The other day, my brother-in-law gave my children a gift that awoke many of my childhood memories. Indeed, Where’s Waldo? books apparently haven’t changed much since my childhood. The goal remains: find Waldo amidst an overwhelming sea of colors and shapes. I am sure I am not alone in thinking (many times) that I had seen the plucky Waldo and then, on further inspection, discovered that I had been fooled.
Scripture never attempts to fool us. Nevertheless, there are times when, in our eagerness to find Jesus, we may seem to spot him in an Old Testament narrative—only to later discover that our sighting was muddled. On what basis might we say that we improperly “saw Jesus” where Jesus was not intended to be seen?
It is necessary, I think, to address another question before this one: Is it even possible to find Jesus where he is not? It seems to me that the answer must be yes, for otherwise there are no guardrails for interpretation. For example, is Jesus to be identified with the concubine who was cut into pieces and sent throughout Israel (Judg 20)? Given sufficient time and creative energy, an interpreter could almost certainly make such a case; but I am convinced that this would be an illegitimate use of both the Old Testament passage and the principle that Jesus is found throughout the entirety of Scripture (Luke 24:26, 44).
Indeed, the principle that Jesus is found throughout the Old Testament actually presumes there are places where he is not to be found. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus was not introducing the disciples to a creative method whereby he may be found in every passage; instead, he was pointing out that the Old Testament had already prepared the way for him, and that with the new revelation they now possessed, old revelation could be seen with fresh eyes.
But discerning where Jesus is found in the Old Testament is not easy, especially due to the varied ways the New Testament authors find Jesus there (for example, would we without Matthew 2:15 have recognized that “out of Egypt I have called my Son” [Hos 11:1] referred in any way to Jesus?). Sometimes it may appear that the New Testament authors are creatively introducing Jesus where he is not. This being the case, I am uncomfortable supplying rigid, scientific rules for where Jesus is and isn’t in the Old Testament. Instead, what we need are general principles to guide us, guardrails to keep us on that road to Emmaus, and abundant grace to allow others to differ with us.
1. Examine the context for signs that the author intends to point to Christ.
Certainly, the most helpful principle for finding Jesus in the Old Testament is observation of context. If we are not simply creatively inserting Jesus where he is not, then we must be looking for the contextual clues that tell us where he is to be found. Primarily, we are asking whether there is something in the near context that draws our attention to the Messiah, the longed for one promised by the Father. This is another way of saying that we should look for signs in the text that the author intends to point us to Christ.
Psalm 72 provides a helpful example. Though the Messiah’s name is never mentioned, and though this passage is never explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, multiple lines clearly point to Jesus. For example, verse 17 invokes the language of the blessing of the coming Messiah:
May people be blessed in him,
all nations call him blessed.
Elsewhere in the Psalm, we note that the ultimate referent exceeds Solomon, for it speaks of a universal reign:
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth! (v. 8)
“Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen!” (v. 19)
In a related way, we might ask whether in the broad context the passage is providing a pattern fulfilled in the life of Jesus. For instance, Joseph is never mentioned explicitly as a type of Christ, yet the parallels between Jesus and Joseph are nearly impossible to reject. Less clear types are also possible, though our confidence in our findings should be tempered by the clarity of the patterns.
2. Read with the community of believers past and present.
The second principle that will help us discern whether we are rightly seeing Christ in the Old Testament concerns reading in community. There are two communities I am referencing. The first is the community of believers throughout all ages. We are not the first Christian readers to ask where Jesus is to be found in the Old Testament. Listening to the wisdom of past ages would do us well. If we find that we are seeing Jesus where other saints have never seen him, that should make us suspect our interpretations.
The second community is our own local community of believers. Much can be gained by simply asking others whether they find your interpretation reasonable. In fact, some of the wildest attempts to find Jesus in the Old Testament would likely have never surfaced if the person simply asked biblically literate friends, “Do you see what I see?” The danger here is evident, for some circles can be more inclined to find such connections than others, and so this community should be balanced with the broader community mentioned above.
Guardrails and grace
But what if we find that we disagree with other believers on the application of these general principles? A personal story might help. I graduated from a small dispensationalist seminary and then enrolled in a PhD program at an evangelical seminary in a different tradition. I was confronted almost immediately with the difference in interpretation of Scripture, especially the way that my new professors seemed to find Christ in places my old professors, it seemed to me, would not have even looked.
What strikes me most about those memories now is the recognition that both sets of professors dearly loved Scripture. Those who found Christ metaphorically “under every rock” (intentional play on words here) did so because they were seeking to be faithful to Scripture. Those who did not were also seeking to be faithful. Considering the complexity of the issues involved, I do not foresee a time when my respective sets of professors will fully agree this side of eternity.
My experience taught me that both sides offered interpretive warnings that need to be taken seriously. Perhaps we could describe these indeed as guardrails. Some warned that an overzealous search for Jesus could obscure the meaning of the Old Testament passage. The concern was that an entire testament would be demoted to the otherwise noble task of discovering Jesus. Gladly, I discovered that this experience was by far the exception, not the rule.
On the other side, some warned that to read the Old Testament without finding Christ is to read in an unChristian way. What I remembered, however, was that my professors who did not always find an explicit connection between Jesus and the Old Testament passage at hand, nevertheless connected their passage to the overarching narrative of Scripture in such a way that Jesus was ultimately revealed. In other words, Jesus was central to their preaching, even when they did not “see him” in a particular Old Testament narrative.
Since that time, I have attempted to stay between these two guardrails. I have also attempted to give space to those who may see more or less of Jesus in the Old Testament than I do. I seek to give grace to those who are closer to one side or the other of the interpretive road we must all trod.
- How to Find Jesus in the Old Testament
- Bible Study: How to Dig Deep into God’s Word
- Old Testament Promises & What Today’s Preachers Should Do with Them