What Are We to Make of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament?

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Kieran Beville-3
Kieran Beville (D.Litt, Ph.D, BA, PGDE) is Pastor of Lee Valley Bible Church (Baptist), Ballincollig, Co. Cork, Ireland and Visiting Professor of Intercultural Studies and Practical Ministry at Tyndale Theological Seminary, Badhoevedorp, Netherlands. He has written several books and numerous articles and he has taught intensive courses in Theology and Biblical Studies on leadership training programs in Eastern Europe, the Middle-East and India.

There are approximately three hundred instances where the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament. The New Testament revelation of Christ fulfills the Old Testament promises and types. There is great continuity between the two Testaments. There is also discontinuity.[1] Regarding prophecies, some are introductory formulas (e.g., “As it is written”). Some are exact quotes. Others are summaries or loose paraphrases of Old Testament passages.

Problems may arise when New Testament writers fail to quote verbatim from the Hebrew Bible or when they discover meanings from Old Testament passages, which seem to run counter to its original intended meaning. The question arises, therefore, “does the New Testament distort the Old Testament? Were the apostles of Christ taking undue liberty by reinterpreting certain Old Testament passages? Can we legitimately adhere to the doctrine of inerrancy in light of such apparent abuses of the Old Testament? This is not a simple matter to resolve. But there are answers to such questions. These answers vindicate the doctrine of inerrancy. Such answers prove that the New Testament writers did not abuse the Old Testament Scriptures.

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Exact, verbatim quotations were not as common in the Greco-Roman world of the first century A.D. as in our modern era of the twenty-first century. Usually, a summary or paraphrase was sufficient to make one’s point. This is especially true in the case of the ancient Rabbis who quoted the Old Testament extensively. They did not always quote with precision. The intended meaning was the important thing. Dynamic equivalency rather than verbatim interpretation was the order of the day. To hold the New Testament writers to a level of precision, which was rarely practiced in their time, is unfair. In fact, there are several instances when later portions of the Old Testament quote from earlier ones without adhering to an exact verbal procedure.

Gospel writers can cite Old Testament verses and apply them to Jesus. Sometimes the phrase “Thus it was fulfilled” is used. The majority of New Testament uses of the Bible follow a non-literal interpretation. New Testament scholar, Donald A. Hagner, makes this clear:

However, such clear predictive prophecy and fulfillment is seldom found in the New Testament; it is the exception rather than the rule. Instead…the New Testament writers looked for the meaning of the Old Testament as contained in its Sensus Plenior (full meaning). In so doing, they found varied correspondences, analogies, and suggestive similarities – some more substantial, some less substantial – but all based on the underlying presuppositions of the sovereignty of God in the affairs of history; the unique character of the Scriptures as divinely inspired; and the identity of Jesus as the telos, or goal, of the history of salvation.[2]

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The same points are made by S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. who writes:

It is a common misconception of casual Bible readers that when the New Testament states that a text from the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New, the use of the Old Testament text is that of precise predictive fulfillment. Thus readers are puzzled when they discover from a careful reading of the Old Testament that the Old Testament passage does not seem to speak precisely of what the New Testament seems to suggest. They fail to bear in mind the philosophy of the biblical authors. The writers of Scripture believed that God controlled history. Therefore, history of all kinds, especially the sacred record, spoke ultimately of the activities of the triune God. They did not think it necessary to define the precise kind of fulfillment found in New Testament texts, for it was God who controlled the prophets who wrote direct predictive prophecy and the other authors of Scripture who wrote of people, events, and institutions as types or foreshadowings of the future. Thus both kinds of material were fulfilled in the New Testament, although in a slightly different way.[3]

The New Testament employs the Old Testament in a variety of ways. It does so to demonstrate that, in Jesus, the biblical prophecies, types, and shadows have all found their divinely appointed fulfillment.

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Typology

Typology is a method of biblical interpretation. It is when an element found in the Old Testament is seen to prefigure one found in the New Testament. The initial one is called the type, and the fulfillment is designated the antitype. Either type or antitype may be a person, thing, or event. Often the type is messianic and frequently related to the idea of salvation. The use of biblical typology enjoyed greater popularity in previous centuries. It is by no means ignored as a principle of hermeneutics today. Typological interpretation of the Old Testament is based on the fundamental theological unity of the two Testaments. Thus something in the Old shadows or prefigures something in the New. The study of types, particularly, types of Christ, is motivated by a number of factors related to New Testament use of the Old Testament.

