Friday, February 06, 2004

Hints, Allegories, and Mysteries -- The New Testament Quotes the Old

RSSAbstract: This essay presents examples where the New Testament treats Old Testament passages as hints to broader truths.

This series of essays comes from a complete paper available on this web site. I am serializing it on this blog to both advertise it and to invite discussion. You can read the entire paper by clicking here.

Remezim (Hints)

Let me start with the three passages from Matthew. Somewhat arbitrarily, one might categorize them as remezim or “hints.” The principle reason for this choice comes from Matthew’s use of the Greek word PLEROO translated “fulfill.” Although our tendency is to think of prophetic fulfillment in a predictive sense with “fulfill” meaning, “coming to pass,” PLEROO can also mean “complete,” “fill full,” or “fill to the brim.”  This, then, is the sense that Matthew had in mind for these quotations.[1] 

From this viewpoint, when Mary, while yet a virgin, conceived and gave birth to Jesus, it filled up or gave enhanced meaning to Isaiah 7:14. In other words, the significance of the historical event forever adds a shade of meaning to the prophetical event. A remez recognizes that God wired us with associative memories. Who can read “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” and not think of Jesus, His virgin birth, and the fact that He was God among us? Regardless of the p’shat meaning of Isaiah’s words to Ahaz, they will forever afterwards also speak by association of the virgin birth of our Lord. The verse has a fuller meaning that it had before[2].

Similarly, when Jesus’ parents took Him to Egypt and later returned, it “filled full” the meaning of Hosea 11:1. Israel is called “God’s son,” but how much greater is the One who is more truly God’s Son?  That He would also dwell, for a time, in Egypt communicates God’s desire that the Messiah would completely identify with His people. One can imagine that Matthew, who composed his gospel to reveal Messiah as Israel’s King, decided to bring the subtle hint, contained in Hosea 11:1, into sharp focus.

Likewise, the words of Jeremiah are a perfect description for the grief of the mothers whose children Herod killed. And so the scripture, after the historical event, hints at and speaks to the horrible grief experienced by Bethlehem’s mothers.

Here is an interesting example of the remez principle at work! You will not find it in the New Testament, but it illustrates the rabbinical concept of “hint” in a very fresh and enlightening way.

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. (Genesis 14: 18)

Have you ever thought of the Sacrament of Communion when you read this passage? Have you ever looked more closely at the event to see if there was a prophecy of communion? Although there is no prophecy of the Last Supper here, the central importance of Communion in the Church provides an associative link between this verse and church practice. Genesis 14:18 is a remez of Holy Communion. Matthew recognized the same principle when he quoted Isaiah 7:14, Hosea 11:1, and other passages.

The point is this. A scriptural text may carry semantic associations that go beyond the simple meaning of its words and context. It is a right-brained connection and, therefore, violates the western-enlightenment-left-brained preference for propositional logic. The importance of this has been stated well Dr. Daniel Wallace:

The Holy Spirit does not work just on the left brain. He also works on the right brain: he sparks our imagination, causes us to rejoice, laugh, sing, and create. Few Christians are engaged and fully committed to the arts today. Where are the hymn writers? Where are the novelists? Painters? Playwrights? A very high-powered editor of a Christian magazine told me two weeks ago that he knows of only one exceptional Christian fiction writer. What are our seminaries doing to encourage these right-brainers? What is the Church doing to encourage them?[3]

The interpretive modes of remez, drash, and sod are right brained, non-linear, associations of meaning that we can imagine that God intended from the beginning. Furthermore, their proper use may help encourage right brain activity in the church. Of course, there must be guidelines. We do not want them to become a source of strange doctrines and confusions.

Here is a remez from the Apostle Paul.

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He?  Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? (1 Corinthians 9:9-11)

The strict exegete must chuckle uncomfortably whenever he reads “God is not concerned about oxen, is He?” From a strict grammatical-historical exegesis, God cares about them very much! The tension only increases with the words, “Or is He speaking altogether for our sake?”  This seems to say that oxen are of no account whatsoever. Paul, it would seem, totally discounts the p’shat of the text.

But Paul discerns that the commandment hints at a higher principle. That principle has no better translation than these words of Abraham Lincoln,

It is the eternal struggle between two principles---right and wrong---throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says: ‘You toil and work and earn bread---and I’ll eat it...’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.” 

But note how terse and handy the scripture reference is. It is easy to memorize and communicates to young and old.

But how does Paul get away with minimizing the importance of the ox? It is the rule of proportionality. If the commandment is good for oxen, how much more is it for mankind. If it is good for mankind, how much more is it for preachers of the gospel. For Paul, this commandment, by protecting the bottom of the agricultural food chain, protects those whom God most cares about.

Monday: More Hints

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>

[1] This raises an interesting question about the use of PLEROO in Matthew 5:17. Did Jesus “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets in the sense of walking perfectly in them? Or did Jesus “fill them to the brim” or “complete” them? If it is the latter, then the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount may be understood in the light of completing the Law. It is the backdrop for Jesus’ formula during the sermon, “You have heard that it was said <quote from the Law>, but I say <violation in the heart invisible to the eyes of men>” The Law is made complete by bringing the heart into the equation. In so doing, Jesus lays the groundwork and establishes the necessity of the new covenant that Jeremiah prophesied (Jeremiah 31:31-34). That is, the Lord will write His Law on our hearts (heart righteousness) and our sin He will remember no more (a permanent solution). By making obedience a heart issue and by sending the Holy Spirit for our sanctification, the Lord writes the “filled full” law on our hearts and we find the “obedience of faith.” [Romans 5:1] By His death and ressurection, He completely cleanses us from our sin.

[2] It can be noted that the NET Bible translation of Isaiah 7:14, although accurate, no longer communicates the remez of the text. In my opinion, this is an unfortunate loss.

[3] Wallace, Daniel B., The Uneasy Conscience of a Non-Charismatic Evangelical (Biblical Studies Press, 1994)  [On-line]. Available:


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