Sunday, February 28, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament: Levitical Sacrifices

For several years, I have followed a plan to read through the Bible in a year by reading a few chapters from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New Testament each day. The Old Testament readings start off with a bang, opening with well-known and exciting accounts of the creation, the flood, the journeys of the patriarchs, Joseph’s adventures in Egypt, and the exodus from Egypt. However, about halfway through the book of Exodus, the focus shifts to describing the tabernacle, the priestly garments, and the Levitical sacrificial system. I must confess that when I reach this point in the reading plan, I have to mentally gird myself to focus on the upcoming passages and I am tempted to skip them altogether. However, I am reminded that the Bible was not written for our entertainment, it was written for our edification. I hope that the next few posts, which will focus on elements of the Levitical sacrificial system, will bring new life and insight to portions of the Bible that may be considered boring and irrelevant, because these chapters clearly point to the future work and ministry of Jesus.

Imagine if the Levitical system had not been established and implemented for centuries prior to Christ’s arrival on Earth. When John the Baptist first saw Jesus, he declared, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). What sense would this make if the Levitical sacrificial system had not been a central focus of Jewish culture and thought? Much of the book of Hebrews would lose its rich meaning if it were uprooted from the context of the Jewish understanding of the sacrifices, the tabernacle, the temple, and the priestly duties. We cannot fully understand the message of the New Testament and the gospel without understanding the sacrificial and ceremonial systems that were instituted in the Old Testament.         

With that in mind, in this post we will examine the five sacrifices described in the book of Leviticus to reflect on how they foreshadow the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In doing so, we will encounter another principle of seeking Jesus in the Old Testament. The systems that we find in the Old Testament are shadows of the things to come, which also fall short of accomplishing what Jesus would fulfill in his life, death, and resurrection.

The Burnt Offering (Leviticus 1, 6:8-13)

The burnt offering introduces a concept that is important in the Levitical system, that the offering must be without defect or blemish. In the same way, we are redeemed through “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish.” (1 Peter 1:19). It was engrained in the Jewish mindset that a spotless sacrifice was needed to atone for the transgressions of blemished sinners.

Whether bringing a bull, sheep, or goat, the person who was making the sacrifice and was to receive atonement was the one who was required to kill the offering. In a prayer recorded in the book of Acts, the early church prayed, “In this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27-28). What God’s plan had predestined to take place was that the Messiah would be “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5), an act that was carried out by both Jew and Gentile, a New Testament manner of referring to all of humanity. Since both Jews and Gentiles bore some measure of responsibility in Jesus’ death, both Jew and Gentile also benefit from the atonement that is available through his sacrifice. That is not to preach universalism, but simply to say that forgiveness of sins is available to the whole world through the cross: “But now in Christ you who were once were far off (Gentiles) have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both (Jews and Gentiles) one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

A unique characteristic of the burnt offering is that the entire animal was offered on the bronze altar as a sweet smelling aroma to God, with the fragrant smoke ascending to symbolically represent peace or reconciliation between God and the person who brought the offering. In the same way, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, [as] a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2).

The Grain Offering (Leviticus 2, 6:14-23)

The grain offering was a free will offering that was not required as atonement for sin, but often followed the burnt offering and was voluntarily given to worship God and acknowledge his provision. If the grain offering was a loaf of bread, it could not contain yeast or other leavening agents. In the New Testament, leaven is associated with sin, hypocrisy, and pride. The Apostle Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to stop boasting and to not be filled with “the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:8). The humble nature of unleavened bread is symbolically fulfilled in Christ, who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8).

An offering of fine flour or crushed grain was to be anointed with oil and frankincense (Leviticus 2:1, 15). Likewise, shortly before his death, a woman pour nard over Jesus’ head, anointing him with aromatic oil. Although some questioned the waste of such an expensive perfume, Jesus defended her actions and said, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” (Mark 14:8). Additionally, Jesus famously received a gift of frankincense from the wise men that visited sometime after his birth (Matthew 2:11).

Some might anticipate a connection to Jesus’ declaration that “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), however, in context it is clear that the real connection in this passage is to the manna that God sent down from heaven to sustain the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. Similarly, while Jesus instituted the Last Supper, “he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22:19). While this could connect to the grain offering, the context more clearly links it to the symbolism of Passover. That fact that both these allusions to Jesus’ body as bread more strongly tie back to two other separate events in the Old Testament only strengthens my claim that Jesus can be found all over the Hebrew scriptures. 

