Beyond Cross References: Old Testament Allusions in the New Testament

Author: Johnny Cisneros

Most English Bibles are pretty good at showing you where Old Testament quotations in the New Testament came from. But in some instances, cross references only tell half the story.

Usually when Jesus was confronted with opposition, He answered on the basis of His own authority. But when tempted by the devil in the wilderness, He quotes from the book of Deuteronomy three times (Deut 6:13, 16; 8:3).

There’s more going on here than just a few quotations out of the Old Testament. To understand the importance of the citations, we need to look at Jesus’ baptism and subsequent temptation in the wilderness in the context of the Old Testament, especially the story of Israel.

The Baptism and the Exodus

Search for the English word “baptism” in the Old Testament and you will not get a single hit. But the word’s absence does not mean concepts associated with baptism are absent. Think of the passages that involve water and humanity. In Gen 1 God’s creative acts include “parting the waters” (Gen 1:2, 6–9) to bring forth the dry land and, ultimately, the climax of creation—humankind (Gen 1:26–27). Through a flood, God takes the earth back to its primitive state and essentially recreates humanity by instructing Noah and his family to enter an ark (Gen 6–9). After the waters recede or “part,” they receive the same instruction given to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1; compare Gen 1:28).

Exodos 2:3 uses the same word that describes Noah’s “ark” (tbh, תבה) in Gen 6–9 to describe the “basket” (tbh, הבת) covered with pitch that Moses’ mother places him in (compare Gen 6:14). As God saw His creation, Moses’ mother sees that this “new creation” is “good” (Exod 2:2; compare Gen 1:4, 7, 10, 12, 17, 21, 25, 31). It is no surprise then that the nation Israel, described as Yahweh’s firstborn son (Exod 4:22–23), must pass through the “parted” waters of the Red Sea (Exod 15:22). As Noah and Moses before them, the people of Israel function as God’s “new creation,” bearing His image to the nations, that all might see what God looks like.

All of this is the backdrop for the baptism of Jesus, who is also called God’s Son.1 Jesus passes through the waters of the Jordan River (Luke 3:21–22; Matt 3:16–17; Mark 1:9–10)—taking on Israel’s role as God’s new humanity. His purpose is further reinforced by Luke’s genealogy which traces back to Adam, the son of God, the first human (Luke 3:38).2 But the parallels do not end there. As Israel before Him, Jesus also passes from the water to the wilderness (Luke 4:1–2; Mark 1:12–13; Matt 4:1–2; compare Exod 15:22).

Temptation in the Wilderness

Yahweh desired for Israel to participate with Him in His redemptive plan. Unfortunately, He did not receive much cooperation. Upon entering the wilderness, Israel began to grumble about God’s provision, longing for the bread of Egypt (Exod 16:2–3). They also put God to the test concerning His leadership (Exod 17:2–3). And they violated the covenant that Yahweh had made with them by committing idolatry (Exod 32:8). What was the result? That first generation wandered in the wilderness for forty years and died. A ‘new’ generation would enter the Promised Land. This generation, however, was not present for the first giving of the Law at Sinai, so God had to give the Law a second time. This is contained in the book of Deuteronomy, which is about a renewed covenant for the new and faithful Israel.

Jesus enters the wilderness and stays there. Guess how long? Forty days! (See Luke 4:2; compare Exod 16:35; Num 14:32–33). The title “Son of God” signals that Jesus has taken on Israel’s role as God’s new humanity. Even the devil recognizes this function by (1) questioning Jesus’ identity as the “Son of God” (Luke 4:3, 9; Matt 4:3, 6) and (2) by tempting Him in the same places God’s previous new humanity, Israel, had failed: trusting in God’s provision (Luke 4:3; Matt 4:3; compare Deut 8:3), idolatry (Luke 4:7; Matt 4:9; compare Deut 6:13), and testing God’s leadership (Luke 4:9; Matt 4:6; compare Deut 6:16). In each instance Jesus quotes from the book of Deuteronomy, the book for the new and faithful Israel.

The parallels between Jesus’ life and Israel’s exodus are more than just clever connections. They suggest that Jesus took on the function of Israel as God’s new humanity. But unlike Israel in the wilderness, Jesus did not despise God’s provision, engage in idolatry, or put Yahweh to the test. Instead, He resisted the devil and succeeded in the exact areas where Israel had failed. And so through the Son of God, Yahweh calls us to Himself—to be His new humanity or in Paul’s words, His “new creation” (2 Cor 5:13). He invites us into His baptism, that we might take part in His death and by His resurrection have new life (Rom 6:4). As His children, we look like our Father, bearing the image of His Son by the Spirit. Through us, other people may see what God is like and choose to worship Him.

A How-To Guide: Finding the Old Testament in the New Testament

Find Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament

  1. Use a Bible that has footnotes and cross references to the Old Testament.
  2. Look up the reference(s) and consider the larger context. Where does it fit in the book? (Consult a Bible commentary to find this answer.) Remember, the biblical authors did not write in verses and chapters, those were added much later. A single verse can actually reference a whole paragraph, psalm, or even an entire book.

Find Allusions and Echoes of the Old Testament in the New Testament

  1. Allusions and echoes are not always cross referenced. The key to finding allusions and echoes is to read and reread large sections of the Bible at a time so that you get the big picture. Also consider investing in an audio Bible of your favorite translation.
  2. As you read and listen to the Bible, take note of any repetition and contrast. Keep in mind that those features do not just happen at the word level. They also occur with related or contrasted concepts. For example, baptism is not mentioned in the Old Testament, but water is.

Think about How the Biblical Author Uses the Old Testament

Does the New Testament author’s allusion or quotation of the Old Testament suggest continuity or discontinuity? For example, the allusions to water and wilderness in Jesus’ baptism and temptation suggest continuity with Israel as God’s humanity. But Jesus’ quotations of Deuteronomy, when He is resisting the devil’s temptations, suggest discontinuity with faithless Israel who perished in the wilderness.

Pick Up a Tour Guide: No Need to Do All the Work Yourself

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002). G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (eds.), Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 2 No. 1