Monday, January 2, 2017

Categories of New Testament Use of the Old Testament

By Michael J. Vlach

There are approximately 350 explicit quotes of the Old Testament (OT) in the New Testament (NT). These quotations can be categorized in several ways. The following is not an exhaustive list but it does offer most of the ways the NT writers and persons used the OT:

1.     Literal Prophetic Fulfillment. This occurs when a NT writer or person views an OT prophecy as being fulfilled in NT times. For example, Micah 5:2 predicted that the ruler of Israel would come from Bethlehem. This is fulfilled with Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem just as Micah predicted. The chief priests and scribes understood Micah 5:2 literally which is why they could declare to Herod that the Ruler would come from Bethlehem (Matt 2:5-6). Also, the predicted New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 is applied to NT times in Hebrews 8:7-13 to show the New Covenant has replaced the older Mosaic Covenant.

2.      Literal Application of a Timeless Moral or Theological Point. This occurs when a NT writer or person draws upon an OT passage to make a moral or theological point or principle. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, Jesus quoted the OT three times in Matthew 4 to refute Satan who also quotes Ps 91:11-12. Jesus applies Deuteronomy 8:3 which indicates man shall not live by bread alone. He then quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to reveal that God should not be tested which Israel did at Massah. Jesus applies this principle to His situation. Jesus also refers to Deuteronomy 6:13 and/or Deuteronomy 10:20 to show the principle that only God should be worshiped. Jesus uses the OT passages contextually to draw out timeless principles to refute Satan.

3.      Literal Restatement of an OT passage. This occurs when a NT writer or person quotes an OT verse to point out what the OT verse stated. With Matthew 5:21 Jesus stated, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’”  This quote is taken from Exodus 20:13 and represents a contextual rendering of one of the Ten Commandments. But as the New Covenant Lawgiver, Jesus then intensifies this command by internalizing it and indicating that hating one’s brother makes one guilty (see Matt. 5:22).

4.    Literal Affirmation of an OT Prophetic Text whose Fulfillment Is Still Future. Sometimes NT writers or persons quoted an OT prophetic text with the expectation that the OT text will be fulfilled literally in the future. Jesus did this in Matthew 24:15 when he stated that the “abomination of desolation” event Daniel predicted (Dan. 9:27) would occur in the future. Also, with Romans 11:26b–27 Paul quotes Isaiah 59:20–21 and Isaiah 27:9 in a straightforward manner as support for the coming salvation of the nation Israel and Israel’s entrance into the New Covenant.

5.     Literal Correspondence between David and Jesus. At times Jesus and NT writers draw a divinely intended correspondence between David and the ultimate David, Jesus the Messiah. John 2:17 states, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for Your house will consume me.’” Here application of Psalm 69:9, an imprecatory psalm of David, is applied to Jesus who as the ultimate David also has zeal for God’s house (i.e. temple). Also, the use of Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18 reveals that an enemy of David prefigured Judas who betrayed Jesus. Just as David faced enemies so too does the ultimate David.

6.   Literal Correspondence between Israel and Jesus. At times the NT writers draw a divinely intended correspondence between Israel and the ultimate representative of Israel—Jesus. With Matthew 2:15, Matthew links Jesus’ coming of Egypt with the historical event of Israel’s Exodus (Hos. 11:1). This shows Jesus is the ultimate Israelite who can bring an even greater exodus for Israel. Likewise, with Matthew 2:17-18 Matthew linked the deportation of Israelite men during the Babylonian captivity (Jer. 31:15) to the slaughter of infants in Bethlehem. Both tragedies point to the hope that Jesus the Messiah will bring to Israel amidst tragedy.

7.     Literal Reliance on an OT Event(s). Sometimes the NT writers appeal to a real event in the OT. Quoting Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:5 states, “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; and he was not found because God took him up.” With Romans 9:7, Paul quotes Genesis 21:12 to point out God’s selective purposes concerning Israel: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.”
8.     Generational Fulfillment Concerning Unbelieving Israel. At times NT writers and persons quoted OT passages about national Israel’s unbelief and applied them to the current unbelief of Israel to highlight that Israel is characterized by willful unbelief. Both Jesus (Matt. 13:14-15) and Paul (Acts 28:26-27) quoted Isaiah 6:9-10 as historical precedent for Israel’s continued unbelief.

There probably are another 2-3 categories but most NT uses of the OT fit into the categories listed above. While a topic for another day, I believe these categories are consistent with grammatical-historical hermeneutics and the belief that the NT writers and persons used the OT primarily (if not exclusively) in a contextual way consistent with the meaning and intent of the OT writers. 


  1. Which points would Reformed and Covenant Theology people have issues with?

  2. Great question and deserves its own blog. The short answer is that dispensationalists and covenant theologians have differeing theories on NT use of the OT. So it's hard to categorize the camps. I hope to address this issue more sometime