Interpreting the Old Testament

Dear Church Family,

In our sermon series on Sunday mornings, we’ve just completed our study of the book of Ruth, working sequentially through this wonderful story of redemption. In the next two Sundays (the last two Sundays of November), we’re going to review the two ways that we may rightly apply the book of Ruth. It is not my common practice to take two Sundays to summarize the teaching and application of a sermon series; however, since this is the first series that I’ve preached here at PPC, I think it will be helpful. It will be helpful for us as a congregation in emphasizing how there are basically two ways that we may rightly apply the Old Testament to our lives: typologically and exemplaristically. (I think that second one might not actually be a word, but let me explain).

(1) Typological Application

In biblical literary studies, a ‘type’ usually refers to something in the Old Testament (e.g., a person, place, or an event) which prefigures something in the future biblical writings described in the New Testament, called the ‘antitype.’ Simply put, the ‘type’ points to (or foreshadows) the ‘antitype.’

Sometimes antitypes are contrasted with their types. For instance, Paul writes that Adam as a sinner “is a type of Him who was to come” (Romans 5:14). Here, Paul is contrasting Adam’s sin (the type) with Christ’s righteousness (the antitype).

Sometimes antitypes fulfill their types. For instance, Peter compares the salvation of Noah and his family in the ark to its antitype, Christian baptism (1 Peter 3:18-22). The event of Noah and his family being saved through the great flood by getting into the ark (type) is fulfilled in our proper understanding of baptism (the antitype). In the Greek, Peter actually uses the word ‘antitupos’ in verse 21 in making this connection.

Types and antitypes abound in the Scriptures, even if they are not explicitly stated. The redeeming of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt in the exodus (the type) is a foreshadow of Jesus’ rescuing His people from the punishment and slavery to sin (the antitype). The provision of the ram to replace Isaac on the altar in Genesis 22 (the type) prefigures God’s provision of his Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (the antitype). We could go on and on. There are even types and antitypes within the Testaments and within particular books of the Bible.

(2) Exemplaristic Application

The other way of making application of the Scriptures is by way of example. The writings of the Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) give us examples how to live and how not to live as we seek to live lives of faithfulness.

In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul speaks of how God was displeased with most of Israelites in their wilderness wanderings because of their disobedience. And, “these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved” (v 6). Again, “these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (v 11). In this passage, the message is: don’t be like the Israelites in the wilderness who disobeyed God.

There are many positive examples, as well. Almost the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 lists examples of faith from the Old Testament whom we are to look to, and imitate. The application of Hebrews 11 comes in the next chapter: “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Conclusion

In the history of biblical interpretation and preaching, some have embraced one of these forms of application to the exclusion of the other. This is very problematic. On the one hand, if the only way that we interpreted the Scriptures was typologically, then we would be missing out on much instruction, and most likely end up as licentious antinomians. When people make this error of exclusive typological application, they often unwittingly arrive at this erroneous conclusion: “The only thing that the Bible teaches is the necessity of faith in Christ.”

On the other hand, if the only way that we interpreted the Scriptures was exemplaristically, then we would be missing out on much instruction, as well, and most likely end up as moralistic legalists. When people make this error of exclusive exemplarisitc application, they often unwittingly arrive at this erroneous conclusion: “The only thing that the Bible teaches is how to live righteously.”

But, you see, just as the Old Testament Scriptures are not only exemplaristic (which they are, see 1 Corinthians 10:1-15), neither are they only typological (which they are, see Romans 5:14 or John 6:49-51). For example, in preaching from the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), it is appropriate to see Joseph as a type of Christ – one who literarily foreshadows the Savior of God’s people (Stephen made this application in his sermon (Acts 7:9-18)). However, it is also appropriate to see Joseph as an example for believers as to how to live faithfully and obediently, especially in difficult times (Hebrews 11:21-22).

What about the book of Ruth?

There’s much more that could be said on the topic of correct interpretation and application of the Scriptures; however, hopefully this will help to better understand what we will be doing in the next two sermons on Sunday morning. This coming Sunday (November 18, 2012), we will be making exemplaristic application of the story of Ruth by looking at Proverbs 31. There we will see how Boaz is an excellent example for Christian men as a ‘man of nobility’ and Ruth is an excellent example for Christian women as a ‘woman of valor.’

Then, on Sunday (November 25, 2012), we will be making typological application of the story of Ruth as we examine how the kinsman-redeemer, Boaz (the type), foreshadows and points us to the only Redeemer of God’s elect, Jesus Christ (the antitype).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch