The Gospel and the Old Testament
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
The gospel, the good news of salvation, is essentially a New Testament message ‘which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him’.1 At the same time, the Bible is one harmonious revelation of the purposes of God, and this article outlines how the Old Testament prepares the way for the coming of Christ, and the gospel events. This matters for a number of important reasons:
The credibility of the gospel. The earliest gospel preaching was ‘to the Jew first and also to the Greek’. Therefore, it was (and still is) vital to be able to prove from the Old Testament that the gospel is not some hastily-thought-up expedient, but rather the fulfilment of the promises and purposes of God as unfolded in the Old Testament.2 ‘To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins’.3 Faced with the heartbreak of Israel’s rejection of their Messiah, Paul devotes chapters 9-11 of his Epistle to the Romans to show that the Old Testament anticipates such a tragedy, and that, notwithstanding Israel’s obduracy, God’s mercy will finally triumph.
The testimony of the early church. The Old Testament constituted ‘scripture’ for the apostles and the early church. Indeed, the Greek translation, known as the Septuagint, was widely used, and is frequently quoted by the New Testament writers. It is most instructive to study in the book of Acts how the apostles preached the gospel, proclaiming the great facts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and emphasizing throughout the fulfilment of Old Testament scripture.4
The unity of revelation. Sadly, for many Christians, the Old Testament is a neglected book, ‘different’ and ‘strange’ as though there was no connection between the Testaments. On the contrary, it is reassuring to grasp that the Bible is a coherent whole. Christ Himself is the key to all scripture: ‘You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me’.5 Step by step, in a rich variety of ways, as we shall see, the Old Testament introduces gospel principles, so that men might readily recognize and receive their embodiment in Christ when He came.
The character of God. The gospel is ‘the glorious gospel of the blessed God’.6 In it we learn the consistency, faithfulness, and grace of God in His dealings with lost and guilty mankind from the outset of human history. The God who is fully and finally revealed in His only-begotten Son, is the same unchanging God: ‘God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son’.7 Calvary was no afterthought; on the contrary, Christ ‘was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you’.8
2. Prophecies and Types
The Old Testament forms the preparation for the gospel, and is full of instructive revelation pointing forward to the advent of Christ. This is seen in its prophecies, types, promises, and covenants.
Almost as soon as sin had marred God’s fair creation, in pronouncing judgement on the serpent a glorious prophecy was given: ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel’.9 Whilst in the former part of the verse the respective ‘seed’ of the serpent and the woman may point in a collective sense to the conflict between the children of darkness and the children of light, the New Testament sees the conflict ultimately focusing on Christ and His decisive victory over Satan by His death and resurrection.10 This alerts us to a most important feature in much Old Testament prophecy, namely its application at multiple levels, with both immediate and Messianic, corporate and individual fulfilments.11
It has often been observed that the book of Genesis is the ‘seed plot’ of the Bible. We see the following significant truths revealed:
- Adam and Eve clothed through God’s provision of coats of skins, implying that an animal’s life was forfeited.
- Abel accepted by God on the basis of blood sacrifice offered in faith, Gen. 4. 4; Heb. 11. 4.
- Abram called by God out of Ur, and received the covenant promise that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed, Gen. 12. 1-3.
- Abraham receives ‘good news’ and is justified by faith, 15. 8.
- A substitute for Isaac is found in the ram provided by God, 22. 13.
- Abraham justified by works, 22. 12; Jas. 2. 21.
Adam specifically is said to be ‘a type of Him who was to come (Christ)’, Rom. 5. 14; however, the remainder of that chapter indicates that the respective heads of fallen and redeemed humanity are contrasted more than compared. The term ‘type’ signifies an example, symbol, or picture marked out by God in order to point forward to a larger fulfilment.12 For example, the sacrifice of carefully designated animals was the appointed means for the Israelite to approach God in faith and penitence, and thus experience the joy of forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with God.
God’s gracious provision of a means of atonement, and the resultant sacredness of the sacrificial blood, are underscored in Leviticus: ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement’.13 Such sacrifices could never ‘put away’ sin in the complete and final sense, but together they pointed forward to the once-for-all, and permanently effective, sacrifice of Christ, Heb. 10. 1-18.
