Any persistent student of Scripture soon stumbles on the problem of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The confusion springs from several key differences between them.
First, the scope of the testaments differs considerably. The former covers roughly a millennium and half of redemptive history (not counting the hazy period before Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and involves a multitude of characters living in different periods and locations around the ancient Near East. The latter covers a time period spanning less than a century and involving a relatively limited cast of characters.
Second, the form of the two testaments differs greatly. The Old exhibits texts comprising diverse genres ranging from poetry to legal code, from historical narrative to apocalyptic vision, while the New is comprised primarily of a historically unique genre called “Gospel” and a list of letters, at least one of which includes an extensive apocalyptic section.
Third, the message of the two testaments seems divergent. The Old encodes the prehistory and history of an ethnic—not to mention geopolitical—entity called Israel, including its constitutional documents and great orators, while the New describes the life and times of a singular individual and the followers he commissioned to proclaim his message of salvation.
As an Old Testament professor I often get asked, “How does the Old Testament relate to the New?” Here’s an analogy I like to give in response: The Old Testament is the blueprint; the New Testament is the building.
Before you build, you need a blueprint. The blueprint explains exactly how the building will be built. It shows you the wiring, the framing, the joists, the rooms, the floorplans. But once the building is built you don’t throw out the blueprint; you keep it around since it shows you the inner-workings. Anyone who’s renovated a home knows the value of the blueprint. You need to know where the wiring is laid, where the load-bearing walls are located, where the stairways and exits can be found in case of emergency. It’s hard to locate these things when you’re looking at the building. The blueprint is of utmost importance, but no one would say the blueprint is the building.
The blueprint explains the building. If someone asks to see the building before it’s built, you take them to the blueprint. Once the building is completed, however, you take them to the building itself.
The same is true with the New Testament. The New Testament is the edifice to which the Old Testament inevitably points and undoubtedly explains. The covenants, their signs, and the revelation that attends them anticipate Jesus and his kingdom. Indeed, they have little meaning without their fulfillment in Christ.
Here are four further reasons why I think this is a useful analogy.
1. The blueprint relates to the building in an organic, interrelated way.
The relationship between the Old and New Testaments is similarly one of organic development from anticipation, shadow, type, copy (or what we might call plan, form, design, profile) to reality, fulfillment, substance, actuality.
The curtain of the Old Testament closes on the people of God waiting for a litany of end-time promises. The New Testament opens with how the fulfillment of those promises are being inaugurated in Christ. When John the Baptist quotes Isaiah 40, he’s saying the restoration is finally happening. When Matthew quotes Isaiah 9 in relation to the northern kingdom, he’s doing the same. In other words, Jesus and the apostles are not starting a new religion. They are interpreting the Old Testament in light of the person and work of Jesus. Just as you cannot separate the blueprint from the building it describes, so you cannot separate the Old Testament from the New.
2. Understanding the building assumes understanding the blueprint.
The teaching of the Old Testament is assumed in the New. If you wish to understand virtually anything about Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and significance for the world, you must flip back to the Old Testament.
For example, do you want to understand how Jesus is Christ (the Greek title referring to his role as Messiah)? No doubt his “Christhood” is one of the most common claims about him throughout the New Testament. Yet there’s little teaching about what the title “Christ” actually means. To grasp how Jesus is Christ, then, we must return to the Hebrew Scriptures and engage with its promises of a Davidic heir who would effect restoration from exile, restoring God’s people to their rightful place. The New Testament writers assume you already know what they’re talking about.
The examples are endless. Do you want to understand how Jesus is a prophet, or a priest, or a king, or a temple, or the true people of God? You can only discover what such titles and themes mean by reading the Old Testament. It is the blueprint for the kingdom of God, and Jesus is the building.
3. As the blueprint shows the building’s structural and ornamental aspects, the Old Testament relates to the New in a variety of ways.
On the one hand, there are load-bearing—that is, structural—walls. Themes like God’s presence, God’s holiness, God as a warrior, God’s requirement of righteousness, covenant, new creation, redemption from slavery/exile, grace, sacrifice, and sanctuary are crucial to an understanding of both testaments.
There are also themes we might call ornamental. These are more vague, allowing for a certain latitude in our understanding. The exact nature, role, and hierarchy of the angels, for example—and various aspects of the spiritual realm, for that matter—figure into the teaching of both testaments, but they often resist clear understanding.
The term “ornamental” does not mean unimportant. In Ephesians 6, Paul declares that the conflict of the Christian life is in fact spiritual, though it often wears carnal clothes. What we find in disciplines like demonology or angelology or in popular movies often stem from extrabiblical sources far removed from the teaching of redemptive history.
4. The building is not a distraction from the blueprint, but its proper purpose.
The revelation of Jesus does not establish a parallel path of redemptive history that runs alongside the work of redemption established in the Old Testament. There isn’t now one plan for those “in Christ” and another plan for ethnic Israel. All Old Testament roads lead to Christ. He is, after all, the Davidic heir, the true Israel, the better high priest, the righteous remnant, not to mention the one in whom the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col. 2:9). He is the only hope for the new Israel—the children of the promise (Rom 9:8).
Uses and Limits of Analogy
No analogy yields a one-to-one relation to the thing it describes. If it did it’d be a copy, not an analogy. That said, sticky problems arise when we approach the relationship between the testaments, and word pictures can help.
I offer this blueprint/building analogy, then, as one that highlights not only the provisional nature of the Old Testament in relation to the New, but also their organic and progressive connection.