Just how dependent were the apostles on the Old Testament?
This is a question that interests all types. Biblical scholars, theologians, preachers, seminary students, and devoted Sunday School teachers all take interest in how the Old Testament foreshadows the New and the New Testament quotes the Old. Anyone familiar with my blog, or at least its title (see the Emmaus Road dialogue in Luke 24) will know that this has been an interest of mine for years. After all, what could be more exciting than understanding the unity of Scripture and how God’s inspired Word finds its telos in Jesus Christ.
But with such a consideration, it is important that we take our cues from Scripture and not use Scripture for our own (theological) ends. Thus, to return to the question of how the apostles made use of the Old Testament, it is worth observing how frequently the New Testament apostles took their cues from the Old Testament.
Answering the opening question with in an unreserved affirmative, I will trace the way three “apostles” (Peter, Stephen, and Paul) preached the new covenant gospel from the Hebrew Scriptures. My aim is to show how Acts gives us a model for preaching the gospel which necessarily unites the Old Testament promises in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In my estimation, this kind of reading is necessary for understanding the Bible, knowing Jesus the Christ, and walking in obedience to the gospel. Let’s dive in and see what Acts has for us.
Rightly Discerning an Apostolic Model for Preaching, or Avoiding the Error of Classical Dispensationalism
The first place we encounter the use of the Old Testament is in Acts 1, when Peter says of Judas’ betrayal, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus” (v. 16). Peter then quotes two Psalms (69:25; 109:8) to explain Judas betrayal and the need for a replacement (Acts 1:20–26).
This explanation of current events (i.e., the events surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection) becomes a paradigm for the rest of Acts. In Acts we find Luke selecting the sermons of Peter and Stephen and Paul to model apostolic preaching. And what is striking is the way each message is an exposition (of sorts) from the Old Testament. The apostles who are the foundation of the church, do not plant the church in midair, but on the more certain word of the prophets who have gone before them. In this way, they provide a model for us—to show how Jesus is the Christ of the Old Testament and how the Old Testament Scriptures find their telos in Jesus Christ.
To avoid any misunderstanding, the apostles do not model for us a way to interpret all current events in light of Scripture—something common among Classical Dispensationalists. Luke is not giving Christians permission to provide definitive interpretation of current events. It is a faulty hermeneutic which uses Revelation or any book of the Bible to explain isolated events in the Middle East, Russia, or the United States.
Why? Because the Bible is pointed toward Christ (not the anti-Christ), and thus faithful readers must see how each book is related to him. Any other reading which tries to show how the Bible predicts a certain leader, catastrophe, or world regime is an allegory—not to mention an invitation for the world to scoff at Christians when such allegories fail. Note the difference between the apostles who apply the Old Testament to current events and modern-day prophets who do the same: Peter and the other apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit and eye witnesses of Jesus Christ, therefore their current events are unlike our current events. Thus, what was wisdom for them (i.e., making one-to-one applications from the Old Testament), is folly for us (i.e., trying to make one-to-one applications to current events based upon our own perceived reading of the world).
So, leaving this debate aside, let us consider how dependent the apostles were on the Old Testament.
Apostolic Preaching Unites Jesus of the New Testament with the Christ of the Old Testament
First, notice the way Peter explains Pentecost to his audience. In Acts 2:16, he says, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” and then he quotes Joel 2:28–32. Next, he explains Jesus’ resurrection by quoting Psalm 16:8–11 (Acts 2:25–28). Peter says, “For David says concerning him.” Who is the him? Peter understands David to be speaking of Christ himself. He says the same thing of Psalm 110 in Acts 2:34–35, another Davidic Psalm aimed at Christ. We can easily see in this opening sermon how Peter preached a new covenant sermon—it was filled with explicit quotation and explanation from the Old Testament sermon.
Next, in Acts 3 Peter is at it again. Speaking in Solomon’s portico, he says first in verse 18, “What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.” And again in verse 21, Peter points the word of God spoken long ago: “God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” Then he explains the word he has in mind, Deuteronomy 18:15:
Moses said, “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.” (Acts 3:22–23)
But he goes further, citing all the prophets that followed Moses too: “And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days” (v. 24).
In short space (Acts 2–3), Peter cites David, Joel, Moses, Samuel, and references other prophets too. While preaching on the day of Pentecost, a day which marks the outpouring of Spirit and the advance of the new covenant, Peter’s exposition is entirely derived from the Old Testament. This, we will see, is the norm in Acts.
The most elaborate sermon in Acts is not attributed to Peter or Paul, but Stephen, one of the seven “deacons” chosen in Acts 6, one who was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5). Acts 7 records his final message before the Sanhedrin, a sermon entirely comprised of Old Testament narratives and quotations.
In 52 verses (7:2–53), Stephen moves from Abraham to Moses to Joshua to Solomon. The whole message is designed to show how God’s people had a history of refusing the voice of God. Twice he quotes from the Old Testament, once from Amos (vv. 42–43), once from Isaiah (vv. 49–50). Only after laying out this long history, does he unleash his main point:
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:51–53)
One might debate if this is a “gospel” sermon. But four reasons tell me it is: (1) Luke included it in Acts, a book in which every other sermon is evangelistic in nature; (2) the gospel is not only a message of salvation and pardon, it also pertains to the judgment that comes on those who reject Christ (see Romans 2:16); (3) the gospel, biblically defined is Israel’s gospel for the world (see Romans 1:1–-7; 1 Corinthians 15:1–8), meaning the gospel necessarily includes the pre-history and promises of the Old Testament which Jesus fulfilled; (4) Stephen’s sermon and intercessory prayer (7:60) are deliberately juxtaposed to Saul, thus suggesting that Stephen’s ministry (6:9–10) and sermon played a part in bringing Paul to faith when God opened his eyes (see Acts 9).
