By Christopher VanDusen

Have you ever seriously considered the description of Jesus’s followers (aka Christians) in the New Testament? What do we see? We see many and serious problems, yes, but what is the emphasis of its description?

First of all, we see radically transformed people. For the most part, they either start off as woefully misguided and deceived Jews, or wickedly depraved idol-worshipers from the lands around the Roman Empire. But once they receive the Holy Spirit, they become either wise and understanding witnesses of Jesus who shake the whole fabric of Jewish society, or humble and pure opposers of the very pagan practices that they used to indulge in.

Secondly, we see a lovingly united people. For the sake of the Lord Jesus, the Jews who become Christians turn their backs on the only communities they have ever known, and are despised by their unbelieving Jewish neighbors. But sharing a love for their Redeemer and Lord, they recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus’s family, rather than in the Jewish family. Likewise for Gentile converts, the universal hatred they used to have for one another is now replaced by a deep affection for those who have also been rescued from the domain of darkness. What’s more, in the New Testament the two most divisive and hostile groups in the world – Jews and Gentiles – now come together and treat one another as brothers and sisters in God’s family. They love one another, care for one another, and now count it heaven on earth to be with one another.

Thirdly, we see earth-shakingly influential people. The Christians in the New Testament either disrupt or transform the societies around them. With their new-found love for the Lord Jesus and for one another, they show their unbelieving neighbors the power, grace, holiness, and glory of the one true God. This persuades droves of sinners to either believe the gospel and join them, or fight against the gospel and oppose them. Even with both reactions being triggered, the Roman Empire’s various Jewish and pagan societies are transformed for good, and the gospel is staged to spread out to the lands outside of its bounds.

When you compare these descriptions of the New Testament church with your own life, how do they match up? How truly different is your lifestyle from the unbelievers around you? Do you really treat the Christians that you interact with on a regular basis as if they’re your brothers and sisters? How much of an impact are you having on your unbelieving neighbors, coworkers, and friends? If most of us who live in the western world are honest, our lives are depressingly lacking in the holiness, love, and power that the Christians in the New Testament had.

What are the reasons for these alarming discrepancies? While there are many specific reasons in each individual case, the New Testament clearly presents a few general diagnoses of our worldliness, coldness, and ineffectiveness. I propose to you at least three main misunderstandings among western Christians that have been hindering our Christlikeness and power for centuries:

  1. Misunderstandings of the overarching message and purpose of Scripture
  2. Misunderstandings of our identity and nature in Christ
  3. Misunderstandings of how we follow Christ according to our identity

The Overarching Message and Purpose of Scripture

The first main hindrance to our conformity with the goal of holiness and power that Jesus has given us in Scripture is misunderstanding the main message and intent of those very Scriptures. Most Christians would say that the basic message of Scripture is the story of God’s redemption or salvation of people through Jesus. But ask them to explain how Scripture lays this out in the grand sweep of its accounts, and you’ll find many inconsistencies.

The two most prevalent inconsistent views of Scripture that western Christians hold to are formally called Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. Covenant Theology sees both testaments, the New and the Old, as describing basically the same redemption and people, with added blessings in the New. Therefore, both testaments are almost equally applicable to Christians today, so that God’s relationship to us is fundamentally the same in both testaments, whether it be with the Jews in the Old, or Christians in the New. In contrast, Dispensationalism relates the two testaments by asserting an essential and eternal difference between God’s relationship with the Jews, and His relationship with Christians. This view of Scripture says that God has always, and will always, deal with the Jews in physical ways, while He’s now dealing with the church – a separate group – in strictly spiritual ways, until He finally fulfills certain promises made to the Jews through a physical kingdom on earth. By far, Dispensationalism is the most widely held theology among western Christians. This view leads to Christians neglecting wide portions of Scripture, since they are thought to only directly apply to another period of time, or to another group of people.

