August 5, 2011

Revealed or Concealed?

by Mike Riccardi

In my last post, I tried to lay a foundation for an understanding of some ground-level issues relating to hermeneutics, or principles of interpretation of Scripture. Like I mentioned there, studying hermeneutics is rather tricky, because it seems circular to attempt to interpret Scripture in order to glean biblical principles of interpretation. You know, chicken or egg?

I suggested that the way out of this conundrum was to consider the nature of Scripture itself, particularly as defined in the opening verses of the book of Hebrews. From those verses we learned that God spoke, and thus Scripture is fundamentally communication. And based on that, the interpreter’s default orientation to the text is to understand it in its plain, normal sense, just like he does with other communication.

John MacArthur summarizes the point well:

Because God has revealed himself in an understandable, clear way, in keeping with the normal means of human language and communication, the student of Scripture can rightly interpret God’s message in the normal sense in which human language and communication is interpreted. Whether preaching poetry, prophecy, or Paul’s epistles, the student of Scripture is correct if he approaches Scripture with the confidence that God revealed it clearly, and he did so using the normal features of language.[1]

Scripture as Communication vs. New Testament Priority

Now, I also mentioned towards the end of the last post that those foundational principles are not earth-shattering to a faithful, Bible-believing Christian. But when those principles get fleshed out into practice, we do start to see some areas of disagreement. One particular area that is popular right now is how to interpret and understand the Old Testament, especially in relation to Christ and His coming. Some believe (based on what I think are shallow interpretations of Luke 24:27 and John 5:39) that one should find Christ in every verse of the Old Testament. One wonders what he should do if Jesus doesn’t seem to be there. Some respond that we should find Christ in every verse by reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. Some will go as far as to say that the meaning of any Old Testament text cannot be understood without the New Testament. In fact, it seems that this is the majority position among conservative biblical interpreters.

But I think that our previous study presents some problems for that position. What I mean is, to say that the Old Testament can’t be understood apart from the New—and that the New Testament sometimes reinterprets the Old such that the original recipients could not have understood the meaning—is to deny that the Old Testament succeeded as God’s revelation and communication to those to whom it was addressed. Remember: long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to the fathers by the prophets (Heb 1:1). He actually said something to them that was understandable to the faithful Israelite. But to suggest that the original audience could not have understood the intent of the author is to deny the perspicuity of the Old Testament. In that case, it was not light in any meaningful sense, despite the testimony of Psalm 19:8, Psalm 119:105, 130, and Proverbs 6:23. Rather than communicating, it obscured. Rather than revealing, it concealed.

In fact, holding this position would require one to admit the Old Testament did more than conceal. It misled and deceived. For example, throughout the Old Testament God continues to promise what could only legitimately be understood by the faithful Israelite as an earthly reign of Messiah with the nation restored to the land. Yet the majority of otherwise-theologically-sound, conservative evangelicals interpret such passages as God making spiritual promises to the Church, not physical promises to national Israel. Yet it is difficult for me to square such an approach to the text with the reality that Scripture is revealing instead of concealing. Professor Matt Waymeyer summarizes helpfully (see also page 7 here)[2]:

I find it very difficult, however, to accept a hermeneutical approach which insists that the original readers of the Old Testament were left in the dark (and even misled) regarding the true meaning of God’s promises in the Old Testament. This is an outright denial of the perspicuity of the Old Testament. In my understanding of the nature of Scripture, God’s intent was to reveal truth in His Word, not conceal it. I have a difficult time adopting a view that, says, in effect, that much of the Old Testament was intended to be an unsolvable mystery, at least until new light was provided hundreds of years later.

“Have You Not Read?”

Further, Jesus’ own comments seem to contradict the notion that the Old Testament can’t be rightly interpreted apart from the New Testament. His many interrogative indictments of, “Have you not read?” (Matt 12:5; 19:4; 22:31; Mark 12:10; Luke 6:3) demonstrate pretty clearly that He expected the Jews of His day to both (a) interpret the Old Testament on its own terms, since there was no New Testament revelation through which to interpret it; and (b) to interpret it properly, i.e., to understand its true intent.