Firstly, the authors of various New Testament books use the Old Testament as a source of pictures pointing forward to Jesus. Among the most obvious passages is 1 Cor. 10:1–6, Gal. 4:21-31 and the letter to the Hebrews. From 1 Corinthians, we find Paul using the desert wanderings as typological of the Christian life. The author of Hebrews is concerned to write explaining how the Old Testament points forward to Jesus. In so doing, he draws heavily on Moses the man, as well as the Mosaic Law, with its sacrifices and Temple rituals.

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Classification of Types

There are various types presented in the Old Testament. Chief among these are the historical, legal and the prophetic types. Firstly, historical types are people in the Old Testament who are frequently seen to be types of Christ. Moses, for instance, led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. He is clearly a type for the Messiah because Jesus leads his people out of the slavery of sin. A host of Old Testament characters can be seen, in this manner, to act as types of Christ. Secondly, there are legal types. Within the Law of Moses, many sacrifices, offerings and rituals were prescribed by God as the worship to be given by Israel. These sacrifices pointed forward to the one sacrifice to be offered on the Cross for the sins of all who would repent and trust Jesus by faith. Thirdly, there are prophetic types. Imagery occurs frequently in the prophetic books and other prophecies contained in Scripture. Genesis 3:15 For instance, contains the gospel, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The Seed of the woman (Jesus) would crush the head of the serpent (Satan) once and for all on the cross at Calvary. God spoke these words to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before their expulsion. This verse has prophetic and messianic fulfillment in Christ. It is for this reason that this verse is called the protoevangelium (first gospel).

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Survey of Perspectives on Typology

The historical development of perspectives regarding typology is important for understanding the issues. Following the Reformation period, several distinct schools of thought developed. Among conservative scholars, there were three major positions. First, there was Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) who applied it to any Old Testament event or person that resembled a New Testament parallel. This came close to an allegorical approach. Secondly, there was John March (1757-1839) who asserted that the only types were those explicitly stated to be types in the New Testament. Thirdly, Patrick Fairbairn (1805-1874) mediated between the two by accepting both explicit and inferred types. With the rise of the historical-critical method in the nineteenth century, liberal scholarship rejected the unity between the Testaments and regarded typology as an inferior methodological approach to interpretation. Most modern liberal scholars continue to disregard typology altogether.

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Neo-Orthodoxy

The neo-orthodox perspective understands typology as just more or less analogical thinking. An analogy is a comparison between two things that are similar in some way, and is often used to help explain something or make it easier to understand. Within evangelicalism, the traditional view is that types occurred because God intentionally constructed pictures of Christ and then placed those pictures within Israel’s history.

Issues In the Use of Typology

Typology represents a vital part of early Christian hermeneutics. It is built upon the belief that God unified his Word and the events of redemptive history. It is questioned whether typology is prospective (this refers to the Old Testament type as a divinely ordained prediction) or retrospective (this refers to the New Testament antitype as analogously related but not prefigured in the type). It is likely that the solution lies in the middle. The Old Testament authors and participants did not necessarily recognize any typological intent in the original. But in the divine plan, the early event did anticipate the later reality. Thus David’s coronation (Ps. 2, 72, 110) did indeed foreshadow Jesus’ enthronement as the royal Messiah, though it was not a direct prediction.

In many instances, the New Testament writers used the Old Testament in a typological manner. Typology, according to Terry, is defined in the following manner, “In the science of theology it properly signifies the preordained representative relation which certain persons, events and institutions of the Old Testament bear to corresponding persons, events, and institutions in the New.”[4] Thus, types are pictures or object lessons by which God taught his people. Through types, God teaches about his grace and the redemption he would provide through the Messiah. Such typology can be seen in the following passages:

  • Hosea 11:1 ~ Matthew 2:13-15 (note especially v. 15)

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”―Hosea 11:1.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”―Matthew 2:13-15.

  • Isaiah 7:14 ~ Matthew 1:23

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”―Isaiah 7:14.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”―Matthew 1:23.

  • The priestly order: Jesus compared to Melchizedek in Hebrews 7:1-28

For this, Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever. See how great this man was, to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever.’” This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

  • King David (Psalm 22 selected verses)

1        My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

6       …scorned by mankind and despised by the people.

7       All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;

8       “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

14      I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;

15      my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

16      For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet—

17      I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me;

18      they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.

