Building Up, Not Tearing Down
How Luke and John relied on the Hebrew Scriptures
The Bible Jesus and the apostles used was the Old Testament because no New Testament existed in the early days of the church. That fact alone is enough to dismiss attempts to downplay the Old Testament’s importance for Christians today.
Sometimes, this de-emphasis comes from a desire to unravel God’s promises about a future land and Kingdom for the nation of Israel.1 Early Christians knew Jesus predicted that new truth from God was coming (Jn. 14—16). In 1 Timothy 5:18, the apostle Paul referred to Luke 10:7 (“the laborer is worthy of his wages”) as Scripture, along with Deuteronomy 25:4. Also, in 2 Peter 3:15–16, the apostle Peter called Paul’s writings Scripture. Consequently, 1st-century Christians understood that the Bible was being expanded.
Nevertheless, the New Testament has a strong relationship to the Old Testament. Hundreds of direct, Old Testament quotations appear on the pages of the New Testament. Furthermore, the New Testament contains thousands of allusions to Old Testament verses. An allusion refers to a passage without quoting it directly, often using some of the same wording or imagery. John 3:14, for example, alludes to the snake on the pole in Numbers 21:9.
Building on the Old
However, none of the quotations or allusions should be interpreted by reading the New Testament back into the Old. The New Testament does not veto the Old Testament text. Doing so would violate the progress of revelation.
Believers must interpret the Old Testament in the way God gave it—and God gave it so the original hearers and readers would understand it in their day. They did not have to wait hundreds or thousands of years to receive the New Testament in order to understand the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament must be understood on its own, apart from the New.
On the other hand, the New Testament builds on the Old without changing or canceling any of the unconditional promises God has given, such as the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12; 15), Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7), and New Covenant (Jer. 31). The men who wrote the New Testament still believed in the validity of the land and Kingdom promises for Israel. However, Christ’s teaching and that of the apostles form the basic doctrine driving the daily lives of Christians today (Acts 2:42).
For example, Christians do not sacrifice animals at a Temple since Christ came and died for our sins. However, this fact does not mean the church should neglect the Old Testament. It provides knowledge of God and wisdom for living, and many Christians enjoy its blessings. However, Church Age saints obey the Lord’s commands while trusting in the Holy Spirit’s empowerment to help them live holy lives (Rom. 8).
According to the United Bible Society, the Gospel of Luke contains 26 Old Testament quotations, which amounts to more than one per chapter.2
Sometimes, Luke quotes from the Hebrew text; other times, he quotes from the Greek translation called the Septuagint (LXX). The Old Testament book he cited most frequently is Psalms (seven times). Next is Deuteronomy (six times), followed by the prophet Isaiah (five times).
The remaining citations come from Exodus (three times); Leviticus (twice); and Malachi, Daniel, and Hosea (once each). Clearly, Luke knew all sections of the Old Testament: Moses and the Law, the Prophets (major and minor), and the Writings (which includes the Psalms).
Luke 4 contains a cluster of quotations. When Satan tempted Jesus to turn a stone to bread as Jesus fasted in the Judean wilderness, Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Lk. 4:4).
Luke also recorded the Devil quoting from Psalm 91 after he led Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and challenged Him to throw Himself down if He was the Son of God. Satan justified the temptation by quoting verses 11–12 of the psalm, which affirm that the angels would keep Jesus from hitting the ground (Lk. 4:10–11). Satan showed that he knows the Bible, perhaps better than many believers today.
Jesus, of course, rejected Satan’s offer and quoted Deuteronomy 6:16: “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God’” (Lk. 4:12).
Following His temptation, the Savior started His teaching ministry, including in synagogues. When handed the scroll of Isaiah, He read from 61:1–2:
The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD (Lk. 4:18–19).
Then Jesus told His audience, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Thus, Jesus affirmed that, in His First Advent as the Messiah of Israel, He was fulfilling these predictions from Isaiah. Interestingly, He did not finish reading Isaiah 61:2, which includes “and the day of vengeance of our God.” He did not proclaim that He was fulfilling those words in His earthly ministry because that aspect of His work awaits His Second Advent, when Messiah Jesus will destroy His enemies and restore Israel permanently to Kingdom glory.
John’s Gospel contains 16 Old Testament quotations.3 As in Luke, the Psalms are quoted the most (eight times), followed by Isaiah (four times). Of the remaining four quotations, two come from Zechariah and one each from Exodus and Numbers.
Like Luke, John cited verses from all sections of the Old Testament: Law, Prophets, and Writings; and he, too, quoted from both the Hebrew text and the Greek LXX.
In John 1:23, he cited Isaiah 40:3 and the prediction that someone would come before Christ, “crying in the wilderness.” John the Baptist quoted these words and identified himself as this messenger.
John 12:15 quotes Zechariah 9:9: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” This prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus rode into Jerusalem at the triumphal entry.
In John 19:24, the apostle recorded words from Psalm 22:18: “They divided My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots.” This verse is ascribed to the Roman soldiers who engaged in this very activity with Jesus’ garments as Jesus was being crucified for our sins.
Although there are many more Old Testament quotations and allusions in these books, these examples help to establish the fact that the Old Testament is the foundation for the New Testament. The latter builds upon the former and does not dismantle the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures. As a result, we still should believe its promises about Israel’s future.
- Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989), 77–79.
- Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce Metzger, eds., The Greek New Testament, 5th ed. (Stuttgart, Germany: United Bible Society, 2014), 860–61.
- Ibid., 861.
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