In fact, this was the way in which the first New Testament believers were to examine this new teaching that Jesus and His Apostles were bringing. God, through Luke, commends the Bereans as more noble because they searched the Old Testament Scriptures to examine the truth claims Paul was making (Ac 17:11). Yet how could that be a noble—much less fruitful—endeavor if the true interpretation of the Old Testament couldn’t be understood without the New as an interpretive grid? Further, how could Paul, in defending himself against the accusations of the Jews, appeal to the fact that he had preached “nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place” (Ac 26:22)? And wouldn’t we have to admit that Jesus was being too hard on the two men on the road to Emmaus when He said, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!”? They should have simply said, “Take it easy, man. How can we understand all that the prophets have spoken? We don’t have the New Testament yet!”

And so it seems rather plain that both Jesus and Paul believed that the true intent of the Old Testament could be understood by interpreting the Old Testament on its own terms.

Honor Christ by Honoring the Text

Now, I’m not arguing that we should preach the Old Testament in a way that would make a contemporary Jewish person comfortable. We must certainly preach the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. But we don’t have to make it Christian Scripture by interpreting it non-contextually. It already is Christian Scripture on its own, because the Old Testament as a whole does indeed point to Jesus as the promised Messiah and King. My point is simply that we can see how all the promises of God find their “Yes” in Christ without twisting some of them beyond recognition. We can preach Christ in every sermon while acknowledging that He is not in every text. This doesn’t make us any less “Christocentric.” This is actually more honoring to Christ because, rather than implying that God has not spoken clearly or reading Christ into texts where He’s not (as if the OT just needed a little help), it respects all of God’s Word on its own terms, as His clear communication.


[1] John MacArthur, “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Study Method for Expository Preaching,” in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes, eds. Leyland Ryken and Todd A. Wilson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 79.

[2] Many thanks to Matt Waymeyer, Paul Lamey, and company at Expository Thoughts for their excellent work on this topic. They have helped greatly to refine my thinking.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Anonymous

    Thank you Mike for your article! I hope you continue writing on this issue.

    Grace and peace,

  • Tim

    Nicely done. I especially like the point that Bible study takes into account the normal tools for understanding the written word. We encounter prose and poetry, history and metaphor, prescriptivism and descriptivism in our reading every day (even if we do not stop to categorize everything all the time). It’s no surprise we run into them – and so much more – in the Bible, nor that we can more easily understand what the author meant by recognizing the type of writing the author used.

    Also, your point about Old Testament revelation reminds me of Paul’s assurance to Timothy that all scripture is God-breathed and useful, etc. I’m so glad he didn’t say it is useful only if you understand all of it; he said all of it is useful. I figure that means it is useful even for those of us who are still studying the Bible and learning more and more what it means as time goes on.


  • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

    Excellent, Mike. I love it!

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  • David

    What is the “plain, normal sense” of Hosea 11:1? And how is Matthew not violating your hermeneutical principles in Matt 2:15?
    How is Paul not violating your hermeneutical principles in Romans 4:13ff, or Galatians 3:15ff, when he applies the OT promises to Christ and His people, rather than to genetic Israel?

    It’s not that the OT is unknowable without the NT. That is technically incorrect. The heart of the matter is that *nothing* can be truly known apart from Christ, the OT notwithstanding. How can the Ethiopian eunuch properly understand the scroll of Isaiah? Phillip tells him what it means in light of Christ. Without Him “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3), we will always be wrong about everything in some way wrong about God in every way.

    So how do we preserve the pre-Christian perspicuity of Scripture? The same way we define the perspicuity of Scripture today. The truth is veiled to those who are perishing. People suppress the truth in unbelief. But the Spirit of God working through the Word of God will enlighten any of the People of God, not just scholars or priests or popes.

    • David,

      You’ve given me a lot to respond to, yet unfortunately seemed to have dealt very little with the arguments that I’ve actually put forward in the post. I hope that if you continue to comment you’ll make an effort to engage what I’ve actually said. Nevertheless, you’ve hit on quite a few (complicated) topics, so please be patient with my extended reply.

      What is the “plain, normal sense” of Hosea 11:1? And how is Matthew not violating your hermeneutical principles in Matt 2:15?

