“Therefore, as he was coming into the world, he said: You did not desire sacrifice and offering, but you prepared a body for me. You did not delight in whole burnt offerings and sin offerings. Then I said, “See — it is written about me in the scroll — I have come to do your will, God.” After he says above, You did not desire or delight in sacrifices and offerings, whole burnt offerings and sin offerings (which are offered according to the law), he then says, See, I have come to do your will. He takes away the first to establish the second. By this will, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I’ve tried to talk about it with every different example and illustration I’ve been able to imagine. I’ve run out of them, and the author is still making the same basic point, saying the same basic thing. The new covenant was always God’s plan. The old covenant was always intended to be a placeholder. We know this because God started telling the people what His plans were a very long time ago. Using a quote from Psalm 40, the author of Hebrews shows us one of the times this happened. Let’s change things up today just a bit and talk about interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the New.
How exactly new covenant believers are supposed to make use of the old covenant writings is a fairly hotly debated topic among the relevant class of scholars. I have an entire commentary (and a thick one at that) dedicated to examining nothing but how the various New Testament authors made use of the Old Testament.
The task is not an easy one. Each author approaches the old covenant writings in a slightly different way, and yet each author was equally inspired by God to use them as he did. The question, then, is not which one is right and which one is wrong. The question is not even which is more correct than the others. They’re all correct. The question is how we can best do our own Old Testament interpreting within the framework the New Testament authors provide for us.
In spite of some variation, though, one of the things all of the various New Testament authors do when it comes to the Old Testament is to see all of it through the lens of Jesus. In their fairly consistent view, everything in it is ultimately about Jesus in one way or another. The connection may not always be direct, but Jesus is always the final focus. This doesn’t necessarily mean the Old Testament authors themselves understood that’s who they were writing about—they almost certainly did not. But as the Spirit was inspiring them—the same Spirit who was inspiring the New Testament authors—He was talking about Jesus even if they didn’t get that. At least, that seems to be the perspective of the New Testament gang.
The big word to describe all of this is “typological.” The various Old Testament writings often have typological interpretations. This means there is more than one interpretation depending on which lens you are using to see it. There’s one interpretation the original audience was able to immediately see and understand. Then there’s a second interpretation that is more directly about Jesus. Now, this isn’t to say the second interpretation was impossible for the original writer to grasp. With the Spirit’s help, it was. I’m not backing down here from my oft-made argument that a text cannot mean something it could have never meant. We simply don’t know how much the Spirit always helped the original authors understand the full weight and context of the things he wrote. The fact that we believe in prophecy suggests that at least sometimes they did.
All of this is necessary background for us to look at this particular passage. The author of Hebrews in making the final points in his argument about the superiority of the new covenant as compared with the old turns to a passage from Psalm 40. Written by King David, the whole thing is a wonderful expression of praise to God and a cry for help in a tough situation. The author here focuses in on vv. 6-8 where in its original setting David writes: “You do not delight in sacrifice and offering; you open my ears to listen. You do not ask for a whole burnt offering or a sin offering. Then I said, ‘See, I have come; in the scroll it is written about me. I delight to do your will, my God, and your instruction is deep within me.’”
Now, we see David talking about the insufficiency of sacrifices and offerings as a means of drawing near to God several times in his various writings in the Psalms. We also see the same idea expressed by several of the prophets. The theme is not an obscure one in the Old Testament. In spite of the existence of the sacrificial system as a means of obtaining a covering for sins, God never desired or intended for sacrifices to be the means of connecting with Him in a loving relationship.
Yet here, when David was almost certainly talking about the kind of pure hearted pursuit of God that He desired us to have of Him, the author of Hebrews sees something else. He sees a clear pointer to the end of the sacrificial system at the hands of Jesus who took the relevant actions to hasten its demise at the direction of God the Father. That is, the end of the sacrificial system had always been God’s will.
David’s point was that the way to God’s heart was obedience, not dead animals. What the author of Hebrews sees is something even deeper. It’s not simply that the way to God’s heart is faithful obedience instead of animal sacrifices, but that this was always God’s plan. In other words, God was pointing to where He was trying to take the people long before they actually got there. More specifically, He was pointing to the end of the old covenant long before the time for that arrived. I happen to think he’s right. But then, he has to be because the Spirit inspired him to make this observation. Without the lens of Christ firmly in place, though, he would have never been able to see this.
As much as I have been boosting up the surpassing greatness of the new covenant with respect to the old, the old is still worth studying. It is worth our time and careful reflection. After all, the original disciples had nothing but the old covenant writings and the teachings of Jesus to fill things out. They didn’t have anything like our New Testament to rely on as we do today. If it was good enough for them, it’s still good enough for us. But when we go to it, we must do so through the lens of Jesus. He is the interpretive lens we must consistently use. If we try to do anything else, we’re not going to make the positive sense out of it we need to better understand and support the new covenant. Use the New to understand the Old. Otherwise, you’ll be lost.