In short, Luke includes this sermon as another example of how the apostolic tradition—not just the apostles—preached. Saturated with the Old Testament, they saw in them regularly explication of Christ. Or to turn it the other way, Christ was the fulfillment of all that God promised through the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, just like Jesus told his disciples in the upper room (Luke 24:44–47).
Finally, Paul’s preaching is regularly built from the bricks of the Old Testament. Like Peter and Stephen, his method of exposition explains how Jesus fulfills Old Testament promises. And from a careful reading of Acts, it is apparent the Holy Spirit, through Luke’s selection and focus, intends to shape future generations of preachers who pay attention to their method of exposition.
First, in Acts 13, Barnabas and Saul visit the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. In that Scripture-saturated environ, they are invited to give a word of encouragement based upon a reading from the Law and the Prophets. Verses 15–16 read,
After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” 16 So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said . . .
What follows is a David-centric explanation of Christ’s gospel. In verses 32–33, he says that what God promised to the fathers has been fulfilled in Christ. Then Paul quotes from Psalm 2, Isaiah 55, Psalm 16, and Habbakuk 1. In short, the gospel message (v. 32), is the completion in Christ of the Old Testament kingdom promises.
Next, we see Paul’s unswerving commitment to the Hebrew Scriptures in his ministry in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens. First, Luke tells us how “Paul went in [to the synagogue in Thessalonica], as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). It was not accidental or mere pragmatism that led Paul to preach the Old Testament; it was his customary method. This is true in Thessalonica and in Berea, where Acts 17:11 says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
Admittedly, Paul changed his approach in the pagan city of Athens. There he stressed biblical ideas (e.g., God as sovereign creator, humanity as one united race, the universal need for worship, and the coming judgment from a resurrected man), but did not quote biblical passages. This indicates the Spirit-given wisdom needed to take the gospel to people who don’t have the Scripture (yet), but it doesn’t deny the place of Scripture. For underneath Paul’s cultural appeal, a multitude of Scripture passages can be discerned. Moreover, for the pastor of a local church, this is not a model to replicate. A church is not made of unbelievers, but those who have believed the gospel and who are learning to obey all that God has said in the Bible. Hence, preaching that diverges from Scripture will ultimately produce immature disciples or, in some cases, false converts believing in an unbiblical Christ.
Such unalloyed commitment to Scripture in the local church is better exemplified in the discussion Paul has with the Ephesians elders in Acts 20. There in the town of Miletus, Paul “talks shop” with his disciples who are now leading the flock in Ephesus—a city he spent no less than three years. Recounting his ministry to them, he says in Acts 20:26–27, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” While not presenting a sermon, he speaks of how he thinks of his preaching.
He aims to declare the “whole counsel of God.” Clearly at this point, the whole counsel of God is found in the Old Testament with application to Christ and his followers. Thus, we find Paul’s strongest encouragement to preach the whole Bible, with an eye towards the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Confirming this reading, we look to Paul’s words before Felix in Acts 24:14–15.
But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, 15 having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. (Acts 24:14–15)
Again before King Agrippa:
To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:22–23)
And finally with the disciples in Rome:
When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. 24 And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. (Acts 28:23–24)
In all of these instances, Paul insists on his commitment to the Old Testament. He believes it, says nothing but what the prophets and Moses have said would happen, and testifies about the kingdom of God centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Luke makes sure we see Paul’s emphasis on the Old Testament by including these words.
Preach the Whole Counsel of God with an Eye to Jesus Christ
So, where do we go from here?
For starters, we must see that the apostles were absolutely committed to preaching Christ from the Old Testament. To them the Old Testament is not a necessary prerequisite for the good stuff of the New Testament. Rather, it is the good stuff. Hence, they are totally dependent on the Hebrew Scriptures, and fill their plates full of Old Testament references.
Moreover, if we are going to be committed to the teaching of the apostles, like Acts 2:42 leads us to do, we must be committed to learning from them how to preach. And thus, we must not preach mere moral messages from the New Testament or exemplary case studies from Israel’s history. Rather, at the heart of all preaching must be the conjoining of God’s promises of old with their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This is where the gospel explodes off the page, where the power of the Spirit is experienced, and where disciples grow as they see how the whole Bible (and all of the world) relates to Christ himself.
Therefore, may we continue to labor to know and understand the Old Testament, so that we might better know the Christ, who is Jesus. Let us forsake a de-historicized Jesus, one who is adored apart from God’s redemptive history. This ultimately leads to a distortion of the true Christ, a Jesus in our own making, and a Lord lacking power. Far better, we must put Jesus back into the story of the Bible; we must labor to understand that storyline, and then preach the full gospel of Jesus as the Christ.
To this end biblical preachers labor. As Luke says in Acts 5:42,
And every day, in the temple and from house to house,
they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds