From the start, Christians have interpreted various passages in the Old Testament scriptures as referring to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. The overall topic of interpreting the Old Testament from a Christian viewpoint was addressed by two talks at the 2020 annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics (NCCA): The Problem of How the New Testament Writers Used the Old Testament by Mel Winstead and Is the Old Testament Trinitarian? by Jonathan McLatchie. As part of our series of coverage of selected talks from that conference, I summarize here the contents of the presentation by Dr. Winstead. I will give a brief introduction, then try to state the speaker’s case in his own words, and finally offer my reaction.
INTRODUCTION: SOME ISSUES WITH CHRISTIAN OLD TESTAMENT INTERPRETATION
There are a number of passages in the Old Testament prophetic books which (it can readily be argued) seem to depict the coming of some man with divine power who will redeem and deliver and lead God’s people, and which are consistent with the New Testament descriptions of Jesus (both his past and projected future nature and actions). I have treated these passages in Jesus in Old Testament Prophecy — Class Handout, and show several of them below as examples:
(a) Messiah from lineage of Jesse (the father of David); Spirit of the Lord rests on him; his reign will lead to widespread knowledge of God and even alternations in nature itself
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord. [Isaiah 11:1-2]
….And the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
…They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. [Isaiah 11:6,9]
(b) Messiah Comes from Bethlehem; ruler for God over Israel; existed ages before he makes his human appearance.
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. [Micah 5:2 NIV]
A more literal translation is given in the New American Standard Bible:
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. [Micah 5:2 NASB]
(c) Messiah to appear in Galilee; comes as a child, but “the government will be on his shoulders”. He is called “Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”; his rule of peace will grow and last forever.
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness [or “increase”] of his government and peace there will be no end.
[ Isaiah 9:1-2, 6-7a]
(d) Messiah is a victorious king, but humble, riding on a donkey instead of a war-horse. He is righteous. He establishes his rule, not by force, but peacefully. His rule will be over the whole world, not just limited to one nation.
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. [Zech. 9:9-10]
There are of course counter-arguments for these Christian interpretations, and counter-counter arguments, which we will not take the time to traverse. But for many of these passages, it is not hard to draw a fairly straight line between the Old Testament text and a Messiah that looks a lot like the Jesus of the New Testament.
However, there are other places in the New Testament where a Christological interpretation is found in some Old Testament text which on the surface seems like a non sequitur. In principle, it is certainly possible that God sovereignly guided the writing of the Old Testament texts such that they do contain hidden, allegorical meanings, and that the New Testament writers were divinely inspired to discern these meanings. Skeptics and liberal scholars may scoff at this, but there is nothing illogical about this, and there are passages which seem to directly support this aspect of Old Testament inspiration. For instance, the New Testament book I Peter suggests that the Old Testament prophets had some consciousness that the revelatory Spirit speaking through them was pointing toward some novel saving activity of God which would occur after their own lifetimes, yet the full meaning of their predictive utterances was not known to these prophets  :
Concerning this salvation [now accomplished through Jesus Christ], the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (I Peter 1:10-12)
All that said, the talk covered here makes the case that some of these seemingly forced Christological interpretations of the Old Testament are not as far-fetched as they may appear. Rather, the New Testament applications display significant continuity with recognizable native Old Testament themes.
The Problem of How the New Testament Writers Used the Old Testament by Mel Winstead
Dr. Winstead is a professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary. His talk deals with general issues of the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, and also treats several problematic passages in depth. Some common controversial chapters are:
I will paste in a sampling of snipped excerpts from his slides, with minimal commentary. Here are some of the Recommended Resources listed in the talk:
I will just refer to these works by authors’ names. I highlighted the first two volumes (by Beale and by Chou), since they are referred to repeatedly in the talk.
SOME GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
Black and Dockery’s compilation outlines some principles for addressing this area:
Beale offers a nine-fold approach to this subject which casts a wide net for understanding Old Testament references, yet notes that illumination by the Holy Spirit is still necessary:
Rydelnik offers four categories of prophetic fulfillment (direct, typical, applicational, and summary):
Chou proposes that, in understanding why New Testament passage A refers to Old Testament passage B, we look beyond just passage B and consider a network of related Old Testament passages C, D, E. He uses terms such as “intertextuality” and “network of text(s)”:
The issue with intertextuality is that passage being quoted or alluded to are sometimes connected with yet other passages which may “generate a network of text.”
