Getting to Christ in the Old Testament

Part 7 in a 10 part series. View series intro and index.

In the most recent post in our series (back in September!), we talked about how Jesus is the Word made flesh; that is, he is God’s perfect word communicated to humans. In this post, we will examine how to actually “get to Jesus” during a devotional time when reading the Old Testament. A word of caution: this is a long post and some of it may seem “academic.” Hang in there. The fruit that will come from implementing this into your devotions will be worth it.

In Scripture, ultimately Christ is the God-Man who speaks for God; he is the message communicated by God; and he is the only infallible receiver of God’s message and thus serves as our representative and substitute.[1] This changes everything for our study of the Old Testament. Can Christ really be the message communicated in Deuteronomy or Leviticus when you read about pigeons or goat’s blood? Yes. Christians usually see this in bits and pieces. In fact, most only see this in “explicit” prophetic Messianic passages like Isaiah 52-53, Psalm 22, Micah 5, or other famous prophesies quoted in the New Testament.

The average preacher teaches that an Old Testament passage only points to Christ when there is an explicit “type of Christ.” A type (or typology) is “an Old Testament redemptive event, person, or institution that functions as type prefiguring Jesus to Jesus himself by showing the analogies and escalations.”[2] Whether or not you have heard of the word typology, you have probably thought along those lines. You may think that to “get to Christ” in another way might take some acrobatic interpretation or weird allegorizing of a passage. However, if what Jesus said in Luke 24:25-27 is true–that all the law and prophets point to him–we can get to Christ organically from any text.

A key to Scripture interpretation is to remember that the Bible is one, unified story. Stories have themes and tensions and so does the Bible. The main theme in the Bible is that God is creating a people for himself to be ruled by him in his kingdom. The main tension is that because of sin we cannot have relationship with God. Each individual Bible story contributes in its own way to the whole of dramatic tension in Scripture. As you read, you will discover that in each story the tension seems insoluble (think of an exciting movie that leaves you wondering how the hero saves the day). As the plot begins to thicken in each story, our goal is to discover how the tensions are resolved and fulfilled only in Jesus. As Tim Keller points out, “We should look for the questions the text raises to which only Jesus can be the answer.”[3]

Keller and Goldsworthy have helped me to see the broad themes of Scripture and how the tensions in Scripture are only solved in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of what I have below comes from them.[4] Hopefully these meta-themes will help as you seek to find Christ in the Old Testament.

Catch the Broad Themes of Scripture
There are many broad themes that the whole Bible deals with (even the New Testament). These come up implicitly or explicitly in many passages. The first three, especially, are the primary themes that the Old Testament deals with.

  • King and the Kingdom: Every nation needs a good king. A kingdom will not survive without one. The successes and failures of Israel’s leaders show the need for a true and perfect king. Man cannot accomplish this; only the Creator can come and properly rule over his people. Jesus is the liberator king who overwhelms the depth of the brokenness and enslavement we have to sin and brings about a true, everlasting kingdom that is ruled perfectly.
  • Grace and Law: There is a conservative way to read the Old Testament: that God’s love is conditional on obedience. There is a liberal way to read the Old Testament: that God’s love is unconditional because God loves everybody. How can God be holy and still remain faithful? Jesus only resolves this tension. He makes God’s covenant conditional and unconditional. He provides the perfection (the condition) we needed through his death, which invites everyone into relationship with him (unconditional). Notice, too, that the Israelites were saved from Egypt first, then they were given the law at Sinai. In the same way, God saves us by grace through faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross, then he calls us to walk in a manner worthy of Christ by growing in holiness.
  • True God vs. Idols: Any good thing that becomes an ultimate thing becomes a god. It is possible to be compliant with the behavioral law yet being idolatrous in the heart. The only way a person and society can be renovated is if a true Beauty captures their hearts more than the lure of idols. Jesus is that true Beauty and Treasure who captures the hearts of his people so that idols are smashed and he is loved.
  • Covenant and Calling: How can man be made right from the heart? God promises a new covenant that will eventually take place of the old. Jesus is the true partner of God who is the faithful Son, who inaugurates a new covenant with his blood, and sends his Holy Spirit in order to empower his people.
  • Worship in the sanctuary/temple: How can people connect with the presence of God? How can we truly worship him and adore his beauty? Christ has come to dwell among us and provides direct access to the Father, because he is the true temple where man meets God.
  • Promised Land and Inheritance: When will God’s people have true rest? The people of God will return to the promised land and be great and the nations will share in the kingdom of Zion. Jesus provides entrance into the new land–the new heavens and new earth. Jesus is the place God’s people long for and he is the light to the nations.
  • Marriage and Faithfulness: God depicts his relationship to his people through the example of marriage. Jesus is the true Bridegroom who sacrificially loves his spouse, wins her love, and presents her to himself as a radiant bride.
  • Image and Likeness: How can we become fully human? The image of God in us is marred and broken because of sin. In his incarnation, Jesus showed us the perfect image of God. In his death and resurrection, Christ provided a way for the image of God in us to be restored.
  • Rest and Sabbath: How can we find harmony in life, with ourselves, and with others?  Sabbath was designed to bring rest because God rested from his work of creation. Christ ultimately brings rest from our good works so that we can have final rest in God’s kingdom..
  • Judgment and Justice: If there were no ultimate judge, what hope would there be for the world? But if there is an ultimate judge, what hope would there be for you and me? Only in Christ can there be hope, because he is the Judge who took our judgment on the cross.
  • Destruction of Israel and Exile: The exile into Babylon will lead to a redemptive act. Israel is restored to their promised land. Ultimately, Jesus goes into exile for his people so that he can lead them out of the captivity of sin and death.

