Many people, when they hear the name Jesus Christ, assume that Christ is Jesus'’ last name much like Smith, or Jones, or Wilson. But the English word Christ is simply a transliteration of the Greek word christos, which was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament to translate the word Mashiach or Messiah. So when we hear the name Jesus Christ, we should not think of Christ as a last name but as a title. When we say “Jesus Christ,” we are saying “Jesus Messiah.”
Knowing this helps us to understand how we can speak of an Old Testament “Christ”-ology even though Jesus Christ Himself does not appear in the flesh until the New Testament Gospels. We can speak of an Old Testament Christology because the Old Testament contains numerous promises, prophecies, shadows, and types that point forward to the coming of the Messiah—to the coming of the Christ. We will not be looking at all such texts, but we will focus on some of the most important. If we are to understand who this Messiah is, we must have some understanding of these texts.
The first hint of a messianic theme in the Old Testament comes in the tragic aftermath of the fall. Adam and Eve have trusted the word of the serpent rather than the Word of God, and God's response is swift. After confronting the man and the woman, who both attempt to shift the blame (Gen. 3:8–13), God pronounces His judgment first on the serpent, then on the woman, and finally on the man (vv. 14–19). He pronounces a curse on the serpent (v. 14), but in the process of pronouncing this curse, God makes a promise that gives mankind reason for hope. Man’s fall has resulted in the need for divine redemption, a need that God immediately addresses. To the serpent he says,
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)
This verse has often been referred to as the protevangelium, or the first gospel. It is grace and mercy in the midst of rebellion. God promises that there will be a long struggle between good and evil, with the offspring (or seed) of the woman eventually triumphing. As the remainder of the Old Testament and New Testament will make clear, this triumph will come in and through the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
The Abrahamic Covenant
The overarching focus of the patriarchal history (Gen. 12–50) is on God's gracious promises of blessing, promises that are given first to Abraham, then to Isaac, and finally to Jacob. The importance of these promises for understanding the remainder of Scripture cannot be overstated.
The call of Abram in Genesis 12:1–9 is a pivotal point in redemptive history. While Genesis 1–11 focuses primarily on the terrible consequences of sin, God's promises to Abram in Genesis 12 focus on the hope of redemption, of restored blessing and reconciliation with God. God is going to deal with the problem of sin and evil, and He is going to establish His kingdom on earth. How He is going to do this begins to be revealed in His promises to Abram.
The key section of Genesis 12:1–9 is the explicit call of God to Abram found in verses 1–3:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
The theme of God’s call to Abram is evident in the fivefold repetition of the key terms bless and blessing. Man's sin has resulted in God’s curse (Gen. 3:14, 17; 4:11; 5:29; 9:25), but here God promises to form a people for Himself and to restore His original purposes of blessing for mankind (See Gen. 1:28). Abram is somehow going to be the mediator of this restored blessing.
God’s call of Abram contains four basic promises: (1) offspring, (2) land, (3) the blessing of Abram himself, and (4) the blessing of the nations through Abram. The promised blessing of the nations of the earth is key. The blessing of all the families of the earth is the primary purpose behind God's calling of Abram. His calling and the promises he is given are not ends in themselves. Abram is promised offspring, a land, and personal blessing in order that he might be the mediator of God’s blessing to all the families of the earth. As the remainder of the Old Testament will make clear, this blessing will come through the establishment of God's kingdom under God’s Messiah.
As Jacob draws close to death, he gathers his sons together to pronounce his last words concerning them (Gen. 49). Jacob says to his sons at this time, “Gather yourselves together that I may tell you what shall happen to you in days to come” (Gen. 49:1). The meaning of the phrase days to come or the latter days (See Num. 24:14), must be determined by its context. In general, it speaks of an indeterminate future time. Jacob speaks to all of his sons, but it is his words to Judah that are the most significant for Old Testament Christology. Jacob’s words to Judah anticipate the rise of the Davidic king and more.
In Genesis 49:10, Jacob says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” This verse is considered by some to be the first explicit messianic prophecy in the Old Testament. The precise translation of the words “until tribute comes to him” is disputed because of the ambiguity of the Hebrew, but there is general agreement that the prophecy is pointing to the rise of the Davidic monarchy. The main point of Jacob's words to Judah is that the scepter, a symbol of kingship, would belong to the tribe of Judah until the coming of the one to whom such royal status truly belongs. In the Old Testament, this prophecy is initially fulfilled by David. In the New Testament, it is fully and finally fulfilled by Jesus Christ, the son of David and the Lion of the tribe of Judah (cf. Matt. 1:1; Rev. 5:5).
