On Scripture Readings and Liturgical Time Warps

Q. Each week in worship, we read from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Sometimes the New Testament readings are direct fulfillments of the Old Testament prophecy that is read. Sometimes these passages seem entirely unrelated. Why?

A. First, I’m happy to hear that you have those two readings each week. This is a wonderful way of ensuring that the congregation is exposed to a balanced diet of biblical readings. It gives a sense of God’s actions over time.

Old and New Testament texts can be related in a variety of ways, which makes choosing readings an intriguing challenge.

  • Some OT texts are prophecies that Christians believe are fulfilled in the NT. For example, the promise that a Savior would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2) is fulfilled in Matthew 2:1 (the gospel of Matthew is especially helpful for pointing out these connections).
  • Some OT texts provide necessary background for NT passages. The description of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 is necessary background for understanding Hebrews 6 and 7. Note: Hebrews 6 and 7 is not a fulfillment of a prophecy in Genesis 14; it simply relies on the historical narrative of Genesis to make its theological point about Christ’s identity and work.
  • Some OT texts, while not prophecies in the narrow sense, are like a foreshadowing of things to come. For example, the lifting up of the snake in the desert (Num. 21) is a foreshadowing of Christ on the cross (John 3:14 points out the similarity).
  • Some OT texts are set aside (we might even say contradicted) in the NT. The relationship here is one of contrast or discontinuity. So when Jesus says “love your enemies” (Luke 6:35), we seem to be in a different moral world than that of the psalmists who pray for enemies to be destroyed.
  • Some OT and NT texts are related, but only indirectly, because they deal with the same broad subject matter. For example, God’s call of Abraham (Gen. 12) is related to God’s call to all of us in Christ. In this case, you might perceive a similarity between two texts, even though your study Bible won’t cross-reference these verses.

So the fact that not all of your readings are related as promise fulfillment is good! If we read only the portions of the Old Testament that are promises fulfilled in the New Testament, we’d leave vast portions of the Old Testament unread. In fact, this very point has been important in several recent revisions of the most widely used lectionaries. The revision teams have worried (appropriately) that we tend to unnecessarily limit the range of Old Testament readings that we use in worship.

Q. I’m troubled when we sing “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”? Hasn’t Jesus already come into his kingdom? How can we still sing this?

A. These words were first spoken by the thief on the cross (Luke 23:42). Singing them today depends on our understanding two aspects of Jewish and Christian ways of thinking about time.

First, we need to know about the “time warp” that often happens in worship. In worship we often retell scriptural stories and imagine ourselves in the middle of them. So we sing “Christ the Lord is risen today” instead of “Christ the Lord was risen 2000 years ago.” And we sing “born this happy morning” on Christmas instead of singing only “born so long ago.” This pattern also happens on Passover when Jewish people recite the words “on this night, God redeemed our ancestors.” And it is the reason that we parade with palm branches on Palm Sunday.

So when we read the account of Christ’s death in Luke, we are called to pray in faith to the Lord, just like the criminal who prayed the words of this song. We sing these words to identify with that prayer. We sing them even though we know that Jesus has already come into his kingdom. (Note: This song fits best when it placed in the context of this scriptural narrative. Otherwise, worshipers easily miss the connection.)

Second, we need to know about the multiple future fulfillments of many Scripture passages. For example, the text “Arise, shine, for your light has come” (Isa. 60) is fulfilled in one sense at Christ’s first coming. But it will be fulfilled in an even more complete sense when Christ comes again. We sing “O Come, O Come Immanuel” even though we know Christ has come once. We sing it now as we look forward to the fullness of his coming again. So too, we sing “Jesus, Remember Me” as we anticipate that day when Christ’s kingdom will come in all its fullness.

Any questions?

We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (info@reformedworship.org). You can also e-mail

John directly (jwitvlie@calvin.edu).

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.