Far from the church being a distant or parenthetical thought, the Holy Spirit so moved the writers of old that it should be clear the things pertaining to Israel “happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (I Corinthians 10:11). They have rich application for the church in the new covenant age, both for what they reveal about Christ and for what they also show us about the church in union with him.
We have been promoting happily David Murray’s book Jesus on Every Page, as it is such a clear presentation of how we can see Jesus throughout all of Old Testament literature as the Lord said we could (Luke 22:44; John 5:39). Could it also be true that we can find “the church on every page” in the Old Testament, or at least the church on almost every page?
I believe so.
Of course this cuts against the grain of dispensational theology that grips much of the church today, which in itself is a sad irony as it leaves the church downplaying its very existence. You see, one of the key tenets of dispensationalism is the sharp distinction made between the nation of Israel and the church. This more than perhaps anything else is what distinguishes dispensational theology from covenant theology. Though many systems of dispensationalism exist, every form of which I am aware sees God’s plan for Israel as different from that of the church in one fundamental way. What is it? Dispensationalists see the Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel as fundamentally describing the physical nation of the Jews rather than the church of the New Covenant. Many dispensationalists would even go so far as to say the church is not prophesied about in the Old Testament and, based on their view of certain prophecies such as Daniel 7:24-27, deem the age of the church as “parenthetical,” i.e. not a major aspect of the overall plan of God.
Rather than this diminished view of the church, it is clear that the New Testament writers did not read their Old Testament this way. They saw the church as the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies. Consider one aspect of Old Testament prophecy, that of typology, where symbols that taught Israel a moral truth also served to predict the future realities during the time of the Messiah. As the authors of the New Testament books showed how Christ primarily fulfilled Old Testament types, their thinking then immediately flowed right into how the church further fulfills these types by virtue of believers’ union with Jesus. As Louis Berkhof wrote in Principles of Biblical Interpretation, “At the same time, it should be borne in mind that some types may find more than one fulfillment in the New realities, for instance, one in Christ, and another in the people who are organically connected with him” (Berkhof, 147, emphasis mine as this implies the church).
For the sake of brevity, how about I explain here one key example that clearly shows this, then offer others for you to ponder? In this demonstration then, consider the church as the temple of God.
Every believer should see that Jesus came as the tabernacle of God (John 1:14), God’s true temple. Our Lord clearly identified himself as such when he stood in Herod’s temple and proclaimed, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I shall raise it up” (John 2:19; see also Revelation 21:22). He was the chief cornerstone that the builders despised (Psalm 118:22; I Peter 2:7). Thus, the temple of the Old Testament was typical of Christ.
Yet a Master Builder cannot plan to set a chief cornerstone without also including the rest of the foundation and the building! So Paul readily spoke of the prophets and apostles who wrote of Christ as the God-given completion of that foundation (Ephesians 2:20), and regularly referred to the church as the temple built on this foundation (Ephesians 2:21-22) as it is now indwelt by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:12; 3:16). Note how similarly Peter connects this typology when he says, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious,you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2:4-5).
Based on this truth, the New Testament authors then take the articles in the temple, from altars to veils, and use them in reference to both Jesus and the church. For instance, Christ is the light represented by the lamp stands in the temple (John 8:12, 9:5); as such, the church in union with him is his light and lamp stands in this world (Philippians 2:15; Revelation 1:20). Jesus’ offering of Himself was a sweet fragrance of incense to God (Ephesians 5:2); as the church dwells in holiness with Christ she offers herself up in obedience as incense similarly (II Corinthians 2:14-16; Revelation 5:8). Since the New Testament is saturated with this temple imagery regarding the church, the believing reader really only has two options in explaining its presence there. Either one thinks the New Testament writers were very imaginative and creative in using the temple and its articles to describe the church, or God, planning and foreseeing what was to come in the age of Christ, deliberately arranged the Old Testament to foreshadow Christ fulfilling this imagery, first through his own person, yes, but also in further fulfillment through his church. I rather think Paul, Peter, John and the rest write as if it were the latter.
The incredible wonder of it all is that this is a consistent pattern throughout typology. Wherever you find Christ being referred to in the New Testament with Old Testament imagery, in such varied objects and people as the bridegroom, circumcision, seed of Abraham, high priest, vine of God, kingly Son of David, or shepherd (just to give seven more examples), you almost always see the church either sharing that description or complementing it as the bride, the true circumcision, children of Abraham, priests, branches of the vine, ones seated with Christ in heaven, or sheep and even under shepherds, respectively. We are in such union with our Savior the same rich terms used throughout Scripture to describe him are used in describing what we have become and what we have in him. Does that not astound you?
This means we can read our Old Testament Scriptures with confidence in their message to the church. Far from the church being a distant or parenthetical thought, the Holy Spirit so moved the writers of old that it should be clear the things pertaining to Israel “happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (I Corinthians 10:11). They have rich application for the church in the new covenant age, both for what they reveal about Christ and for what they also show us about the church in union with him. We can believe as Paul encourages us that all the promises of God in the Old Testament find their Yes in Christ, so that is why it is through him we can utter our Amen to God for his glory (II Corinthians 1:20). The church should worship Christ in awe and wonder for the privileges we have, for though we were once not his people, now we – Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ – have become the true people of God (Hosea 1:10; I Peter 2:10).
This then leads us to the Old Testament type most fully developed and descriptive of all the church typologies in Scripture. In I Corinthians 10:11 above, the word describing Israel as “an example” to the church is literally “a type.” Ironically, Israel itself is the chief type of the church. How much we will miss about the nature and life of the church if we do not see this.
Barry York is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (‘The Covenanters’) and is a professor at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Penn. He blogs, along with six friends, at Gentle Reformation, where this article first appeared, and is used with permission.