones were broken; people did look on him whom they pierced.
However, other Old Testament prophecies were not fulfilled quite so literally; instead they found their fulfillment more in the spiritual sphere, with the external manifestation being different from the literal sense of the words. We must consider how the New Testament employs Old Testament prophecy in speaking about the coming of the Holy Spirit, the sure mercies of David, and the new covenant.
John the Baptist
The four gospels refer to the ministry of John the Baptist as being a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5:
In the literal sense of the words one might expect a road building crew and a drastic recasting of the landscape. Also one might anticipate some majestic brilliant light visible to all. However, John’s ministry was spiritual, relating to preparation of heart and life, and the glory of the Lord was not some effulgence of light but rather that of a lowly man full of grace and truth. Physical figures were employed to symbolize spiritual truth.
The Coming of Elijah the Prophet
Malachi concludes with the herald: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
Although some in the past actually expected Elijah to come again and although some still expect Elijah to come again (some identifying him as one of the two witnesses of Revelation 11), the gospels assert that the prophecy was fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was not Elijah, and he so stated. Nevertheless, Christ spoke of John at Matthew 11:14: “And if you are willing to receive it, this is Elijah that is to come.” Also after his transfiguration with Moses and Elijah, and in response to the question of the three disciples, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Christ answered: “Elijah indeed cometh and shall restore all things; but I say to you, that Elijah is already come and they knew him not, but did unto him whatsoever they would” (Matt. 17:10-12). John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah and he was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy.
Some may, however, argue a yet future coming of Elijah from the first part of Christ’s answer: “Elijah is coming and will restore all things.” However, Christ in these words was not referring to a future (after his time) coming. Instead he was referring to what the prophet had said, the words is coming and will restore being a summary of what the prophet said from the time of the original prophecy. In effect, Christ said: The prophet says Elijah will come and restore; Elijah — John being the one who came in the spirit and power of Elijah — has already so come.
Again, we have a case where a literal expectancy — here of actual return of Elijah — is a wrong interpretation of the original prophecy.
Matthew 1:23 is substantially a quote of Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which interpreted means God with us.” One might conclude on a literal basis that Messiah would be given the literal name Immanuel. Yet Joseph was not told to name him Immanuel, but Jesus. He was later referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. The prophecy therefore did not refer to the actual given name, but rather to the spiritual identity of the Messiah.
After the account of the slaughter of the infants by Herod, it is written at Matthew 2:17-18: “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, a voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she would not be comforted, because they were not.” This is poetic language. Rachel was not weeping in the slaughter of the infants. In fact, this is in effect a double use of poetic language. The original employment in Jeremiah was poetic: Rachel was not there either at the time of the events spoken by Jeremiah. Matthew uses the poetic language employed by Jeremiah and also applies it to the horrible crime of Herod.
Living Water From the Belly
A most intriguing figure was employed by Christ in speaking of the Holy Spirit whom those who believe on him were to receive: “He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture hath said, From his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). Christ asserted that the Scripture which could then be only the Old Testament said this. However, nowhere can such a statement, or a statement employing words akin, be discovered in the Old Testament. Christ could not be wrong! What is the explanation?
Initially we must note that the very words employed by Christ were not to be received literally. Christ was not predicting a flow of actual water from a person’s belly. He was speaking of the Holy Spirit. Hence when Christ used the words as the Scripture said, he meant that the Old Testament contained one or more statements which, while not literally employing the words recited by Christ, did mean the same thing, either by direct reference to the Holy Spirit or by use of figures which themselves signified the coming of the Holy Spirit.
There are portions of the Old Testament to which Christ could well have been referring:
Particular note should be made of a verse from Zechariah. Zechariah 14:8: “And it will come about in that day that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem, half of them toward the eastern sea and the other half toward the western sea; in summer as well as in winter shall it be.” Because Christ employed highly figurative language for the coming of the Holy Spirit, we should not consider it implausible that the Old Testament also employed highly figurative language. The term living waters was employed by Christ. Hence, Zechariah 14:8 could well be a prophecy of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on and after Pentecost. It was in Jerusalem that the Holy Spirit, the “living water,” was poured out. Or Jerusalem could refer to the members of the church. Very earthly portrayals can have much higher and spiritual significance.
