Worldview: How were people saved in the Old Testament?

I remember my first try at reading through the Old Testament. The ancient text was a very different world from what I had expected. Its stories, poems and seemingly endless list of names proved hard to master and comprehend. More importantly, as I read, a nagging question accompanied each turn of the page: How were these Old Testament people saved?

Peter Link

Peter Link

Fortunately, the Bible answers this question directly and repeatedly in a multitude of ways. In short, Scripture offers only one hope of salvation from its first page to its last: the Messiah. That’s right — Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament promise a messiah who will come in the end of the days, and the apostles declare that Jesus of Nazareth is He and that He is coming yet again. But how does this work in the text?

God’s goodness to Adam in Genesis 1 anticipates His continuing good work for Adam in Genesis 3. Specifically, as God sends Adam into exile, He sends him away with the promise of a return to him in the seed of the woman: a yet unnamed man (Genesis 3:15). The biblical author, therefore, invites us as the readers to ponder, “Who is this man?” Page by page, we see men who meet a common fate — death as the wages of sin (Genesis 5) — until we stumble across a man whose genealogy does not list his death in Genesis 5: Noah. Could he be the man? No. The author delays the reporting of Noah’s death from his sin until after the flood in Genesis 9, but he still sins and dies. He may look like the Messiah, but Noah is not He.

This question, then, follows the reader into the life of Abraham. We learn in Genesis 12 that this seed of the woman will come, more specifically, from Abraham’s family. The Messiah will be the seed of Abraham, and He will return man to the land where God dwells for the benefit for all of the families of the earth (Genesis 12: 1-7). Later, as Abraham struggles with his own fear of God’s promise failing, the Lord confirms that Abraham’s seed will not only be one but also be many, even a people (Genesis 15). When Abraham looks to the countless stars above him, the prophet believes in the promise of a seed, a messiah, who will bring him and his people to the land where God dwells. Abraham by this faith is counted as if he himself is righteous (Genesis 15:6). While he stumbles often, the author describes his faith in the seed who will bring him to the land as obeying God’s voice, even comparing such faith in Messiah to obedience to Moses’ laws that would come some 400 years later (Genesis 26:5). Abraham does not have these law codes, but his faith in this seed, the Messiah, makes him as if he had obeyed them.

The biblical author compels us to keep looking for this Messiah beyond the lives and days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel). He points very clearly to a king who will come through the family of Judah in the end of the days (Genesis 49:8-12; Numbers 23-24). This king’s fulfilling of the promise to Abraham will finally solve the central problem of Adam’s fall and man’s exile from God: How can sinful man live safely in God’s presence? He will die to put death to death and answer Israel’s pleas for a mediator to solve the dilemma of man’s death in God’s presence (Exodus 19-24, 32-34; Deuteronomy 4-5, 18). Throughout the Bible, when God and man come together, someone dies, but Moses assures us that the solution is coming. We can trust Him even while we must wait for that time. This Messiah will die man’s death for him (Deuteronomy 18:15ff) to usher in life that Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon could not provide.

Thus, the New Testament then declares that this Messiah and His time, the end of the days, has come. Jesus is the one promised by Moses and the prophets. The apostles tell us to trust in the Messiah according to the pages of the Old Testament. That is, if we take the New Testament at its word, then the news of the Messiah whom they declare is most assuredly found in the Old Testament. Indeed, people were saved from the first words of Genesis 3 until today by this one promise. Ultimately, the people of the Old Testament had to trust the promise of the Messiah and wait for His first coming. We must trust the promised Messiah and wait for His return in the second coming because we share a common problem and delight in a common hope: Jesus.

— Peter Link Jr. is assistant professor Christian studies at Charleston Southern University.