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Crafting Christianity


Sabbath School commentary for discussion on December 18, 2021.

The title for this week’s Adult Bible Study Guide is “Deuteronomy in the New Testament,” but it also could be reversed to say the New Testament in Deuteronomy.

What do I mean?

The lesson is a case study in the interpretative method of typology. This popular early Christian hermeneutic is a version of the allegorical approach to poetry and narrative meaning-making practiced in the ancient Near Eastern world. But followers of Christ in the first few centuries really championed typological hermeneutics because, in part, their faith depended on it. That new faith had an argument to make: their Jewish messiah who was no longer present after about three years—due in part to almost overwhelming opposition from the leaders of Judaism—was in fact the Messiah foretold in Jewish scripture.

It was an argument about authority: text vs. the rest. As the Sabbath School lesson points out day after day this week, references to Deuteronomy appear throughout New Testament writing:

Whether direct Old Testament quotations, or allusions, or references to stories or prophecies, the New Testament writers constantly used the Old Testament to buttress, even justify, their claims.

And among the books often quoted or referred to was Deuteronomy (along with Psalms and Isaiah). Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Hebrews, the pastoral epistles, and Revelation all go back to Deuteronomy. This week we’ll look at a few of those instances and see what truth, present truth, we can draw from them.

For Sunday, the lesson jumps right into a classic example of typological interpretation, practiced by none other than God in human form. Answering Satan like an early Christian might argue with his Jewish neighbor, Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6 and 8 (the increasingly old testament) to show how scripture applies to the present question of worship worthiness.

In the third temptation, Satan this time sought to get Christ to bow down and worship him. What an open and blatant revelation of just who he really was and what he really wanted! Rather than debate, Jesus rebuked Satan and again reverted to the Word of God, Deuteronomy, where the Lord was warning His people about what would happen if they were to fall away and worship other gods. “You shall fear the Lord your God and serve Him” (Deut. 6:13, NKJV), meaning Him and Him alone.

This use of scripture is so embedded into Adventist hermeneutical DNA that it seems natural. Types and antitypes abound: Adam/Jesus, earthly sanctuary/heavenly sanctuary, Eden/new earth.

It’s also a creative endeavor. It’s not literal. Paul citing Deuteronomy 21:23 is a creative way to explain the meaning of the cross. It’s for the symbolic reference value of the language, not an ontological point about curses, hanging, and poles. 

It’s also not contextual. Almost all of the uses of Deuteronomy cited in the lesson are just a sentence or two within a larger meaning of the law or rules being listed in the book or a narrative being told. 

The point is Jesus. And the early Christian writers have a goal: to craft what it means to follow Christ. It's a creative act. Reading too much into the New Testament textual interplay at work beclouds us to the existential purpose. Reading Deuteronomy/New Testament, we sit as an audience to a miraculous act of reforming faith—the early crafting of Christianity. It's a reminder of its essence: truth is always-already present then, and lives here, now.

Update Dec. 17: This morning I was reflecting on the lesson study and thinking about some interactive and enriching ways to teach it. If I was leading a Sabbath School this week, I'd have the class read the Deuteronomy snippet quoted in the various New Testament books and then go back and have various people read aloud the entire chapter of Deuteronomy from which the quote was taken. It might be interesting to ask the class to share the main points and overall goal of the chapter and to also try and listen for the words that get quoted in the New Testament. What was each author trying to communicate in the Hebrew and then Christian context? How did the meaning of the old words change in the new context?

I've been reading John Brunt's new book, Enjoying Your Bible: Finding Delight in the Word. It's perfect for small group Sabbath School classes. He reminds us on page ten that "the Bible was never intended to be read a verse at a time. It was centuries before it was even divided up into verses. In fact, most of those who first experienced the Bible didn't READ it at all. They HEARD it." 

Alexander Carpenter is executive editor elect of Spectrum

Title image: Kenyon Cox, Book of Pictures, 1910-1917, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum (Public Domain)


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