      The plain, normal sense of Hosea 11:1 is that God rescued the people of Israel out of slavery and oppression in Egypt. That’s what Hosea intended to communicate, as is plain by reading the following verses which refer to “Israel” and “Ephraim” sacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols. Matthew 2:15 doesn’t change any of that, because I don’t think Matthew was saying, “The original intent and design of Hosea 11:1 was to be a prophecy of Jesus’ staying in Egypt until there was no death threat.” Do you think Hosea had that in mind when he wrote 11:1? I think that would be a flattened out understanding of pleroo (to fulfill), failing to take into account the multiple senses in which that word is used, which you can read more about here (especially toward the end, where he applies these things specifically to Matt2:15/Hos11:1).

      I think what Matthew is doing is showing a correspondence between Israel and Christ, which doesn’t ask us to ignore the context of Hosea’s words and re-interpret his intent. I strongly recommend this post, by Dr. Michael Vlach, for more on Hosea 11:1 and Matthew 2:15.

      How is Paul not violating your hermeneutical principles in Romans 4:13ff, or Galatians 3:15ff, when he applies the OT promises to Christ and His people, rather than to genetic Israel?

      Put briefly, Paul’s not violating grammatical-historical principles because (a) the application of spiritual blessings to the Church doesn’t negate the promises of physical blessing to Israel, and (b) his point in those texts is not to show that the promises made to the nation are somehow fulfilled only spiritually in the Church, but simply that salvation doesn’t come by works of the law but by hearing with faith. It’s helpful that Paul explicitly says in Gal 3:17 what point he’s trying to make by his comments in 3:15-16: “What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.”

      In other words, I can be a spiritual descendant of Abraham and benefit from the Abrahamic promise that in Abraham’s seed all the earth would be blessed, and national Israel can receive the promise of being restored to the land in peace (Jer 31-33; Ezek 20:33-44; 36-39; Zech 8, 12, 14) as an everlasting possession (Gen 17:8; 48:4). It doesn’t have to be that the Church’s spiritual blessings as the people of God negates Israel’s physical blessings as the people of God.

      Think of it this way. A father promises his son that he’s going to take him out for ice cream after his little league game. When the team wins in extra innings, the father takes the whole team out for ice cream. He’s kept his promise to his son, but he’s also graciously extended the benefits of that promise to others. But if the father takes the whole team out for ice cream, but doesn’t take his son, he’s not kept his promise.

      The heart of the matter is that *nothing* can be truly known apart from Christ, the OT notwithstanding. … The truth is veiled to those who are perishing.

      You’re mixing categories here. In the first sentence you’re defining “apart from Christ” as “before Christ’s first coming and subsequent New Covenant revelation.” In the second you’re defining “apart from Christ” as “not saved.”

      I never said that you don’t have to be converted to understand the Scripture. I actually repeated a couple of times the phrase, “the faithful Israelite,” implying that to understand the intent of God’s Word one must be a saved person. So, Abraham, Jeremiah, Zechariah, etc. could all understand the Old Testament “apart from Christ,” in the sense that they understood what God was revealing and what they themselves were saying without having seen the Messiah in their day. But of course their understanding came from the fact that they were “in Christ” inasmuch as any believer is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

      But the Spirit of God working through the Word of God will enlighten any of the People of God, not just scholars or priests or popes.

      This was the most confusing part of your comment for me. For one thing, I’m not sure what you mean by the people of God being “enlightened.” If you mean that we need extra-biblical revelation (like Matthew got as he’s writing chapter 2:15), then I’d have to disagree. In fact, that would actually make the true understanding of Scripture available only to a select few to whom God chose to “enlighten.” The view that Scripture can be understood by any believer

      But if you mean that the Spirit illumines His Word to His people’s understanding, then of course I agree. And I’m not sure how anything in my post would have led you to believe that I wouldn’t. In fact, I thought the quote from MacArthur about any student of Scripture being able to understand would remove all doubt.

      The bottom line is: if the faithful believer in Yahweh couldn’t understand the true intent of a passage of Scripture on its own terms, then God failed at communicating, and He concealed rather than revealed.

      • David

        I’d like to start by apologizing for my lack of clarity and for any uncharity that may have come across. I didn’t mean to be rude; I simply write poorly sometimes. Contrasted to that, I appreciate your thorough, well-written reply.