The Fellowship Offering (Leviticus 3, 7:11-21)

As part of the fellowship offering, the priests sprinkled blood from the sacrifice on the sides of the altar. This was a visual sign of peace between God and the person making the fellowship offering. The book of Hebrews emphasizes the principle that was mentioned in the opening – the types and foreshadowings of Christ fall short of their future fulfillment. The author of Hebrews explains how the sprinkling of the blood of Christ has purchased a lasting peace and fellowship with God that far surpasses that which was sought through the fellowship offering. “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:13-14).

The Sin Offering (Leviticus 4 – 5:13, 6:24-30)

We now transition from free-will offerings that were voluntarily given as signs of fellowship and worship of God to obligatory offerings that were required to atone for the transgressions of both individuals and the larger community. God revealed himself to Moses as “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” (Exodus 34:6-7). How can God both forgive sin and not clear the guilty? In the sacrificial system, guilt was symbolically transferred from either the individual sinner or the entire Israelite community to the animal sacrifice. In this way, a just and holy God could both forgive sinners and rightfully punish sin.

The gospel follows the same logic. Though “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), Christ was put forth as a sacrifice for sin “to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” and “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26). In other words, Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the sin offering, allowing God to be who he claims to be – one who is both merciful in forgiving sin and just in not allowing sin to go unpunished.

The sin offering could be made for individuals who committed specific sins or to atone for the entire community, however, it could not be offered for intentional sins. More on that in a moment. Whether an individual was making a sin offering for their own transgressions or whether a priest was making the sin offering on behalf of the community, they must lay their hand on the head of the sacrifice, symbolically transferring the sins onto the animal. In a similar manner, “for our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin (Christ), so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Although the blood of the sin offering was to be brought into the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle or temple to make atonement, the rest of the sacrifice must be taken outside the camp and completely burned (Leviticus 4:12, 6:11, 16:27). The author of Hebrews saw a clear connection to Jesus, who “also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.” (Hebrews 13:12).

In the Mosaic Law, anyone who touched the blood of a person would become unclean. Interestingly, if a person touched the flesh of the sin offering, they would be considered holy (Leviticus 6:27). The good news of the gospel declares that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) How does God cleanse us from sin? A couple sentences earlier, John explains, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7). When we touch the ultimate sin offering of God, we are also considered holy in his sight.

The Guilt Offering (Leviticus 5:14-19, 7:1-10)

The guilt offering was similar to the sin offering, but could only be offered for individuals and also required not only an offering to atone for the specific transgression, but restitution to fix the situation created by the sinful act (Leviticus 5:16). Jesus came not only to forgive us of our sins, but ultimately to redeem a fallen, sinful world. Humanity’s sin has not only created separation with our creator, but has also subjected the entire creation to the negative consequences that occur when people ultimately live for themselves. Yet, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21). The guilt offering of Christ not only deals with our sin, but also redeems the consequences of our sin.

In a messianic prophecy, Isaiah announces that the LORD will make the life of the anticipated suffering servant to be a “guilt offering.” (Isaiah 53:10). The Hebrew word used in this passage, “asam”, is the same word used for guilt offering in Leviticus. However, a unique aspect of the guilt offering predicted by Isaiah is that it would not just be for an individual, but “the LORD [would] lay on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6) and that the blood of this sacrifice would “sprinkle many nations.” (Isaiah 52:15). Once again, the ultimate fulfillment in Christ would far surpass the shadow revealed in the Old Testament.

What About Intentional Sins?

Let’s close by returning to the idea that the sin and guilt offering could not cover intentional sins. While there is debate about what falls into this category of sins, they likely refer to premeditated sinful actions, such as when King David deliberately sent Uriah to be slaughtered in the front lines of his army to create an opportunity to marry Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba, and create a cover for the child she was expecting as a result of their affair. In a song of lament written in the grief of confronting his grievous sins, David wrote, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17). God did not despise David’s contrite heart and the prophet Nathan assured David that “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” (2 Samuel 12:13). However, ultimately David’s sin had not yet been atoned for and the Levitical sacrifices did not have provisions to deal with his transgression. God had shown forbearance in forgiving sin, but a better sacrifice would be needed to “show God’s righteousness.” (Romans 3:25).

