Imagine that you’re reading a really good story. It’s the kind of story you hate to put down and you can’t wait to get back to. It’s got an interesting premise, a believable world, compelling characters, and a riveting plot. It’s enlightening and challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing.
Now imagine that you’re reading along in this story, you finish a chapter, you turn the page—and it’s blank. The story just ends, abruptly. “Wait a minute,” you think, “that can’t be it. There must be more!”
So you talk with others who have read the same book, and you find they feel the same way. There are too many expectations unfulfilled, too many questions unanswered, too many tensions left unresolved, too many characters undeveloped, too many loose ends. The story is terrific—it’s just incomplete. It needs a sequel.
As you talk with other fans of the story, though, you realize everyone has different views on how the story should end. You argue back and forth, and different camps emerge: some say the story would best be completed in one way, others say, “No, it has to finish this way!” and still others think they alone have the best ending to the story.
This was the way it was for the people of Israel after the time of the Old Testament, after the ancient kingdoms had fallen, after the exiles to Assyria and Babylon and beyond, after some had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild a city, a temple, and a way of life. In those centuries, the Jewish people read their Bible just like this story: it’s compelling, it’s enlightening, it’s challenging—but it’s incomplete. There was something more to come. There just had to be.
The Jewish Scriptures presented a story in search of an ending. But Jews of that day disagreed about how the biblical story should end, and different views emerged.
Some expected God to come in a mighty supernatural act to overthrow God’s enemies and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Others longed for that same result, but thought God would only act if everyone followed the Law of Moses the way they were supposed to. Still others thought God would not act supernaturally, but God would only act through God’s people, so the Jews needed to be prepared to fight God’s enemies when God came. Some thought they needed to begin the fight right now. And still others thought all this was nonsense: God comes among us now when we worship in the Temple, they said, or when we study the Law of Moses.
Today we know of these different groups as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots—and there were others, and factions within them. Each of these groups saw Scripture as a story in search of an ending, and they each offered a different ending to the story.
For the first followers of Jesus, the earliest Christians, nearly all of them Jews, Jesus was the proper end to the biblical story. To use the Apostle Paul’s words, Jesus is the “end” of the Law of Moses—he is its telos, its “completion,” its purpose and goal, its fitting conclusion (Rom 10:4). To use language especially loved by Matthew, Jesus “fulfills” the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 5:17-18). All those biblical expectations of God coming to God’s people, of God acting on behalf of God’s people, of God bringing in God’s kingdom on earth—Jesus fulfills these expectations. All throughout the New Testament, this same idea comes through in different ways (e.g. Luke 24:13-27; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 2 Tim 3:15-17; 1 Pet 1:10-11).
The Jewish Scriptures—the Christian Old Testament—present a story in search of an ending. And, for Christians, Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.
To say that is an act of faith, of course. Not everyone in Jesus’ day agreed with this, and not everyone agrees with it today. But one of the earliest and most basic confessions of Christian faith is “Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah,” and to confess that is to say exactly this: we believe Jesus is the promised king in the line of David, the one who will bring in God’s kingdom on earth and fulfill God’s purposes for Israel and all humanity. In other words, Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.
We also, of course, need to be careful how we say this. We must not devalue the Old Testament in its own right. These are the sacred Scriptures of Judaism, the Tanakh, and they are challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing and enlightening—through the many voices of these Scriptures one can still hear the voice of God. But even Jews today acknowledge in some sense the “incompleteness” of these Scriptures, and so they look to a long line of interpretive traditions, most significantly the Talmud, to complete them through explanation or expansion. Many Jews await a completion still to come.
So the Old Testament is a story in search of an ending. And by faith we as Christians say that Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story. But what difference does this make for how we should read the Old Testament? Let’s go back to that picture we started with: reading the story that ends abruptly.
Let’s say that in talking with others about this unfinished story, someone shares an ending to the story that is so compelling you can’t help but wonder if they are reading the author’s mind. All those unfinished plot threads are woven together. Characters are developed in believable ways. The questions are answered, the problems are resolved, the expectations are fulfilled. It’s a fitting ending to the story.
But let’s say this ending is surprising. We’ve all read books or watched movies that have a surprise ending. It’s still a fitting ending to the story, it makes sense of the story and brings everything to a satisfactory conclusion, but it’s different than anyone could have guessed.
What do you do with that book or movie? Well, the next time you read that book or watch that movie you’ll read or watch it differently, won’t you? The story is the same as it has always been, and much of it won’t seem any different. But you’ll see hints of that surprise ending that you never noticed before. Some of those things that seemed odd now make sense. Whole sections of the story take on new significance. You might even reconsider what the story’s really all about, now that you know how it ends.
That’s what it’s like for us reading the Old Testament, confessing that Jesus is its fitting ending. Because Jesus certainly is, in many ways, a surprise ending to the story.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected a Messiah, but no one expected a Messiah like Jesus: a Messiah who fed the poor and healed the sick and touched the lepers and ate with outcasts and forgave sinners.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to bring in God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace and justice, but no one expected the kingdom to come about like Jesus did it: not with an army but with a dozen straggling followers, not with swords but with words of truth and deeds of love, not with power and might but in weakness and self-sacrifice.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to act on behalf of Israel, but no one expected God to act like Jesus did: born into poverty, living in utter humility, utter humanity, suffering and dying in shame and disgrace.
Jesus is a fitting ending to the biblical story, but he is also a surprise ending to the story.
So what do we do with that surprise ending? We re-read the story in light of it.
This is just what the Apostles and the earliest Christians did, and we follow in their footsteps left for us in our New Testament. They proclaimed Jesus, they explained Jesus, and they did this in large part by re-reading their Scriptures in light of Jesus, the completion to the story.
This doesn’t mean we try to find Jesus explicitly on every page of the Old Testament. No, the plural “Let us make” in Genesis 1 is not a reference to the Trinity. No, the “angel of God” that appears to Abraham is not a pre-incarnate Jesus. No, there is no secret Bible code in the patterns of Hebrew words that spells out “Jesus” (not even ישוע). We still need to read the Old Testament in light of its genres, its different kinds of writing. We still need to hear the different voices of the various Old Testament writings.
Rather, it’s more that Jesus answers questions that are raised in the Old Testament. Jesus solves problems that are posed in the Old Testament. Jesus resolves tensions that are presented in the Old Testament. Jesus fulfills expectations that are prompted in the Old Testament. Jesus lives out values and virtues that are affirmed in the Old Testament. Jesus brings together important ideas that are highlighted in the Old Testament.
So, for example, we see in Jesus an emphasis on love, that God loves us deeply, that the most important thing we can do is love God and love other people—and so we read the Old Testament as Jesus did and find running through it streams of hesed and tsadiq, loyal love and covenant faithfulness.
We see in Jesus a rejection of physical violence, a refusal to repeat the cycle of violence, a willingness to absorb violence himself in order to spare others that fate—and so we see in the violence of the Old Testament something less than God’s ideal, and we highlight the Old Testament calls for forgiveness and mercy and enemy love.
We see in Jesus God bringing about healing for broken people, even a broken creation—and so we find in the Old Testament a recurring pattern of God creating something good, then humans distorting that good thing through sin, and God never giving up, always responding with forgiveness and restoration.
So as Christians we read the Old Testament as if Jesus is the fitting ending, yet the surprise ending, to the Old Testament story. We read the Old Testament in light of Jesus, and we see in the Old Testament all those threads that are woven together in Jesus—threads of peace and justice, repentance and forgiveness, liberation and healing, suffering and joy, love and life, death and resurrection in the kingdom of God.