One of the most insightful things I read last year was Joseph Spencer’s book on Isaiah, and this part especially stood out to me:
What else needs to be said? Shall we tackle the most difficult bit of advice? Let’s do. Here it is, put far too strongly at first: Stop looking for Jesus in Isaiah. We’ve been trained by a long Christian tradition to think that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible frequently spoke in anticipation of Christ. And the result has been a Christological approach to understanding Isaiah. All too often, we read Isaiah, talking to ourselves in something like this way: “This doesn’t make sense. Nor does this. Oh, that sounds like Jesus! Okay, this doesn’t make sense again. Nor that. Oh, Jesus again! Now this doesn’t make sense. . . .” You see, the passages from Isaiah we’re most comfortable with are the ones we associate directly with Christ: “a virgin shall conceive,” “unto us a child is born,” “the Lord hath laid on him the iniquities of us all,” and so on. The rest of Isaiah we find too obscure to make much sense of. I think that’s in part because we’re wondering what the rest has to say about Christ. We read about the virgin conceiving, and we feel like we’re on solid ground. But the passage then goes on to talk about eating butter and honey, about foreign kings, about flies and bees, about hired razors, and so on, and we feel like everything stopped making sense. That whole text actually becomes relatively simple if you wait a bit before trying to find Christ in it, figuring out what Isaiah himself is saying first. You see, there’s a difficult political situation in Isaiah’s day, and Judah’s king is acting out of fear as it unfolds; Isaiah tells him not to fear because a soon-to-be-born baby won’t know how to speak before the enemy has been deposed; but then the real tough times will come beyond that, and largely because the king has acted faithlessly—and so on. This is a relatively clear story (we’ll be telling it in detail in a later lecture), but it’s clear only if we don’t try too quickly to force it to tell us something about Christ. It’ll do that in good time.Joseph Spencer, “The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record”
My wife and I began our reading of the Old Testament today. One of her goals, a noble one, is to learn something about how Jesus read the Old Testament. The passage I always go to is the scene from the Road to Emmaus: how the risen Christ listens to the two disciples expressing confusion, and he calls them fools for not understanding the scriptures (what we today call “the Old Testament,” the only scriptures they had at the time). “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
I think that the advice above is pertinent. Not everything in ancient scripture is about Christ, or at least, not at first. And it’d be good for me to slow down, and not “try too quickly to force it to tell us something about Christ.” Such a reading is Christocentric, which sounds good. But I can attest, it’s lead to a lot of confusion on my part. “How is any of this”—the weird stories in Judges, the temple blueprints in Exodus, the war chapters of Joshua, the angry Psalms, the downer Ecclesiastes, the parts of Job and Ezekiel we don’t read—”about Jesus?!”
And the frank answer, it’s not, at least not at first. But given that we know how the story ends with Jesus, we can look back, and read it in that light. I like this from Pete Enns:
As an analogy, it is helpful to think of the process of reading a good novel the first time and the second time. The two readings are not the same experience. Who of us has not said during that second reading, “I didn’t see that the last time,” or “So that’s how the pieces fit together.” That the Old Testament is not a novel should not diminish the value of the analogy: the first reading of the Old Testament leaves you with hints, suggestions, trajectories, and so on, of how things will play out in the end, but it is not until you get to the end that you begin to see how the pieces fit together. And in that second reading, you also begin to see how parts of the story that seemed wholly unrelated at first now take on a much richer, deeper significance…
The term I prefer to use to describe this eschatological hermeneutic is “christotelic.” I prefer this over “christological” or “christocentric” since these are susceptible to a point of view I am not advocating here, namely, needing to “see Christ” in every, or nearly every, Old Testament passage. Telos is the Greek word for “end” or “completion.” To read the Old Testament “christotelically” is to read it already knowing that Christ is somehow the end to which the Old Testament story is heading.
This occurred to me as my wife and I were talking about the Bible Project’s overview of the Old Testament. If we step back and understand the large story, we can see how even the Old Testament is built around hints and expectations of a Messiah, imperfect though that understanding was. And though not all of the Old Testament is about Christ, and I don’t need to force it all to fit—it all leads to Christ, and that’s amazing!
I think that’s what Christ was saying to the disciples. They were confused, trying desperately to understand how the story could have ended this way. And Christ is over there telling them: “My life, my death, my life again—it was a surprise! But not a total surprise. And now that you know how the story ends, go back and re-read it. Look it over again. And you’ll begin to see how parts that seemed insignificant take on a much, much greater significance now.”