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Allusions of Grandeur
The Benefit of Reading the New Testament in Light of the Old

by Ryan Habbena


What is an Allusion?

One of the ways that the Old Testament can cast light on the New is through the allusion. An allusion differs from an explicit reference by the very nature of its subtlety. An explicit reference to the Old Testament Scriptures is one that is clearly telling, such as Matthew 8:17: "This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: ‘He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.’" An allusion, on the other hand, is much less noticeable and requires diligence to discover.

To demonstrate the nature and subtlety of allusions in the New Testament, an exploration of two passages that well represent the nature of the allusion is in order. First, an examination of the "Great Commission" of Christ in Matthew 28 will prove helpful. Secondly, the controversial warning passage found in Hebrews chapter 10 will be explored.

The Great Commission: Matthew 28:18-20

The Great Commission found in Matthew 28 is one of the most quoted passages of the New Testament. However, many are unaware of the many Old Testament allusions evident within these three verses. As we shall see, each thought is rooted in promises given in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Matthew 28:18 "And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.’"

Jesus first declaration in the Great Commission is a reference to His sovereign kingship. Daniel prophesies about this coming One, which is what Jesus’ language here is echoing. In Daniel chapter 7 notice what is "given" to the "one like a son of man:"

I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).

Notice that an eternal "dominion" was given to the "One like a Son of Man." And even beyond that, this "dominion" was to be constituted of all "peoples, nations, and languages." This serves as a bridge to the next portion of the Great Commission.

Matthew 28:19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit"

The book of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ’s lineage is traced back to Abraham. Why is this so significant? Matthew is concerned with declaring Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah. However, he is also seeking to state clearly the purpose of the Messiah’s first coming – to provide atonement for sins and begin gathering the constituency of His Kingdom. Matthew established Christ as the "descendant of Abraham" at the beginning of his Gospel. Now at the end of Matthew’s account he is proclaiming Christ as the central fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. God unequivocally proclaimed that through Abraham’s descendant "all the nations" would be blessed (Genesis 22:18, Galatians 3:). In the Great Commission Christ sends out His disciples to "all the nations" with the message of the Gospel as a fulfillment of this promise. This leads us to the powerful and triumphant conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel account.

Matthew 28:20 "Teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

In the book of Isaiah, it is promised that God would send "a Son" through a virgin whose name would be "Immanuel." Matthew makes reference to this promise after the angel’s intervening work, moving Joseph to take Mary as his wife: "Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us’" (Matthew 1:22-23).

At the culmination of Matthew’s account, Jesus identifies Himself as the fulfillment of this promise given through Isaiah; alluding to it when he proclaims: "I am with you, even to the end of the age." Matthew clearly demonstrates through the bookends of his narrative that this promise was (and is!) fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

"Sinning Willfully:" Hebrews 10:26-29

Recognizing allusions may also prove helpful in casting light on passages that are often considered "difficult." This turns out to be the case with the warning found in Hebrews chapter 10:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29)

While there are several issues evident within this complex passage, I wish to focus on the term "sinning willfully" in verse 26. Many have struggled with what exactly the author of Hebrews is trying to convey with this term. The confusion proceeds from the fact that every "sin" is indeed done "willfully" in the sense that all who "sin" do the act of their own volition, thus "willfully" in one sense of the word. Furthermore, the Apostle John makes it quite clear: "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Thus, if we are to maintain that the Scriptures are consistent in its unified message, "sinning willfully" must have some other meaning than that noted above. The question then is: "What does the author of Hebrews have in mind when he writes the term: "sinning willfully"?

Light is cast on this difficult passage when we realize that the author of Hebrews is most probably alluding to a distinct yet similar warning found in the Old Testament. In Numbers 15 we find that those "under the law of Moses" were given instruction and warning regarding "sinning unintentionally" and "sinning willfully." Note the following:

Also if one person sins unintentionally, then he shall offer a one year old female goat for a sin offering. The priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the sons of Israel and for the alien who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him (Numbers 15:27-31).

Therefore, since the author of Hebrews clearly notes that he is making an analogy to the punishment of those who "set aside the law" (vs. 28-29), we get a somewhat clearer picture of what he means by "sinning willfully." Since there was a distinction in the Old Testament regarding those who had received the revelation of the Lord through Moses of "sinning unintentionally" and "sinning defiantly," the author of Hebrews makes the following point analogous to the Old Testament instructions and warning: If those who defiantly spurned the Law after receiving the knowledge of its truth were put to death, how much greater will be the punishment of those who defiantly spurn the Gospel of Jesus Christ after receiving the knowledge of its truth.

After carefully examining the passage and the roots that the author of Hebrews is relating it to, it becomes evident the definition of "sinning willfully" carries with it the meaning of one who defiantly blasphemes the Gospel after accepting the concept that it is indeed true. When this is done, only a fearful expectation of the eternal judgment of God remains for that individual.

The Grandeur of the Whole Counsel of God

Searching for and recognizing allusions opens our eyes to the grandeur of the whole counsel of God. Allusions also prove helpful when examining various difficult passages. The above two passage truly just break the surface of the deep wealth of allusions dwelling throughout God’s word. As we page through the gracious gift given through Christ and His apostles, we must be cognizant of the vintage roots of this very message. The Old Testament is a veritable treasure of God’s work and promises through His people. The New Testament authors recognized this and utilized its continued value. So should all that love God’s inerrant, inspired word.

Issue 65 - July / August 2001

End Notes

  1. The Greek phrase used here for nations, panta ta ethne, is the exact same phrase used in the Abrahamic promises (Genesis 12:3, 22:18) in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the O.T.). The Septuagint often proves to be a great help in discovering allusions.
  2. For further study of the warning passages in the book of Hebrews and the complex issues evident in them, see Wayne Grudem, "Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from the Warning Passages in Hebrews," Still Sovereign, Ed. Thomas R. Shreiner, Bruce A. Ware, (Grand Rapids:Baker, 2000). Bob Dewaay, "Hebrews 6:4-8 on Apostasy," Critical Issues Commentary, Issue 49, Nov/Dec, 1998.

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The Benefits of Reading the New Testament in Light of the Old Testament

Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, © Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1988, 1995 The Lockman Foundation.

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