In this approach, we take one of the many moral or ethical principles and listen very carefully to it. Rather than reading a text and thinking, “Oh, I should not gossip,” only to white-knuckle it all day at the office, we must see how Christ has fulfilled the principle as our representative and substitute. Why? Because if we listen honestly and thoroughly to these principles, we realize that it is simply impossible to keep them! We can’t explain why we should not steal unless we look at Jesus’ ultimate generosity who did not think it wise to stay in heaven but rather became poor for your sake. We can’t explain why we should not commit adultery unless we look at the faithfulness and jealous love Jesus has shown to us on the cross. His jealous love does not only define sexual fidelity, but it gives us the only sufficient motive and power to practice it ourselves. Jesus is not simply the ultimate example, but as the one who fulfills these morals and ethics for us, he is the only one who can change our hearts, by his Spirit, to be obedient to God’s commands.

A Few More Helpful Hints
Anytime you read a story in the Bible about how God uses backwards means to accomplish his purposes, you are seeing the gospel in action. God chooses Joseph and David, the youngest in the family; he uses Ruth, a Gentile woman, and Rahab, a Gentile prostitute in a male-dominated culture; he elects Abram to start a nation though he was old and fragile and the son of a moon worshiper. Jesus was born in a manger to a teenage mother. He lived a simple life and was executed on a cross. God used the foolishness of the world to bring redemption to his people.

Jesus is also the fulfillment of corporate story lines. Jesus is the true Israel, the Seed of Abraham and God’s true Son (Gal. 3:16-17; cf. Matt. 2:15). He did all that Israel was required to do, but was unable to and did not do. This video also describes well how Jesus is the one who fulfills individual story lines.

One Word of Caution
The temptation now when reading an Old Testament passage is not to figure out what the human author intended. When we are looking for Christ in the text, we are seeking to figure out what the divine author intended. In order to be faithful to Scripture, we must understand both. Ultimately, however, seeing and relishing God’s intention in the message is what will bring about true joy and obedience.

These are categories you simply must think in when you read the Bible, and hopefully this brief survey will help you. I don’t claim to be an expert at this, but it is more fulfilling to read the Old Testament and say, “How does this point to Jesus?” rather than “How does this apply to my life?” It will not be easy at first. The only way to do this well is practice, practice, practice!

In the final post of this series, I will address where the oft-quoted phrase “personal application” fits into your devotion time. Truly though, when you start to read the Old Testament this way–when you see that Jesus is the fulfillment of everything, your complete all-in-all–you will not be able to stop yourself from worshiping God and ultimately growing in sanctification.

Feel free to ask questions and strike up a conversation below so we can dialogue about this and learn from each other.

[1] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2006), 56-57.
[2] Collin Hansen, “Preaching Christ from the OT: An Interview with Sidney Greidanus,” The Gospel Coalition Blog, 2/17/11 (accessed 12/20/11). For an example, see “the sign of Jonah” in Matthew 12:38-42.
[3] Tim Keller, “Applying Christ: Introduction Into Christ-Centered Application,” in Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World, Lecture 7 (accessed 12/20/11).
[4] Ibid. I have not provided all of Keller’s themes, and even he admits that what he gives in the lecture above is not an exhaustive list of themes and tensions. See also Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 253-256, who lists dozens of what he calls “macro-typologies” which correlate to Keller’s “broad themes.”