The Spirit On and After Pentecost
Peter said that on the day of Pentecost, the day of the public manifestation of the fuller bestowment of the Holy Spirit to God’s people, there transpired what was spoken of through the prophet Joel. The chief substance of the event was the Holy Spirit himself — not the noise of a violent, rushing wind, or the tongues as of fire, or the miraculous speaking in foreign languages, and the pouring forth spoken of by the prophecy was not limited to that day but is a continuing work in the church as the Holy Spirit is given to all who repent and believe in Christ. The prophecy is concerning the whole dispensation of the new covenant of the Holy Spirit.
What of the portions of the prophecy speaking about sons and daughters prophesying, young men seeing visions, old men dreaming dreams, Christ’s slaves prophesying? Is this meant to emphasize the literal manifestation of these things, assuming the prophecy and dreams and visions to be supernatural? Or is it primarily a manner of expression of the greater inheritance of the Spirit in terms of supernatural manifestations of the Spirit in Old Testament times? Peter and the disciples did prophesy on Pentecost, but there was no indication of dreams or visions, or women speaking. I personally feel, in view of the New Testament and subsequent church history, that the emphasis is not on supernatural prophesying or dreams or visions, but that those terms are principally imagery to convey the greatness of the new covenant of the Spirit. So although there is a certain degree of literalness in this prophecy, the full import is discovered in a less literal approach.
In connection with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, it is quite possible, if we pay close attention to the accounts in Luke and Acts, that the disciples were in the temple at Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came, not in the upper room as many suppose. If so, the granting of the Spirit to the disciples in the temple could have symbolical reference to the greater temple, the body of Christ, erected by the Holy Spirit. Thus it is conceivable that visions of the Old Testament prophets of great blessing from some physical temple, often by reference to water or flooding water, (i.e., Ezek. 47) are symbolic of the granting of the Spirit on Pentecost and thereafter.
The Sure Mercies of David
David was chosen to be king in Israel as a man after God’s own heart. God also made promise to David (II Sam. 7:8-16) that he would appoint a place for his people Israel and plant them that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed, or afflicted by the wicked. The Lord declared that he would make a house for David and raise up a descendant and establish his kingdom. “And he shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.... And thy house and thy kingdom shall be made sure for ever before Me; your throne shall be established forever.” (Cf. I Chron. 17.)
The strain of mercies to David is picked up at Isaiah 55:1, 3-5:
Paul at Acts 13 stated definitely that the promise to the fathers, the blessings of David, found their fulfillment in Christ who was raised from the dead. The everlasting covenant is based in the faithful mercies shown to David in the resurrection of Christ. The house of David thus has to be the church indwelt by the Spirit. The last part of the verses from Isaiah 55 certainly intimate, on the basis of Romans 11:20, the calling in of the Gentiles — a chief feature of the present church age. As we shall see in Acts 15, David is further set forth in connection with the church.
The Jerusalem Council
In Acts 15 the issue before the church was whether the teaching of certain men, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved,” was correct. Paul and Barnabas had recited at Jerusalem the amazing conversion of masses of Gentiles, but certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees contended it was still necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and direct them to observe the law of Moses. The apostles and elders then met together to look into the matter.
Peter during the debate recalled the granting of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles in the same manner as to Jews. Then James answered, saying:
The forthcoming judgment of James, and the council agreed, was that the Gentiles did not have to submit to circumcision and observe the law of Moses.
James asserted that the words of the Old Testament prophets agreed that God would call from out of the Gentiles a people for his name. He referred specifically to Amos 9:11-12. Amos in chapter 9 of his prophecy, after declaring that God would destroy sinful Israel, but not totally, wrote:
Notice that James in his reference to the prophecy altered words to state its true sense in applying the prophecy to the question before the council. The words remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by My name of the original signify the Gentiles. The reference to Edom has no unique literal significance but is only an example of Gentile people. James calls the fallen booth of David the tabernacle of David. The words In that day of the original become “After these things.” James employed his words After these things to designate that it was after the judgment on Israel proclaimed by Amos, after these things of judgment, that God would restore the tabernacle of David and call Gentiles.
