February 13, 2013

Luke 24 and the Christological Hermeneutic

by Matt Waymeyer

Road to EmmausIn Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus engaged in a fascinating conversation with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. During this dialogue, “beginning with Moses, and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). Later, Jesus told the Eleven that “all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

For many today who believe that the Old Testament must be read in light of the New Testament, Luke 24 justifies a “Christological Hermeneutic” for interpreting the Hebrew Bible. For some, this means an allegorical method of interpretation which sees pictures of Jesus and His work of redemption hidden throughout the Old Testament. For example:   

  • I’ve heard preachers present the story of David and Goliath as a picture of the coming Savior who would slay the giant of sin and death.
  • A well-known reformed theologian insists that “the entire Scripture deals only with Christ everywhere, if it is looked at inwardly, even though on the face of it it may sound differently, by the use of shadows and figures.”
  • Another reformed theologian applies this very method to Exodus 25-30, insisting that the various details of the tabernacle of Moses prefigure New Testament truths about the person and work of Christ.

Although others apply the Christological hermeneutic more responsibly, they still point to Luke 24 as proof that encoded references to Christ can be found on practically every page of the Old Testament. In this way, truths revealed about the Messiah in the New Testament are seen as the key to discovering the real meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures.

The argument here is that today’s interpreter must employ the same hermeneutic that Jesus modeled in Luke 24. After all, didn’t Jesus rebuke His two traveling companions for failing to recognize that everything in the Old Testament somehow referred to Himself and His work of redemption (Luke 24:25)? Aren’t we being foolish if we refuse to recognize the same thing? Aren’t we failing to heed His warning if we neglect to use a distinctively Christological hermeneutic?

Goliath doneNo, we are not. There are three reasons Luke 24 does not mandate a Christological hermeneutic: First, there is no record of which specific texts Jesus referred to in Luke 24, and for this reason advocates of the Christological hermeneutic must come to this passage with the assumption that Christ cited Old Testament texts which do not explicitly mention Him. Put another way, they must assume that He jettisoned the grammatical-historical hermeneutic to find references to Himself which could not be found with that hermeneutic alone.

According to Jesus, the primary problem with the two men in Luke 24 was foolishness and a slowness of heart which prevented them from believing what was revealed about Christ in the Old Testament Scriptures (v. 25). Many people today say that the Old Testament cannot be understood apart from the light of the New Testament, but Luke 24 suggests the exact opposite. Because Jesus rebuked these two disciples for not believing all that the prophets had written about Him (Luke 24:25; cf. John 5:39-47), He must have expected them to be able to read, understand, and believe what the Old Testament taught about Himself apart from the light of New Testament revelation (since the NT had not yet been written). If the Old Testament cannot be understood apart from the New, these disciples could have responded: “How can you say we are foolish and slow to believe the Old Testament since we’re not even able to understand it apart from light which has not yet been provided?” This is not to deny the centrality of Christ and the Gospel in redemptive history, but rather to affirm the perspicuity of the Old Testament and to insist that its revelation could be understood by its original audience.

Second, the christologizer reads more into the phrase “all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27) than is warranted. According to the christologizer, because Jesus taught the two men from “all the Scriptures,” then every passage in the Old Testament should be understood to refer to Him in some way. But a seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24:13) simply would not have permitted that type of lengthy exposition. It is more likely that “all the Scriptures” (v. 27) refers not to every passage of the Old Testament but rather to each of the three main divisions of the Old Testament—“the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (v. 44). It is one thing to say that prophecies of the coming Messiah are contained in each of the three main divisions of the Hebrew Bible—it is quite another to say that Jesus can be found in every passage.

Third, Luke 24 states that Jesus explained Old Testament passages which contained “things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). This does not mean that every Old Testament passage contains things concerning Christ, but rather that He explained those passages which do indeed speak of Him. Likewise, when Jesus said that “all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44), this does not mean that everything in the Old Testament is about Him—it simply means that all those things which are written about Him will come to pass.

