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Progressive Revelation and the Temple

In light of Stephen’s rebuttal of the false charges lodged against him regarding the temple, I thought it would be helpful to expand on the idea that Christ is the fulfillment of the temple. More broadly, we will be talking about the idea that God’s revealing activity is progressive with the view to being fulfilled in Christ.

To begin, we see in Acts 7 that the false accusations leveled against Stephen were, according to Stephen, irrational because the religious leaders were offended by the words of the one who was the fulfillment of the temple, i.e. Jesus. G. K. Beale summarizes the thrust of Stephen’s point well: “Christ is the temple toward which all earlier temples looked and that they anticipated (cf. 2 Sam. 7:12-14; Zech. 6:12-13). Christ is the epitome of God’s presence on earth as God incarnate, thus continuing the true form of the old temple, which actually was a foreshadowing of Christ’s presence throughout the OT era.”[1]

If the whole matter is turned around, moreover, and viewed from the perspective of the temple’s function, then this future-looking perspective also highlights the fulfillment of OT ideas in Christ. “The ultimate redemptive-historical purpose of the temple sacrifices was typologically to point to Christ as the ultimate sacrifice of himself, which he would offer for the sins of his people as a priest, at the cross, and in the eschatological temple.”[2]

Whether you start from Christ and look backwards in time at the outworking of God’s plan of redemption, or you start from an earlier point and look forwards in time, there is a unified witness and a mutually enlightening relationship. Why did Christ have to die for our sins? Because the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin (cf. Heb 10:4). Why did Israel sacrifice bulls and goats? Because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22) and yet God in his graciousness had provided his people with a substitute for their own blood. If either one is devalued or ignored, there are serious consequences for understanding who God is, who we are, and how we glorify and enjoy God.

Extending this idea, if God’s revelation through time is arbitrarily cut off, confusion is bound to creep in. One example in Jesus’ own day was the dispute between the Sadducees and the Pharisees regarding the resurrection. The Sadducees restricted themselves to the first five books of the OT, Genesis through Deuteronomy. They rejected the resurrection of the dead because they did not see it taught in that portion of God’s revelation to his people. The Pharisees, on the other hand, read the whole of the OT, which includes explicit references to resurrection, e.g. Dan 12:2. Interestingly, Jesus refutes the Sadducees on their error by appealing to Exodus 3. How can he do this? God’s revelation is progressive such that later revelation sheds light on earlier revelation.

As Stephen confronted the religious leaders, he was making this same kind of positive argument. They had arbitrarily cut off God’s revelation by excluding Christ’s ministry. For that reason, they were blind to the full significance of the very things that they were so desperate to preserve.

But there is an opposite error that is more likely in our own day. As someone has said recently, Christianity needs to be “unhitched” from the Old Testament. It is a weight that drags us down. Except, if you lop off the OT, how do you explain why Christ had to die without the sacrificial system? How do you adequately explain God’s abiding presence in Christ without the tabernacle or temple? Scott Swain reminds us that the things that came before, e.g. Levitical priesthood and even the temple, “serve as tokens, promissory notes of the final institutions that Christ came to establish, and therefore function as paradigms—indispensable models—for understanding those institutions.”[3] In short, we need the OT to make sense of the NT.

My application is simple: if you want to understand the Lord Jesus Christ better, read the Old Testament.

[1] G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2011), 632. [2] Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 632. [3] Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (London ; New York: T&T Clark International, 2011), 24.

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