Some have contended that the words After these things referred to the call of Gentiles into the church, the event of James’ day, and the remainder of the prophecy applies to some future day. However, this makes no sense for the purpose of James’ argument. The point at issue concerned what to do about the Gentiles coming into the church and about circumcision, a present event, not about something in the remote future. The words After these things would have no meaning in deciding the issue; the discussion about David and the Gentiles was what applied to the issue at hand. There was a realization within the council that the words relating to the tabernacle of David and calling Gentiles were vitally significant. How did the prophecy resolve the issue?
First, we note that the tabernacle of David was to be rebuilt in order to call in Gentiles into the church. Gentiles were entering in. However, we know that no literal material tabernacle was built under God. The meaning is thus not found in some strictly literal fulfillment. Certainly it means that the house of David was again rebuilt — but not in David himself, but as prophesied in the Old Testament and revealed in the New, such as Acts 2 and 13, in his greater descendant, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is Jesus Christ of the house of David who calls in the Gentiles into the church. However, what about the circumcision and law of Moses issue?
This requires further exploration of the significance of “tabernacle of David.” In his days, David placed the ark inside a tent which he had pitched for it on Mt. Zion, the city of David — not the tabernacle formerly specified by God and which was then at Gibeon (II Sam. 16; I Chron. 16). David danced before the ark, and after consecration by offering, blessed the people in the name of the Lord, distributed to everyone in Israel a loaf of bread and other foods, and appointed Levites as ministers before the ark, to celebrate and thank and praise the Lord God of Israel. There was continual music and blowing of trumpets before the ark of the covenant of God. The first psalm sung refers to blessing to the Gentiles.
The remarkable feature of all this was that, despite the fact God’s original tabernacle was not employed, all was under God’s blessing. The sacrifices and rituals of the law were performed at the original tabernacle; at the tabernacle of David there was a freer worship more akin to worship in the church today. David’s tabernacle involved in effect an abrogation of the ritual law.
Hence, the council at Jerusalem saw in the rebuilding of the tabernacle of David, through the Person of Jesus Christ, the cessation of the Jewish rituals. Gentiles were to come into the spiritual worship, without rituals.
The New Covenant
Hebrews tells us that Jesus Christ was the mediator of a better covenant enacted on better promises, the first covenant (having primarily to do with the covenant under Moses) being meant to be only temporary. At Hebrews 8:7ff., reference is made to the predicted second covenant, as prophesied at Jeremiah 31:31ff. The structure of the quoted words is extremely significant. The new covenant is effected with “The house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not like the covenant which I made with their fathers.” “I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” It all sounds so Jewish and if taken too literally would cause one to believe great blessing to national Israel was predicted. Yet, the New Testament church, with its particular calling out of Gentiles, is the fulfillment of the new covenant! The canon of literal interpretation and overly considering the sound of words, if applied to Jeremiah 31, could lead a person down a wrong Jewish road. However, the New Testament gives us the correct interpretation. Again, we see the need of the New Testament to approach Old Testament prophecy.
Exhortation of Hebrews 12:25-29
To advance his argument that Judaism has passed away and should be given up the apostle in Hebrews warns on the urgency of listening to Christ who speaks from heaven. What he says is so vital that his communication is portrayed as a voice that shakes. The apostle then makes his point by reference to Haggai 2:5-7: “According to the word that I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt, and My Spirit abode among you: do not fear! For thus says the Lord of hosts, Yet once it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land. And I will shake all nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations; and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts.”
The words from Haggai sound as though the prophet had in mind some physical shaking of the universe, but from the employment of the verse in Hebrews we arrive at the true meaning. The prophecy relates to a spiritual shaking which removes (the apostle by the Holy Spirit used this word) the old economy of Judaism and ushers in the kingdom which cannot be shaken. And this removal and ushering in the kingdom had occurred in Paul’s days! So again, words that appear to depict a physical catastrophe are instead a promise and refer to the manifestation of the kingdom of God unfolded by Jesus Christ at his first advent through the gospel.
