Guidelines for Finding Christ in the Old Testament

by Jared Wilson

Road to EmmausAnd beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. – Luke 24:27

The Old Testament is chock-full of Jesus. How do we preach him from its pages in a way that both honors Christ and the text? First things first:
What Is Allegory?

One of the first things we ought to do is ditch the language of "allegory." What we mean is that Jesus is symbolized by Old Testament types, but while allegory is a form of symbolism, they are not synonymous any more than animal and dog are. We armchair exegetes make this mistake all the time, referring to a literary work as allegorical when it is no such thing. The Narnia stories are the most common modern victim. We tend to do to "allegory" what we’ve done to the word "ironic." (No, Alanis, it’s not ironic that you got a bunch of spoons when all you wanted was a knife. Just unfortunate. And weird.)

According to the classical definition, allegory occurs when the original symbol exists primarily as a vehicle for what is symbolized and maintains little to no intent of its own, and/or when what is tangible symbolizes something intangible. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory because his characters correspond to intangible virtues like courage and the like. But Aslan is not allegorical because he does not symbolize an intangible virtue like sacrifice or nobility but is meant to be Jesus, albeit in that other world.

We ought not use the language of allegory in referring to the Old Testament for these two main reasons:

1. It diminishes the original text, treating it as merely a vehicle to something real, rather than real itself. There is a danger in that of turning the Old Testament into folk stories, fables, and myths rather than a history of real people doing real things. Even when Paul interprets Sarai and Hagar "allegorically" in Galatians 4, he is not saying Sarai and Hagar weren’t real people. He is using them as an illustration. This is typically not what we do when we begin allegorizing the Old Testament stories.

2. It demonstrates a misunderstanding of the way the Old Testament is the shadow of the things to come (Heb. 10:1). If the shadows correspond to Jesus, then they are not allegorical, because Jesus is not an intangible idea but a very tangible Person.

How then ought we to navigate these brilliant shadows and see Christ in them?

Maintain the Primary Intent and Meaning

The worst thing that can happen in seeking out Jesus in the Old Testament text is that we lose the Old Testament text itself. We are not looking for Jesus instead of David. We are looking at Jesus behind and beyond David. In this sense "true and better," a la Keller, is a good template to keep in mind…

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RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:   Their Hearts Burned: Walking with Jesus Along the Emmaus Road: An Excursion Through the Old Testament / The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus / More apologetics resources >>>