May 18, 2013

Chester V. Clark III: The Gospel in the Old Testament

— There are many, even among Christians, who quite understandably find it much easier to discover the gospel in, well, the gospels!

The New Testament opens with the (nearly, apart from faith) unbelievable story of the God of the universe becoming incarnate and forever a part of a rebellious race he himself had created and sustains (John 1:1-3, 14). And what an amazing story it is! Through the ceaseless ages of eternity I’m quite sure the redeemed will never tire of learning more about this wondrous story. And oh, how our hearts will thrill each time we consider how we were saved by his grace. The New Earth’s perfect hillsides will echo and re-echo shouts of praise to the One who took our sins that we might be saved by his righteousness.

But many overlook that the plan of salvation is also found in the Old Testament. There’s no question that the gospel story in the New Testament is more beautiful, unambiguous and detailed than the approaching “shadows” that predicted and promised the Messiah’s arrival and ministry. Yet for the serious Bible student the Old Testament offers dramatic insights into an understanding of the New Testament world as well as the New Testament writings.

Consider, for example, the fact that the New Testament authors, as well as Jesus himself, used the Old Testament authoritatively in helping explain the mission and ministry of Jesus. While walking to Emmaus with his dejected and disappointed disciples, Jesus gave them a comprehensive Bible study. And, of course, the only Bible he could use was the Old Testament Scriptures. “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

When Luke refers to “Moses” here, he is undoubtedly referring to the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, sometimes referred to as the “law of Moses”). In other words, from Genesis on through the prophets, Jesus explained how the Old Testament had been fulfilled by his life and death. Speaking again to the Jews, who held in high estimation what we today would refer to as the Old Testament, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39)

But if the gospel is so intrinsic in the ancient Jewish Scriptures, why is it not discovered more easily and appreciated more widely in the Old Testament by Christians today?

The answer is found in the fact that the gospel in the Old Testament is often given in symbols and prophetic figures. Using types and metaphors, God revealed to the Jews the message of Jesus and the good news of salvation so that those who had a heart willing to recognize truth would find it.

And many did, finding in the promises and passages of the Old Testament enough evidence to exercise a saving faith in the coming Redeemer. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’” (Romans 4:3) And Paul also quotes David as evidence of Old Testament salvation by grace through faith, “‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.’” (Verses 7 and 8.) Paul commended Timothy for studying the Old Testament: “And that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:17)

One of the most obvious tools God used to teach the plan of salvation was through the sacrifices, ceremonies and the very architecture and design of the Hebrew sanctuary. In Exodus 25:8, God told Moses, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”

That sanctuary was built here on Earth to reflect the real plan of salvation being enacted in heaven. The point of the whole sanctuary service was to illustrate the comprehensive work of redemption that would be carried out by Jesus Christ. After discussing the priestly aspects of this earthly system of types and shadows which pointed forward to Jesus, Paul says: “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a high priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.” (Hebrews 8:1-2). The earthly tabernacle was a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For he said, ‘See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’” (Verse 5.)

In fact, the New Testament was written by those who had an intimate acquaintance with the Old Testament, including the gospel predictions and illustrations of the sanctuary service. And it seems as though they expected new Christians, even Gentile Christians, to likewise study these sacred writings. Speaking of the Bereans, Paul wrote that “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)

In coming columns we will be exploring further the gospel of Jesus as found in the Old Testament. “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)

Chester V. Clark III is pastor at Dalton Seventh-day Adventist Church.