  • The entire sacrificial system which typified the ultimate sacrifice of God’s Lamb (Jn. 1:29)
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Analogical

In several places, the New Testament writers interpreted Old Testament persons and events in an analogical sense. That is, the New Testament circumstances being like an Old Testament one. In this way, important events within the history of Israel are outlined or summarized in the life of Jesus (for example, Rachel weeping for her children in Mt. 2:16-18). It might be easy to accuse Matthew or any other New Testament writer of twisting Old Testament passages but, as D.A. Carson has said:

Matthew is not simply ripping texts out of Old Testament contexts because he needs to find a prophecy in order to generate a fulfillment. Discernible principles govern his choices, the most important being that he finds in the Old Testament not only isolated predictions regarding the Messiah but also Old Testament history and people as paradigms that, to those with eyes to see, point forward to the Messiah.[5]

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Thematic Parallels

The Gospel writers frequently developed messianic motifs that were present in the Old Testament. Jesus did this too (for example, such concepts as “Son of David” and “Son of Man” and the “Servant” idea in the book of Isaiah). Such thematic parallels would have been clearly understood by the early Jews. Their minds were steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. They would have understood and appreciated the Messianic implications of redemptive history.

In some instances, an inaccuracy may seem apparent. This is because the New Testament author is citing the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) rather than the Hebrew text. This is not much different from contemporary Christians who might quote from a modern English translation in order to express a Scriptural point. It is natural that the Septuagint would be quoted as frequently as it is in the New Testament.[6] It was the most widely used translation in the Greek-speaking world of the first century. The New Testament writers employed a translation that was familiar to their readers. It would have been confusing if they had used the Hebrew manuscripts. Very few would have been able to read them.

Were the New Testament writers mistaken? Did Matthew misapply verses from the Old Testament by interpreting them as literal predictions of Jesus? What was the purpose in citing an Old Testament text? There are many reasons why they cited the Old Testament. The New Testament author may wish to confirm that a New Testament activity is in agreement with an Old Testament principle. He may wish to explain or clarify a point given in the Old Testament. He may wish to illustrate a New Testament truth or to provide the general sense of what the Old Testament said concerning the Messiah. He may wish to summarize an Old Testament concept or draw parallels between Israel and the Church. He may wish to provide warnings to New Covenant believers, show the progress of redemptive history, or demonstrate that Jesus is indeed the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament.

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Resolving Alleged Discrepancies

Unbelieving critics claim that the Bible has numerous internal contradictions and factual errors. Any serious student of Scripture must face this. We must not avoid such thorny questions. We can face them with confidence that the Bible is God’s inerrant Word. God is a God of truth. He will not allow contradictions to corrupt its accuracy or undermine its authority. Here are some basic guidelines to aid the interpreter in resolving or harmonizing Bible difficulties.

  1. Seeking plausible harmonization

Seeking a plausible solution or harmonization to difficult texts is not scholastic dishonesty. Harmonization is something which every literary critic engages in when studying texts of antiquity. This is true whether it be the writings of Homer, Josephus, or the Bible. According to Craig Blomberg, Associate Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, “All historians, whether they employ the term or not, practice some kind of harmonization as they seek to reconstruct the truth of past events … [It is a] standard practice among secular historians of both written and oral traditions.”[7] Thus, harmonization is not wrong. It is not an intellectually dishonest practice. Stein says:

The terms harmonize and harmonization have fallen into disrepute. Some of this may be due to the farfetched and unconvincing harmonizations made in the past by certain scholars. This writer still remembers attending a graduate seminar at a famous German university where a student’s explanation was rejected on the grounds that “Das ist nur Harmonizierung!” (“That is simply a harmonization!”). To reject an explanation because it harmonizes difficult gospel passages is certainly as prejudicial as to accept an explanation on the grounds that it harmonizes these passages. The correctness or incorrectness of an explanation is not dependent on whether or not it harmonizes the disputed passages. It depends on whether that explanation correctly interprets the authors’ meanings and logically illustrates that these meanings do not conflict with each other.[8]

  1. Answers and reasonable solutions

In the vast majority of cases (if not all), direct answers or reasonable solutions exist to problem passages. Such answers or harmonization are primarily found in conservative Bible commentaries. There are also specialized works, which treat Bible difficulties. Such as:

  • Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).
  • Norman L. Geisler; Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008)
  • Robert H. Stein, Difficult Passages in the New Testament: Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the Gospels and Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990).
  • Walter Kaiser, F.F. Bruce, Manfred Brauch, Peter Davids, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996).
  • John W. Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977).
  • David E. O’Brien, Today’s Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1990).
  1. When working through an apparent discrepancy, remember to apply hermeneutical basics.