While the Levitical sacrifices provided a temporary system to have fellowship with a holy God and to atone for certain categories of sin, they also pointed to the need for a better sacrifice. A sacrifice was needed that would not be required year after year but could be offered once for all. A sacrifice was needed that could atone for even the worst of our sins. Such a sacrifice could only be fulfilled by the spotless Lamb of God.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament: Psalm 22

Let’s play a little game. I’ll write just a few words from a biblical passage and see if you can finish the rest of the verse.

“In the beginning God…”

“For God so love the world…”

“The Lord is my shepherd…”

My guess is that most Christians would be able to finish these famous verses. For some, it probably loads the larger context and meaning of the rest of the chapter. We are used to referring to biblical passages by chapter and verse number, but we need to remember that those are not original to the text and were added later to make it easier to communicate about specific passages. In first century Palestine, when a person wanted to refer to a section of scripture, they would not use chapter and verse designations, but would use a method similar to the one I just illustrated by saying the first phrase or sentence of that passage. Someone might say, “You know, in the ‘In the beginning God’ passage” to refer to the first chapter of Genesis.

Therefore, when Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is doing more than expressing the separation from the Father that he experienced while enduring God’s just wrath for the sin of mankind. He was also directing the observers to the words of King David in Psalm 22. Those who heard his words would have immediately loaded the rest of the psalm in their minds. It was as if Jesus was saying, “At this moment, Psalm 22 is being fulfilled.”

The idea that Psalm 22 is a prophetic illustration of the suffering of the Messiah is not a Christian idea that was concocted to highjack Jewish scriptures. The famous Jewish Midrash Pesikta Rabbati of the 8th century explains, “It was because of the ordeal of the son of David (i.e. the Messiah) that David wept, saying: ‘My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.’” Additionally, if one surveys the life and death of David, there is nothing that even remotely fits the events described in Psalm 22. It must be referring to someone else. A straight-forward reading of the text points to one person in history: Jesus of Nazareth.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (v. 1)

The initial words of the Psalm not only reference the passage for listeners, but they also carry important theological significance. Jesus was not forsaken by the Father in the sense of forfeiting the favor and love of the Father. He never laid down his identity as the beloved Son of God, yet he did experience a time of abandonment and desolation as the full weight of God’s wrath was poured out on the sins of the world. Jesus’ cry of agony meshes perfectly with Isaiah 53, where we read, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Jesus’ experience of being forsaken on the cross, should direct our attention to the seriousness of our sin and the depth of God’s love that he would give his only Son to bear it on our behalf.

“I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” (v. 6)

Although the Hebrew word “rimmah” is often used to describe a worm or maggot in the Old Testament, the word selected in this verse is “tola’ath”, which specifically refers to the “crimson worm” or “scarlet worm.” This insect is important in the region and was used to make a natural red dye. The life cycle of the worm is particularly interesting.

When it comes time to reproduce, the female tola’ath firmly attaches herself to a tree by surrounding her body with a hard, crimson shell where she will lay her eggs. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the body of the mother, emerging from the shell in a few days after becoming permanently stained red by a dye that oozes from the dying mother. However, after three days, the dead mother’s body loses its crimson color and the empty shell turns into a white, flaky wax. To summarize, a mother tola’ath worm hangs on a tree to offer its body as a sacrifice for her children, who must eat her flesh and are permanently marked by her blood, but three days later the tomb where her bloody body lay is empty and turns to pure white. Does that sound familiar?

The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” (Galatians 3:13). Jesus told the crowds that followed him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56). We are made free from guilt and can come near to God with a sincere heart because we have been “sprinkled with the blood of Christ.” (Hebrews 10:22). And, of course, we know that “[Jesus] was buried [and] that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:4). Indeed, Jesus is our tola’ath worm.

I almost feel like I could end with a mic drop here, but there is so much more.

“All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (v. 7-8)

The ordeal described in this psalm is clearly a public humiliation of some kind, such as crucifixion, which was designed to be a public warning against provoking the ire of the Roman empire. Not only did Jesus suffer publicly, but he also endured the scorn of the people in almost identical fashion to the derision described in Psalm 22. In the gospel of Matthew, we read, “So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ And the robbers were with him also reviled him in the same way.” (Matthew 27:41-44).

“Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me, they open wide their moths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.” (v. 12)

Bashan was a territory east of the Jordan River that was known for its fertile pastureland and bulls renowned for their size, strength and fierceness. During the crucifixion, Jesus was encircled by both the religious power of the scribes, pharisees, and chief priests and the military might of the Roman ruling authorities and soldiers.

“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” (v. 14)

In the next section of the psalm, the imagery used will seem to clearly describe crucifixion. However, one must remember that David lived 1000 years before Christ and crucifixion was invented by the Persians in the 6th century B.C. The accuracy with which David seems to describe crucifixion gives prophetic validity to the psalm that I think is difficult to dismiss.

As Jesus hung upon the cross, the strain on the wrists, arms, and shoulders would have resulted in the dislocation of the elbow and shoulder joints. During the ordeal, he experienced extreme thirst and dehydration as body fluids were diverted to try to make up for heavy blood loss. As the end neared, Jesus said, “I thirst” so “they put a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.” (John 19:28). Since the crucifixion occurred on the day before the Sabbath, the day of preparation, the Jews requested that the Roman soldiers break Jesus’ legs and the legs of the criminals who were crucified one either side. Doing so would prevent the crucifixion victims from holding themselves up, which would quickly lead to suffocation and death. However, seeing that Jesus was already dead, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” (John 19:34). Modern medicine supports this eye-witness detail. As Jesus’ heart beat faster to circulate available oxygen, capillaries would have begun to leak watery fluid from the blood, resulting in a build up of fluid around the heart and lungs. This was the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side.

“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet.” (v. 16)

Keep in mind that this psalm was written four centuries before crucifixion was even invented, yet King David seems to perfectly describe this method of execution when it says, “they have pierced my hands and feet.” It is no surprise that this particular verse is questioned by Jewish counter-missionaries. Rabbi Tovia Singer claims that the correct translation is “like a lion, they are at my hands and feet” and that “The King James version (of the Bible) deliberately mistranslated the Hebrew word kaari as ‘pierced,’ rather than ‘like a lion,’ thereby drawing the reader to a false conclusion that this Psalm is describing the Crucifixion.”

Let’s suppose for a minute that Rabbi Singer is correct and the verse should be translated as “like a lion, they are at my hands and feet.” What would hands and feet look like after being ravaged by a lion? Probably pretty similar to how they would look after having a metal spike driven through them.

We don’t need to rest on this reasoning, though, because Rabbi Singer’s accusation is incorrect. He is relying on the Masoretic texts, which were written between the 6th and 10th century AD. However, the Masoretic texts are not the oldest manuscripts of Psalm 22. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written two hundred years before Jesus’ birth have only one letter different in the passage in question, but it changes the meaning to “They have mined (bore a hole) my hands and feet.” Additionally, the Septuagint, which is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was also written before Jesus’ birth, uses the Greek word “oruxsan” which can be translated as “they dug” or “they pierced.” Despite Rabbi Singer’s claim, it would appear that it was actually the Jewish scribes who wrote the Masoretic texts who deliberately manipulated the passage so that it would not point so clearly to the crucifixion.

“I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (v. 17-18)

Not only do these verses point to medical realities that Jesus would have experienced on the cross, they make an incredibly specific prediction that the sufferer’s clothing would be both divided equally amongst some bystanders and awarded to the winner of a game of chance. Though these results seem slightly at odds, they are exactly what happened in the crucifixion. In John’s gospel we read, “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” (John 19:23-24).

“But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!” (v. 19-21)

At this point, the psalm begins to turn. As we move on the song is no longer about death. There is a temporary forsaking of the person described in Psalm 22, but an ultimate deliverance.

“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!” (v. 22-23)

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” (v. 27)

As a result of the events described in this psalm, first the Jews and then people around the earth will turn to worship the Lord. This describes exactly how the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection, which demonstrates the forgiveness of sin that comes through faith in Christ, spread first in “Jerusalem and in all Judea…and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). Who else could this psalm be pointing towards? Who else has died in a similar manner and been ultimately delivered, resulting in both Jews and Gentiles coming to praise the God of the Hebrew Scriptures?

“All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”

One cannot help but think of the following verse: “God has highly exalted him (Jesus) and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11). What was accomplished in this psalm has been proclaimed to a people yet unborn. The glory and gospel of Jesus Christ has been declared around the globe. He has done it!