        My goal is/was to defend the “majority position” which you referenced. That is, I affirm that the Old Testament cannot be properly understood, at this point in time, without the New Testament. (“At this point in time” is a necessary nuance, due to the plainly progressive nature of revelation through history.)

        I read your counterpoint as saying that my position denies that the OT was perspicuous before Christ, which I reject.

        Starting from the bottom of your reply, I never meant to imply disagreement with you about how perspicuity ‘works’, so to speak, or to imply extra-Biblical revelation. I simply meant to claim that the way in which the scriptures are made clear now is the same way in which God made them clear before Christ. (London Baptist Confession I.5-7).

        Moving up, I feel like I was the most unclear where you stated I was mixing categories. I think my mistake was an assumed epistemology. Let me try to do better:
        1) Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and in Christ are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, any concept, thought, idea, etc must make consideration Christ in order to be true or valid.
        Corollary i) The non-believer is literally wrong about everything.
        Corollary ii) The Christian, not yet having his mind fully renewed, not yet rid of every strain of unbelief, suppresses truth and is still wrong about much that he seems to know.
        2) If 1 is true, then an accurate understanding of the Old Testament, being an idea, must consider Christ.
        3) Before the advent Christ could be known truly, though much less fully, through the Old Testament.
        4) We today cannot properly understand the Old Testament without the New as the New Testament where Christ is most clearly revealed.

        As an analogy. An author may describe a painting so that you will know it when you see it, so that you long to see this beautiful painting. But, one having seen the painting can get the most accurate sense of what the author meant to say. In the same way, the Old Testament saints knew Christ and longed for the Messiah, but now that the Image has been revealed we must see that image when we read the Old Testament. The Jewish leaders and the Bereans should have known the Image from His description. The former were rebuked (“Have you not read?”) and the latter praised.

        No one could say that an Old Testament text is literally un-understandable without the New Testament, but any Old Testament text is only rightly understood through the interpretive framework of Christ. As the New Testament has been given to us and is the fullest revelation of Christ and His work, the most full and accurate understanding of any Old Testament text comes by reading it through the lens of the New Testament.

      • David

        The passages I asked about, I brought up because of the example in paragraph 5 (not counting the blockquote). I think they are examples–referencing my analogy–of where the painting must flesh out its description.

        Concerning the promises to Israel, I don’t see how you can make the distinction, from the text, between a spiritual fulfillment to the Church and a physical fulfillment to physical Israel. In Galatians 3, Paul groups the promises together, without distinction, and says they are promised to Abraham and his singular offspring, Christ. In Romans 4, Paul expands the promised land to encompass the whole world and declares that the promise is not for those who follow the law, but all who have faith.

        In neither place does Paul distinguish between a physical and a spiritual fulfillment, but gives the promises of Abraham to the Church. Further, in Galatians 3:28-29, Paul declares the unity of the people of God receiving the promises “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

        In response, then, to the ice cream analogy, I would ask you the identity of the son, or “offspring” as it were. I think Paul says that the promises were to Christ to begin with and that the Old Testament should be read in light of that fact.

        • Brad

          Hi David and Mike!

          Interesting discussion! As I was reading the comments it seems like the disagreement is that Mike believes we should read the Old Testament in the plain/literal/historical-grammatical sense and David believes we should read the Old Testament through the theology of the New Testament. Is that the crux of the debate?


          • I think that’s a fair summary, Brad. I think reading the OT on its own terms is the only way to respect all of Scripture as what God says it is: His own revelation, or communication, to man (Heb 1:1-3). And reading the OT through the lens of the NT makes a canon within a canon, subjugating the OT to the NT, effectively reducing it to darkness when its own testimony is that it is light (Ps 19:8; 119:105; 130; Prov 6:23).

        • Paul may not distinguish between a spiritual and physical fulfillment in Romans 4 or Galatians 3, but that’s because he’s not parsing out the differences between the nation of Israel and the NT church as the people of God. Like I said, he’s simply demonstrating that the Law doesn’t invalidate the promise. But Genesis 15, the actual giving of the Abrahamic Covenant, does make that distinction. God promises physical blessing to Israel, including many descendants and a land of their own as an everlasting possession, and he promises that in Abraham all the nations/families of the earth will be blessed.

