Friday, June 28, 2019

Saints of the Old Testament

This question comes to us from a YouTube comment. I was asked my thoughts on the process of salvation during the Old Testament. After the coming of Jesus Christ, we know that salvation is found in the grace of His finished work on the cross. What about those who lived before Him, though?

I am not sure what the most common answer to this question might be. Perhaps the natural one would be to say that it had to do with following the Law of Moses. People had to work for their salvation until Christ fulfilled the Law on behalf of everyone else.

Limits of the Law

While that may be the easy, even the obvious response, I do not think it is the correct one after spending some time to reflect on it. Some very important passages in the New Testament are dedicated to explaining the fact that following the Law was never sufficient to secure reconciliation to God (Rom. 3:9–20Gal. 3:10–12, 21–25Heb. 7:11–28). To put it another way, human beings are constitutionally incapable of living up to the perfect standard of the Lord’s holiness. That is why we need a Savior in the first place. Otherwise, we could make our own way to heaven. And if salvation were available through good works before the crucifixion, then it was a worthless gesture (Gal. 2:21).

So following the Law was never able to save because it was not possible to keep it. But that is not all. It was also not able to save because that was never its function. Many of the OT commandments, particularly the ritual ones, have symbolic importance. They are specifically meant to be temporary, which is why they had to be repeated on a regular basis. Their true purpose was to point forward to the complete sacrifice that Christ would make, ushering in salvation that did not have to be reenacted year after year (Heb. 9:11–15, 23–2810:1–18).

And to add to that, the Law was restricted to limited rewards. Salvation in the OT does not have the same object as it does in the NT. The Christian Scriptures speak frequently and explicitly about eternal life. Not so in the OT. This is not to say it is entirely silent on the subject. Gen. 25:8Ex. 3:62 Sam. 12:23, and Dan. 12:2–3 are important examples where references to the concept appear, at least implicitly. But they are limited enough that the Sadducees of the 1st Century, as well as most Jewish people today, were able to believe that there is no afterlife.

I disagree with their conclusion, but it shows where the insufficiency of the Law lies. The instructions delivered by Moses mostly offered temporal blessings. Following them meant that the Promised Land would remain in their possession, enemies would be defeated, crops would grow, and sickness would be held at bay. The dangers they would be saved from would be those of this life, not the next. They were not being offered the way to heaven.

Faith in the Promise

But that brings us back to the original question. If following the Law did not offer eternal life, then what did? My opinion is that it had to be something that preceded and superseded the Law. Beginning with Gen. 3:15, we see that God’s plan for redemption included the coming of a Savior. Moving through the OT, His greatest servants are not known for their animal sacrifices and proper diets. They are known for their faithfulness (Rom. 4:1–25Heb. 11:4–40).

The saints of the OT are those who believed in the Lord’s promises. They trusted Him to bring about His salvation in His timing. They were, in essence, looking ahead to the coming of Christ (1 Pet. 1:10–12). That, I contend, is what saved them. They believed that the Son would come to crush the serpent’s head, Abraham’s Seed would bless the world (Gen. 12:3, 7; cf. Gal. 3:16), Shiloh would come from Judah (Gen. 49:10), a Star would rise from Jacob (Num. 24:17), and the Son of David would rule forever (2 Sam. 7:11b, 16).

Once again, we see how symbolic these things are. They were mysteries not revealed until Christ rose from the dead. But the saints who came before Him recognized that promises were contained in these prophetic words that were delivered over the course of millennia. They had faith in the grace that Jesus would bring, which they knew only vaguely. We must have faith in the grace He has brought, which has now been revealed. Either way, though, it is Christ who is central to our reclamation. There is one Savior throughout human history. All that has changed is how He is known.

Again, the Law had its place. Following its precepts, for the motive of devotion to God, was a sign of faith. It showed who trusted the Lord and understood the value of relationship with Him. But we can now understand that they were only shadows. Their role was to establish reliance and to point to what was coming. The people who understood that were those who will rise on the Last Day. We have the benefit of knowing what it was all for, and we will be there with them if we accept the Risen One who fulfilled their every expectation. Christ is the only salvation no matter where, or when, you look.

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