Reading our Bibles backwards? A pre-Advent reflection

Isa53While attending Nazarene Theological Seminary, I participated in a dialogue with students from a nearby Seminary for rabbis. We gathered around a table and discussed passages from the Old Testament, or what they just called the Bible. In the sentence you just read lies the crux of the matter: Should the Bible have a “New Testament”? Christians says yes; Jews say no.

As the discussion turned to what Christians would consider “Messianic prophecies” fulfilled in Jesus Christ, one of the rabbinic students remarked:

You Christians read your Bibles backwards.

He was right if by that comment we acknowledge it’s practically impossible for Christ followers, on this side of the Cross, not to see Jesus when we look at parts of the Old Testament. The New Testament provides the model. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 presents Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of a prophecy from King David regarding the resurrection of God’s Anointed (the Messiah), that the “Holy One” would “not see decay” (Acts 2:31, NIV). Likewise, Acts 8:26-40 tells the story of Philip the Evangelist. Led by the Holy Spirit into the desert, he climbed into an Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot. The eunuch was reading the description of the suffering servant from Isaiah 53, and asked: “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (v. 34). Philip used that passage to tell him the good news about Jesus.

Saint Augustine is credited for having said: “The New is in the Old concealed. The Old is in the New revealed.” Like a good two act play, the outcome of the drama can be hinted at through foreshadowing, but the ending is not given away. In the same way, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart estimated that only about 2% of the content of Old Testament prophecy can be considered Messianic prophecies (See Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation [1993], p. 303).  Still, it is enough to bind the Testaments together as the unfolding of God’s rescue plan for sinful humanity gone astray.

This Advent season, we will celebrate the coming of Jesus the Messiah into our sin-sick world. If “reading our Bibles backwards” means thanking God for accomplishing the divine promise to bring us salvation in Christ, then let’s keep celebrating. And as those who look to Christ’s return, let us together proclaim: Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

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