Time Periods in the Bible: Why We Need the OT for the Epistles

Editor’s Note: For more information on this important topic, please see Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul by Richard Hays and Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament by Beale and Carson.

In the previous article, we saw that the Gospels are generally applicable to the modern Christian. In this article, we will turn to a section of Scripture that everyone agrees is directly applicable to the modern Christian: Paul’s Epistles. Some churches spend the majority of their time teaching and preaching out of the Epistles. There is nothing wrong with that at all. However, it is important to recognize that Christians cannot simply read the Epistles and expect to understand the depth of what they are reading. In this article, we will continue to see that the Bible must be read as a narrative. Christians cannot expect to read any part of the Bible in a vacuum and understand what they are reading. The Bible should be read as a whole, as the story of God interacting with and saving His creation throughout history. In this article, we are going to look at examples where a deep understanding of the Old Testament is necessary to comprehend and apply what is written in the New Testament.

We will begin by looking at the book of Romans. Most churches agree that the book of Romans is the foundational Epistle for the post-Pentecost church. What is also fascinating about the book of Romans is that there are almost 100 separate quotations or allusions to the Old Testament within it. We’ll begin by looking at just a few of those quotations.

Romans 1:17. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

This is the verse that famously attracted the attention of reformer Martin Luther. This verse helped Luther to see that salvation was by faith and not by works. There is a lot of substance in this verse and the Old Testament quotation. Let’s take a look at the original context from the Old Testament, the context in Romans, and the other places this same quotation is used in the New Testament.

Habakkuk 2:1-4. I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint. And the LORD answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end–it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.

In the original context in Habakkuk, a vision was given to the prophet of some troubling times ahead. God told Habakkuk to write down the vision so that the faithful people, the ones who were going to obey, would flee the judgment. Thus, in a very physical sense, the righteous ones were going to live (as opposed to dying) because of their faith in the Word of God spoken by the prophet. How does Paul apply this understanding to the context of Romans 1?

Romans 1:13-17. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Paul, by revelation, utilized the verse from Habakkuk but applied it to a new context. In Romans, the context is salvation. Paul understood that the gospel of Jesus Christ brings salvation to all who believe. As in the time of Habakkuk, those who believe and obey the prophet will live by faith. In Habakkuk, their physical lives were spared by their faithful obedience. In Romans, their eternal lives are spared by faith.

Galatians 3:7-12. Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live
by them.”

There is a lot going on in the context of Galatians 3. Paul quoted from Genesis in verse 8, surprisingly applying to the Gentiles a promise originally applied to Abraham! In Galatians 3:10, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 27:26. His point here is that no one except for Christ could perform the entire Law. Finally, in verse 11, Paul transitioned to quoting Habakkuk 2:4 to prove that the Law could not justify us. Again, the point here is that those who live by the Law will be cursed, and those who live by faith will live. For more information on this dense section, please see the article on Galatians 3.

Hebrews 10:36-39. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

Finally, Habakkuk 2:4 is quoted in Hebrews 10:38. Again, the context is illuminating. In this passage, the writer of the Hebrews (potentially Paul or one of his disciples) contrasts death with life. Those who live by faith will please the Lord. Those who shrink back will cause the Lord’s displeasure, leading to their destruction. The just, by faith, will live.

Another example from the book of Romans can be found in the second chapter. Here is the section in question:

Romans 2:17-24. But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth–you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Again, it is possible to attain a basic understanding of this passage without referring to the Old Testament quotation. The general idea is that God was displeased with Israel for not being able to keep the commandments. Because of this, the Gentiles were able to blaspheme God. However, it is important to recognize yet again that the Old Testament context illuminates this passage. Romans 2:24 is quoting Isaiah 52:5.

Isaiah 52:3-6. For thus says the LORD: “You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.” For thus says the Lord GOD: “My people went down at the first into Egypt to sojourn there, and the Assyrian oppressed them for nothing. Now therefore what have I here,” declares the LORD, “seeing that my people are taken away for nothing? Their rulers wail,” declares the LORD, “and continually all the day my name is despised. Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here
I am.”

Those in Judah had been sold into Babylonian captivity because they had left the commandments of God. God wanted them to prosper and be a light to the nations, but the nation had failed that call. Because the nations of Israel and Judah had forgotten their God and forsaken His commandments, they were sold into captivity. For this cause, the Gentiles had reason to boast in the ineffectiveness of the God of Israel (“all the day my name is despised”). And yet, God had promised to redeem His people. Paul would return to that powerful image from Isaiah 52 later in Romans. But in this section, the key emphasis is that the Hebrew people were never able to keep the Law and glorify God through their keeping of it! What an appropriate quotation from the Old Testament! The Judeans in Paul’s time boasted in something that they could not keep. Paul’s point is that the Hebrew people were never able to keep the Law to the point of salvation. This point sets up much of what follows in the book
of Romans.

Another series of examples comes in chapter four of the book of Romans. In order to understand this section, one must understand the details behind God’s relationship with Abraham. In the context, Paul is explaining why justification cannot come from the Law but through faith in the Messiah, Jesus. The Law did its job—it preserved the nation of Israel until the Messiah could come. And there are still important aspects of the Law to be considered in modern Christianity (to be discussed in a future article). But Paul utilized the example of Abraham, the father of the faith of Judaism, to demonstrate that justification can happen only through God’s grace by faith. Let’s examine a few pieces of this chapter in light of the Genesis accounts of Abraham.

Romans 4:1-12. What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

In verse three, Paul quoted Genesis 15:6. Paul’s point here was to say, “Abraham is considered the father of our faith. Was he justified by his works, even though he did wonderful things for God? No! He believed God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness. He did not gain righteousness by his works.” The context in Genesis 15 is fascinating: it contains God’s promise and covenant to Abraham to have a son, and that the offspring of that son would be able to settle in the land from Egypt to the Euphrates. Notably for Paul, this covenant occurs before the covenant was made with Abraham along with the directions for circumcision (which was given in Genesis 17). Paul is utilizing the supremely important account of Abraham to demonstrate that the works of the Law (even the one that was a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham as well as a symbol of the sanctification of the Hebrew people in later times) cannot justify someone. Paul is saying this, “Look, Abraham was justified before circumcision. And we all know how important circumcision is! But Abraham had faith before he was circumcised. And that faith was what justified him!” Additionally, in the middle of this discourse on Abraham, Paul introduced a second example of justification without works from the life of David. Here’s the section that Paul quoted:

Psalm 32:1-2. Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

Psalm 32:5 indicates that David brought his sin before God, and God forgave him of that sin. Here is another great example of when God imparted righteousness without works. David believed that God would forgive him. In Romans 4, Paul utilized his understanding of the Old Testament to help the Christians of the first century understand righteousness and justification.

These are just a few of many examples of how Paul (and other New Testament writers) used the Old Testament. The point is clear: the Bible must be read as a narrative. Christians cannot expect to be able to read the Epistles in a vacuum and understand what they are reading. The Bible is a book meant to be taken as a whole, not chopped up into pieces. The Bible is the story of the goodness of God and the redemption of the world. While the Epistles are an important piece of that story, they do not and cannot provide the whole picture. Jesus explained his mission in terms of the Old Testament Scriptures (John 5:39; Luke 24:27). Philip taught the eunuch from Isaiah forward (Acts 8:30-35). A robust understanding of the Old Testament is helpful for New Testament interpretation and application.

An additional comment can be made here about Paul’s use of the Old Testament: it is absolutely clear that Paul had a “high” view of the Old Testament. Whenever Paul used the term “Scripture,” whether translated from graphe, as in Romans 4:3, or gramma, as in 2 Timothy 3:15, he had the Old Testament in mind. Here are a few examples of this:

Romans 9:17. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Romans 10:11. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Galatians 3:22. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Look at Paul’s use of the term “Scripture.” He often accompanied it with the article, making it translatable as “the Scripture.” Paul saw the Old Testament as “the Scripture.” What about 2 Timothy 3:16, which is sometimes quoted to refer to the whole Bible? Let’s take a look at the context.

2 Timothy 3:14-17. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Again, we find Paul defining “sacred writings” (gramma in the Greek) as exclusively the Old Testament. How can we be sure? The only writings Timothy would have had access to as a child would have been the Old Testament canon. With this in mind, Paul wrote verses 16 and 17. There is no doubting that he meant it to indicate the Old Testament, but this does not keep the modern Christian from applying this term to Paul’s writings as well. How can we conclude this? Let’s look at the only occurrence of the word “Scripture” that clearly refers to New Testament texts in the entire Bible.

2 Peter 3:15-16. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

The key word in verse 16 is the word “other.” Peter called Paul’s writings “the wisdom that was given to him” in verse 15 but followed that with a comparison to the Old Testament Scriptures. Peter called Paul’s writings Scripture! As such, there is a biblical basis for calling the New Testament writings “Scripture” and for understanding 2 Timothy 3:16 in light of that, but it is important for us to understand the general usage of that word in the New Testament: “Scripture” is the Old Testament.

Modern Christians must also have a “high” view of the Old Testament. But how can we read and understand the Bible in a way that is practical and accurate? Paul’s view of the Old Testament did not lead him to live the fullness of the Law. Specifically, Paul taught that circumcision was unnecessary and outdated. Paul understood that life radically changed after Pentecost. So much of the life available after Pentecost was prophesied about in the Old Testament. The Epistles are, in part, the result of God showing Paul how these Old Testament texts apply to life after Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Much of what God intended for life that became actualized after Pentecost was prophesied about before Pentecost. And that is the joy and beauty of reading the Bible as Old and New Testaments together. There are things that modern Christians can understand better than the original Hebrews who heard these messages 2,500 years ago, because we have the post-Christ vantage point. And there are things that we must “travel” back to Israel and Judah 2,500 years ago to understand this collection of texts that we love.

To conclude this series, I have a few general remarks. The entire Bible points to the plan of salvation and the Messiah, Jesus. As such, there is much to learn and apply throughout the entire Bible. Modern Christians cannot focus on one section too much at the expense of the others. So, while the post-Pentecost writings that make up the New Testament are more applicable in many ways, the pre-Pentecost writings have plenty of information about God and His Kingdom and plan for the ages. Here are some basics on time periods that we have seen throughout this series:

• The entire Bible is the narrative of God’s plan, and as such is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. No part of the Bible is more important than another in a general sense.
• There are aspects of pre-Pentecost life, including sacrifices and observing days (to just name a few examples) that no longer apply directly to the post-Pentecost Christian.
• The Old Testament provides the backbone for the Bible. In the Old Testament, God revealed His plan to redeem mankind through the nation of Israel. Many aspects of the Old Testament were unclear but shine much more clearly through the life of Christ Jesus.
• The Gospels display the powerful mission and life of Jesus the Messiah. Even though Jesus lived and died, rose, and was ascended before the day of Pentecost, he is our greatest example of how to live God’s way. As such, the Gospels are generally applicable to the post-Pentecost Christian.
• The Epistles are, in part, designed to show how God’s plan as revealed in the Old Testament became fulfilled through our Lord, Jesus Christ. The Epistles also offer a variety of advice on how to live life through the spirit since that aspect of life has changed from that of life before Pentecost.

Our encouragement is for you to enjoy reading the whole Bible to gain scope over God’s plan of salvation and your place in it. May we all grow more attuned to God’s desires for our life through His Word and His spirit living within us!

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