Reading the Bible Well, Part 3

Reading and understanding the Bible well is something I believe that every Christ-follower desires. Having read and taught over the past six-plus years in the arena of biblical personal finance, I have noticed that there are three common misuses in our reading and understanding of the Bible. This article will look at the third of those three misuses: claiming Old Testament promises haphazardly.

Admittedly, I may have waded into waters too deep for a short article with this one. The topic of how and when Old Testament promises apply to New Testament Christians is quite nuanced. Depending on which systematic theology you most closely hold to (i.e. dispensational vs. covenant), you will come at this question from a very different perspective. Despite the differences that arise in our starting points, I do believe there are some commonly accepted principles every Christian person can apply when asking whether a certain promise from the Old Testament still in some way applies to them. 

Let’s begin this exploration by looking at how the New Testament authors treat Old Testament promises. First, 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him…” Paul is stating here that in some way the promises of God find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Second, Paul regularly references Old Testament covenants and promises in his letters to the New Testament church (Rom. 1:2; Eph. 2:12). Third, other New Testament writers claim Old Testament promises to others for their own circumstances (Heb. 13:5). Therefore, it seems that there is a way we can look to Old Testament promises and have confidence that in some way many of them echo to us. So, how do we do this carefully?

The first step in this process is to determine what kind of promise was being made and to whom the promise was originally given. Broadly speaking, there are three big categories of promises in the Old Testament: (1) covenants, (2) general promises, and (3) specific promises tied to specific people/places. Distinguishing between the second two categories requires us to identify whether the promise is being made to any person or people group specifically or whether it’s simply a general promise God is making. Let’s look at each category of promise one by one. 

(1) Covenants: 

Covenants are a type of promise that establish the relationship between God and man and contain certain types of binding language.[1] There are five major covenants in the Old Testament: Noahic (Gen. 9:11), Abrahamic (Gen. 12), Mosaic (Ex. 19:5-6), Davidic (2 Sam. 7:12-17), and the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). The Noahic covenant is an ongoing covenant between God and all mankind. The Abrahamic covenant is an ongoing covenant between God and all heirs of that promise (Gal. 3:29). The Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenant all find their fulfillment in Christ. As such, we are now recipients of the promises found in the New Covenant, beneficiaries of Christ’s reign in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant, and no longer subject to the conditions of the Mosaic covenant. Therefore, when we see one of these covenants in the Old Testament we just have to ask whether it was fulfilled in Christ and whether it is continuing. If it is continuing, we have every right to claim it as beneficiaries of it. If it is satisfied (Mosaic), then we don’t get to claim its promises nor are we subject to its curses for failure to abide by it. We can, however, look to what it teaches us about God and how we relate to Him and each other, but we shouldn’t try to claim it as our own.[2]

(2) General Promises:

General promises are exactly what they sound like. They are statements from God that are directed toward mankind in general (i.e., not stated toward a particular person or people group). These statements generally show us God’s character and how He relates to us. An example of this type of promise can be found in Isaiah 40:29-31, “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” In these verses, Isaiah is describing God and how He is the strength of those who wait on Him. These are promises meant for all who will wait for God. These types of promises are meant for us, and they also teach us about who God is. We should feel confident as we take refuge in the promises of verses like these. 

(3) Specific Promises:

Specific promises are the final type of promise, and they deal with promises directed to a particular people and/or place. In other words, these are promises that God makes toward someone in a particular time and place and have already been fulfilled to the people to whom the promise was made. A classic example of this type of promise is from Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” This promise was made to Jewish exiles living in Babylon (we know this by looking at the context of the previous verses). Jeremiah is encouraging them that at the end of 70 years of exile, God will bring them back to the Promised Land. The plans God has for them is to restore them to their land. We know from history, that God fulfilled this promise to these people in this time. Note: pay attention to the fact that this promise was made to a group of people in exile and not to the individuals in exile. God was promising His people that He was working for (all of) their collective welfare. 

