For a more succinct version of this review, visit Amazon.com.
If someone were to approach you and tell you that they’re interested in learning more about Jesus, you would almost certainly refer them to one of the four canonical Gospels. Right? And yet the gospel, the “good news,” of Jesus Christ is spread throughout the entire Bible, not just in the four New Testament books that bear the title. We just have to learn how to recognize it.
The Scriptures Testify about Me: Jesus and the Gospel in the Old Testament is a collection of eight essays edited by D. A. Carson, each of which exposits a different Old Testament text (except for the introductory essay, which focuses on John 5:31-47), showing how Jesus is revealed in it. The essays are actually edited transcripts of the plenary addresses given in April 2011 at the national conference of The Gospel Coalition in Chicago. By providing examples of how Christ can be preached from a variety of Old Testament genres, the book opposes the all-too-common notion that the Old Testament is irrelevant for Christians and impossible to reconcile with the revelation of God that we are given in the New.
The Old Testament is not a backstory that brings us to the real story, the authors claim; it is the story. Christ is active in its pages.
The contents are as follows:
- “Studying the Scriptures and Finding Jesus” (John 5:31-47), by R. Albert Mohler Jr.
- “Getting Out” (Exodus 14), by Tim Keller
- “From a Foreigner to King Jesus” (Ruth), by Alistair Begg
- “When You Don’t Know What to Do” (Psalm 25), by James MacDonald
- “The Righteous Branch” (Jeremiah 23:1-8), by Conrad Mbewe
- “Youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:8), by Matt Chandler
- “God’s Great Heart of Love toward His Own” (Zephaniah), by Mike Bullmore
- “Getting Excited about Melchizedek” (Psalm 110), by D. A. Carson
The title of the book comes from John 5:39-40, in which Jesus says to a group of Jews, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” The introductory essay by R. Albert Mohler Jr. attempts to unpack this saying, considering the various ways in which the Old Testament (which represented the totality of “the Scriptures” at the time) bears witness of Jesus, as well as addresses some of the most common misreadings and misuses of the Old Testament.
According to Mohler, here’s how NOT to read the Old Testament:
- Do NOT read it as someone else’s book—that is, as the “Hebrew Scriptures,” something foreign to Christianity. The Old Testament is a Christian book. (I think the author’s point should have been clarified more; I often experience the opposite error among Christians, who are very ignorant of the Jewish roots of Christianity. I think we should read the Old Testament as a Jewish book that, by virtue of our incorporation into God’s covenant, has become our story as well. God was first the God of the Jews.)
- Do NOT read it as revealing a different deity than the New Testament (an ancient heresy known as Marcionism).
- Do NOT read it only on its own terms without any reference to the New Testament.
- Do NOT read its ethical system as discontinuous with that of the New Testament.
- Do NOT read it as “intellectually ruinous and morally debilitating,” as Harry Emerson Fosdick does, and therefore to be disregarded.
- Do NOT read it as the Judeo-Christian version of Aesop’s Fables either. Otherwise we are teaching “moralistic therapeutic deism,” the belief that God only wants his creatures to behave and to feel good about themselves. There are some moral lessons to be gleaned from the Old Testament, but that is not its main point; the main point is grace—that’s what testifies about Christ.
This essay raises some interesting points but doesn’t develop any of them. I would have loved, for example, more elaboration on all of the above, and more about how we should read the Old Testament.
Now, D. A. Carson warns in the preface that the book is not a how-to manual on reading the Old Testament, nor is it a reference book on Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. He admits that rather than being a comprehensive overview, it’s more of a toe-in-the-water exploration of a few Old Testament passages that testify about Jesus. The scope is pretty narrow, and there is very little synthesis of ideas—but that is oftentimes the case with essay collections (and conferences), due to their multicontributory nature. However, the first chapter could have provided a sturdier framework, especially since there is no conclusion to bind together the book’s major themes and ideas at the end. There should have been at least one definitive, unifying statement that responds to the implicit questions posed by the title, which are: How does the Old Testament testify about Jesus? What is the gospel in the Old Testament? But it doesn’t do that. It merely restates the title as its thesis.
The publisher’s description begins, “The Bible’s story line is grand in its sweep, beautiful in its form, and unified in its message. However, many of us still struggle both to understand and to best communicate how the Old and New Testaments fit together, especially in relation to the person and work of Jesus Christ.” The actual book does not adequately answer what the descriptive copy suggests that it will: how the Old and New Testaments fit together (besides Jesus being in both of them), and what Jesus’s preincarnate ministry was.
Some questions I would have liked the book to explore, but it did not:
- How does the old covenant relate to the new covenant? And why did God choose to work through both, instead of just starting with the latter?
- Why does God seem so much angrier in the Old Testament, and his laws and commands so much more violent and retributive, than in the New? Aren’t Yahweh and Jesus of the same essence?
- What’s the relationship between law and grace?
- How ought Christians to regard the Jewish law?
- Does Israel still have a role to play in God’s plan going forward?
Even in what they do bring up, some of the essays aren’t as clear or compelling as I had hoped. In the chapter “When You Don’t Know What to Do” on Psalm 25, for example, Christ seems to be merely a dispensable add-on to the author’s interpretation of David’s prayer; his line of argumentation goes something like this: “David prayed to God, and Jesus is God, so Jesus is in this passage.” I thought that the point was to show how Jesus specifically—the second person of the Trinity—is central to the text, and deeply embedded in it.
Even though the book turned out to be disappointing overall, I did encounter bits of insight.
My favorite essay is the one by Tim Keller on the crossing of the Red Sea, in which he demonstrates, exegetically, that the Israelites were saved from the Egyptian army by grace, not by works. He draws attention to Exodus 14:13, which says, “But Moses told the people, ‘Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the LORD rescue you today.” The Lord’s the one doing all the work; we need only to stand in awe of it. Many Christians today, although they profess that salvation is by grace alone, seem to think that their level of faith is also a contributing factor. Not so, says Keller.
The Israelites all crossed over, but that doesn’t mean that they all crossed over with the same disposition. Some walked through marveling at the walls of water: “Wow! Look at that! God is on our side! Eat your heart out, Egyptians! The Lord is fighting for us.” Others were probably walking through like this: “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die!” Yet they all crossed over. Individual Israelites had different qualities of faith, but they were all equally saved. They were equally delivered. Why? Because you are not saved because of the quality of your faith. You are saved because of the object of your faith: the Redeemer, the God who is fighting for you. Everything about this text says, “Grace, grace, grace, grace. Crossing over is by grace.” (46-47)
I also enjoyed Matt Chandler’s essay on Ecclesiastes, on learning to remember and rejoice deeply, under the surface of things, and D. A. Carson’s essay on Melchizedek, the forever-priest and “king of righteousness” from a town called Peace.
If you want a sweeping overview of where Jesus shows up in the Old Testament or guidance on how to read and regard the Old Testament in an overall, post-incarnation sense, this book is not for you (as Carson lets you know up front). But if you’re interested in seeing specific examples of how Christ can be preached from a few different Old Testament texts, ranging from predictive to typological to thematic, the book is worth a read.