The Scriptures of Christ and the Early Apostolic Era

Christian Scripture Before the New Testament

By Ronald E. Heine

The writings we call the New Testament, which are our source of information about the beginnings of the Christian movement, indicate that the apostles and evangelists regularly appealed to Scripture to substantiate their teachings about Jesus of Nazareth and other subjects of vital importance to their faith. These references to Scripture are all what we call the Old Testament. The earliest writings that constitute our present New Testament, were not composed for two or more decades after the resurrection of Jesus. The remaining writings that make up the New Testament were written in the second half of the first century.

The very earliest Christians were Jews by birth. Their scripture had always been what we call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. When they became Christians they continued to use these writings as their Scripture. They did not consider following Jesus to conflict with the faith they had learned from the Old Testament. Jesus was the fulfillment of the hopes they found expressed there.

All references to Scripture in the New Testament are to the Old Testament. When Paul says that “Christ died on behalf of our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He was buried and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” he means in accordance with what the Old Testament Scriptures say about the Messiah (1Cor. 15: 3-4). When Luke says that Paul entered the synagogue in Thessalonica and “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and declaring that the Christ must suffer and rise from the dead,” he means that Paul reasoned from the Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 17: 2-3). The same is true in Luke’s report that Apollos refuted the Jews in Achaia by “demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 18: 28). And when Paul reminds Timothy that he has known from childhood the sacred writings that can instruct him for salvation for faith in Christ Jesus and then adds, “All Scripture is inspired of God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness,” he is talking about the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3: 15-16).

The phrase, “it is written,” which appears so often throughout the New Testament to introduce Scripture, always introduces statements from the Old Testament. It appears frequently in the four Gospels to show the connection between certain aspects of Jesus’ ministry and words found in the Old Testament. These connections range from statements regarding the place of Jesus’ birth through specific deeds during his ministry, to His final suffering on the cross. Luke uses the phrase to introduce a statement from the Psalms justifying the choosing of an apostolic replacement for Judas after the latter’s suicide (Acts 1: 20). Luke indicates that Paul used the phrase to connect the second Psalm with the resurrection of Jesus in his sermon at Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13: 33).

Paul grounds many of his most characteristic doctrines in Old Testament Scripture joined with his understanding of God’s action in Christ. These doctrines include the bondage of all humanity to sin (Rom. 3: 10-20), the importance of faith in salvation (Rom. 1: 17), justification through faith (Rom. 4), the stumbling of the Jews and the salvation of Gentiles (Rom. 9: 33; 10: 15-21), and his doctrine of the two Adams (1 Cor. 15: 45).

Luke asserts that it was Jesus who taught His followers that the Old Testament was a book about Himself. At the end of his Gospel, Luke reports that the risen Jesus walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and “interpreted for them what was written about Himself in all the Scriptures,” meaning, of course, the Old Testament Scriptures (Luke 24: 27). Just before the account of the ascension, Luke again relates that Jesus taught His disciples that the law, the prophets, and the Psalms all contained material about Himself. The final instruction that Jesus gave to His disciples, according to Luke, states that the suffering and resurrection of the Messiah were related in the Old Testament. He also asserts that the Old Testament contains the announcement that the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed “to all nations” in Jesus name (Luke 24: 44-47).

There can be no question that the Old Testament was the Scripture of the earliest Christians and that they read Old Testament Scripture in terms of Christ Jesus. This was completely natural for them because they did not consider themselves to be distinct from the Jews. They believed Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises made to the fathers in the Old Testament; therefore, their beliefs about Him were completely compatible with their Jewish faith. When Philip heard the Ethiopian reading from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, Luke says that Philip started “from this Scripture,” that is Isaiah 53, and “proclaimed Jesus to him” (Acts 8: 35). Paul declared to the Roman Christians that the Gospel he preached had been “proclaimed in advance through” the “prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1: 2). The writings of the Old Testament were joined with the Christian message in a seamless connection in the minds of the earliest Christians. They could not have conceived of the possibility of Christian faith without the Old Testament. The Old Testament was essential to their understanding of who Jesus was; what His life, death, and resurrection had been all about, and what He wanted them to do as His followers.

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