Where Is Jesus in the Old Testament?
How to Find Him on Every Last Page
Ten years ago, I was leading a feedback group for young preachers. A youth pastor gave an exposition of Judges 14 for us to critique. At the very end, he spoke of “another Savior who came to deliver his people eternally.” He didn’t make anything of the point, and he didn’t mention the name “Jesus,” but he included the sentence.
During the feedback session, I asked him, “Why did you include that line at the end?” In a flash, another student answered with a line I’ve never forgotten: “Because we’re supposed to.”
The whole room groaned its approval. Everyone felt the same obligation. None of these preachers in training was sure why they ought to “shift gears to Jesus,” but apparently there was a rule. I see this everywhere among Christians. We feel we ought to view the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, but we’re not quite sure why or how. It seems like such a crunch of gears. But is it?
Perhaps we’d be helped by a simple framework for how Christ is at the heart of the Scriptures: he is patterned, promised, and present from Genesis onward.
The flood and the ark, the Passover and the Red Sea, the wilderness and the Promised Land, exile and return, war and peace, kingdom and kings, prophets and priests, the temple, its sacrifices, and its rituals, wisdom in death and in life, songs of lament and rejoicing, the lives of faithful sufferers and the blood of righteous martyrs — the Old Testament is extraordinarily Jesus-shaped.
The story as a whole and each of its parts are like a fractal. To step back from the details is to view portraits, at ever-increasing scale, of the same pattern — the suffering and rising Christ (as in 1 Corinthians 10:1–11). But even as Paul teaches us the gospel patterns of the Old Testament, he is at pains (in verses 4 and 9) to point out that Christ was not merely patterned — he also was promised and present to the Old Testament believers.
Old Testament saints were not simply tiles in a mosaic, witnessing, unwittingly, to a gospel pattern of which they were ignorant. They too looked forward to the fulfillment of these patterns. How? Through the promises. This is how Jesus, Paul, and Peter saw it (Luke 24:25–27; Acts 26:22–23; 1 Peter 1:10–12). Each of them characterizes the Old Testament shape as proclaiming “Christ’s sufferings and glory,” yet, at the same time, each of them maintains that this message is what Moses and the prophets themselves “wrote,” “said,” “prophesied,” and “predicted.” All along, true faith was messianic faith, centered on Christ himself. He was the one held out and the one trusted by the faithful.
But more than just patterned and promised, perhaps the most underappreciated facet is that Christ also is present. It’s surprising how explicit the New Testament authors are about Jesus’s presence in the Old Testament:
- The “I Am” in whom Abraham rejoiced was Jesus (John 8:56–58).
- The Lord who motivated Moses was Christ (Hebrews 11:26).
- The Redeemer who brought them out of Egypt was Jesus (Jude 5).
- The Rock in the wilderness was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).
- The King of Isaiah’s temple vision was the Son (John 12:40–41).
Jesus is not merely patterned and promised in the Old Testament; he is present. This is vital since the essential character of neither God nor faith has changed from the first covenant to the new. God has always worked in the Trinitarian pattern: from the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. He did not begin to be triune — the Father did not begin to need a mediator — at Christmas (John 1:1–14). And faith has not changed fundamentally either. True faith does not merely resign itself to a divine plan, nor trust detached promises; faith embraces a promising Person.
Christ comes “clothed in the gospel,” as Calvin frequently wrote. We must remember the promises in which Christ is clothed, but let us never preach a set of clothes. It’s the person of the Son that stands at the center of saving faith.
As It Was in the Beginning?
The passages quoted thus far have been from the New Testament. Armed only with these, you can mount a strong case that the Hebrew Bible proclaims Christ. But perhaps, it might be argued, this Christian interpretation is found only by looking backward from the New. Is it possible to also read the Bible forward, from Genesis onward, and see the same Christ-centeredness? I believe so.
It’s my contention that Christ is either patterned, promised, or present on every page of the Hebrew Bible. More than this, in certain key passages, he is portrayed in all three ways at once. Below I select just three of these occasions and hope that it inspires you to see the whole Bible through these lenses.
