Reading the Bible like Paul

Paul and other New Testament writers ask: How does the Old Testament point us to Jesus?


My Sunday school class recently studied the book of I Corinthians, and I was asked to lead a lesson on chapter 10. I was tempted to focus on Paul’s main points about idolatry and the use of our freedoms that dominate the chapter, but instead my thoughts lingered on verses one through five.

Here Paul explains that the ancient Israelites are disobedient to God even though they are “baptized into Moses in the cloud and the sea and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10:2-4). Despite having read these verses before, I struggled to plan a discussion of them, simply because Paul is reading the Old Testament story of the Exodus in such an unusual way. The Red Sea crossing is interpreted as a baptism of the Israelites, eating manna in the wilderness becomes a kind of communion and drinking water from the rock points to Jesus.

Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament in these verses is not how we typically teach Tabor College students to read the Bible. We follow standard principles of biblical interpretation. We try to discover what the text meant for the original readers or listeners, and then we think about applying this same meaning to us today. In this passage, Paul interprets Exodus in a way that challenges this method of interpretation.

The issue

Paul and other authors of the New Testament (NT) refer to Old Testament (OT) texts often, and many of these passages are straightforward. Careful readers of the Bible have long noted, however, that many more of these quotations are actually quite challenging. When surveying how the NT authors interpret and use the OT, it quickly becomes obvious that they do not always employ the same methods of reading the Bible that we use today.

In our schools and churches, we are diligent about exegeting passages through careful consideration of the text’s meaning by studying elements like historical background, literary context, word studies in the original language and other historical-grammatical methodologies. When using these kinds of tools on the text of the Red Sea crossing in Exodus 14, for example, we rediscover a great deal about the significance of that passage, but “baptism into Moses” is not the usual result of our exegesis.

Paul is not the only NT author who reads OT Scripture in a way that extends its meaning beyond what the first author originally meant. In Matthew 2:13-15 the author tells the story of Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to Egypt to avoid persecution by Herod, quoting Hosea 11:1 when he says, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Hosea uses these words to look back to the story of the Exodus when God delivers his children by leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Matthew sees a connection between the Exodus story and Jesus’ story, so he perceives a new layer of meaning in Hosea’s words, applying the prophecy not just to the Exodus but also to God’s ultimate deliverance through Jesus.


The two examples above illustrate a common occurrence. We regularly find NT authors referring to OT texts in ways that go beyond today’s normal methods of Bible study. A survey of OT quotations in the NT results in a surprising number of times that the OT text is given an additional understanding by writers like Paul and Matthew. In light of the fuller picture that God reveals in and through Jesus, they gained a new level of insight into these OT texts that was not available previously. Their worldviews are now dominated by Jesus, and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they use typical Jewish methods of interpretation to draw out something that extended beyond the original historical references in the text.

However, the NT authors don’t just cherry-pick proof texts from the OT and randomly give them new meanings to validate their belief in Jesus as Messiah. There is usually a strong connection between the two stories. Both stories usually focus on the same themes and main points, even if the specific people and events are different. Despite the fact that Hosea is referring to Israel, and Matthew uses these words to point to Jesus, the theme of deliverance is central to both stories and binds together the prophecy and its fulfillment.

In addition to careful exegetical interpretation of the OT text, the NT writers also look back at the OT with a heavy theological filter. Jesus is a surprising fulfillment to what God has been doing among them all along, and that single truth is so powerful that it causes them to reread the whole Scripture with new eyes. Jesus himself sets the precedent for this kind of reading in passages like John 5:46 and Luke 24:27 where he claims that Moses and all the prophets write about him and all the Scriptures point to himself.

Implications for us today

Although we are not inspired in the same way as the authors of the NT, their example can still help us learn to read the OT and even the whole Bible more deeply. When reading the OT, we can look for ways that a passage points to Jesus. In terms of the big picture, Jesus is the end or goal of Scripture. This is the major new development in the thinking of the NT authors and it gives them rich insights into how Scripture shows God at work. Matthew, Paul and the others boldly see foreshadowing of Jesus in the most unlikely passages because they are convinced that it is all about him in some ultimate way. How does this text point us to Jesus?

We should not be afraid to read the Bible with a blatantly theological lens. It is helpful to reflect on how the big sweeping themes of Scripture are found in a specific passage and to search for thematic connections to other passages, even if the authors of the texts do not explicitly mean to make these connections. The big ideas of the Bible are there in many stories, and they illuminate each other in often surprising and rich ways. We ask: How does this text connect to the big picture of what God is doing to restore and redeem his creation?

In the first chapter of Joshua we read a story of God encouraging Joshua as he takes over leadership of the Israelites from Moses. God assures Joshua that he will always be with him and will never leave or forsake him. The Lord exhorts Joshua to “be strong and courageous” and not afraid or discouraged.

In reflecting on this text in the way described above, I wonder if Jesus ever read this OT book and felt a close connection to Joshua since they shared the same name (Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua). They are both successors to Moses and repeat several of the events in Moses’ life.

When Jesus was born he is given the name Immanuel because like God’s promise to Joshua it means that God is with us. I wonder if Jesus ever looked to this passage for encouragement as the cross loomed nearer and his mission felt as imposing and fearful as conquering a land full of giants. Finally, I wonder if God’s promise to never leave or forsake Joshua during hard times was in Jesus’ mind when on the cross he asked God why he had forsaken him.

These approaches to reading Scripture do not replace the careful exegetical study of the text that is a part of our traditional approach. But they act as supplements that can lead to deep reflections on Scripture as we zoom out to take in the whole picture informed by the larger context of the entire Bible.

We are not creating new meanings to biblical texts when we do this, and our insights gained in this way are by no means inspired interpretations of the OT. But there is great value in adding a level of reflection on the Bible that seeks to understand what God is doing in the OT now that we know the end of the story. It is similar to the way watching a great movie a second time reveals things we missed before.





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