Exodus is the book of redemption – from the slavery and tyranny of Pharaoh and Egypt. But, at a deeper level, the story of Israel’s journey from despair and bondage to the enjoyment of their Canaan inheritance illustrates many gospel truths. Much is typical of Christ, and the fundamental liberation He secured from sin, guilt and death. Moses is a deliverer, sent from God. He declares the name of God, speaks the words of God, and displays the miraculous power of God. During the climactic judgement of God on Egypt on Passover night, the Israelites are preserved, sheltered by the blood of the Passover lamb. Later, at the Red Sea, they are delivered by the power of God, and the enemy is overwhelmed in the sea. Amidst these typical events, Moses himself points forward to Christ: ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear’.14
Events also foreshadowed the gospel. The Israelites were ‘all . . . baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea’, 1 Cor. 10. 2, pointing forward to Christian baptism. Later, in the wilderness wanderings, the uplifted serpent on the pole brought immediate relief and life to the dying Israelite, just as today ‘there is life for a look at the Crucified One’.15 ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up’, John 3. 14.
Types of Christ and His salvation are thus wide-ranging in the Old Testament. It is apparent that gospel principles are embedded in the fabric of scripture, like a hallmark of authenticity. They include:
- Great deliverances: the exodus from Egypt; the return, or ‘second exodus’,16 from Babylon.
- Holy places and vessels: e.g., the tabernacle, altar of burnt offering, mercy seat.
- Typical persons: leaders such as Moses; priests such as Melchizedek and Aaron; kings, especially David and his dynasty; prophets and sages. Aaron and his sons point forward to Christ the eternal priest. Prophets fearlessly speak forth messages from God, paving the way for the advent of the Prophet par excellence.17
Israel was thus primed with all the necessary concepts in order that they might readily embrace the Deliverer when He came. Christ is greater than the temple.18 He is also the root and offspring of David. ‘The Son of David is David’s Lord because He is God; The Lord of David is David’s Son because He is God incarnate’.19 The kings of David’s dynasty point forward to Christ, insofar as they are seen to be representatives of God, administering His kingdom, and shepherding His people.
Again, answering to the ideals of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, Christ personifies the divine wisdom.20 As the unique Mediator between God and man, the yearning of Job is finally satisfied.21
- Heb. 2. 3. Gal. 3. 8 does not contradict this assertion. The good news ‘preached beforehand’ to Abraham is that all nations will be blessed in his offspring, Gen. 12. 1-3. That good news is still ‘preached’ by scripture to us who live in the age when the promise has been fulfilled.
- Rom. 1. 2; 16. 26.
- Acts 10. 43.
- 1 Cor. 15. 3-4; Zech. 9. 9; Ps. 16. 8-11; Ps. 110. 1; Dan. 7. 13-14. Note that even when faced with pagan audiences ignorant of the Hebrew scriptures, e.g., Acts 14. 17, the apostles proclaimed biblical truths, albeit without explicit reference to the Old Testament.
- John 5. 39.
- 1 Tim. 1. 11.
- John 1. 18; Heb. 1. 1-2.
- 1 Pet. 1. 20.
- Gen. 3. 15.
- Compare Gal. 3. 16, but noting Rom. 16. 20.
- Compare, for example, Hosea 11. 1 with Matt. 2. 15.
- For a careful treatment of this topic see David Gooding, The Riches of Divine Wisdom, pp. 24, 27, 116-118.
- Lev. 17. 11; cp. Rom. 3. 25.
- Deut. 18. 15. For a helpful survey of Moses as a type of Christ, see David Baron, Rays of Messiah’s Glory, ch. 6.
- From the hymn of that title written by Amelia M. Hull.
- See Isa. 52. 1-12.
- Heb. 1. 1ff.; John 3. 34.
- Matt. 12. 6.
- H. P. Liddon, The Divinity of our Lord, p. 43.
- Prov. 8. 22-31; Col. 2. 3.
- Job 9. 33.