How Midrash Reinforces the Essential Doctrines
By Ed Vasicek
Many scholars—whether non-Christians (such as David Flusser or Shmuel Safrai), Christians of a different flavor than we (such as Jacob Neusner), or evangelicals (such as Brad Young or David Bivin) have demonstrated that many NT (New Testament) passages are in the form of midrash: Jewish-style expositions, explanations and expansions of OT (Old Testament) verses.
When one accepts the idea that many NT teachings are actually midrashim (the plural of midrash), the equation shifts. We are no longer trying to connect Paul to the Greek or Roman culture, neither are we interpreting him with those cultures as the main understood background. We are asserting that much of the NT is based upon the OT—with some new revelation, yes, but not merely as much as many think. Most—of the major doctrines we believe and defend can be extracted from the OT. We are avowing that the NT writers were often such extractors.
Once we learn to interpret NT passages in conjunction with their OT origins (what I call “mother texts,”), we will find that many erroneous doctrines rescind and shrivel into non-existence. Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have essentially overlooked the wealth midrash brings to apologetics, hermeneutics, and theology.
Midrash is a good friend to conservative evangelicals, yet many of us are oblivious to it. Most of us have already embraced the concept of midrash perhaps without knowing it. Biblical Theology—tracing the progress of doctrine from Genesis through Revelation—is a cousin to midrash. Proving the deity of Christ through Isaiah 9:6-7 is getting even closer. Interpreting the NT virgin birth teaching (Matt. 1:23 and Gal. 4:4-5) in light of Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14 is almost full-blown midrash.
What is missing in these approaches, however, is the realization that many passages in Scripture resulted from intentional, conscious decisions by NT authors to expound OT passages for the current church age. These decisions, we believe, were directed by the Holy Spirit using men prepared by God for this purpose. In Galatians 1:15 Paul writes that God “set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace.”
The Book of Hebrews is a series of midrashim on a variety of OT passages, most notably the wilderness wanderings. My first book, The Midrash Key, summarizes the point:
Hebrews 6:1-8 is an obvious Midrash from Numbers 13-14; the people saw the produce and tasted of what potentially awaited them in the future (13:27); yet, they were conquered by unbelief; after determining not to enter Canaan, the Hebrews later changed their minds, but it was too late (Numbers 14:39-45). Hebrews 2-3 is clearly based on the events of Numbers 13-14. (p. 147)
This same phenomenon—NT passages applying OT passages—is seen frequently in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout the NT. This is particularly true regarding the teachings of Paul, teachings now being challenged by The New Perspective, the Emerging Church, as well as other incognito forms nudging, or racing, toward theological liberalism.
My second book, , The Amazing Doctrines of Paul as Midrash, elaborates on two examples of enlightening midrash.
Romans 5:1 as midrash
Paul’s picture of justification has been (rightly) understood as the believer being declared righteous upon faith in Jesus Christ. Romans 5:1 is probably based (in part) on Isaiah 32:17: “And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever” (ESV).
I am suggesting that Paul arranges these elements into a cause and effect paradigm in Romans 5:1. He then adds new revelation, the agency: Jesus our Messiah. Romans 5:1 reads, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV). Keep in mind that the term “justified” and “righteous” are related in the original language.
As a result of coupling these passages together, we can derive a pretty good definition of saving faith: a trust and quietness of soul. We are resting in Jesus Christ.
Zechariah 3:1-9 as a source for many midrashim
One amazing passage, surely foundational to Paul’s midrashim on justification, must be Zechariah 3:1-9. Numerous NT teachings are derived from this passage, in my opinion.
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.
The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?”
Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel.
He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, “Remove the filthy garments from him ” Again he said to him, “See, I have taken your iniquity away from you and will clothe you with festal robes.”
Then I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the LORD was standing by.
And the angel of the LORD admonished Joshua, saying,
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘If you will walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also govern My house and also have charge of My courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here.
‘Now listen, Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who are sitting in front of you—indeed they are men who are a symbol, for behold, I am going to bring in My servant the Branch.
‘For behold, the stone that I have set before Joshua; on one stone are seven eyes Behold, I will engrave an inscription on it,’ declares the LORD of hosts, ‘and I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day…’” (NASB)
We find four obvious NT doctrines here. Many more NT teachings can be found here, but I am not trying to be exhaustive.
1. The Pre-existence of the Son.
We find the Son of God as the Angel of Yahweh, thus God the Son existed before the incarnation.
2. Yahweh as more than one Person.
The words mouthed by the Angel of Yahweh are said to be spoken by Yahweh. Additionally Yahweh surprisingly rebukes Satan in the Name of Yahweh instead of saying “I rebuke you.” Thus Yahweh is more than one Person. He refers to Himself in both the first and third person. We see a similar phenomenon in Zechariah 12:8-10.
3. Christ as our advocate.
Satan is the accuser, but the Son stands up to defend the accused. Thus Romans 8:31-34 (NKJV) appears to be an exposition and expansion of this passage:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.
1 John 2:1-2 is also based on this theme—Christ arising to our defense: “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
4. Imputed Righteousness.
We can define what Paul meant when he spoke of the “righteousness of Christ.” The ESV of Philippians 3:9 reads, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” We can also understand the great exchange of 2 Corinthians 5:21 as well: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
In the Zechariah passage, we have the picture of Christ’s righteousness that Paul is describing. It involves the instant removal of filthy garments (sin) and the gracious bestowal of a clean garment (righteousness) by the command of the Son. With this graciously given righteousness comes the obligation to walk in obedience, but note that the clean garment comes first. Thus, justification is not something we receive at the end of life, but rather when the great exchange is made (by faith).
Much NT doctrine is OT teaching adapted from pre-Messianic times to the era after Messiah’s first coming. Jesus drew heavily from Deuteronomy, and Paul from Isaiah and Psalms.
Paul’s gospel found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 (“according to the Scriptures”) can only refer to Isaiah 53, for no other passage contains all three elements (“died for our sins,” buried, and resurrected). Thus, Isaiah 53 makes it abundantly clear that Jesus died as a penal sacrifice offering Himself to the Father as a sin offering for us. Case closed.
By coupling passages, interpretation comes into sharper focus; we have essentially increased context. In the process, the fundamentals of the faith shine as the most obvious, natural doctrines taught in God’s Word. Hopefully this sample has sparked your interest in the practical value of und