A New Covenant Reading of Old Covenant Texts
(The Continuity of Theological Concepts)
Dr. John P. Davis
While studying and teaching Zechariah 9-14 near Beirut, Lebanon I was challenged to think about the meaning and relevance of those chapters to Lebanese believers who often suffer because of the animosity between Lebanon and the very nation and people who are mentioned in Zechariah 9-14. Does an alleged promised restoration of Israel and Jerusalem bring comfort or chagrin to believers in Lebanon? After all, are not Arabic speaking believers and Jewish believers in the Middle East the true people of God? Are they not the ones who should expect to share in the triumph of God? Does present day Israel have a ‘favored nation’ status that trumps the ‘holy nation’ of the church (1 Pet 2:9-10)? Furthermore, does not a similar conundrum exist for those of us who live in North America? Do these texts have anything relevant to say to a largely Gentile church? Do we simply rejoice because ethnic Israel is to be restored or do we rejoice because the triumph which the old covenant nation expected is the triumph that belongs to all of those who are children of God through faith in Jesus Christ? Admittedly, the question of relevancy and application should not be determinative in the understanding of biblical texts, but it does raise questions that might not be raised otherwise.
Additionally, not only does the difficulty of finding relevance in Zechariah 9-14 to Lebanese and North American believers pose a challenge, but so does a careful reading of the New Testament. Reading the Old and New Testaments separately, one might conclude that two distinct and contrasting bibles exist (Old Testament and New Testament) written to two distinct peoples (Jews and Christians) with only shared lessons of moral application or common interest in the promised Messiah. Otherwise, one might conclude that God has distinct purposes for Jews and Gentiles. While interpreting texts in isolation from the larger corpus of Scripture makes this conclusion textually possible, a canonical reading of the Bible questions whether it is theologically justifiable and whether it adequately represents the biblical-theological message of the Bible which centers in the restoration of God’s original purposes as presented in Genesis 1-2, distorted in Genesis 3-11, given new hope in Genesis 12, and consummated in the coming of the Messiah.
Admittedly, a ‘pre- New Testament’ reading of Zechariah 9-14 and the Old Testament on its own may lead one to conclude that ethnic Israelites are the people of God, earthly Jerusalem is the city He has chosen, He is present in the Jewish temple, the enemies of Israel will be defeated and Gentiles will make their way to Jerusalem, the Messiah will come humbly on a donkey and in glory with a display of power, etc.
However, Christians cannot read the Old Testament on its own because it is not on its own. It is part of the Christian Bible which includes both Old and New Testament. The Old Testament is a book of introduction, preparation, and expectation; the New Testament is a book of conclusion, denouement, and fulfillment. The OT informs the NT by giving background, promises, and a developing story line. The NT finalizes the story line and sees promise come to fulfillment.
The OT helps us understand the NT by introducing theological concepts which are continued in the NT, such as God, creation, sin, redemption, kingdom, people of God, temple, holy city, enemies, exile and restoration, etc. The NT expands on these concepts often giving them new clarity in light of the full and final revelation that comes with the advent of Jesus Christ.
Though there is continuity of theological concepts, there is discontinuity in the contextualization of these concepts. I suggest that in both the Old and New Testaments God addresses his people in language and terms that they generally understood, yet retaining a bit of mystery, because the ultimate reality, which God brings in the triumph of the Messiah, defies the ability of human language to fully convey.
If in the future believing Jews of the old covenant see the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven and witness the triumph of God over all evil and enemies, would they say, “I’m disappointed that it did not turn out ‘literally’ as portrayed in the language of the OT.” No, they would likely say, “This fulfillment not only satisfies all which God promised but goes far beyond what could be expected. Thank you, Lord.”
As I read Zechariah 9-14 and similar texts in light of the New Testament I look for theological concepts that are continuous between the testaments and interpret them in light of the fuller and final revelation of the New Testament. For instance, the theological theme of ‘people of God’ is represented primarily by Israel in the Old Testament. Yet, we understand in the New Testament that the true ‘seed’ of Abraham were those who had the faith of Abraham, regardless of ethnicity (Rom 2; Gal 3; 1 Pet 2). The ‘holy city’ of the Old Testament was physical, geographical Jerusalem; in the New Testament the holy city is the New Jerusalem (Heb 12:18-24, Rev 21, 22). Furthermore, the New Testament even suggests that Abraham knew that the physical reality of “land and city” anticipated something more than earthly geography (Heb 11:10, 16; Rom 4:13). The theme of “temple as the place of God’s presence” in the Old Testament was primarily confined to the tabernacle and temple of ancient Israel; in the New Testament, Jesus is ultimately the temple (John 2:19 – destroy this temple), believers and the church are the temple (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19), and there is no need of a temple in the new order because God’s presence pervades everything (Rev 21:3, 22).
There are other shared themes such as the ultimate triumph of God, the defeat of enemies, the removal of sin, the transformation of nature, the restoration of the cosmos, the establishment of worship and holiness. In Zechariah 9-14 all of these concepts are portrayed in old covenant language at times exceeding the limits of that language, anticipating the inauguration of the greater realities of the New Covenant and ultimately the consummation.
Old Testament saints had a ‘two-age’ view of history – the age in which they lived and the age to come. The age to come anticipated the advent of the Messiah and the Day of the Lord in which God’s people would be delivered and His enemies would be judged. The age to come was depicted in terms that related to the age in which they lived; however, in the advent of Christ the seed of old covenant concepts blossoms into the unforeseen beauty of new covenant realities.
The New Testament declares that ‘the age to come” was inaugurated at the first advent of Christ (Lk 1:67-80; Acts 2:29-36), that we live in the age that was anticipated (1 Cor 10:11 – “on whom the end of the ages has come”), but, though the age has already come, it is not yet consummated, so we anticipate the consummation at His Second Advent (2 Thess 1:5-10).
Consequently, New Covenant believers live between two worlds: having entered the kingdom (Col 1:13) but waiting for the consummate kingdom (Rev 11:15); having become part of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17), yet waiting for the consummate new creation (Rev 21); being seated in the heavens with Christ (Eph 2:6), yet living as strangers on earth (1 Pet 2:11); having witnessed the triumph of Christ over sin, Satan, and death (Col 1:13-15), yet awaiting the consummate world of righteousness (2 Pet 3:13); having tasted in the Spirit the inheritance to come (Eph 1:13-14), yet awaiting consummate glory (1 Pet 5:1).