Abraham Lincoln. Robert Louis Stevenson. Shakespeare. George Bernard Shaw. Yogi Berra. Benjamin Franklin. Martin Luther King. The list could go on of people we might quote to add emphasis or justification to our presentation. A quote seems to take on a life of its own, carrying the burden of an argument, showing reflection, or giving identity through association. As popular as the people listed above may be, nothing compares to the number of times people quote the Bible to explain, endorse, or identify. When we quote from the Bible we are in good company since Jesus and many of the New Testament writers quote from the Scriptures as well.
Many translations will identify a verse that quotes another verse by setting it off in some way and including a reference note. We may quickly register that we are looking at a quote but we also usually fail to stop and examine the quoted verse. There are at least four ways to look at a quoted passage.
Looking back. One action we can take is to read the quotes passage and the verses around it, looking for how the two situations connect to each other. In Matthew 1:23, the Gospel writer adds that the birth of Jesus was a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin would conceive and have a child (Isa. 7:14). I realize there is the question as to if there was an immediate fulfillment of this prophecy as well as it pointing to Jesus (no one questions that it refers to Jesus), but for the purpose of our discussion, let’s focus on the setting in which Isaiah made this declaration. King Ahaz faced the threat of oppression at the hands of a foreign power. The people were wondering if God would take care of them. King Ahaz was tempted to rely on his own power and plans to assure a future. God promised a sign that would be named to remind the people of God’s presence. These same elements were true at the birth of Jesus with Him being God physically present with humanity. In both cases, the people and leaders were faced with a choice. Would they believe in God and trust Him, or would they rely on themselves?
Examining the context of both occurrences gives us a glimpse of the design behind God’s redemptive plan and how He carries it out through all of history.
Looking forward. When reading the Old Testament and we encounter a passage that is identified as being quoted in the New Testament, we can look forward. We find several places in the new Testament where Isaiah 53 is quoted, with Acts 8 being one of those locations. One of the big questions behind Isaiah 53 is the identity of the servant. Within Isaiah itself, the servant is sometimes Israel as a people (41:8), however the servant in Isaiah 53 is described using a singular pronoun he. The use of this singular pronoun begs the question of who is the individual being talked about in Isaiah 53. If we look forward to Acts 8, we find an Ethopian government official asking this same question. Philip approached the man and overheard him reading Isaiah 53:7-8. The government official is contemplating the identity of the suffering servant, wondering about it possibly being Isaiah or maybe another prophet or individual. This government official understood this passage to be about a single person and not a group or nation. We are told that Philip began with that very passage and told the government leader about Jesus (Acts 8:35). By looking forward we can then understand how to interpret Isaiah 53 and the identity of the Servant in the passage.
Comparing Words. Some New Testament quotes are identical to the Old Testament quote, but not always. This is especially noteworthy when we find the same Old Testament passage quoted more than once in the New Testament. Jesus is recorded in the three Synoptic Gospels as quoting Psalm 118:25-26 after concluding the parable of the vineyard tenants (see Matt. 21:42, Mark 12:10-11, and Luke 20:17). Peter quoted this same psalm when answering the religious leaders (some of whom also heard Jesus share the parable of the vineyard tenants) about by whose authority he preached (see Acts 4:11). Peter would quote this same passage in his first letter contrasting those who reject Jesus with those who believe in Him (see 1 Pet. 2:7). Psalm 118 was a call to praise the Lord for His deliverance. The psalmist emphasized that God was due praise because what was viewed as trash or discard was transformed into a treasured item with the discarded stone becoming the focal point of the building.
Since we have five New Testament references of one Old Testament passage, we can compare the different ways the psalm is used and look for similar words and altered or missing words and phrases. The altered and omitted words give us clues as to how that writer understood the psalm and messianic message behind it and how that passage applies in our world. Doing this type of comparison helps us see the multiple facets of Scripture.
Reflecting on how a passage is quoted. Satan quoted Scripture when tempting Jesus as recorded in Matthew 4. When offering the second temptation, Satan quoted Psalm 91:11-12. The psalm is a song of trust, with God extending His care on all who trust in Him. In the first verse of the psalm, God promises all who dwell in the shelter of the Most High safeguarding and protection. The devil confuses God’s care when we stumble with deliberately placing ourselves in harm’s way so that God will act. We are not free to create situations in which we force God to act in a specific way. Jesus corrected Satan by pointing him to Deuteronomy 6:16 which reminds us that we are not to test God. The passage was included in Moses’ address to the Israelites as they sat poised to enter the promised land. Moses reminded them of Massah and their failure in the past to trust God. On the way to Sinai from Egypt they questioned whether or not God was with them (Exodus 17:7) so they requested a sign in the form of water from a rock. They insisted on a supernatural source, one designed not so much to provide for a physical need but rather to satisfy their spiritual curiosity. Moses was warning them about carrying that same attitude into the promised land. Jesus rebuffed Satan with the same warning, that God could certainly provide like He had done when providing the Israelites water from a rock but doing so would make the power of God a spectacle and side show as opposed to a demonstration of His love.
In situations like the two quotes in Matthew 4, we see the importance of Scripture being rightly applied to a situation.
This fourth point includes both the improper way to apply Scripture and the proper way. We should treat Scripture with care, especially when quoting it. Carefully studying the ways Scripture is quoted within its pages will help us establish boundaries for how we use Scripture in our lives as well and remind us of the importance of treasuring God’s Word in our hearts.
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