By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
Jesus is famous for teaching in parables. These are little stories that are symbolic of something spiritual. For instance, Jesus told a story about a farmer sowing seeds. He then talked about how the different seeds grew depending on what type of soil they fell on. Jesus later took his disciples aside and told them what the story really meant. He said the seed is the word of God that is preached, and the different ways the seeds grew represented how different people respond to the gospel.
I want to propose that this provides us an illustration for how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The Old Testament is a parable. The New Testament is the spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament parable. The Old Testament is the symbolic story that really represents something else. The New Testament is Jesus taking us aside and telling us what the Old Testament really meant. Therefore we should always read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament which will tell us what the Old Testament meant all along.
I got this idea from Hebrews 11:17-19 that is quoted above. It is the retelling of the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac. The writer of Hebrews says Abraham was willing to do this because he believed God would return Isaac to him by raising Isaac from the dead. Then the writer makes an odd statement: “and in a manner of speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”
There is one word behind the phrase the NIV translates “in a matter of speaking.” Other versions translate it in different ways such as “figuratively” or “as an illustration.” But the Greek word is one that is very familiar to Christians. It is based on word for parable. We could translate the phrase as “parabolically, he did receive Isaac back from death.”
He is saying that Isaac’s rescue from death in the Old Testament is a parable of a New Testament reality: the resurrection. Scholars differ as to whether it represented Christ’s resurrection on Easter or whether it represents the resurrection of believers on the Last Day. I will not get into that debate at this time. What is important is to see is that the New Testament calls this Old Testament event a parable.
I believe this gives us a paradigm for interpreting all of the Old Testament. Indeed this is in fact how the New Testament consistently interprets the Old Testament from Matthew to Revelation. It spiritually interprets the Old Testament in light of the person and work of Jesus. His life, teachings and saving work are symbolically foreshadowed in the Old Testament. He is the spiritual reality that gives the true meaning of the Old Testament parable.
Now I want to make clear that this does not mean I think the historical events in the Old Testament are only symbolic. No, I believe they really happened. But I believe the New Testament says these historical events have a spiritual meaning that is fulfilled in the coming of Christ. When reading the Old Testament, the Christian should always ask, “how is this a foreshadowing of Jesus” which will give me the deeper spiritual meaning of the text.