What Is the Central Message of the Old Testament?
Part 6 of 6 Answering Big Questions About the Old Testament
We will now explore how the Old Testament is to be rightly understood in light of its central message. The opening line of Scripture introduces us to its hero, God. Throughout the pages of Scripture this God is revealed. In the closing line of the New Testament Scriptures, we are reminded that the God who is the hero of the true story of Scripture is Jesus Christ. Thus, the written Word of God reveals to us the incarnate (“in human flesh”) Word of God, Jesus Christ. Further, without the written Word we cannot rightly know of the incarnate Word. Therefore, defining the central message of the Old Testament is the key to our interpretive process because without a proper understanding of Scripture we do not have access to truly loving and knowing the real Jesus.
Some people prefer the New Testament to the Old Testament because they wrongly believe that only the New Testament is about Jesus. However, it was Jesus himself who taught that the Old Testament was primarily about him. While arguing with the “theologians” in his day, Jesus chastised them, saying, “You search the Scriptures [Old Testament] because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”87
Following his resurrection, Jesus opened the Old Testament to teach others about himself: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”88 Likewise, in speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”89 We then read that he “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”90
Jesus’ own words about himself as the central message of the Old Testament are pointedly clear. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”91
To emphasize this point, we will examine only a few of the many examples taken from Jesus’ life where he was acutely aware that his acts were fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament. After reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue early in his ministry, “he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”92 At the Last Supper, on the night before his betrayal, Jesus taught about his impending death from Isaiah 53:12 by saying, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”93 Upon his betrayal by Judas and his arrest, Jesus said, “But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.”94 Clearly, Jesus saw himself and his ministry as the very fulfillment of the Old Testament promises.
Simply, when the Old Testament is rightly interpreted, it is ultimately about Jesus as God, our Savior, the object of our faith, forgiver of our sins, and giver of eternal life. Therefore, to correctly interpret the Old Testament you will need to connect its verses, concepts, and events to Jesus.
The Old Testament uses various means to reveal Jesus, including promises, appearances, types, and titles. First, the Old Testament teaches about Jesus in the numerous prophetic promises given about him. At the time of its’ writing, upward of one-quarter of Scripture was prophetic in nature, promising future events. Neither Islam nor any other world religion or cult can present any specific prophecies concerning the coming of their prophets. However, in the Old Testament we see hundreds of fulfilled prophecies extending hundreds and sometimes over a thousand years into the future. Consider the following Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment in Jesus Christ:
• Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah promised that Jesus’ mother would be a virgin who would conceive by a miracle.95
• Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Micah promised that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem.96
• Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Hosea promised that Jesus’ family would flee as refugees to Egypt to save his young life.97
• Four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Malachi promised that Jesus would enter the temple. Since the temple was destroyed in AD 70, this prophecy could not be fulfilled anytime after AD 70.98
• Five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Zechariah promised that Jesus would be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver.99
• One thousand years before the birth of Jesus, David promised that lots would be cast for Jesus’ clothing.100
• One thousand years before the birth of Jesus (and hundreds of years before the invention of crucifixion), David promised that Jesus would be crucified.101
• Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah promised that Jesus would die and be buried in a rich man’s tomb.102
• One thousand years before the birth of Jesus, David promised that Jesus would resurrect from death;103 seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah also promised that Jesus would resurrect from death.104
The fulfillments of these prophetic promises show the divine inspiration of Scripture and prove that there is a sovereign God who rules over human history and brings events to pass just as he ordains them. Because of
these facts, we can trust the internal consistency of the Bible to be a chorus of faithful witnesses who sing together in harmony about the glory of Jesus Christ.