Let us look briefly again at what we saw. Road, mountains and valleys speak of John the Baptist’s ministry. Elijah who is to come is John the Baptist. Emmanuel is not the name given to Christ, but rather tells us of his essence. Waters from a human belly signify the Holy Spirit. The true import of Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit himself, not dreams or visions. The sure mercies to David and the promise to the fathers are realized in the risen Christ. The restoration of the tabernacle of David is the calling in the Gentiles into the church without circumcision. A covenant is spoken of with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, and it is realized in the church. Shaking of the heavens and the earth is the first advent entrance of the gospel of the kingdom of God. These fulfillments must be in our mind as we go to the Old Testament prophecies.
It is advisable that a few further words be said about the structure of Old Testament prophecies in general in relation to the church as it is revealed in the New Testament.
At Ephesians 3, Paul said with regard to the dispensation of God’s grace which was given to him toward the Gentiles that the mystery not formerly made known was now revealed to the holy prophets and apostles; to wit, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, the church of Jesus Christ. This means that an essential element, of the grace of God in the gospel is the incorporation of the Gentiles’ into the one body, the church, along with Jews. In New Testament times we cannot consider the grace of God to individuals apart from their also being incorporated into the church.
Now, I Peter 1:10ff. tells us that the Old Testament prophets prophesied of the grace that should come to us, although the prophets did not completely understand their own prophecies. Because the grace that comes to us cannot be considered apart from our incorporation into the church, it is not unlikely that their prophecies had some relation to the church, although, because the mystery was still hid at that time, they could not and did not comprehend the fact and structure of the church. In other words, God always had in mind the church in his Old Testament prophecies of the grace that should come to us, even though, to preserve the mystery, he did not clearly refer to that fact and his prophets could not fathom it. Hence, we should not expect the Old Testament prophecies to speak clearly of the church, although the prophecies of future grace had it in mind.
We are told in Acts 26 that Paul at Rome expounded from the Old Testament the kingdom of God and things concerning Jesus Christ. Now obviously, from all we know about Paul this means Paul in doing this was propounding the gospel and instructing the people in the things pertaining to the church. However, it is significant that Paul, who expounded the gospel, said that he was bound, was in prison, for the “hope of Israel.” We know from all Paul’s letters that he suffered all things for the elect’s sake, for the kingdom’s sake, for the church’s sake. Paul never referred to suffering for national Israel. He was not bound therefore for the hope of national Israel, but for the hope of spiritual Israel, which was finding salvation through Christ in the church. The Old Testament hope of Israel finds fulfillment in the church and kingdom of God as it is manifested from apostolic times and till today. Remember that Peter said, in his preaching and building up the church, that all the Old Testament prophets from Samuel afterwards spoke of “these days” (Acts 3:24).
A legitimate conclusion is this. The Old Testament prophets from Samuel afterwards spoke of the days of the church and the grace that should come to us in the church. Yet, because of the mystery not then to be revealed, the church was not clearly disclosed. We should not expect the Old Testament, even though the church was in mind, to speak clearly on the matter. However, the Old Testament set forth the hope of Israel, and we know that Paul considered that the hope of Israel found fulfillment in the kingdom and church of Jesus Christ. The way of Christ was the way of entering the promises to the fathers. Hence, the hopes set forth in the Old Testament for Israel incorporated the New Testament church. This means that to the extent God had in mind the church he would use Israelitish language and thus Israelitish language and terms in the Old Testament prophets could well frequently have reference to the grace given to us in the church. We cannot look at prophecies in the Old Testament speaking of the future of Israel, or Judah, or Jerusalem, and so forth, without asking whether they refer to us in the church.
Of course, all that we have just said is buttressed by the weighty New Testament evidence that all the people of God of all times are one in the body and church of Jesus Christ.
Lewis Neilson is an attorney, who in studying Scripture eventually felt compelled to ask and seek the answer to the question: If I were a judge, trying to be open-minded, what would I decide the Scriptures really disclose about Christ's coming again?
This article is taken from Neilson's book, Waiting For His Coming, published by Mack Publishing Company (Cherry Hill
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