American Bible teachers appear confused about biblical interpretation between the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). Some claim, for example, that David will share the throne with his superior descendant, Jesus. A third temple will be built, and animal sacrifices will be reinstituted. Christians must keep the Sabbath by command today. What about replacement theology? So confusing!
Let’s look into this issue.
I use the NIV here, but readers are welcome to see many translations at biblegateway.com.
First, here is the wrong (yet popular) interpretation.
In this (primitive) diagram the lines represent biblical themes, like sacrifices, covenants, the building of the (third) temple, whether in this age or the new millennium (assuming millennialism is right), salvation, redemption, commanded Sabbath keeping, celebrating the commanded festivals (e.g. Passover, booths / tabernacles), and so on. Let’s not focus on the number of lines with mathematical precision. They merely illustrate the main point.
The NT should act as a filter; however, in the above diagram the themes circumvent or go around the NT. Therefore the major themes of the OT do not get filtered or reinterpreted through Christ.
Some even teach that there is a double fulfillment in OT prophecies: (1) historical fulfilment and (2) later fulfilment even to our times. Confused teaching ensues, because this interpretive theory must still be filtered through the NT, but the theory is not.
Many Bible interpreters may object to the diagram because it appears simplistic. They do filter some OT themes through the New Testament, like the atoning sacrifice of yom kippur. And the NT is built on top of the OT themes, so let’s not be dismissive of the OT.
In reply, so many themes do not in fact get filtered through the New Testament in the confusing mishmash of popular Bible teachings. Further, the NT themes may indeed be built on top of the OT, but the OT themes must still be filtered, though often they are not. (We will look at examples, below.) And this article does not dismiss the OT, nor does this article “unhitch” the NT from the OT. Jesus and the apostolic generation, some of whom he called to write Scripture, would strongly object and call such a separation “false doctrine.” But they would likewise object when modern interpreters teach the Bible as if the NT does not exist and so the themes get transferred to our own times today willy-nilly, ad hoc, without the NT filtering them.
Confusion reigns throughout the American church-at-large, broadly speaking, and confusion reigns in any churches that the American church influences around the globe.
Here is the right way to interpret Scripture:
The number of lines should not be pressed too hard with mathematical precision. They merely illustrate that many themes do not get carried forward or they get transformed as they get filtered. All OT themes must be filtered through Christ. All OT themes must be carefully checked through the NT. Some of them we scrap–at least the command to follow them non-voluntarily, is to be scrapped. Note the question mark on the right. We need to ask the question: do the themes really apply to us today?
1..God’s covenant with Abraham
This verse promises Abraham that through Isaac the Abrahamic covenant will be everlasting. “Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him'” (Gen. 17:19). Some Bible interpreters go so far off the trail that they don’t see that Christ is the fulfilment of this promised covenant. But he and his gospel are the blessing to the nations.
Jesus is greater than Isaac. Jesus subsumes the promise to Abraham and Isaac in this own person. He ensures that the covenant has been directed through him now and therefore is still everlasting, but now reinterpreted in himself.
Does God have a purpose for ethnic Israel as a nation or for ethnic Jews living out in the Roman provinces? Has he forgotten his people? When Paul wrote Romans, Israel was a nation and still going strong, though under Roman rule. As I read Romans 9-11 (in Greek but I have not yet translated the epistle), it would seem absurd to him that the church which he (and others) was starting throughout the Roman provinces and in Rome itself would replace the nation of Israel. Too restrictive. Too geopolitical. Rather, the churches go beyond this nation and his fellow-ethnic Jews. Further, he is very clear that God has not forgotten them and Israel and still has a purpose for them (Rom. 9:1-5; 11:25-32).
So this is not replacement theology, but fulfillment theology. The blessing promised through Abraham’s seed or offspring is Christ and all of his followers, who, as a collective, minister the gospel of salvation in Christ. He is the blessing of Abraham. It is through Christ and his gospel now that all nations will be blessed. This is the gist of Galatians 3:15-29, boiled down. Period.
2.. God’s covenant with David
This verse promises an everlasting covenant with David: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever’” (2 Sam. 7:16). Some teach that God will permit David to sit on the throne next to Jesus, and that’s how the Davidic covenant will be carried on forever. God does not lie, right?
No, God does not lie. However, a better biblical interpretation says that Jesus the Messiah, the superior and ultimate descendant of the favored but sinful King David, will sit on David’s throne–alone. The everlasting nature of the covenant is fulfilled in Christ. And so we have correctly filtered 2 Samuel 7:16 through the NT.
3. The third temple
Some interpreters read Ezek. 40-48, which describes a new temple in the future, whether in this age or in the millennium (if one is a millennialist). This next verse also says that Solomon’s temple is everlasting: […] “I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there” (1 Kings 9:3). But now we know that Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, so the “forever” promise was conditional. Undeterred, however, and combining Ezekiel’s promise and the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple, some interpreters say that a third temple, probably located on top of Herod’s broken-down temple, will be built in the new millennium (assuming that a literal thousand-year reign is the only and correct interpretation).
However, it is better if we filter these disparate verses through the NT. The writers of the NT clearly teach that the church is the new temple, and in his church God has placed his name–forever–thus fulfilling 1 Kings 9:3. In no place do they clearly teach: “Look for a newly rebuilt temple two thousand years from now!” Instead, Jesus through Luke predicts the destruction of Herod’s temple (Luke 21:21-24). For more Scripture references which say the church is the temple where God’s presence dwells, please see this link:
Further, there is a heavenly temple / tabernacle where Christ entered by the authority and power of his own sacrifice:
11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:11-12)
And John saw one in heaven:
5 After this I looked, and I saw in heaven the temple—that is, the tabernacle of the covenant law—and it was opened. […] 8 And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power […] (Rev. 15:5, 8).
