Christ in the Old Testament
God’s revelation throughout the Old Testament prefigures, anticipates, and announces beforehand the redemption that he would accomplish in the person and work of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
When the apostles read the Old Testament, they saw references to Christ and his kingdom, as it were, on every page. Jesus is the second Adam, the perfect law keeper, the scion of David who would sit on David’s throne forever, the ultimate singer of the psalms, the wisdom of God, the suffering servant, the perfect high priest, to name just a few. The theological foundation for this conviction is that God is sovereign over history and he is the (ultimate) author of Scripture. As such, God announced beforehand, in type and shadow, promise and prophecy, the redemption he would accomplish through his incarnate Son. He did this so that his people might believe on the promised Messiah prior to his coming and so that those who know the Christ who has come might have a greater understanding of the work that he accomplished through his suffering and glory.
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:25–27).
The fact that Jesus rebukes his already despondent disciples (“O foolish ones”) clearly suggests that these disciples had failed in a significant way. In this case, they had failed to believe what their sacred Scriptures clearly taught, that Messiah’s path to glory must, of necessity, pass through the cross of suffering and death. However, Jesus takes his disciples’ failure as an opportunity to demonstrate that all of Scripture (which at this point in history referred to what we know as the Old Testament) is in some form or fashion about him and finds its fulfillment in him (cf. Luke 24:44ff).
For many in our day, Jesus’ claim sounds patently absurd. If critical scholars acknowledge a unity to Scripture at all (and many don’t), this unity is attributed chiefly, if not exclusively, to the authorization of a community which identified and accepted these books as their sacred scriptures. In other words, critics of Scripture see nothing inherent in the texts themselves that unifies these books around a common theme or story, much less an individual person.
However, the belief that Christ is the center of Scripture and the hermeneutical key to its proper interpretation has been the conviction of the Christian church from its very inception (Eph. 1:1–6; Rom. 16:25–27). For this reason, Paul would declare before King Agrippa, “So I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22b–23).
So how can a collection of books written over a period of a thousand years by over two dozen authors in various literary genres (law, history, architectural description, poetry, apocalyptic, prophecy, etc.) find its center and fulfilment in a single individual? The answer is found in the divine origin and divine character of Scripture. The God who is sovereign over history so ordered events and intervened in history so as to reveal himself and his redemptive purposes to his people (see e.g. Exod. 7:3–5). This same God, the Bible says, superintended the recording and interpretation of those events as he inspired individuals to compose the books Christians know as the Bible (2Tim. 3:16). God’s purpose in this special revelation was to announce beforehand the work that the Son would accomplish so that his people who lived prior to his coming might believe on him and have eternal life.
Old Testament revelation anticipates the work of Christ in a variety of ways. Though space does not permit an exhaustive treatment of the topic, the following represents a few of the major trajectories that lead from the Old Testament to Christ.
- First, and perhaps obviously, Christ is present in the Old Testament through promise. In numerous places, God promises the coming of a savior and redeemer to undo the curse of sin and the brokenness that attends this present evil age. For example, God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Here we have a clear promise of the Messiah and an announcement of the work he will accomplish as the messianic seed of the woman who will triumph over the seed of the serpent. This gospel promise is reiterated throughout the Old Testament so Paul can write to the Corinthian church, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ]. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2Cor. 1:20).
- A second way Christ is present in the Old Testament is through prophecy which time and again heralds the coming of the Messiah, the Savior of Israel and the kingdom he will inaugurate. Think, for example, of the Emmanuel prophecy in Isaiah where the prophet announces, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). Immanuel, meaning “God with us,” is a prophecy that announces the presence of God with his people, and which is ultimately fulfilled in the arrival of the incarnate Son of God in the womb of the virgin Mary (Matt. 1:22–23). In writing his gospel account, Matthew will often highlight how Jesus’ life fulfills Old Testament prophecy with the expressions like, “this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet…” (e.g. Matt. 1:22–23; 2:5, 17; 3:2).
- In addition to promises and prophecies which clearly foretell the person and work of the coming Messiah, Christ is present in the Old Testament in the form of types and shadows. The word “type” comes from the Greek word tupos which can mean literally an impress or imprint. A tupos is what the nails left in Jesus’ hands (John 20:25). The holes in Jesus’ hands were the imprint or impress of the nails. This is, in a sense, what we have in the Old Testament, impresses or imprints of Christ. Just like the holes in Jesus’ hands are not the nails themselves, so too Old Testament types are not Christ himself, but they bear witness to him. Old Testament types were signs that pointed believers to the reality (what theologians call the antitype) which is Christ himself. The whole notion of typology is predicated upon there being a divine author of Scripture who has sovereignly ordered history so as to provide his people with these pictures beforehand of the person and work of Christ (e.g., Rom. 5:14). Traditionally, types in the Old Testament are restricted to persons, places, things, or events which prefigure the work of Christ or an aspect of his kingdom. For example, Noah is a person who serves as a type of Christ. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation (Gen. 6:9). It was because of his righteousness (relative though it was as Noah was also a sinner himself) that God would use him to prefigure the work of his Son. Righteous Noah saves himself and his family from the waters of judgment and begins a new creation order on the far side of the flood. Noah served God’s people in his day, and he serves us today, as a type of Christ, who, on the basis of his perfect righteousness will save to all who take refuge in him.