As we come to the end of Psalm 22, I am amazed at how accurately it describes the death, deliverance, and glorification of Jesus. There are intricate details, written centuries in advance, that point with laser-sharp precision to the actual events of the crucifixion. Is this all just coincidence? Did the gospel writers purposely fabricate their accounts to align with Psalm 22, even though this would contradict the deep moral foundation of their teaching and their willingness to face persecution and even death for the message they were preaching? Or is this one of the many examples where God has revealed Jesus in the Old Testament so that, like “all the ends of the earth”, we might turn to worship him?

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament: Abraham Called to Sacrifice Isaac

As we work through this series on Jesus in the Old Testament, we will encounter a few principles that can help us to identify foreshadowings or “types” of Christ in the Old Testament. These types will include events, people, inanimate objects, and clothing, among others. Sometimes, when reading a passage, we will ask ourselves, “What in the world was that about?!?” Those are often great opportunities to look for foreshadowings of Christ’s life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ultimate purpose in God’s plan of salvation. The focus of this post falls into this category.

One of the more startling sections of Scripture is God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Not only is it unsettling to put oneself in Abraham’s shoes, put the command also goes against God’s repeated condemnation of human sacrifice. Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the Lord warned them, “You shall not worship the LORD your God [as they worship their gods], for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12:31). Yet, it seems that God is asking Abraham to do the very thing that he abhors.

It is understood from the text that part of the Lord’s purpose was to test Abraham’s devotion, however, when we look at the entire narrative of the Bible it is clear that there is greater purpose being accomplished through this trial. On several points, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, which God ultimately prevented, points strongly to God’s sacrifice of his own Son for the salvation of mankind. If you are not familiar with or need a refreshing of the account, it can be found in Genesis 22:1-19.

The story starts with two astonishing connections to Christ. The Lord said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2). I read this passage numerous times without realizing that the land of Moriah was the future site of the city of Jerusalem. Hundreds of years later, “Solomon began to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah” (2 Chronicles 3:1), and hundreds of years after the days of Solomon, Jesus Christ would be crucified outside the very same city. That Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem is a bedrock historical fact that is agreed upon by a consensus of scholars. That Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice in the very place where Abraham had been instructed to sacrifice Isaac is either proof of God’s sovereign plan or an amazing coincidence.

Not only is the place selected for Isaac’s sacrifice significant, but the Lord refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.” While it is true that Isaac was the child of the promise through whom God had promised to bless Abraham’s descendant, he was not Abraham’s only son. Abraham had another son, Ishmael, through Hagar, the servant of his wife Sarah. However, when reflecting upon God’s instruction for Abraham to sacrifice his “only son”, one cannot help but think of probably the most famous verse of the New Testament: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, emphasis added).

With a heavy heart, Abraham started the journey to Moriah the next morning, bringing Isaac, two servants, and a donkey saddled with wood for the sacrifice. With Abraham’s mind set on obeying and trusting God, Isaac was already figuratively dead during this journey, which just so happened to take three days. The book of Hebrews adds to our understanding of Abraham’s mindset by explaining, “He considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Hebrews 11:19). So figuratively speaking, Isaac was dead for three days before being restored to life. Think of the words that the angels spoke to the women when they discovered the empty tomb: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” (Luke 24:5-7). What God represented metaphorically by Isaac’s figurative death and resurrection on the third day, he accomplished literally through the resurrection of Jesus on the same third day.

As Mount Moriah came into view, Abraham instructed his servants to wait, while he and Isaac pushed on alone. During this agonizing last leg of the journey, Isaac carried the wood for the sacrifice while Abraham carried the knife and the fire. Centuries later, God’s own son would carry a wooden cross up the same hill where the Father would pour out his wrath upon the sinfulness of mankind. There are numerous biblical examples in which God’s wrath is symbolized by fire, which Abraham carried up the mountain, including this warning from the prophet Jeremiah: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah in inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” (Jeremiah 4:4). 

As they proceeded up the slopes of Moriah, Isaac questioned why they brought the wood and fire, but no lamb for the sacrifice. Abraham, answered, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Genesis 22:8). Upon seeing this promised sacrifice in Jesus of Nazareth, John the Baptist proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Apostle Peter declares that we are “ransomed…with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Once they reached the mountain summit, Abraham constructed an altar, bound his son, and laid him upon the altar. The passage does not specify Isaac’s age and the word that is often translated as “boy” or “lad” can be used to represent a wide range of ages, but clues from the text indicate that he was probably at least a young man, since he was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain. Abraham, on the other hand, was over 100 years old. It seems safe to assume that Isaac could have overpowered his father, if he so desired, but instead trusted his father and willingly submitted to his will. Similarly, as Jesus faced his own sacrifice, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42). Jesus makes clear that “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:18).

