I am increasingly hesitant to use the phrase “finding Christ in the Old Testament” (or Pentateuch, Psalter, or Wisdom Literature, and so on). It seems to imply that the person of Christ is merely a theme among others to be mined from the Old Testament alongside other themes such as justification, resurrection, or the like.
The second person of the Trinity made incarnate is, of course, more than simply a theme of God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament Scriptures. He is the culmination of God’s self-revelation in all of history, the perfect embodiment of the godhead (Col 2:9). To a certain extent, we could say that the quest to find Christ in the Old Testament is analogous to the quest to find Thomas Jefferson in Declaration of Independence. Christ is everywhere throughout the Old Testament. It speaks of him explicitly and implicitly, in promises, patterns, types, hints, and images. Through these various ways the Old Testament reveals and anticipates the richness of his character: his work, his life, his glory, his hope, his might, his love, his suffering, his wisdom, and so much more, and it does this all before the historical event of his incarnation.
The OT witness to Christ is as rich and varied as are all of the functions he performs. When evangelicals talk about Christ in the Old Testament, they tend to look for images, patterns, or outright anticipations of Christ’s work of substitutionary atonement. Of course, Christ’s work as once-and-for-all sacrifice is central to the Christian hope for salvation, but it only gets at part of the distinct and lordly character and work of the Son of God himself.
In fact, the New Testament claims that Christ fulfills the Old Testament in many ways. Just to name a few, Christ is:
- Old Testament covenant Lord (John 8:58; see also kurios as title for Christ)
- Sovereign eschatological king (Rev. 21:22)
- Key actor in creation (John 1:1-5 [Genesis 1])
- True Israel (Matt. 2:15 [Hos 11:1]; John 15:1-17)
- The temple of God (John 2:19-21)
- Restorer from exile (Matt 3:3 [Isa. 40:3; Mar 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23])
- Final and authoritative prophet (Heb 1:2)
- Heir to the world (Heb 1:2; Ps 2:8)
- Sustainer of his people in wilderness (1 Cor 10:4 [Exod. 17:6])
- Foundation of human salvation (Acts 4:11 [Ps. 118:22])
- Wisdom teacher par excellence (Matt 12:42 [Luke 11:31])
- The very wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23)
Let’s look more closely at how Christ is revealed in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, primarily Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
If Jesus is, in fact, what he claims to be, the sage “greater than Solomon” (Matt 12:42)—essentially a superlative meaning “the greatest sage ever”—then we expect that he will excel in the field of wisdom in every way. For instance, the first step or principle of wisdom is “the fear of the Lord” (Prov 1:7; 9:10), which Bruce Waltke describes as both a moral and emotional stance toward the Lord (see also Pss 19:7-9; 34:11).
As the only truly righteous son of God, we would not be surprised to learn that Christ exhibits such righteous fear of the Lord in a way no other wisdom teacher possibly can.
This principle can be extended to the whole of wisdom teaching. The wise sayings are more than mere guides for those aspire to godly wisdom; rather, when taken together, they provide a composite profile of the sage greater than Solomon. This is not a meaningless distinction, because for the rest of humanity, wisdom is a thing to be aspired to, something that requires hard work, failure, sacrifice, and commitment. For Christ, wisdom is his character profile. It is a description of his rich, skilled, insightful, and wise character.
Therefore, when we read about Job’s humiliation and suffering, his debates with his friends, his progression in the way of wisdom, and his final stand before the creator God, we are called to grow in the way that he has grown. When we read of Christ’s humiliation and suffering, we see the wise life already achieved and on display. Christ is the truly innocent sufferer whose authentic suffering is answered with perfect holiness and profound understanding of the character of God. As such he is both as a goal to be pursued and a cause for worship.
Wisdom and the King
Wisdom teaching in the Old Testament is almost always connected to kingly reign and the royal court. This is due in part to the central role King Solomon plays as the great sage of the Old Testament. The establishment of his kingdom is highlighted by his military and diplomatic successes as well as his feats of wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34). It is likely that wisdom is mentioned because it is part of a particularly royal function in the Old Testament, along with naming animals and plant life (1 Kings 4:33). By exhibiting wisdom, the king shows his command over the realm of ideas and the skillful life. By naming plants and animals, he shows his command over taxonomy. Both of these tasks qualify the king for the role of representative human, the image bearer, like Adam working and increasing the garden and naming the specimens brought before him (Gen 2:40).
Wisdom is elsewhere connected to the royal court. The book of Ecclesiastes is associated with a king from the line of David (Ecc 1:1), and his grand observations are derived from his royal experience. Wisdom counselors, including Ahithophel (2 Sam 15:12), Zechariah (1 Chron 26:14), Jonathan (1 Chron 27:32), and the “men of Hezekiah” (Prov 25:1) are depicted as attending to the needs of Israelite kings. Many proverbs assume a royal setting (Prov 11:14; 24:6), particularly those attributed to kings Solomon (Proverbs 1:1; 10:1; 25:1) and Lemuel (Prov 31:1,4).
For those thinking of Christ’s roles in terms of three “offices”—prophet, priest, and king—his function as sage would, therefore, emanate from his kingly office. Through his wisdom Christ shows his perfect lordship over the world, including the realm of ideas and the skills needed for the wise life. We should not be surprised to find that Jesus becomes known for speaking in “parables,” one of the Greek words used to translate the Hebrew word for “proverb” in ancient Greek translations of the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 4:32; Prov 1:6; Ecc 12:9; Sir 3:29).
Jesus is both the wise king and the king of wisdom.
Role of the Spirit
The Spirit of Christ testifies to his lordship and draws his followers into his service and worship (John 1:32; 15:26; Acts 15:8; Heb 1:15). As they grow in faith through the work of the Holy Spirit, they will to pursue wisdom as those who have tasted the benefits of the “wisdom of God” in Christ. By faithful gratitude, they will serve the sage-king greater than Solomon with delight. Bearing this “spirit of adoption” (Rom 8:15-16; cf. Prov 1:8; 1:10; 1:15 2:1), they now sit at the teacher’s feet, celebrating and learning from his experience and applying the wisdom gained from it.
Paul takes things a step further by teaching that the atoning death of Christ on the cross grandly expresses God’s wisdom in contradiction to the “wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 1:24; 2:7). For Paul, it falls to the church to proclaim such varied and wonderful wisdom to the world (Eph 3:10-11). Now that the church is equipped with the knowledge of the glorified Christ and the testimony of the Spirit, it can proclaim the wise teachings of the Old Testament in light of the ultimate wisdom teacher.
Christ’s followers can be consoled by the fact that their sage-king has suffered and died for their foolish sinfulness. He has bore the weight of their folly, and they have been united with him and his wisdom. As a result they are privileged to pursue biblical wisdom in freedom and loving acceptance, bound to succeed, fools no more.