The Gospel and the Old Testament - Part 2
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
The previous article highlighted the significance of the Old Testament as preparation for the gospel. Attention was drawn to the prophecies and types, with reference to Genesis and Exodus. Significant persons and events (e.g., Moses and the exodus, David and his dynasty), and holy places, such as the tabernacle, were all seen to article forward to Christ. This paper continues by considering the covenants and the promises.
The covenants and the promises
Writing to the Romans, Paul enumerates Israel’s distinctive privileges: ‘to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God’, Rom. 9. 4-5. The ‘adoption’ refers to God’s gracious adoption of the nation of Israel as His son, Exod. 4. 22f. The ‘covenants’ include the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Palestinian, and Davidic covenants.1 ‘The giving of the law’ explicitly revealed the holiness of God; thereafter, sin acquired the aggravated character of transgression. The ‘service of God’ denotes the provision of God for His people to approach Him, initially in the tabernacle, and later in the temple. The ‘promises’ point, in the first instance, to those made to Abraham, and repeated to Isaac and Jacob. But they widen out to encompass the many Old Testament promises pointing forward to Messiah and the associated ‘good things to come’.2 Israel’s abiding glory, however, is that from her ‘according to the flesh, Christ came’. He is the Seed in whom all the families of the earth are to be blessed. Note especially the provision for Gentile inclusion and worldwide blessing.3 Further, in Christ exalted and glorified the fortunes of the dynasty of David are eternally restored.
Isaiah has often been referred to as the ‘Evangelical Prophet’, and his climactic fourth ‘Servant Song’, Isa. 52. 13 - 53. 12, merits special mention. In it the divine Messiah, the suffering Servant, makes full and final atonement for sin. In a highly structured poem of five stanzas, at the very centre we read, ‘But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed’, Isa. 53. 5. The Messiah’s penal substitution is therefore central to this most remarkable prophecy. No wonder that Philip the evangelist could so readily begin at the same scripture and preach Jesus to the Ethiopian!4
Whilst I have indicated the continuity of divine purpose, there are also contrasts and discontinuities. The new covenant is radically different from that of Sinai. Most importantly, it is a one-party covenant where all the blessings are available to the believer through God’s saving actions,5 In fact, as Hebrews clearly teaches, it is theologically impossible to cling to the arrangements of the old covenant, now that Christ has come. In fulfilling the types and shadows of the law, He terminates them as means of approach to God. To teach and practice otherwise would be to undermine the efficacy of His atoning work. This is an essential aspect of the gospel.
A yearning for fulfilment and perfection
We have observed that in manifold ways God educated, disciplined, and prepared His people for the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ. The constant insistence of Israel’s prophets on repentance and faith, as preconditions for salvation, paved the way for the New Testament’s similar demand for repentance towards God and faith in Christ.6 The long continuation of the sacrificial system, which could never take away sins, caused the godly to yearn for a better, and permanent, solution to the sin question. Indeed, scripture itself had already pointed in this direction, Ps. 40. 6-8.
On another level altogether, the sovereign Lord of history and world empires prepared the politics, language, and infrastructure of the Roman world for the advent of Christ, and the rapid worldwide propagation of His good news.
As the risen Lord discoursed with the Emmaus disciples, ‘He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures’, Luke 24. 44-45. This cannot mean just a few isolated texts bearing upon the coming Messiah. Rather, it means the Old Testament as a whole, comprising the three major divisions recognized by the Jews. Earlier, they said one to another, ‘Was not our heart burning within us, while he spake to us in the way, while he opened to us the scriptures?’ 24. 32 RV. How blessed we are to live in the age of fulfilment and joyful gospel testimony! Truly the ends of the ages are come upon us. As Christ could say, ‘Many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it’.7
May the way in which the Old Testament so comprehensively charts the way for the coming of Christ enrich our understanding, deepen our faith, and cause our hearts also to burn in devotion to the One who came not to destroy but to fulfil, and in zeal to make His glorious gospel known.
- See Gen. 15. 17ff., 17. 1ff.; Exod. 19. 5; Deut. 29. 1ff.; 2 Sam. 7. 5-16.
- See (among many): Shiloh, universal ruler, Gen. 49. 10 RV; the Star and Sceptre, Num. 24. 15-17; David’s offspring, 2 Sam. 7. 12, 16, 28ff.; royal Bridegroom, Ps. 45; Immanuel, Isa. 7. 14; Isa. 9. 6-7; Cornerstone, 28. 16; the Suffering Servant 42. 1-4; 49. 1-6; 50. 4-9; 52. 13 - 53. 12; the Branch, Jer. 23. 5; 31. 31ff; Son of man, Dan. 7. 13-14; the Angel of the Lord (mal’akh YHWH), at times identified with God, at times distinguished from Him, see Gen. 16, 18, 22; Exod. 3; Josh. 5. 13-15; Judg. 13; Zech. 1. 11-12.
- See also Rom. 15. 9-12.
- Acts 8. 35.
- Heb. 8. 6-13.
- See for examples of repentance and faith: Isa. 30. 15; 50. 10; 55. 7; 57. 13; Jer. 17. 7; 31. 18-19; Ezek. 18. 24-30; 33. 14-16; Hos. 6. 1; Joel 2. 12-14; Amos 4. 6-11; Jonah 3. 10; Nahum 1. 7; Hab. 2. 4; Zech. 1. 3-4; Mal. 3. 7. In the New Testament see Acts 2. 38; 20. 21.
- Matt. 13. 17.