Jesus Walks in Eden (Genesis 3)
Adam and Eve, ashamed at their sin, cower among the trees. Soon they are cloaking themselves in fig leaves. They attempt to manage their sin by hiding their badness and projecting a false goodness. Their Lord, though, has a different solution. He covers them, not with vegetation but with skins. We’re not told what innocent creature died to clothe the guilty, but Isaiah and Paul pick up the substitutionary pattern: we, the guilty, are robed by an alien righteousness — clothed in Christ, you could say (Isaiah 61:10; Galatians 3:27).
When the judgments come crashing down in the garden, it’s astonishing how everything but the couple is cursed. Instead, God promises “the seed of the woman.” This implies a miraculous birth — women don’t have seed (Genesis 3:15, my translation). This offspring of the woman would crush the head of the house of the wicked, though at great cost to himself — his heel would be struck. Here we have a promise of the miraculous birth and victorious suffering of “the seed.” Martin Luther comments,
All the promises of God lead back to the first promise concerning Christ of Genesis 3:15. The faith of the fathers in the Old Testament era, and our faith in the New Testament are one and the same faith in Christ Jesus. . . . Time does not change the object of true faith, or the Holy Spirit. There has always been and always will be one mind, one impression, one faith concerning Christ among true believers whether they live in times past, now, or in times to come. (Commentary on Galatians)
Now we come to the often-overlooked facet of Christ’s presence. Who is this Lord who walks with his most favored creatures in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8)? Jonathan Edwards puts words to the most common opinion of the church fathers, Reformers, and Puritans:
When we read in sacred history what God did, from time to time, towards his Church and people, and how he revealed himself to them, we are to understand it especially of the second person of the Trinity. When we read of God appearing after the fall, in some visible form, we are ordinarily, if not universally, to understand it of the second person of the Trinity. (History of the Work of Redemption, 20)
This does not answer all the questions we might have about Old Testament appearances. But what is clear is that the Son of God had not taken flesh before his incarnation in Mary’s womb, and so we must not think of an incarnate Jesus here or elsewhere in the Old Testament. But with Colossians 1:15 and John 1:18 in mind, Edwards insists that the Father is always mediated by the Son. Christ is not merely patterned and promised in the Old Testament; he is also present.
Jesus Speaks on Moriah (Genesis 22)
Here is the ultimate test of faith, but it has tested more than Abraham’s faith. This chapter has proved a stumbling block to many as they read God’s words 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). It’s an utter scandal until you consider the pattern. Who is this son? He is the seed of Abraham, the hope of the world. All God’s promises are focused on this beloved son. If he is sacrificed, God would have to — somehow! — bring him back to life in order to save and bless the world.
Notice that he is to be sacrificed on a mountain in the region of what would become Jerusalem (Genesis 22:1–14; see 2 Chronicles 3:1). He carries the wood on his back as he trudges up the hill toward the atoning sacrifice (Genesis 22:6). All the while, Abraham believes that he will receive the son back from death (Genesis 22:5; see Hebrews 11:17–20). When you understand the pattern — the death and resurrection of the son — Genesis 22 becomes not a barrier but an almighty boost to faith.
Watch how the author of Genesis 22 (traditionally considered to be Moses) speaks of the mountain: “Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided’” (Genesis 22:14). For hundreds of years, Israelites were pointing to that hill and believing in a future provision — a future atonement. They even knew where it would happen. For centuries, the Old Testament saints saw Christ promised in this event, and they set their hopes accordingly.
In Genesis 22:11, it’s the angel of the Lord who intercepts the judgment. In verse 15, he speaks again, and does so with a remarkable self-understanding. Who does this angel think he is? Though he is sent by the Lord, he speaks as the Lord: “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord . . . I will surely bless . . . . I will surely multiply . . .” (Genesis 22:16–17). When we encounter everyday angels in the Scriptures, they insist on their utter difference from God (as in Revelation 22:9). But here is a unique messenger — literally, his name could be translated “the Sent One” — who insists that he is from the Lord and that he is the Lord. To use the language of the creeds, he is “God from God.”