Second, the Old Testament teaches about Jesus through appearances that he makes before his birth, or what are called Christophonies. Examples include walking with Abraham,105 wrestling with Jacob,106 appearing to Moses,107 joining Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace,108 and calling Isaiah into ministry.109 Other examples may include the occasional appearance of “the angel [messenger] of the Lord” who is sometimes identified as God.110 This angel provided the sacrifice in Isaac’s place111 and spoke and journeyed with Moses.112
Third, types are Old Testament representative figures, institutions, or events that foreshadow Jesus. Examples include Adam, who foreshadows Jesus as the second Adam; the priesthood, which prefigures Jesus as our High Priest; David and other kings, who prefigure Jesus as the King of Kings; Moses and the prophets, who prefigure Jesus as our ultimate Prophet; animal sacrifices, which prefigure Jesus as the sinless Lamb of God slain for our sins; the temple, which prefigures God’s presence dwelling among us in Jesus; shepherds who care for their sheep, which remind us we are as foolish and vulnerable as sheep but that Jesus our Shepherd keeps constant watch over us; judges, who foreshadow Jesus as the final judge of all people; and many others.
We also see people in the Old Testament who perform various kinds of service analogous to the services that Jesus performs perfectly. Unlike the first Adam, Jesus Christ is the Last Adam who passed his test in a garden and in so doing imputed his righteousness to us to overcome the sin imputed to us through the sin of the first Adam. Jesus is the true and better Abel who, although he was innocent, was slain and whose blood cries out for our acquittal. When Abraham left his father and home, he was doing the same thing that Jesus would do when he left heaven. When Isaac carried his own wood and laid down his life to be sacrificed at the hand of his father Abraham, he was showing us what Jesus would later do. Jesus is the greater Jacob, who wrestled with God in Gethsemane and, though wounded and limping, walked away from his grave blessed. Jesus is the greater Joseph who serves at the right hand of God the King, extends forgiveness and provision to those of us who have betrayed him, and uses his power to save us in loving reconciliation. Jesus is greater than Moses in that he stands as a mediator between God and us, bringing us the New Covenant. Like Job, innocent Jesus suffered and was tormented by the Devil so that God might be glorified, while his dumb friends were no help or encouragement. Jesus is a King greater than David, who has slain our giants of Satan, sin, and death, although in the eyes of the world he was certain to face a crushing defeat at their hands. Jesus is greater than Jonah in that he spent three days in the grave and not just a fish to save a multitude even greater than Nineveh.
Furthermore, when Boaz redeemed Ruth and brought her and her despised people into community with God’s people, he was showing what Jesus would do to redeem his bride the church from all the nations of the earth. When Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem, he was doing something similar to Jesus, who is building for us a New Jerusalem as our eternal home. When Hosea married an unfaithful whoring wife whom he continued to pursue in love, he was showing us the heart of Jesus, who does the same for his unfaithful bride, the church. Finally, when God’s people sought to keep their homes free from filth through various Old Testament rituals, they were showing that their lives were filled with the filth of sin and they desperately needed Jesus to come and make them clean.
We also see Jesus in the Old Testament through various events. For example, in the Exodus account of Passover, Moses met with the elders of Israel to instruct all the people to follow the Lord’s commands for the Passover Feast. They were to place blood over their doorframes with hyssop (a common herb bundled for cleaning), and no one was to leave home until the morning. By being marked with a lamb’s blood, death would
not come to the home but would pass over. Paul says that we see Jesus in this because “we have now been justified by his [Jesus’] blood, much more shall we be saved by him [Jesus] from the wrath of God.”113 Peter also says our salvation is given by Jesus Christ and “sprinkling with his blood.”114
Likewise, the exodus serves as the pattern of our own salvation: Jesus crushed Satan like he did Pharaoh and liberated us into freedom that we might worship him like the Israelites did. The meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus was revealed in the annual celebration of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. This was the most important day of the year. It was intended to deal with the sin problem between humanity and God. On that day, two healthy goats without defect were chosen to represent sinless perfection. The high priest would slaughter one goat, which acted as a substitute for the sinners who rightly deserved a violently bloody death for their many sins. This goat’s blood was shed as a price for sin, showing us how Jesus would die in our place for our sins. The second goat was allowed to run free with its sins forgiven, showing us how Jesus would not only die for our sins but also take them away.