Consider the example of a man going through a photo album and showing his sister all the pictures that he himself was in. The proponent of the Christological Hermeneutic would want to affirm that the man was in every picture. But the natural reading of the account would be that the man was in some of the pictures, and those are the ones he showed his sister from the whole album. In similar manner, Luke 24:25-27 definitely affirms that Jesus Christ may be found in the OT, but it cannot be made to say that Jesus is hidden in every OT text, waiting to be uncovered by employing a Christological Hermeneutic.

Suppose Luke 24:27 had said, “And beginning with Moses, and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning the Holy Spirit in all the Scriptures.” Would this mean that the Holy Spirit could be found in every passage in the Old Testament? Would this mean that we should adopt a “Pneumatological Hermeneutic” in which we look for hidden pictures of the third person of the Trinity throughout the Hebrew Scriptures? No, certainly not; and in the same way Luke 24 fails to support a Christological Hermeneutic in which New Testament revelation is the key to unlocking the meaning of the Old Testament. If this type of allegorical approach is to be justified, it will have to be done in some other way.

Matt Waymeyer


Matt teaches hermeneutics and Greek at The Expositor's Bible Seminary in Jupiter, FL.
  • Adam C

    This is the problem that modern “redemptive-historical” preaching has. When every single sermon immediately goes to Christ as the direct fulfillment (regardless of the text), there is a danger of “Jesus-only” theism.

    But this is not a new problem, check out Augustine’s City of God (book 15; chapter 26), “And its having a door made in the side of [the ark] certainly signified the wound which was made when the side of the Crucified was pierced with the spear; for by this those who come to Him enter; for thence flowed the sacraments by which those who believe are initiated.”

    • mss

      Thank you. Maybe you could post something on how to determine if an OT text is about Jesus?

  • This is thought-provoking, and helpful on a subject that has been challenging for me to understand. Thank you, Matt.

  • tw

    Thanks professor Waymeyer. I found your point about Jesus expecting the disciples to have understood the OT apart from the light of the NT particularly insightful.

  • busdriver4jesus

    So how would you comment on NT verses like Mt 2:15 and 18 that reinterpret the subject in the OT (Israel/Ephraim) to apply to different people (Jesus/the mothers in Bethlehem)? If these OT verses (which seem to have no Christological emphasis in their OT context) actually are fulfilled in Christ and His narrative, shouldn’t Matthew (and many other NT authors) and his treatment of the OT establish and inform our hermeneutic?

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  • Mark Frankian

    Thanks, Matt, for the article. I agree with virtually everything, but would like to clarify maybe one area to see if I understand you or if I differ in it.

    Using proper hermeneutics (read “not allegorical hermeneutics”), I believe there is an aspect of Christ and his gospel in every passage of the OT. It may be a shorter or longer walk to get from the OT text at hand (whatever it may be) to Jesus, but using the grammatical historical hermeneutic properly would, in fact lead us to some aspect of him and/or his gospel (not that they could be separated). Would you agree, disagree, or clarify that somehow for me, please?

    I know it’s been awhile since you posted this, so I understand if it takes time to see my comment and question. Thanks again.

    • Hey Mark. Thanks for commenting. Usually, we close threads after a week, but it looks like this one slipped through. I’ll leave it open to see if Matt has time to respond.

      In the meantime, though, I’d like to see if you could give an example of what you’re talking about with a specific passage. In particular, could you take 2 Kings 6:1-7, which is its own unit in the contexts of Elisha’s ministry, apply grammatical-historical interpretation, and demonstrate how the text in its context is speaking about Christ and/or the Gospel?

      I understand how I would get to preaching the Gospel in a sermon on this text. I think we can say that Christ and/or the Gospel can be an application of every text. But that’s different than saying that Christ/the Gospel is grammatical-historical interpretation of every text. I write more about that in this post and this post.

      Thanks Mark.

      • Mark Frankian

        You’re welcome, Mike, and thank you.

        I can live with how you worded it – Christ being an application of the text. I’ll have to think about it more and read your post but now I’d say I think it may be more than that but less than him being “the” interpretation of every text.

        What I mean is when an OT passage teaches grace, salvation, redemption, sin, eschatology, or about anything else I can think of right now, Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of those as far as I can see it. I’ll keep praying and reading over it and see. Maybe we’re not too far apart. Thanks again.

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