What are the main detrimental consequences of these theologies, then? For Covenant Theology, it’s attempting to apply both testaments to Christians in a very similar way, while for Dispensationalism, it’s failing to recognize all of Scripture as being applicable to Christians today. Now, we ought to know that the view that Dispensationalism advocates is wrong, since Paul the apostle declares in 2 Timothy 3:16:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness . . .”

Now, I know that most “Dispensationalist” Christians will protest, and say, “I don’t think that some portions of Scripture are irrelevant for us today!” But how can this be the case, when you say that a huge chunk of prophecies won’t be fulfilled until Jesus takes the church from earth and begins the “Great Tribulation”? This confines a good eighth portion of Scripture entirely to the future, and also as only having to do with ethnic Jews and unbelievers for a large part of the time. What benefit is it for us to know the specific details of a highly intricate plan that will take place over the span of several years, while we’re enjoying our heavenly fellowship with Jesus after the “rapture”? Little to none!

The problem for believers in Covenant Theology (or Reformed Christians) is the exact opposite. They attempt to apply the same character traits and living standards to Christians that were applied to the Jews in the Old Testament. The reason for this is that they view Old Testament Jews and New Testament Christians as fundamentally the same group of people, but in slightly different relationships with God. And the main belief that leads to this understanding is that God has made one supreme “Covenant of Grace” with His chosen people. This promise is that He will redeem them through Jesus, but He applies this covenant to His people in two different ways – first through the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, and then through the New Covenant in the New.

Both of these systems of thought fail to relate the Old and New Testaments together properly. Of course, the Bible is the story of God’s redemption of humanity through the Lord Jesus Christ, but He accomplishes this redemption in two radically different ways in the Old and New Testaments. So the key to understanding how Scripture applies to us is understanding how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament.

The Essential Principles for Interpreting the Old Testament Scriptures

The first key to understanding Scripture is that the New Testament provides the final interpretation of the Old. The author of Hebrews begins his spectacular message by declaring:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” (Heb. 1:1-2a)

Here, the author immediately sets up a contrast between old revelation and new revelation. The old revelation is what “God spoke to our [Jewish] fathers by the prophets”. This is clearly a description of the Old Testament. Then, the author points out that in “these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”. And who is this Son? The Lord Jesus. What is he saying, then? He’s saying that God’s message from His Son is superior to, and supersedes the revelation that God gave to His Old Testament people through the prophets. That means that what Jesus has revealed has priority over what the Old Testament reveals.

So how are we to understand and apply the prophecies of the Old Testament? The apostle Peter gives us a brief overview in 1 Peter 1:10-12, where he explains:

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”

The first main thing that Peter tells us about the message of the prophets is that it was primarily about “grace”, “the sufferings of Christ”, and “the subsequent glories”. In other words, the theme of Old Testament prophecy is God’s grace bestowed through Christ’s sufferings and glories. Secondly, in verse 11, Peter tells us that the prophets didn’t understand the meaning of their prophecies. Why? Because it was “revealed to them” that they weren’t serving themselves, but Peter’s audience who heard the gospel! This includes all those who have shared the experience of Peter’s audience. And what was their experience? The things that the prophets prophesied about God’s grace through Christ were “announced” to the first century Christians who heard the gospel. That is, the gospel of God’s grace in and through Christ fulfills Old Testament prophecy!

A third and fundamental principle that establishes the truth that the New Testament interprets the Old is Luke’s description of the first church:

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Now, a striking thing about this description is that almost all of these Christians were avid students of the Old Testament. But which teaching were they devoting themselves to? Not to “the Scriptures”, but to “the apostles’ teaching”. Why? Because the apostles had learned from Jesus for three years, and He had taught them what the Old Testament meant. Not to mention that He was still teaching them what it meant through the Holy Spirit whom He had just sent to live in their hearts. Hence, we see in this formula for the first church’s vibrant life that the direct source of their teaching and understanding of Scripture was the apostles’ teaching. And where is the apostles’ teaching found now? In the New Testament.

How the New Testament Describes the Fulfillment of the Old (OT)

Having established that we need to understand Scripture according to the teaching of Jesus and His apostles, how exactly does the New Testament describe the fulfillment of the Old? First, Jesus is the grand subject of the OT; second, He fulfills it by “gathering all things together”; third, He fulfills all the OT “types”; and finally, every individual promise is fulfilled by Him.

Soon after Jesus is raised from the dead, He appears to His disciples in a private room, and gives a concise description of how the Old Testament is fulfilled:

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47)

When Jesus speaks of “the Law . . . the Prophets and the Psalms”, He’s referring to the three main sections of the Old Testament, thus pointing out that all of it points forward to Him and His work. Then, He gives us a great summary statement of the Old Testament’s message: the Christ will suffer, rise from the dead, and then cause the message of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” to be proclaimed “to all nations”. So, not only is the OT fulfilled through Christ’s death and resurrection, but it’s also fulfilled through the preaching of the gospel throughout the entire world. This still continues today.

The Lord gives an even more concise explanation of the OT, which includes a warning of studying Scripture for the wrong reason, in one of His indictments of the Pharisees:

“. . . and you do not have his [the Father’s] word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me . . .”

According to these words, although the Pharisees intended to gain eternal life through their study of Scripture, their efforts were completely useless because they failed to recognize that the grand subject of those Scriptures was Jesus, the One whom they had seen and heard in person.

Turning now to Paul’s teaching on the fulfilment of the OT, we’ll start by looking at his foundational teaching in his letter to the Ephesians. In the first chapter, he not only points out that Christ is the focal point of God’s revelation, but that His entire work of redemption is as well, from its beginning to its end. He does this in his description of one way that God has blessed believers “in the heavenly places” – by

“. . . making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:9-10)

Here, he describes God’s will as a “mystery”. This word simply means a “secret” that was kept secret before Christ came, but has now been made “known”. What is this will of God? Paul describes it as “a plan for the fullness of time”. The “fullness of time” literally means the “filling up” of “time,” or the consummation or intended end of all previous history. This goal of history is that God will “unite all things in [Christ]”. The Greek word translated “unite” literally means “to bring together” or “to gather together”. So what Paul is saying is that, through Christ, God is redeeming the entire universe – things in heaven and on earth – to be under the control and reign of Christ. And this message has been revealed to all believers as the “mystery” that was faintly pictured in the OT, but clearly manifested through Christ, His teaching, and His work.

Further on in his letter, Paul elaborates on Christ’s “gathering together” of all things by describing how He’s doing this in His people, and thus revealing more “mystery” that was once kept hidden in the OT:

“. . . the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly [in chapter 1]. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel . . . so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 3:3-6, 10)

In this passage, Paul explicitly calls the “mystery” of the OT Christ Himself. Then, he describes this revelation as being highlighted through the Gentiles – or “nations” – being “equal partakers” of the promise of Christ “through the gospel”. And where is this promise of Christ found? In the OT. So, in this description, we see that one of the key ways in which Christ is “gathering together” all things is by redeeming the nations of the world through the gospel. And for what main purpose? To make “known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” “the manifold wisdom of God” “through the church”. In other words, the revelation of the fulfillment of the OT’s promise to bless the nations through Christ is purposed to put God’s infinite wisdom on display to the spiritual beings that have been ruling over the nations (a subject for another time).

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul describes the apostles’ message in a way that expresses how the nations are blessed through Christ:

“. . . of [the church] I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

In these words, Paul says that “the word of God” that he and the other apostles were proclaiming was the very “mystery” that had been concealed in the OT. He succinctly puts it as “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. That is, the message of the apostles to which the OT pointed was that Christ would indwell, or live inside, the Gentiles, and thus give them “the hope of glory”.

But how could the perfectly holy and righteous Christ ever indwell wicked pagans? Paul gives the answer in his astounding explanation to the Galatians of how Gentiles can be Abraham’s followers:

“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 how are the Gentiles blessed by Christ? Through Abraham, as the OT itself says, when it quotes God as telling Abraham that all the nations will be blessed in him. And what is this blessing? Justification, or declared righteousness before God, by faith.

As a final note on this point, Paul explains in one of his sermons in Acts that this promise was secured through the resurrection of Christ:

“And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the [Jewish] fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’” (Acts 13:32-33)

Not only are OT prophecies fulfilled by Christ, but also OT institutions. Paul teaches this in his letter to the Colossians, where he says,

“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Col. 2:16-17)

Here, Paul lists a few of the OT rituals for Israel – festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths. Then, he calls them “a shadow of the things to come”. Like shadows being cast by someone’s body, so are all the OT rituals and institutions, while in between them and the light of the Holy Spirit’s teaching stands Christ Himself, the “substance” of those shadows. In other words, they were all pictures of Christ and His work. In theological language, these are called “types”.

Finally, Paul leaves no room for any OT promise not fulfilled through Christ when he tells the Corinthians:

“For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 Corinthians 1:20a)

That is, name any promise that God made in the OT, and you can find out through the NT how Christ has provided for its fulfillment.

From looking at how the NT describes the fulfillment of the OT, can you now see how the teachings of Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism fall short of Scripture’s own description of itself? Scripture doesn’t describe the same people and redemptions in both the Old and New Testaments. Nor does it describe two different plans of redemption – one for the Jews, and one for the Gentiles. Instead, it describes God’s promises and preparation of Christ’s coming and work in the OT, and His accomplishment and fulfillment of that coming and work in the NT. The Bible is a book of promise and fulfillment.

While this is very encouraging, how can we use the OT in our everyday living? Paul provides the answer in a statement he makes to the church in Rome:

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)

In the previous sentence, Paul just quoted from the Psalms, so we know that “whatever was written in former days” is the OT. So notice his purpose statement for the OT: “for our instruction”. Our instruction in what? “Endurance,” which is sustained by “the encouragement of the Scriptures”, so that “we might have hope”. So not only is the OT an explanation of God’s purposes and plans behind Christ’s redemption, but its also a source of practical instruction and encouragement, so that we can endure the trials of this life, and thus realize the hope of eternal life.

Now that we’ve seen the main message of Scripture, we need to examine its explanation of its purpose for believers. For this, we’ll turn again to Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

The Purposes of Scripture for Christians

“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.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

To reiterate, make note that Paul specifically says that all Scripture is all the things that follow. The first thing that all Christians agree on is that it’s all “breathed out by God,” or is the direct communication of God in our possession. And most Christians believe that Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, [and] for correction”. That is, Scripture can be used to teach us, to chastise us, and to fix us.

But it seems to me that less Christians believe that Scripture is also profitable “for training in righteousness”. What is “training in righteousness”? The Greek word translated “training” can also be translated “discipline”, and refers to the sustained, methodical, and laborious use of practices meant to eliminate weaknesses, and introduce new strengths. The word implies the use of consistent, deliberate, and focused efforts of studying, learning, and applying Scripture to specific areas of “righteousness”, or right living. Many Christians learn from Scripture, but a comparatively fewer number actively, thoughtfully, and prayerfully apply Scripture to their everyday lives.

This last use of Scripture leads into one of the most neglected truths about its purpose in western Christianity. The whole purpose of studying, learning, and applying Scripture is “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Notice the two comprehensive descriptions in this statement. First, Paul says that the goal of Scripture training is so any “man” (or woman) of God will be “complete”. Then, he says he’ll be “equipped for every good work”. This means that the teaching of Scripture is all that’s needed for any Christian to be “complete” as a follower of Christ, and able to do any good work!

But notice what Paul did not say. He didn’t say that the purpose of Scripture study is so that God’s people will be “happy”, or “smart”, or “nice”, or “good”. No, he says that the purpose of such study and application is to be “complete”, or “mature”, so that such a person will be ready to do any “good work” necessary to serve God! This is the direct purpose of all Christian learning. Whenever we learn from Scripture about anything, let us remember that it must somehow have something to do with how we live.