Have you ever wondered why so many New Testament “quotes” from the Old Testament are different from the Old Testament itself—sometimes vastly different?
A good example is John 12:39-40:
For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”
The apostle John cites Isaiah 6:9-10, especially verse 10, as he reflects back on the first Palm Sunday when many in the crowds that day still did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, despite the miracles they had witnessed with their own eyes (Jn. 12:37).
However, the passage in Isaiah 6:10 reads a little differently in the Old Testament:
“ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
Why is there this difference? For that matter, this same reference in Isaiah is referred to two other times in the New Testament, once by Jesus (Matthew 13:15) and once by the apostle Paul. Each time the passage is not quoted exactly as it is found in the Old Testament. Again, why not?
John, Jesus and Paul are seeing the prophecy in Isaiah as being fulfilled before their very eyes. In each case, they apply the truth of Isaiah’s prophetic message while changing the wording (not the meaning) enough to fit their particular circumstances. The truth was, the Jewish people had become spiritually blind and deaf, and would remain so even to the coming of the Messiah, the “Holy Seed,” in the midst of a desolate existence (v. 13). Jesus and the apostles were not intending to quote Isaiah word for word, but to paraphrase the passage as an application to their specific circumstances.
We often do the same: “He will never leave you or forsake you,” we say to someone in need of encouragement, applying the truth—but changing the wording—of Hebrews 13:5: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you”
When the New Testament authors use this “applicational” approach to Scripture, they do so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, God Himself guarantees the Truth is being conveyed accurately, even if the words are altered for the occasion. The New Testament application of Old Testament Truth becomes Scripture itself. God, the author of His Word, has the privilege of rewording to get His point across.
The Isaiah passage highlights just one type of New Testament uses of Old Testament passages. Below are a few more ways the New Testament writers handle the Old Testament under the inspiration of God’s Spirit.
Often, in fact usually, the NT writers quote from the Greek translation of the OT (the LXX), because Greek was the common language of the day. If the apostles needed to clarify the wording of the Greek version they frequently amended the common translation by inserting a more literal wording from the original Hebrew where needed, sometimes translating the Hebrew themselves. A modern preacher uses this same technique, clarifying a portion of Scripture in an English translation by inserting the original Greek and its more literal (or more colloquially useful) translation for his listeners.
Sometimes an OT idea or teaching is being drawn out in the NT by condensing an OT verse or taking a familiar OT phrase and allowing the abbreviated reference to trigger the listeners recall of the larger passage. This use of Scripture was a common teaching device called the remez. Again, we use similar teaching aids when we use Scriptural phrases like “the blood of the Lamb” or “every knee shall bow,” expecting that our hearers will fill in the blanks in their own minds.
The New Testament treats the Old Testament as “living and active,” not wooden and stagnant. It never changes the Truth, but always seeks to apply it in a fresh and meaningful way.