I do believe that when Christ returns, it will be to Jerusalem (Acts 1:11; Luke 21:24), but once this and other kingdom business are done, God will recreate the heavens and the earth by eliminating the surface of this earth and heaven or by some powerful, fiery cataclysm, whose description goes beyond our words (2 Peter 3:10). All churches–even the Medieval cathedrals and St. Paul’s cathedral in London, St. Peter’s basilica in Rome and the national cathedral in Washington–the temple in Jerusalem, synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples, Shinto shrines, LDS temples, Buddhist shrines, American mega-churches, and small, store-front churches in the inner city will be destroyed in the fiery cataclysm. God will have no use for any of them anymore, for he will dwell among his people, and they will be his new kind of living temple (Rev. 21-22).
Remember: if Moses lived, say, in 1400 B.C, then the Israelites followed his temple religion from then until the temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 (with a gap during the Babylonian exile). Jesus predicted its destruction.
And thus, A.D. 70 to right now adds up to about 2,000 years, without any temple religion. There is no theological or biblical reason to reinstitute the temple and its religion. We have lived for 2000 years without it. Everything is fulfilled in Christ.
Hebrew 8:13: “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.”
And so Hebrews 8-10 teach the teachable that there will absolutely be no future sacrifice in a third temple because there will be no temple, whether in this age or in some sort of literal millennium. Most importantly, Jesus already told us how to honor his sacrificial death: through the Eucharist or communion.
And we will not have to be purified by Mosaic sacrifices done for this purpose; instead, the Spirit of God living in us will continuously purify us.
And so now we have clarity about the (supposed) third temple and any and all OT tabernacles or temples because we have filtered the OT verses through the NT. Simplicity leads to clarity.
4.. The temple religion and festivals must be reinstituted to fulfill OT prophecies about the temple religion and festivals (!).
Here is a sample verse:
16 Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty, and to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. (Zech. 14:16)
No, sorry, but Zechariah was speaking from his own limited perspective. For him, the ultimate sign of peace after war was for nations, like Egypt, in his (small) world to go to Jerusalem and celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles. They had to submit to the Law of Moses. He saw something, but God was speaking to him with a picture that he could understand from the now-obsolete, old law. God momentarily accommodated his prophet’s limited perspective.
Further, the previous point answers this unfiltered interpretation. We have no need to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles around a new temple in Jerusalem. The call of the gospel is to go into all the world and preach the simplicity of Christ, not an (American) obsession with these festivals. Moreover, how many people would exist in the new millennium (assuming a literal thousand-year reign of Christ is the right viewpoint)? A hundred million? Five hundred million? One or two billion? Whatever the number, the nations could never fit around Jerusalem in the first place because of the logistical nightmare. Not enough port-a-potties and food for distribution!
We celebrate Christ, not by carrying out the details of Passover or the Festival of Tabernacles or any other festival, but by worshipping him. The NT writers were emphatic about streamlining everything down to Christ and conspicuously omitted commands to keep the festivals in the law of Moses.
And so we now have clarity because we have filtered Zechariah 14:6 (and many other verses about the temple and tabernacle) through the NT.
5.. We must keep the Sabbath.
It’s in the Ten Commandments, after all (Exod. 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15). Has God changed his mind? Is he a liar?
No, he is not a liar, but progressive revelation is a fact of the Bible. Christ has freed us from the command to keep the Sabbath (Luke 6:5; Rom. 14:5-6; Col. 2:16-17). But if people wish to keep it voluntarily, they may do so, but not by command so that they may get stoned to death for breaking it, as it happened to one man (Num. 15:32-36).
In Christ, there is liberty.
This post could keep going, but those five examples are enough. It may occur to some Bible interpreters that this post was unnecessary because everything in the American church-at-large is in order, but I don’t think so. The American church is currently obsessing over the fine grains of sand (each verse) in the OT, and leaping them over or under the NT, one grain at a time, with tweezers. Popular Bible teachers willy-nilly bring many things from the OT to our day right now or in our future. So these Bible interpreters have created needless complications. They outdo the inspired and infallible NT writers in their modern, ad-hoc interpretations!
It is better to follow the apostolic generation, some of whom were inspired to write the NT and who streamlined and filtered out the complications of the OT temple religion and many other themes.
The main thrust of the NT is to filter out as much of the OT as feasible. Hence, the NT is much shorter than the OT because the NT does not need to be long to get its main message across. And what the NT writers do not filter out but retain, the OT verses all point to the Messiah and God’s new plan of salvation through the Son. Yes, this plan of salvation was revealed in the OT, but now salvation finds its fulfillment in Christ. That’s the main message.
And this plan is simplicity itself. People all around the world–from Nepal and Bhutan and China and Indonesia and the Philippines and the Arab world and Iran and India and central Asia–can understand and receive it. They too can get saved by Christ. They do not have to be burdened with American concerns about Israel today and a future temple where we will reinstitute animal sacrifices–to do what exactly? To remember Christ’s sacrifice? Wrong direction. To purify us? The indwelling Spirit does this. Instead, the peoples around the globe can celebrate Christ’s sacrifice as he told us to: through bread and wine (sorry, grape juice). They can be purified by being born again and through the ongoing, Spirit-led sanctification process.
Paradoxically, if you want Israel to get saved, then focus on the salvation of Gentiles! See Rom. 11:25.
In the next equations the arrows mean “leads to” or “produces”:
NT does not filter or ad-hoc filters OT → Bloated Interpretations → Complications
NT always filters OT → Streamlined Simplicity → Clarity
The latter equation reveals the method of the God-inspired and infallible NT writers. Let’s follow them and not be presumptuous, as if we know better than they do.
What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old? (This post has a list of items that get filtered out or are retained in the NT from the OT)