/ Christ in the Old Testament / Stephen Steele

Jesus: True and Better (from Calvin to Keller)

A memorial service for the late Tim Keller is being held this afternoon. One of the things Keller will be remembered for is his Christ-centred approach to the Old Testament. He often summarised it by saying that Jesus is the ‘true and better’ fulfilment of those who had come before:

“Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden, a much tougher garden, and whose obedience is imputed to us.
Jesus is the true and better Abel who, though innocently slain, has blood that cries out, not for our condemnation, but for our acquittal.
Jesus is the true and better Isaac who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was truly sacrificed for us all.
Jesus is the true and better Joseph who sits at the right hand of the King and forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his power to save them.”

He did the same for Jacob, Moses, Job, David, Esther and Jonah.[1]

Keller would have been the first one to deny that he was an innovator, however. Collin Hansen’s recent book on Keller’s spiritual and intellectual formation highlights how much of Keller’s approach to the Old Testament came from Edmund Clowney, the first president of Westminster Theological Seminary.

As a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a young Keller heard guest lecturer Clowney exhort students to look for Jesus from Genesis to Revelation: ‘And if you see that, it changes everything’. It certainly did for Keller: ‘Once Keller saw Jesus through Clowney’s eyes, he found his Saviour everywhere’.

But we can go back much further than Clowney.

One of the things that is most striking about Keller’s riff is its similarity to a preface by John Calvin to the French Bible translation of his cousin, Pierre Robert Olivétan.[2] (A preface that Keller himself drew attention to).

As part of that preface (later republished as a preface to the Geneva Bible), Calvin described Christ in the following terms:

“He is Isaac, the beloved Son of the Father who was offered as a sacrifice, but nevertheless did not succumb to the power of death.
He is Jacob the watchful shepherd, who has such great care for the sheep which he guards.
He is the good and compassionate brother Joseph, who in his glory was not ashamed to acknowledge his brothers, however lowly and abject their condition.
He is the great sacrificer and bishop Melchizedek, who has offered an eternal sacrifice once for all.
He is the sovereign lawgiver Moses, writing his law on the tables of our hearts by his Spirit.
He is the faithful captain and guide Joshua, to lead us to the Promised Land.
He is the victorious and noble king David, bringing by his hand all rebellious power to subjection.
He is the magnificent and triumphant king Solomon, governing his kingdom in peace and prosperity.
He is the strong and powerful Samson, who by his death has overwhelmed all his enemies.”

Calvin concludes: ‘If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him’.

Calvin may not quite use the language of ‘true and better’ but to say ‘He is Isaac’ is to say he is the true Isaac. And who would deny that he is the better Isaac? (Elsewhere Calvin calls Christ ‘the true Solomon’).[3]

Nor is it hard to find this instinct in many Reformed figures between Calvin and Keller.

John Flavel and Thomas Boston all but describe Jesus as the true and better David when discussing his response to Absalom’s death: ‘David wished he had died for his rebellious son, but Christ really died for his’ (Boston). ‘David manifested his love to Absalom, in wishing, “O that I had died for thee!”; Christ manifested his love to us, not in wishes that he had died, but in death itself’ (Flavel).[4]

The Westminster Divine Daniel Featley exhorted his listeners: ‘When wee reade of Josuah [Joshua], let the eye of our faith bee upon Jesus’. Jesus was the ‘truth’ to which the ‘type’ pointed.[5]

Nor is the specific language of ‘true and better’ new with Keller.

‘We are founded upon a better Adam’, writes Richard Sibbes. ‘He is the true Adam’.[6]

Indeed, Christ is also:

"the true Isaac, the ground of laughter.
He is the true Joseph, advanced now to the kingdom, to the right hand of God. He is the steward of his church, to feed his church here, and bring her to heaven with himself afterward.
… He is the true Joshua, that brings us through Jordan, from death and miseries in this world to heaven.
He is the true Solomon, the prince of peace."

Jesus is ‘the true Moses’, says George Swinnock.[7] He is ‘the true Samson’, according to Boston and Ebenezer Erskine.[8]

He is ‘the better Adam’ and ‘the true Solomon’ according to Samuel Rutherford.[9]

Other examples could no doubt be multiplied. But to finish with the Scottish Seceder William McEwen (1735-62):

‘Jesus is the true Joshua, or the Captain of Salvation, who brings many sons to glory’.

‘Jesus Christ, our better Joshua, saving the Gentile world from the wrath to come’.[10]

Should a Christian be able to read the Old Testament in a way that stops short of this?

[1] Keller first used this ‘original riff’ in a 2001 sermon at Redeemer Presbyterian Church: Collin Hansen, Tim Keller: his intellectual and spiritual formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023), pp 138-40.

[2] Frans P. Van Stam has questioned Calvin’s authorship of the preface, however his name has been associated with it since at least 1545, and a letter written by Calvin uses very similar language. See Wulfert De Greef (trans. Lyle D. Bierma), The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide (Expanded Edition), (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008)

[3] Calvin, Institutes, iv, i, 26.

[4] Boston, Works, x, 257; Flavel, Works, ii, 222-3.

[5] Featley, Clavis Mystica (London: Nicolas Bourne, 1636), p. 233

[6] Sibbes, Works, iii, 388, 425.

[7] Swinnock, Works, i, 527.

[8] Boston, Works, xi, 336; The Whole Works of the late Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, ii, 364.

[9] Rutherford, The Trial and Triumph of Faith, p. 20; Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself, p. 24.

[10] William McEwen, The Glory and Fullness of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022 [1763]) pp 60, 252.

Stephen Steele

Stephen Steele

Stephen is minister of Stranraer RP Church in Scotland. He is married to Carla and they have four children. He has an MA from Queen's University Belfast where his focus was on C19th Presbyterianism.

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