- In addition to people serving as types, we also find places showing forth the imprint of Christ. One such place is Bethel where Jacob slept in his flight from the promised land (Gen. 28:10–22). There Jacob is given a vision of a ladder (probably a ziggurat) which connects heaven and earth. On it, he sees angels ascending and descending the ladder, and at the top he sees a theophany of the Lord himself who renews his covenant promises to Jacob. Jacob awakens in fear and awe and says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16). Jacob had stumbled across the stairway to heaven. This episode is behind Jesus’ words to Nathaniel when he said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). What Jesus is saying to Nathaniel is, in effect, “I am the ladder connecting earth and heaven. I’m the one who will fulfill God’s covenant promises to Jacob to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
- Along with people and places, a thing can be a type of Christ. The bronze serpent raised in the wilderness that brought healing and life to all who looked upon it (Num. 21:4) was a picture of the Son of God raised on a cross, bringing healing and life to all who look to him by faith. Thus, Jesus could say to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14).
It is important to note that identifying types is not the application of some secret method or code whereby clever exegetes make Christ magically appear from any text of Scripture. Rather, properly identifying types begins with an awareness of the deep patterns, images, and structures of Scripture and recognizing their interconnectedness. Thankfully, the apostles themselves lay down a pattern for us to follow. We should learn to read the Old Testament with the apostle Paul who, for example, saw in Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea a picture of baptism. He says in 1 Corinthians 10:1, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” How does the Red Sea crossing prefigure baptism?
Paul understood that what happened that day by the Red Sea was an act of God’s judgment and mercy. Through the ministry of Moses, the mediator of the old covenant, Israel was able to pass through the waters of God’s judgment, and Egypt, by contrast, was drowned in the waters of God’s judgment. Just like in Noah’s day, those attached to Noah, who came under his shelter in the ark, were saved from the judgment waters, so too in Moses’ day Israel was led by Moses through those judgment waters which would drown the Egyptians.
Jesus demonstrates an awareness of this Old Testament type when he speaks of his crucifixion as his baptism. In answer to James and John’s foolish request to sit on his right and his left when they get to Jerusalem, Jesus says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38). It was on the cross that Jesus, like the Egyptians, drowned in the waters of God’s judgment, so that the Israel of God in the New Covenant, like the Israel of God in the Old Covenant, could reach that heavenly shore. Paul saw this pattern. He understood the typology of the water judgments throughout the Old Testament, and he saw how they were fulfilled in Christ as the mediator of a better covenant. He understood also how baptism offers a sacramental picture of Christians passing safely through the waters of God’s judgment through faith in his Son.
Promises, prophecies, and types hardly exhaust the numerous places Christ is present in the Old Testament. To mention a few more in passing: Christ fulfills the Old Testament as the keeper of the law, the singer of the psalms, the wisdom of God, the suffering servant, the righteous king, and, perhaps controversially, the ideal husband portrayed most wonderfully in the Song of Songs. Yes, Christ even fulfills the Song of Songs!
It is important to understand, therefore, that when the apostles saw Christ in the Old Testament, they were not imposing a meaning onto a text that was never intended by the (divine) author of Scripture. The prophets themselves knew that they did not fully understand all that they wrote (1 Peter 1:10–12). A Christo-centric reading of the OT is not a practice in free association whereby interpreters ask themselves, “what in this text reminds me of Jesus?” Nor is it the adoption of a fanciful ancient Jewish method of interpretation that imposes a meaning on the texts of the Old Testament in a way they were never meant to be read. In John 5:46, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees saying, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” If the Pharisees really understood Moses, Jesus is saying, they would have received him as the one Moses foretold. The apostles give us a model for how we too are to read and interpret Scripture today. This is especially important for preachers who are given the task of preaching the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27) and also preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified (1Cor. 2:2; cf. Col. 1:28) How are preachers to do both? By preaching Christ as he is promised in the Old Testament and as he is fulfilled in the New.
- Edmund Clowney
- Dennis Johnson
- Iain Duguid
- Alec Motyer
- Graeme Goldsworthy
- Timothy Keller
- Nancy Guthrie
- Peter Lillback (editor)
- T. Desmond Alexander
- Christopher Wright
- Sinclair Ferguson
- Geerhardus Vos
- Vern Poythress
- Bryan Estelle
- G. K. Beale
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike, allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.
This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0