Progressive Revelation

by Matt Carter

One of the big reasons we are often reluctant to read many Old Testament books like Exodus, Joshua, or 2 Samuel is that these books usually strike us as boring and devoid of significant meaning. We might even have a little fear of encountering one of those "eye for an eye" texts that we are not sure what to do with. We then either stubbornly plow through them or leave them for some distant and undefined future.

If we take the first route, we probably don't get much out of our reading. This is understandable. We should not expect much spiritual insight when we struggle with ordinary insight. If we take the second route, we miss a lot of the meaning embedded within our favorite New Testament passages. In either case, we are often left frustrated and even a little guilty. We need a way forward.

Much of our problem with these Old Testament books stems from not having enough of them within our memory to catch their references and not having the reading comprehension skills for ancient Hebrew texts. We have relied on Bible memory work, private devotions, Sunday School, and Bible studies to address the first part of this problem. The first step in our way forward, therefore, is to regularly read the Bible.

The second step is to acquire that reading comprehension by learning how to read the Bible so that it makes sense to us. To do that, we must recognize that the Bible is unified yet diverse. The Bible is unified, because the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us. The Bible is diverse, not only because it was written in different languages and over many hundreds of years, but because God’s revelation of himself to us in the Bible is progressive not static. This progressive nature of God’s self-revelation is what so often trips us up when we try to read through the Bible.

What does it mean that God reveals himself to us progressively in the Bible? It simply means that Jesus is the center of history and revelation. Both history and the Bible progress towards Jesus as their center. The biblical revelation of God's story does not smoothly or uniformly progress towards Christ and the restoration of all things in him, but it does get there. It gets there, because that is God's goal in revealing himself to us through the diverse stories of the Bible. Remember, the goal of God's revelation is Christ not personal messages or instructions directly to us. The ultimate meaning, resolution, and relevance of everything in the Bible is found in Christ.

When we read the Bible without recognizing this progressive revelation, we not only flatten out its diversity, but we also miss out on how this trajectory can help us make sense of what we read. This Christ-centered trajectory is part of why the New Testament is easier for us to get, but this same trajectory also tells us how to read the Old Testament. The New Testament fulfills what was already present within the Old Testament. How does this help us to understand the Bible?

Whenever we read an Old Testament passage, we can come away with a bunch of possible reasonable interpretations for what it means. Because the Bible is unified in its centering on Christ, we know that the only valid interpretations are those that are in sync with what the New Testament also tells us. If we read something in the Old Testament that we think is at odds with something in the New Testament, then we know that we are mistaken in our understanding of:

  1. what the Old Testament is saying,
  2. what the New Testament is saying,
  3. or in what both of them are saying together.
We also know that we can legitimately go looking for Christ and God's redemption plan as we read within the Old Testament.

The New Testament does not abolish the Old Testament. The New Testament fulfills the Old Testament. They are united, having the exact same LORD and primary author. Christ is at the center of the entire Bible. Knowing this, we can ask where we see Christ in the Old Testament law. We can also ask what the Old Testament law tells us about Christ. We can ask questions like these, because the entire Bible is God progressively revealing himself to us. He is both the primary author and the primary character of the Bible.

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