Chou sees the New Testament writers picking up and continuing themes that are present in the Old Testament writings, rather than arbitrarily imposing foreign meanings on the texts:
CASE STUDY 1: “OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON” (MATTHEW 2 / HOSEA 11)
Hosea 11:1 reads, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” This seems like a straightforward, if poetic, reference back to the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, according to the biblical narrative. This was a formative event in the life of that community.
Matthew 2:14-15, written centuries after Hosea, describe how Joseph took the baby Jesus and Mary to Egypt to escape the evil King Herod, and later returned to Israel. It is claimed that this return “fulfilled” the words from Hosea 11, “Out of Egypt I called my son”:
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.
Both of these events involve a movement of people from Egypt to Palestine, so it would not be surprising to have the two likened in some poetic or allegorical way. However, Matthew words it more strongly. In what sense would them migration of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus (which was in the future, relative to Hosea) “fulfill” Hosea’s backward-looking allusion to the Exodus? There are a number of factors which lend plausibility to this interpretation.
Beale notes that:
Snodgrass, in Black and Dockery, notes that individuals and communities are not always sharply distinguished – -“the individual is often representative of the community and vice versa.” Chou reminds us that a text which a New Testament writer is referring to “might be interconnected with other texts which in turn are connected with other passages”:
To sum up with Hosea 11:
CASE STUDY 2: “THAT ROCK WAS CHRIST” (I CORINTHIANS 10 / EXODUS 17 AND NUMBERS 20)
Twice during the wanderings of the people of Israel, when they were about to perish from thirst, their leader Moses struck a rock with his rod, and life-giving water gushed forth from the rock. The apostle Paul, reflecting on the experiences of the people of Israel during their wilderness wanderings, wrote: “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” (I Cor. 10:4-5). Paul stated that these experiences happened as examples for today’s believers to heed.
It would not be surprising if Paul wrote that he saw an allegorical similarity between the water-from-the-rock episodes, and Christ who was beaten and killed, with the result that salvation flowed out to his people. But as with the example discussed above, Paul states the case more strongly, stating “That rock was Christ”. There are a number of other Old Testament passages dealing with God and rocks which suggest that Paul’s allusion here was not a complete novelty.
From Beale and Carson:
Isaiah identifies the Messiah as the rock in Isaiah 28:16 (see also Isaiah 8:14). As Chou notes here, “The Rock is God but is distinct from God.”
It may be noted that in I Peter 2, the apostle quotes Isa. 28:16 and Ps. 118:22 and applies them to Christ as the living stone (the cornerstone – and believers are the “stones”). Summing up the case for rock-as-Christ:
As noted, I don’t have a problem with the New Testament making metaphorical use of Old Testament events and images. However, I was not completely comfortable with the stronger assertions that certain events in the life of Jesus qualified as direct fulfillments of seemingly unconnected events or statements in the Old Testament. Dr. Winstead made a good case, it seems to me, that for the texts examined here, the New Testament’s spin on the passages in question is consistent with a wider network of allusions and understandings within the Old Testament itself.
 Besides the specific claims by New Testament authors that this or that specific Old Testament passage is fulfilled by Jesus Christ, there are pervasive claims that the Old Testament as a whole was given by inspiration to reveal or foreshadow him. This is implied by the passage cited above from I Peter 1, which states that the “Spirit of Christ” in the prophets was inspiring them to predict “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.” Similarly, Paul wrote that the all of the Old Testament Scripture “is God-breathed [inspired] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” and is “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (II Tim. 3:15-16).
Jesus told his Jewish interlocutors that their Scriptures “testify about me” (John 5:39). Immediately after his resurrection, when his followers were still discouraged and assuming that he had been defeated by being killed, he appeared to two of his followers and chided them for not grasping from the entire Old Testament that the Messiah would suffer and then enter into glory:
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”7 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
And with a larger group of his disciples:
He said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)
Cf. Matthew 26:56, Luke 4:21, Romans 16:26, I Corinthians 15:3-4, etc.