At this point, there is a divergence in the two sacrifices, for as Abraham raises his knife the Angel of the Lord intercedes and says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:12). However, God would not stay his own hand in sacrificing Jesus for the sins of the world. “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” (Isaiah 53:10).

After the Angel of the Lord interceded and Isaac was figuratively raised to life on the third day, Abraham lifted his eyes and saw a ram caught in a thicket. The Lord, had indeed provided the sacrifice, and Abraham offered the ram as a burnt offering instead of his son. Interestingly, Abraham called the name of the place of sacrifice, “The LORD will provide” (Genesis 22:14), not “The LORD did provide.” In fact, at the time when Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, it was still being said by the Israelites that “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” (Genesis 22:14). Therefore, God’s people had an expectation that God himself would provide a future sacrifice in Moriah, the very place where Jesus would be “pierced for [their] transgressions [and] crushed for [their] iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:5).

My mind is absolutely blown. You literally cannot make this stuff up. The connections between Abraham’s test of sacrificing Isaac and God’s final sacrifice of his own Son are too numerous and too powerful to ignore. Which brings us back to my original point. When we see something that is a bit confusing in the Old Testament, we should ask whether God is using this passage to point to Jesus. I believe that God ultimately called Abraham to sacrifice his son in the land of Moriah so that when he sacrificed his own Son on the same hill nearly two millennium later, it would be obvious that this is what he had planned all along.  

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Jesus and the Old Testament Series: An Introduction

If I could partake in any Bible study throughout history, it most likely would have been the one that took place on the road to Emmaus. On Resurrection Sunday, the risen Jesus joined two of his followers as they travelled to the village of Emmaus. As they chatted, the men were bewildered to learn that their new companion had not heard of the recent happenings in Jerusalem: that Jesus of Nazareth, whom they had hoped was the Messiah, had been delivered by the Jewish leaders to be crucified by Pontius Pilate. Though their expectations had been dashed, that very morning some of women of their company found Jesus’ tomb empty and reported that they had seen him alive. Other disciples investigated their claim and found that the tomb was empty, but Jesus himself, they did not see.

In response to this news flash, “[Jesus] said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that they 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 24:26-27). What a Bible study that must have been!

Throughout every genre of writing, the New Testament affirms that the entire Bible is a revelation of Jesus Christ. In the gospels, Jesus makes this proclamation multiple times. When the Jews were seeking to kill Jesus because he was making himself equal with God by calling God his own father, Jesus responded:

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life…Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you; Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” (John 5:39-40, 45-46)

In both this rebuke and the one on the way to Emmaus, Jesus affirms that all “the Scriptures” – from Genesis to Malachi – speak of him. This doesn’t mean that every single verse of the Bible is a foreshadowing or prophecy of Christ, but that we should expect to see a coherent Christological narrative woven throughout the Old Testament.

Jesus clearly viewed himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17). Elsewhere, after reading a messianic passage from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus sat down will all the eyes in the building fixed on him. He broke the suspense by simply stating, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21).

The preaching of the early church was built upon the foundation that the Old Testament bore witness to Jesus. In the very first public preaching of the gospel, the Apostle Peter quotes extensively from the Old Testament to persuade the crowd that Jesus’ death and resurrection had always been God’s plan of salvation. He makes this more explicit in his next public preaching by proclaiming, “What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled…And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days.” (Acts 3:18, 24).

Other church leaders used similar tactics. It has the Apostle Paul’s normal custom when travelling to a new city was to enter the Jewish synagogue and reason from the Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the promised Christ and that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise from the dead (Acts 17:2, 18:4). After hearing such a message from Paul, the Bereans were applauded because they “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11).

In sharing one of the earliest creeds of the church, which most scholars agree dates to within three to five years of the resurrection, Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, that that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8, emphasis added).

The message of the New Testament is clear – Jesus is all over the Old Testament. Yet, one may wonder, why does this subject warrant the attention of an entire series? I would argue that this area of study is one that has been somewhat neglected by the church and possesses great value in discipleship, outreach, and personal devotion.