That is:

  • Carefully study the context, historical background, and framework of the verse in dispute.
  • Carefully study its grammar.
  • Carefully study its relation to other passages in the Bible, which treat the same subject or doctrine.
  1. A large proportion of the alleged discrepancies in the Bible are traceable not to actual errors in the original manuscripts, but to transmissional errors in the numerous manuscripts that we possess.
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Apparent discrepancies include:

  • The variety of names applied to the same person or place.
  • Different methods of reckoning times and seasons.
  • Different local and historical standpoints.
  • The special scope and plan of each particular book.

Terry’s comments are helpful:

Variations are not contradictions, and many essential variations arise from different methods of arranging a series of particular facts. The peculiarities of oriental thought and speech often involve seeming extravagance of statement and verbal inaccuracies, which are of a nature to provoke the criticism of the less impassioned writers of the West. And it is but just to add that not a few of the alleged contradictions of Scripture exist only in the imagination of skeptical writers, and are to be attributed to the perverse misunderstanding of captious critics.[9]

  1. The Bible itself mentions that some of its contents are, by nature, hard or perplexing (1 Cor. 13:12; 2 Pet. 2:16).

It should not surprise us when we come across difficult portions of Scripture, which challenges our thinking. Instead of throwing up our hands in frustration, we must labor diligently and prayerfully for the correct solution. Gleason Archer says there “is very little that God will long withhold from the surrendered heart and mind of a true believer.”[10]

  1. One of the reasons why apparent discrepancies exist in Scripture is man’s fallible interpretations.”

While the Bible authors were moved along by Holy Spirit and their autographs were perfect, absolutely error free, this is not so of copyist, and nor is it so of those who read and interpret the Scriptures. If there is a discrepancy, it is based on an imperfect human’s imperfect interpretation, and will only be cleared up once he or she arrives at the correct interpretation. If we dig deeper into a text, it is likely that we will arrive at a mature understanding of the Word.

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  1. Another of the reasons why apparent discrepancies exist in Scripture is a wrong conception of the Bible.

On this, Edward D. Andrews writes:

Many think that when we say the Bible is the Word of God, is of divine origin and authority, we mean that God is the speaker in every utterance it contains, but this is not what is meant at all. Oftentimes, it simply records what others say, i.e., what good men say, what bad men say, what inspired men say, what uninspired men say, what angels and demons say, and even what the devil says. The record of what they said is from God and absolutely true, but what those other persons are recorded as saying may be true or may not be true. It is true that they said it, but what they said may not be true.[11]

He offers one such example, saying:

The devil is recorded in Genesis 3:4 as saying, “You will not surely die.” It is true that the devil said it, but what the devil said is not true, but an infamous lie that shipwrecked our race. That the devil said it is God’s Word, but what the devil said is not God’s Word but rather, it is the devil’s word. It is God’s Word that this was the devil’s word.” He goes on to say, “It is very common to hear men quote what Eliphaz, Bildad or Zophar said to Job as if it were necessarily God’s own words because it is recorded in the Bible, in spite of the fact that God disavowed their teaching and said to them, “you have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7). It is true that these men said the thing that God records them as saying, but often they gave the truth a twist and said what is not right. A very large share of our difficulties thus arises from not noticing who is speaking. The Bible always tells us, and we should always note it.[12]

Did the New Testament Authors Really Quote the Greek Septuagint Rather than Hebrew Texts?

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[1] See section that deals with the three dimensions of Law: moral, judicial and ceremonial.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, “The Old Testament in the New Testament,” Interpreting the Word of God, (eds. Samuel J. Schultz & Morris A. Inch, Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), 103.

NOTE: Telos (Greek τέλος for “end,” “purpose,” or “goal”).

[3] S. Lewis Johnson, The Old Testament in the New: An Argument for Biblical Inspiration Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives, (Zondervan, 1980), 76.

[4] Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 33.

[5] D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew (Vol.8), 77.

[6] In fact, the Septuagint, in some cases, has proven to more accurately reflect the thought of the original autographs than even the Masoretic text.

[7] Craig Blomberg, “The Legitimacy and Limits of Harmonization,” Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, eds. D.A. Carson & John D. Woodbridge, (Wipf & Stock Pub; Reprint edition, 2005), 139, 144.

[8] Robert H. Stein, Difficult Passages in the Gospels, (Baker, 1984), 13.

[9] Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 514.

[10] Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, (Zondervan, 1982), 15.

[11] Edward D. Andrews, OVERCOMING BIBLE DIFFICULTIES Answers to the So-Called Errors and Contradictions, (Christian Publishing House, 2015), 61.

[12] Ibid., 61-62.

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