          So, when Paul picks up the topic of the Abrahamic Covenant promises in Rom 4 and Gal 3, he’s speaking about the blessing that was to come to the nations (salvation) through the blessing of Israel (Messiah). That distinction is borne out more fully in Romans 11, which speaks about the nation as a whole being broken off from covenant blessing for a time, and now the Church being grafted in to covenant blessing. Yet there will be a time when Israel will be grafted in again and will receive the blessings that were promised, as they were promised.

          Your argument based on Gal 3:28 is weak. Paul’s not saying that there is no distinction between Israel and the Church, but that there is no spiritual distinction between Jew and Gentile in Christ, i.e., in the Church. Those in the Church receive the spiritual blessings of the Abrahamic and New Covenants. But Israel still remains distinct and will again be grafted in to Covenant blessing for the sake of the fathers, for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:28-29). Besides, Gal 3:28 isn’t speaking about the abolition of all physical distinctions, because there certainly is a distinction between male and female even within the Church. It’s not that our maleness and femaleness means absolutely nothing, but that my maleness is not a reason either for superiority or inferiority in the Church.

          Regarding the identity of the offspring, I understand that you think that Paul says the promises were to Christ to begin with, but I think you have to come with that assumption to Gal 3, and that there’s no way you can make any sense of much of the OT that way, unless you deny that the authors had any idea what they were saying. But authorial intent is the cornerstone of our exegesis. If meaning isn’t a return to the author’s intention, then there really is no communication between author and reader, and meaning is whatever the reader makes it to be, which is eisegesis, and not exegesis.

          And that goes back to the point of the post. If a faithful Israelite couldn’t have understood the OT promises to be made, as you say, only to Christ and not to the nation of Israel, then the OT authors (and God, as the ultimate author) failed to reveal or communicate much of anything. In fact, they concealed and even misled. The OT is darkness and not light. I’m still not seeing anywhere in your comments where you actually deal with that.

          For the record, I’m not saying that we should pretend we have no knowledge of Christ when we read the Old Testament. Of course we understand the OT more fully now having seen the fulfillment of much of the promises made. But the interpreter’s task is to ask what an original author intended to communicate and how the original audience would have received that message. And not every single pericope of the Old Testament was simply promising that Messiah would come. That’s the overarching message as a whole, to be sure. But that message is made up of actual histories, narratives, poems, proverbs, etc. from the inspired pens of authors with a real message to a real people in real circumstances. If we’re going to respect God’s Word as His revelation to us, we have to consider those things on their own terms.

          • Anonymous

            I think you should take some of your comments here and make them a future post. I’d be interested in you taking what you said about Rom 4/Gal 3 and showing how it jives with your post. I obviously agree with you, but I think if you could do it succinctly in a post that would be helpful.

  • Slinsky

    Thanks for giving balance to OT interpretation. I haven’t studied through this issue to the depth you have, so I’m glad to see that my intuitive sense jives with your study of how God would have us un-inspired exegetes study the OT even with the NT always in our minds.

    It seems like most of the trouble comes when we think about exegesis and exposition as one and the same instead of seeing one as the ground work for the other. Exegesis should encompes the process of getting at authorial intent. Exposition takes the principle from that authroial intent and brings it through to today. When preaching an OT passage, of course we should come around to the Gospel in some way and preach Christ. But I think the approach to preaching Christ in the exposition should be tempored by the exegesis of the OT passage which leads first to the authorial intent, then to the timeless principle as the point to be preached from the text. Authorial intent also shows how the passage fits in the grand scheme of redemptive history, which points ultimatly to Christ and the Gospel.

    Context is still king and as inappropriate as it is to look around at our contemporary geopolitical setting and read that into Biblical eschatoloy, so it is to begin with AD revelation when trying to understand what a BC author was trying to get across to his contemporary audience. There is a rich blessing to be had in discovering what an OT author meant by what he said and then looking to how it all jives with what we know of the person and work of Jesus. To start by asking where is Jesus in this passage muddies the contextual waters so that it’s harder to see what the Author meant by what he said…and the real point is lost.

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