I consider the rich and pervasive foreshadowing of Jesus in the Old Testament to be one of the strongest apologetic defenses of the truthfulness of Christianity and the reliability of Scripture. The Old Testament was written by dozens of authors over a period of more than a thousand years, yet, as we will see in this series, these writings contain amazing coherence and diversity in the way Jesus is interwoven into the text. Jesus will by foreshadowed or “typed” through people, events, religious ceremonies, and direct prophecy. Passages that we often skim through or skip altogether, such as the description of the priestly garments, will powerfully point to Christ.

I see three possible explanations for this coherency throughout Scripture: pure coincidence, deliberate and brilliant deception, or intentional revelation. Through the depth and variety of examples that will be provided, I hope to diminish the likelihood of mere coincidence to an asymptote of zero. The hypothesis that the New Testament authors intentionally created a legendary Jesus figure to fit Messianic foreshadows or types from the Old Testament has several problems. First, it goes against the mockery of pop-atheism that tries to discredit Scripture by claiming that it was written by illiterate goat herders and fisherman. You can’t question the reliability of the New Testament Scriptures on one-hand by questioning the qualification of the authors and then turn around and claim that the same authors skillfully crafted a legendary figure to fulfill existing Scripture in a plethora of ways. Second, there are some known facts about Jesus’ life and death that the New Testament authors could not have concocted, even if their motive was duplicitous. Third, the New Testament writings attest to a concern for truth and integrity that would seem at odds with a devious scheme of fabrication. Finally, the New Testament authors faced extreme persecution and even death for their testimony of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. While one’s willingness to die for what they believe only proves that they are sincere, the disciple’s willingness to die for that “which [they] have heard, which [they] have seen with [their] own eyes, [and] which [they] have looked upon and have touched with [their] own hands” (1 John 1:1) supports the theory that they were truthfully reporting real events and vastly undermines the hypothesis of literary invention.

This leaves the explanation that God purposefully and sovereignly embedded these foreshadows of Jesus within the Old Testament writings. Yet, how many Christians have considered these deep truths of the faith? According to a Pew Research study, the number of millennials who identified as Christian dropped by 16% from 2009 to 2019. I wonder how many of these Christians who left the faith could identify even one way that Jesus is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, let alone the vast array of types of prophecies that this series will offer. Maybe if youth groups and churches had sought to instill a deep understanding of the breadth of Scripture, instead of primarily seeking to entertain and rarely scratching below the surface message that “Jesus loves you”, more millennials would have remained strongly rooted in the faith when encountered with skeptical objections, cultural pressures, and even the shortcomings of the church, itself.

Furthermore, I find that the comprehensive foreshadowing of Jesus in the Old Testament has great potential in outreach to unbelievers. I don’t try to conceal or apologize for the fact that I hope to persuade others by writing this blog. Though I hope to accomplish other purposes, such as building up the church, I do hope to convince others of the truth of Christianity. If you do not believe in Christ, I would invite you to read this series with an open mind and consider what is the best explanation for the coherent and interwoven image of Jesus that appears throughout the Old Testament. If you are a believer, I would challenge you to share these ideas with your family and friends. If one really digs into revelation of Jesus in the Old Testament scriptures, I think they will find truths that are difficult to dismiss or explain away.

Finally, I believe that they study of Jesus in the Old Testament has great potential to enrich the devotional lives of Christians. Paul closes his letter to the Roman church with this doxology: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.” (Romans 16:25-27, emphasis added).

Paul’s implication is clear. Before Jesus, the Old Testament was not fully understood, but now these mysteries have been disclosed not only through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but through the writings themselves. In other words, using what we know about Jesus’ life, ministry and ultimate purpose, we can return to fully understand the mysteries contained in the Old Testament scriptures. In doing so, we will more fully understand and savor God’s eternal plan of salvation and the beauty and majesty of Christ that is revealed throughout Scripture. According to Westminster Catechism, the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament will enable us to accomplish both of these ends – glorifying God for his manifest wisdom in weaving the message of salvation through Christ throughout the Old Testament and enjoying the many ways in which mystery of Christ has been revealed to us. Regardless of any apologetic effectiveness, I consider these benefits alone to be good reasons to seek to find Jesus in the Old Testament. So, let the search begin!