By reading the verse in context, we know that God made this promise to a group of people and that He has already fulfilled this promise. But, are there parts of it that we can apply to our lives today? Does God know the plans He has for me? Does He plan to give me a future and a hope? The reason this is hard is that we can answer both of those last two questions with a resounding “YES.” However, is it because of the promise in Jeremiah that I answer those questions yes, or is it because this promise is affirmed elsewhere in Scripture as being consistent with who God is and how he engages the world? I would argue that it’s the latter. We read in Romans 8:28 that God is working all things together for our good. So, I do know that God has plans for me and that He is working those plans for good. But, I also see in Romans 8 that we will experience suffering in this present time (v.18). As a result, when I look at the promise from Jeremiah I look to it to understand who God is and how He relates to people. I interpret it in light of the rest of the Bible and begin to understand that Jer. 29:11 is a verse that provides another example of God’s goodness and care for His people. I gain depth of understanding of the verse by looking to Romans and realizing that ultimately the good God has for me is set in eternity and my awareness of His presence in my life—whether in suffering or prosperity. So, I can take comfort in the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, but not because it is now a promise made to me, but because it displays that God is a god who loves His people and is working for their good for all eternity. I know this to be true because I see it all over the Bible. 

Let’s look at another example. The author of Hebrews gives us an example of how to apply a specific promise to individual Christians today. In Hebrews 13:5, the author quotes a promise made to Joshua as he was about to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Josh. 1:5). In the book of Joshua, God was speaking to Joshua as he was about to lead Israel across the Jordan River to conquer the Promised Land. As God was promising to give the Israelites every place their foot treads, He encouraged Joshua with the promise that He would never leave him nor forsake him. This promise to Joshua was ultimately fulfilled by God. Now though, we read the author of Hebrews using this verse to encourage his readers to be content with whatever they have because no matter what they have a God who will never leave them nor forsake them. The author of Hebrews isn’t claiming that we stand in Joshua’s place as conquerors of a promised land, but he is claiming that we stand in Joshua’s place before a God whose character never changes. As such, he directs us to look at the promise made to Joshua and see what it shows us about who God is and how He relates to us. Then, he directs us to be comforted by that promise as we trust that God never changes. 

And so, that is how we can approach the promises of the Old Testament. No matter what they are or whether or not they are meant for us, we can always ask what they teach us about the character and nature of God. We may not stand in the place of specific people, but we do stand in front of the same God. So, as we look to apply the Old Testament promises of God in our own lives today, let’s ask the following five questions:

  1. To whom was the promise originally written?
  2. What kind of promise is it?
  3. Do we stand in the place of the original recipient(s) of the promise? If so, it’s a promise for us!
  4. If not, what does the promise teach us about the character and nature of God and how He relates to people?
  5. How is this promise/description of God affirmed or clarified in the New Testament?

From here, we can apply these truths about God to our own lives and we can take great comfort in God and His myriad promises. At the end of it all, the biggest promise in all of the Bible is the promise of who God is! Hold fast to this and claim it with all your might. 

To read the first two articles in this series, click here and here.

[1] Covenants can be either conditional or unconditional. Conditional covenants require mankind to do something in order for God to be bound by His covenant (ex: Mosaic Covenant). Unconditional covenants require nothing from mankind and are guaranteed by God regardless of what man does (ex: Noahic Covenant).

[2] I honestly wrote this article to address Malachi 3:10 and its regular misuse. As I studied this topic, it became clear to me that there was a bigger concept to uncover and that Malachi 3:10 was a rather simple application of the process described in this article. Malachi 3:10 is a promise tied into the Mosaic Covenant and as such we are not bound by its curse and we cannot acquire its blessing by obeying it. We can learn that God delights in our giving (which is affirmed in many other places) and desires that we participate in the support of His church (also affirmed in many other places), but we must not teach that if people tithe, Malachi 3:10 promises financial reward from God. Malachi 3:10 was a part of a greater call to obey all of the laws of Moses and was a call to the people of Israel. Even if people want to try to claim that this is still a promise for today, the problem comes that the command was that ALL of Israel tithe, not just individuals. It was also a call that they obey all of the law, as represented by their willingness to tithe to the Levites. As such, the only way to claim that promise is to get ALL of the church to tithe (and obey all of the law). I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful we are not bound by this type of performance based arrangement any longer.