Promises, Patterns, and Principles

A Primer on the New Testament’s Use of the Old

From Matthew to Revelation, the New Testament is saturated with citations of the sacred Scriptures. The apostles and their associates appeal to the Old Testament to explain God’s plan of salvation for Israel and all nations through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and to instruct God’s people about how to live in the present evil age. This article provides a primer on how the New Testament writers cite the Scriptures. To understand the disciples’ powerful and sometimes perplexing quotations of the Old Testament, we begin with their Teacher and Lord.

Roads from Old to New

After his resurrection, Christ teaches his disciples, “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” (Luke 24:44). This sweeping claim prompts us to ask some important questions: What are those things “written about” Christ, and in what sense are they “fulfilled”?

Let’s start with the word “fulfill,” which we might use for a store fulfilling an order or a person fulfilling a commitment. The Bible uses fulfillment language not only for prophetic predictions but also for patterns shaped by God’s promises that prepare us for later and greater people, institutions, and events. With this in mind, our Lord’s references to “everything written about me” and “all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25, 44) include not only explicit messianic prophecies (like Isaiah 53) but also patterns and prefigurements of the Messiah throughout the Old Testament.

The use of the Old Testament in the New has intrigued and challenged theologians for generations. For example, Martin Luther likened the Old Testament to “the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies” (Luther’s Works, 35:235). And C.H. Spurgeon explained that as every English village has a road leading to London, “so from every text in Scripture, there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ” (“Christ Precious to Believers”). While this brief article cannot travel all those paths leading to Christ, I aim to highlight three of the most significant thoroughfares from the Old Testament to the New: promises fulfilled, patterns perfected, and principles restated.

Promises Fulfilled

The New Testament frequently quotes the Old Testament to highlight the fulfillment of a specific promise or prediction. In these instances, Christ and his followers make clear that ancient prophecies have come to pass in their midst, which demonstrates that the sovereign Lord’s words are trustworthy and true. Consider several examples from the Gospel of Luke and the apostles’ preaching in Acts.

One of the most dramatic examples of promises fulfilled is Luke 4:16–21, where Jesus stands to read the prophecy of Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He then sits down and states to the people of Nazareth, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus’s point is clear and extraordinary. Isaiah wrote about him. The Spirit rests on him, as Luke’s account of Jesus’s conception, baptism, and temptation have made clear (Luke 1:35; 3:22; 4:1, 14). He is anointed to proclaim good news and liberty to captives and outcasts.

Christ is similarly emphatic when he cites Scripture shortly before his arrest in Luke 22:37:

I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” For what is written about me has its fulfillment.

Jesus here quotes from the final verse of Isaiah’s famous prophecy of the suffering servant (Isaiah 53:12). Though he is truly “righteous” (Isaiah 53:11; Luke 23:47), Christ is “numbered with the transgressors” as he gets treated like a robber in his arrest (Luke 22:52), condemned as a lawbreaker (Luke 23:1–5), and crucified between two criminals (Luke 23:32). Jesus appeals to Isaiah to preview his passion and to explain the theological significance of his innocent suffering on behalf of others.

“The Bible uses fulfillment language not only for prophetic predictions but also for patterns shaped by God’s promises.”

Similarly, the witnesses in Acts repeatedly stress that God has accomplished just what he said he would do by sending Israel’s Savior and raising him from the grave. For example, Paul recounts how God raised up David as a king after his heart, and then he declares, “Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised” (Acts 13:23). Then, after recounting how Christ’s suffering and death fulfilled ancient prophecies, Paul exclaims, “We bring you the good news that what God promised to the 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). Paul draws on this famous royal psalm as a compelling proof for Christ’s resurrection and exaltation, which signals the beginning of his unending reign as the promised son of David.

Patterns Perfected

The New Testament also appeals to a number of biblical patterns or types that Jesus Christ fulfills. He is, for example, the king in David’s line (Luke 1:32–33), the prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22), the great high priest (Hebrews 7:26–28), the better temple (John 2:21), and the last Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). Because the Scriptures are breathed out by the sovereign God, they reflect consistent patterns throughout redemptive history. Earlier people, events, and institutions in the biblical story correspond to and prophetically prefigure later and greater fulfillments — a correspondence Jim Hamilton refers to as “promise-shaped patterns.” The study of these historical and theological patterns in the Bible is called “typology,” reflecting the biblical term typos, which means “type” or “pattern.” Thus, Paul calls Adam “a type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14; see also 1 Corinthians 15:45–47).

Of many biblical examples of patterns that are perfected, let’s briefly consider two.

First, God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, which anticipates a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness will dwell (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13). Specific features of Revelation’s final vision of the new creation recall Genesis 1–2, such as the tree of life and the river flowing through it. Revelation 21–22 does not merely describe a return to Eden, however, but rather shows how the end of the story is vastly superior to the beginning as the redeemed people dwell in God’s glorious presence without any residual curse, sin, or threats.

Further, Jesus and the apostles appeal to the pattern of the rejected “stone” that is God’s chosen cornerstone of the new temple (for example, Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:6–8). This image comes from a cluster of Old Testament passages, particularly Psalm 118:22 — “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” — and Isaiah 28:16 — “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’” Jesus fulfills this biblical pattern as he is rejected by the Jewish leaders, who correspond to “the builders” in the psalm (see Acts 4:11), and when he overcomes death to demonstrate that he is God’s chosen Messiah and a sure foundation for his people.

Principles Restated

New Testament authors not only quote Scripture to show how Christ fulfills prophecies and biblical patterns; the Old Testament also provides principles, examples, and moral instruction for Christ’s followers. For example, Leviticus 19:18 — “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” — is cited nine times in the New Testament, more than any other passage. Likewise, Jesus and the apostles restate the Law’s prohibitions on murder and adultery and its commands to honor your father and mother.

The Scriptures offer “instruction” and “encouragement” for believers in various ways (Romans 15:4). New Testament writers appeal to examples of Israel’s unfaithfulness to warn the church about the consequences of sin and unbelief (1 Corinthians 10:6; Hebrews 3:7–19). The steadfastness of Job and the merciful character of God provide hope in times of suffering (James 5:10–11), while Elijah’s life inspires us to pray fervently (James 5:17–18). The righteous person in Psalm 112 who “has distributed freely” encourages Christians to abound in good works (2 Corinthians 9:8–9). Likewise, the Law’s instruction about the unmuzzled ox offers an analogy for God’s people to support those laboring in gospel ministry (1 Timothy 5:18; 1 Corinthians 9:9). And God’s perfect character continues to provide the standard for the holy conduct of believers (1 Peter 1:15–16).

This list is far from exhaustive, but it illustrates the broad applicability of biblical examples and principles for believers’ life together until Christ’s return.

Concealed and Revealed

The great church father Augustine once wrote, “The New is hidden in the Old and the Old is revealed in the New” (Writings on the Old Testament, 125). Indeed, the two testaments hang together in a way that reveals God’s grand plan of redemption and confirms the complete reliability of God’s word. Readers would be hard pressed to find a chapter of the New Testament that does not explicitly or implicitly reference the promises, patterns, and principles of the Old Testament. Phrases like “it is written” and “to fulfill the Scriptures” and “God said” remind us that the Old and New Testaments cohere and culminate in the coming of Christ in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4).

Indeed, “all the promises of God find their Yes in” our Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20).