The New Testament authors affirm that the Old Testament was written for Christians and that the prophets knew they were writing for our benefit. The prophets also knew something about Christ and the time of his coming, but the full meaning of their texts at times transcended their understanding.
Serving Not Themselves (1 Pet 1:12)
According to the New Testament authors, the Old Testament authors knew that they were speaking and writing for new-covenant believers, and they also had some level of conscious awareness about who the Christ would be and when he would rise. With Christ’s coming, anticipation gives rise to fulfillment, and types find their antitype, which means that new-covenant members can comprehend the fullness of the Old Testament’s meaning better than the old-covenant rebel and remnant.
The Old Testament’s Audience
Romans 4:23–24, 15:4, and 1 Corinthians 10:11 stress that the Old Testament author wrote his text for the benefit of believers living this side of the cross. For Paul, the Old Testament is Christian Scripture and fully applicable to believers when read through Christ.
The apostle said this much to Timothy as well. Speaking about the Jewish Scriptures, he wrote that the “sacred writings … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). Thus, Paul asserts, “All Scripture is … profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (3:16–17).
Based on this fact, New Testament authors frequently cite Old Testament instructions, assuming their relevance for believers today. For example, Paul reaches into the Ten Commandments when addressing children (Eph 6:2–3; Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16) and draws on execution texts from Deuteronomy when speaking about excommunication (1 Cor 5:13; Deut 22:21, 22, 24). Peter also recalls the refrain from Leviticus when he writes, “Be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15–16; Lev 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26). Because we are now part of the new covenant and not the old, there are natural questions that rise regarding how exactly the Christian should relate to specific old-covenant laws or promises (see future posts on this topic!). Nevertheless, the point stands that God gave the Old Testament for Christian instruction.
Paul was not explicit as to whether it was only God’s intent, as the ultimate author, to write the Old Testament for our instruction, or whether this was also the human authors’ intent. Peter, however, made this clear when he wrote that “it was revealed to [the Old Testament prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you” (1 Pet 1:12). He emphasized that the human authors themselves knew that their Old Testament words were principally not for themselves but for those living after the arrival of the Christ. Therefore, the Old Testament is actually more relevant for Christians today than it was for the majority in the old-covenant era.
The Old Testament Prophets’ Understanding of Christ’s Person and Time
In John 8:56, Jesus declared that Abraham eagerly expected the coming of the Messiah. Similarly, Peter believed that David himself anticipated Christ’s coming in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:30–31), and David’s last words affirm that he was hoping in a just ruler who would overcome the curse and initiate a new creation (2 Sam 23:3–7). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews stressed, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar” (Heb 11:13). The Old Testament remnant enjoyed some light; they themselves wrote of the Christ and hoped in him.
On the other hand, Jesus also declared that “many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it” (Luke 10:24).