In his first epistle to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul tells his readers that “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). We find the background to this saying in the book of Exodus. In Exodus 12, God gives Moses the instructions for the Passover ceremony that will distinguish Israel from Egypt. God tells Moses that this month will now be the first month of the year for Israel (v. 2). This night will commemorate Israel's birth as a nation. Each household is to take a lamb without blemish and keep it until the fourteenth day of the month, at which point it shall be killed (vv. 3–6). The lamb's blood is then to be placed on the doorposts and lintel of the houses, and the families in the houses are to eat the roasted flesh of the lamb (vv. 7–11). God tells Moses that on this night He will pass through Egypt and strike down the firstborn of the Egyptians, but He will pass over the houses marked with the sign of the lamb's blood (vv. 12–13). The Passover lamb becomes a substitute for Israel, God’s firstborn son (cf. 4:22). As such it is a type of the coming Messiah who also dies as a substitute for His people.
The messianic significance of Leviticus may not seem evident on first glance, but when we recall that the New Testament describes Christ as our high priest (Heb. 8–9), and as the once-for-all sacrifice for sin (Heb. 10), the relevance of Leviticus becomes more obvious. The holiness required of God's people is elaborated in the book of Leviticus, where the laws concerning sacrifices and the priesthood are given in detail. Sacrifices provided a means for the people of Israel to be cleansed when they committed sin, and the priests who offered these sacrifices stood as mediators between God and His people. Both the priesthood and the sacrifices pointed forward to a greater reality to come in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah.
One of the more intriguing messianic prophecies is found in Numbers 22–24 in the story of Balaam. As we pick up the story, Israel has camped at the plains of Moab, and Balak the king of Moab is overcome with fear (22:1–4). As a result, he summons Balaam, a pagan prophet from Mesopotamia, to curse the Israelites (vv. 5–8). God, however, does not allow Balaam to curse Israel, but commands him to bless Israel instead. In chapters 23–24, to Balak's dismay, Balaam delivers four oracles of blessing upon Israel. The fourth oracle is particularly notable. Balaam foresees the coming of a king, but the coming is not to be immediate: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near” (Gen. 24:17). The coming king is described as a star coming out of Jacob and a scepter rising out of Israel (v. 17; see Gen. 49:10). This king will utterly defeat his enemies (v. 18). This prophecy would find its initial fulfillment in the reign of David, but its ultimate fulfillment awaited the coming of the Messiah.
The establishment of the prophetic office is the subject of Deuteronomy 18:15–22. After outlining forbidden ways of trying to know the will of God (vv. 9–14), Moses proceeds to explain the nature of prophecy, the legitimate means by which God would communicate His word to His people (vv. 15–22). He declares to the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). God here provides for the continuation of the prophetic office after the death of Moses.
It is important to remember, however, that Moses was unique among the prophets as a minister of God’s covenant (Num. 12:6–8; Deut. 34:10–12). As we shall see, the message of the later prophets was rooted in the covenant mediated by Moses. Jeffrey Niehaus explains:
The prophetic ministry was of two kinds: the prophet as covenant mediator (Moses only); the prophet as covenant lawsuit messenger (subsequent prophets). God had raised up the prophet Moses to mediate his covenant to Israel; he would raise up other prophets to bring covenant lawsuit—to recall the people to covenant obedience or to announce covenantal punishments incurred by their disobedience.
God's promise to raise up another prophet like Moses was later understood by the Israelites to be a messianic prophecy (John 1:21, 45; 6:14; 7:40). Ultimately this prophetic promise points to Jesus, the unique mediator of the new covenant (cf. Acts 3:20–22).
This brief survey of certain messianic texts in the Pentateuch is by no means intended to be exhaustive. Jesus indicates that the entirety of the Old Testament concerns Him (Luke 24:27). We have merely scratched the surface. In our next post, we will look at several prophecies and promises in the Historical Books, the Psalms, and the Prophets.
The Lord did say unto my Lord,
Sit thou at my right hand,
Until I make thy foes a stool,
whereon thy feet may stand.
The Lord shall out of Sion send
the rod of thy great pow'r:
In midst of all thine enemies
be thou the governor.
A willing people in thy day
of pow'r shall come to thee,
In holy beauties from morn's womb;
thy youth like dew shall be.
The Lord himself hath made an oath,
and will repent him never,
Of th' order of Melchisedec
thou art a priest for ever.
The glorious and mighty Lord,
that sits at thy right hand,
Shall, in his day of wrath, strike through
kings that do him withstand.
He shall among the heathen judge,
he shall with bodies dead
The places fill: o'er many lands
he wound shall ev'ry head.
The brook that runneth in the way
with drink shall him supply;
And, for this cause, in triumph he
shall lift his head on high.
This article is part of the Introduction to Orthodox Christology collection.