On the subject of the angel’s identity, Calvin summarizes the history of Christian interpretation that went before him:
The orthodox doctors of the Church have correctly and wisely expounded, that the Word of God was the supreme angel, who then began, as it were by anticipation, to perform the office of Mediator. (Institutes, I.xiii.10)
In Genesis 22, this “God from God” stopped the sword of judgment from falling on Isaac. Two millennia later, the very same Mediator would climb the very same hill to intercept God’s judgment for his people.
Jesus Burns at the Bush (Exodus 3)
The burning bush has so many biblical resonances. Plants are often likened to God’s people (or to the king who represents them; Judges 9; Isaiah 5; John 15). The people’s sufferings in Egypt are commonly described as a furnace (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51; Jeremiah 11:4). Here at the burning bush, we see God’s people on fire in a furnace of affliction, and yet — here is the Christlike pattern — their King, the great “I Am,” descends into the burnings to be with his people and to lead them out. The pattern of the exodus is the pattern of the gospel.
The exodus itself is the fulfillment of promises. In Genesis 12, we learn that the “seed of Abraham” will bless and rule the nations. The promise includes an ambiguity — is the “seed” plural (Israel) or singular (Christ)? In essence, the answer is yes. The “seed” is first the nation of Israel and, in the fullness of time, it is Christ — the Messiah who singularly represents the nation (Galatians 3:16). So as the promise develops, we read Genesis 15, where the Lord prophesies a suffering-and-rising pattern for the “seed of Abraham”: the seed will be enslaved and afflicted, yet through judgment the seed would come out to a greater glory (Genesis 15:13–15). This death and resurrection would first be endured by Israel, but as we watch the exodus, we are seeing a preview of the coming gospel drama. In other words, the whole of the exodus is a promise of Christ.
The divine name “I Am” is foundational to our understanding of God. “I Am” is preserved in the name “Yahweh,” which is used 6,800 times in the Hebrew Bible. The God of Israel is, most fundamentally, “him who dwells in the bush” (Deuteronomy 33:16). And who is he? He is the angel of the Lord who is himself the Lord (Exodus 3:2, 6, 14). John Owen explains that he is “the Angel of the covenant, the great Angel of the presence of God, in whom was the name and nature of God . . . this was no other but the Son of God.” No wonder Jude can look back on the exodus and say “Jesus . . . saved a people out of the land of Egypt” (Jude 5). Jesus Christ really is the God of Israel and the Hero of the whole Bible.
Jesus Is Lord of All
When the novice preachers groaned that “we’re supposed to” bridge to Christ, what was the issue? I believe it was this: They failed to see the magnitude of Christ, and they failed to see that the Old Testament is already, in its own context and on its own terms, Christian Scripture. It is already a proclamation of the Lord Messiah.
It’s certainly true that there are patterns to spot in the Old Testament. Gospel imagery was built up over centuries, layer upon layer. Jesus really is the true temple, lamb, priest, king, and prophet. He is a true and better Joseph, David, Jonah, and so on. This is all true. But it is not all of the truth.
There are vital promises to trace throughout the Scriptures — from Genesis 3:15 onward. Jesus is the seed — the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the seed of David. He fulfills each promise of land, peace, blessing, and so on. This is all true. But it is not all of the truth.
In addition to these perspectives, we also should see the Son of God as present in the Hebrew Bible. This is a vital component lest we imagine a “crunch of gears” between the covenants. What straddles the Old and the New is not simply a plan or a promise; it’s a Person.
Jesus unites the Bible. He is not absent from the Old Testament, sitting on the bench, awaiting his fourth quarter winning play. He is the player-coach-manager directing all things. Throughout the Old Testament, he is the one and only Mediator of God Most High, marching purposefully toward his own incarnation. Jesus is Lord. He always has been.