The Bible as we have it today is comprised of 66 books split into two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament contains 39 books while the New Testament contains 27. Although these 66 sacred, God-breathed writings are found in one collective volume, there is a distinct division between the Old and New testaments in the minds of many Christians. Some do not even find the Old Testament to be valid for new covenant members, either directly or indirectly. This is because it is difficult for us to comprehend how the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the temple, the tabernacle, circumcision, and the many Hebraic festivals or feasts could have any theological significance. The truth is that the much of the content and theology of the Old Testament contains each of these rites, rituals, and systems. These foreign sacred rituals were the means that God related to and covenanted with his people. They were means of grace even as they were means of the Law.
However, in the pages of the New Testament with the coming of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit into the church age of redemptive history, we see nothing of the temple, the priesthood, circumcision, the tabernacle, or any of the sacred feasts of Israel in the new covenant people of God. This is directly due to the fact that Jesus Christ came to fulfill all of redemptive history and in reality all of the Old Testament. Jesus in his person and work is the pinnacle of all history. In Christ, all of the forms of worship of the Old Testament are eclipsed.
The question then becomes, What is the meaning of those elements of the forgotten and eclipsed Old Testament system of worship? John Piper is very helpful in answering this question. He views the Old Testament elements of worship as shadows of a greater reality. And that reality is Jesus himself. The following will include six shadows of the Old Testament that have found substance in Jesus adapted from Piper. Piper highlights the New Testament interpretation and explanation of the Old Testament rites and ceremonies. Viewing the Old Testament in light of the New, particularly in light of the work of Christ connects the two Testaments in a way that allows the Bible to be taken as a God-inspired whole, rather than two distinctly separate parts.
1. The shadow of the Old Testament priesthood
“The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (Heb. 7:23-24).
The priesthood that was predominant in the Old Testament found its end in the priesthood of Jesus. He is our one great high priest and as such, he is our eternal Mediator before the Father (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). The shadow of the Old Testament priesthood finds substance in the priestly ministry of Jesus.
2. The shadow of the Passover sacrifice
“Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7, emphasis mine).
The Passover sacrifice found its end in the “once for all” sacrifice of Christ. Daily sacrifices are no longer needed because of the perfect sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ (Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26).
3. The shadow of the tabernacle and temple
“Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Heb. 8:1-2).
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Yes, it is true that Jesus himself is our tabernacle (John 2:19-21), which in the original language of the New Testament displays this quite nicely (see John 1:14). However, Piper rightly observes that heaven itself is the true tent that Jesus enters into, “where God dwells and where Christ intercedes for us the way the priests once did in the old tabernacle on earth.” So, Christ becomes our tabernacle in one sense through which we have access to God. And in another sense, Christ enters into the tabernacle of heaven on our behalf as our intercessor. The tabernacle/temple found its end in the intercessory work of Jesus.
4. The shadow of circumcision
“For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19).
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).
“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).
Circumcision found its end in the universal grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
5. The shadow of dietary laws
“And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18-19).
The shadow of all dietary laws found their end in the substance of Jesus Christ and his authoritative declaration of the spiritual cleanliness of all foods.
6. The shadow of feast days
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16-17).
Piper writes, “Circumcision, dietary laws, and feast days were part of the old constitution of Israel that set them apart from the nations and represented their separation for God. With Christ, a decisive shift from separation (‘come see’) to declaration (‘go tell’) occurred in redemptive history” (emphasis mine). This cultural and ceremonial separation is not appropriate or fitting for Christianity because it is a religion in Christ who has redeemed a people from all tribes and tongues. In Christ each of these ceremonies found their end as he is the propitiation for all peoples and his gospel is to be declared among all nations (Matt. 28:19-20).
The focus of the connection between the Old and New testaments is Christ. The understanding of the meaning of the Old Testament system of worship in light of Christ is essentially found in Colossians 2:17, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” The Old Testament is an important shadow pointing to a greater spiritual reality or substance that was to come–and has come.The substance belongs to Christ. All of redemptive history finds all its meaning, relevance, and end in Christ. In the end, Christ is all in all.
What a tragedy to get hung up on ritual and form, when the New Testament is oriented on spiritual substance, namely Christ. So, flee from the shadow to the Substance and from pattern to the Person. –John Piper
Post adapted from John Piper’s book Taste and See: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life, pp. 262-265.