Fourth, there are many titles for God in the Old Testament that refer to Jesus Christ as God. In Daniel 7:13–14, God is called the “son of man,” and Jesus adopted that as his favorite title, using it some eighty times in the four Gospels. Jesus is the Suffering Servant that was promised in Isaiah.115 Jesus is also known by many other Old Testament titles for God, including First and Last,116 Light,117 Rock,118 Husband or Bridegroom,119 Shepherd,120 Redeemer,121 Savior,122 and the Lord of Glory.123
Much more could be said, but all of these examples illustrate the one big idea that Jesus is the central theme of the entire Old Testament. To properly understand the Old Testament we must connect it to the person and work of Jesus. This should not be done in an allegorizing manner where arbitrary meanings foreign to Scripture are assigned to Old Testament words and images, thereby changing their meaning. Rather, the message of the Old Testament includes symbolism and identity that are most fully revealed in Jesus.
It is my desire that you really embrace this simple but transforming truth. Unless Jesus is the central message of the Old Testament, many errors abound. The most common is moralizing. Moralizing is reading the Old Testament not to learn about Jesus, but only to learn principles for how to live my life as a good person by following the good examples of some people and avoiding the bad examples of others. That kind of approach to the Old Testament is not Christian because it is not about Christ. It treats the Bible like any other book with moral lessons that are utterly disconnected from the example and empowerment of Jesus.
Therefore, the issue of Jesus is the difference between how Christians and adherents of other religions (e.g., Jews and Muslims) understand the Old Testament. This point was made painfully clear to me one day while driving home from the church that I pastor. I had just finished a sermon from Genesis when I heard an advertisement on Christian radio. The Christian churches were bringing in a non-Christian rabbi who did not believe in Jesus to teach all the Christians how to study the Old Testament. My heart was absolutely broken because I knew he would not tell them anything about Jesus and in so doing would only be able to moralize. The sad result of moralizing is that people become proud like Satan if they think they are obeying the moral commands of Scripture, or depressed if they are honest enough to admit their sinful shortcomings. God’s intention for our study of the Old Testament is never demonic pride or hopeless despair, but rather Jesus Christ—who not only shows us how to live but transforms us so that we can. The Old Testament is all about Jesus!
87 John 5:39–40.
88 Luke 24:27.
89 Luke 24:44.
90 Luke 24:45.
91 Matt. 5:17–18.
92 Luke 4:20–21.
93 Luke 22:37.
94 Matt. 26:56.
95 Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18–23.
96 Mic. 5:2; Luke 2:1–7.
97 Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:13–15.
98 Mal. 3:1; Luke 2:25–27.
99 Zech. 11:12–13; Matt. 26:14–15.
100 Ps. 22:18; John 19:23–24.
101 Ps. 22:16; Luke 23:33.
102 Isa. 53:8–9; Matt. 27:57–60; Luke 23:46.
103 Ps. 16:10.
104 Isa. 53:10–12; Acts 2:25–32.
105 Genesis 18, cf. John 8:56.
106 Gen. 32:30.
107 Ex. 3:2–6, cf. John 8:58.
108 Dan. 3:24–25.
109 Isa. 6:1–5, cf. John 12:41.
110 Judg. 6:11–14; 13:21–22.
111 Gen. 16:7–13.
112 Ex. 3:14; 23:20–21, cf. John 8:56–59.
113 Rom. 5:9.
114 1 Pet. 1:2.
115 Isa. 42:1–4; 49:1–7; 52:13–53:12; cf. Phil. 2:1–11.
116 Isa. 41:4; 44:6; 48:12; cf. Rev. 1:17; 2:8; 22:13.
117 Ps. 27:1; cf. John 1:9.
118 Ps. 18:2; 95:1; cf. 1 Cor. 10:4; 1 Pet. 2:6–8.
119 Hos. 2:16; Isa. 62:5; cf. Eph. 5:28–33; Rev. 21:2.
120 Ps. 23:1; cf. Heb. 13:20.
121 Hos. 13:14; Ps. 130:7; cf. Titus 2:13; Rev. 5:9.
122 Isa. 43:3; cf. John 4:42.
123 Isa. 42:8; cf. 1 Cor. 2:8.
The content for this post was originally published in the book “On the Old Testament” that is out of print until it is revised and rereleased.