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Do the New Testament Writer’s Care About Context, Part 8: The Power of Hindsight

Let’s consider the 7th of seven paths of investigation needed to unlock potential rationales behind NT authors’ use of OT texts.

Matthew 2:15 says that an historical comment in Hosea 11:1 is “fulfilled” in Jesus’ childhood departure from Egypt. Does this prove that NT writers didn’t care about context and suggest that it’s okay for us to ignore it too?

I think there is a lot more dependence on context than many imagine, but there are seven avenues of investigation that need to be explored to gain a fuller picture of the complex relationship that NT writers had to Scripture beyond strict western perceptions of INTERPRETATION.

  • Step #1: Study the OT text in its larger original context. NT writers use pinpoint reference for a passage in context, and not merely proof texting.
  • Step #2: Discover the potentially varied purpose of a NT writer in using an OT passage.
  • Step #3: Discern the form and source of any NT reference to an OT passage.
  • Step #4: Discover what you can about the influential “life” of an OT text in the Jewish community prior to its use.
  • Step #5: Make sure you have an understanding of the homiletical & exegetical practices of the 1st century to make sure that you do not assume things about the NT writers that would not have been likely given their general environment.
  • Step # 6: One needs to consider the world view of the writers concerning the nature of God, man and reality.

Step #7: The interpreter needs an awareness of how hindsight might influence the way texts are applied to Jesus and the church and its triumphs and conflicts. How might messianic fulfillment and initial eschatological arrival influence NT perspectives on texts that touch on these elements? This does not excuse supposed “non-literal” interpretations or re-interpretations, but does allow for clearer particularization of that which is embodied within a given text, even if unseen prior to messianic arrival.

Fulfillment clarifies or exposes time gaps in prophetic anticipation. Predictions often have short-term and long-term and ultimate aspects to their unfolding fulfillment. These become obvious in the wake of partial fulfillments. Indeed the NT writers take many prophecies from the OT and see in them initial elements meant to verify the legitimacy of the whole, distant predictions concerning God’s work in and through Israel, which have an inaugural fulfillment in Jesus, often taking on a spiritual flair (temple predictions and the like), typological fulfillments in the church as the body of Christ, fulfilling his mission in the world, and anticipated literal fulfillments for the consummation of the ages in Christ’s return. Indeed, prophecies speaking of both judgment and salvation are fulfilled in Jesus’ work of atoning sacrifice offering salvation, only to be anticipated in terms of final judgment and eternal salvation in Jesus’ final return. Hindsight exposes these distinctions in ways that might not have been easily discerned beforehand, even if they contained all the data ahead of time.

Fulfillment weaves together several anticipated eschatological figures into the one Jesus, who is Christ/Messiah, The prophet like unto Moses, The Elijah who is to come, The Suffering Servant who makes atonement for the world, and the Son of Man riding upon the clouds of heaven, The Good Shepherd, the second Adam in the seed of the woman. These go beyond being like the great heroes of old, but entails Jesus fulfilling predictions that anticipate an eschatological figure associated with them, one who will be in fullness what they were in part, perfect where they were not.

Fulfillment provides an object for “objectless” promises. When salvation is promised, that salvation comes in Christ, providing real historical and theological connections for the prophetic poetic descriptions. So also for judgment, “The Day of the Lord,” Restoration, Kingdom of God. Even wisdom is picked up by the NT writers in reference to Jesus… Christ IS the wisdom of God, the righteousness of God… he is incarnate God fulfilling promises of divine presence, now in part, then in completeness, but newly fixated on Jesus and not on some imagined fulfillment.

Fulfillment lifts the significance inherent within the text out of the text. We are not turning a blind eye to importation of meaning, but seeking through hindsight to see what our ignorance would not allow us to see earlier… like when riddles suddenly make sense after someone gives us the answers. It was there all along, but we were blind to it.

This hindsight also permits a deeper understanding of the Messiah’s person as incarnate deity, and allows connections to be made which would seem untenable to those who do not share in this basic conviction.

A word of warning should be given here — this hindsight does not condone a Christological understanding of the entire OT, but makes provision for certain texts to be drawn into the dialogue which would otherwise seem unrelated to a modern reader. It is hard to say what would seem unrelated prior to Christ that suddenly seemed related after Christ. Those who shared the ANE context with the original writers would obviously see some connections as natural that we question.

Indeed, Dodd has shown that only a few particular types of texts are quoted in literal reference to Christ: 1. Apocalyptic passages, 2. Prophecies of Israel’s future, and 3. Those which incorporate agreed upon messianic titles or concepts.

Hindsight blends with the elements in the other 6 considerations we have given to NT use of OT texts to enhance each of those.

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