This article begins a new blog series on Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. Subscribe to our blog to receive each new article in your inbox. (Lee este artículo en español en The Gospel Coalition.)
Have you ever been lost in the middle of a city with no clue where you were or which way to go?
That is the experience of many Christians when they read the Old Testament. They open the Bible, begin reading, and soon find themselves in a place that seems totally different from the New Testament world. The seemingly random stories, genealogies, strange laws, and occasional talking donkey make for a sometimes confusing read.
If that’s you—don’t panic! This is a simple guide that will help you understand how Jesus relates to the Old Testament and will act as a road map to steer you in the right direction as you study God’s Word.
One Book with One Story about One Person
The Bible is one book telling one story that culminates in One Person: Jesus Christ. The discipline of Biblical Theology helps us see the overarching story of the Bible along with how each piece fits into the whole and testifies of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament prepares the way for and points to Christ, while the New Testament reveals and explains who He is. The Old Testament displays a “shadow” of Christ whom we experience in the New Testament (see Colossians 2:16-17).
For those who sometimes find themselves “lost” in the Old Testament, it is helpful to think of a system of streets, roads, avenues, and boulevards that all connect to one main highway. The main highway represents a major passage or a major theme in the Old Testament that connects us directly to Christ and ultimately to the gospel. In a system of roads there are many boulevards, avenues, side streets and alleys that are not on the main highway, though they eventually connect to it. We may be studying a passage that is on a side road off of the main highway. The important question to ask is: How does this passage get me to the main highway? Or, how does this passage connect with a main theme that points me towards Christ?
The goal for seeing how the Old Testament points to Jesus is not merely intellectual—it is to encounter the Lord of Creation and Savior of the world so we may believe in Him and find life in His Name (John 5:39-40; 20:30-31). What follows are two steps and three questions to help you find Jesus in an Old Testament passage.
- Study the passage in its original context.
Looking for Jesus is not like playing “Where’s Waldo” in the Old Testament. We should avoid forcing a passage to speak about Christ in a way that it wasn’t intended to. Doing so will distract from the passage’s original message and potentially diminish the true work of Christ. This is why we first understand a passage on its own terms before looking for Christ.
- Look for connections and work to understand it in its broader context.
Other passages in the Bible can provide clues such as words, phrases, quotations, or ideas that can lead you to Christ. Again, we don’t want to force anything. Just because the same word or thought appears in two different passages does not mean that the two passages are talking about the same thing. We should consider many things like the context and the use of particular words in order to make a wise decision about whether there is a true connection.
A good connection could come from one of the following:
- A promise (like in Genesis 3:15 or Deuteronomy 18:15-18)
- Symbols or typology (like the bronze snake in Numbers 23 or Jesus being the “Second Adam”)
- Prophecies (Messianic or of the age to come)
- Titles (like priest or prophet).
- Themes (like God’s judgment or covenant. More on this below.)
- Ideas related to redemption and salvation (act as an easy onramp to the main highway leading to Christ)
Three Helpful Questions to Consider as You Look for Connections
- Does the New Testament say anything about this topic or passage?
Sometimes the New Testament will quote a verse and provide direct clues to an Old Testament topic or passage. A wise student of Scripture continually seeks to develop his or her eye for connections between the Old and New Testaments as they read the Bible each day.
- How does this passage connect with a main theme that points me towards Christ?
Since the Bible is one story, we see various themes woven together that develop from the Old Testament to the New. We describe the Bible being like a rope that has many strands. The Bible has many events and themes, but they are all woven together into one story like strands of a rope. When you read an Old Testament passage and a biblical theme pops up, think ahead to how Christ fulfills and develops that theme.
Example: The presence of God. While Israel wandered the desert, God led Israel by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night before instructing Moses to build the tabernacle, where God dwelt until the building of the temple in Jerusalem. Then God put on human flesh in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and dwelt among us. The Spirit’s coming gave believers God’s Spirit to dwell in us, making us living stones to be built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:4-5). This theme finds its ultimate fulfillment in the New Heavens and New Earth where we know, “…the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3).
- How does this passage aid my understanding of Christ and what he has done?
Your passage may not explicitly speak of Jesus, but it may speak of the Messiah or describe a person or thing that symbolizes Christ or points to who He will be and what He will do (examples include the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13–53:12 or the Son of Man with all dominion in Daniel 7:13-14). Sometimes, though, a passage may only prepare the way for Christ. For instance, a passage may describe a desperate shortcoming in Israel’s leaders or a tragic situation among God’s people that points to Christ as the only one who can come and meet that need or make right the situation. (For example, the failures of Israel’s kings leave us with the realization of the need for a Messiah who will rule over God’s people in perfect righteousness.)
Over time, these steps and questions will help you navigate the sometimes confusing streets of the Old Testament and understand better God’s redemptive plan to send His Son into the world to save us from our sins. Our hope is that as you study, the Holy Spirit will reveal to you God’s riches in the Old Testament by shining the spotlight on Jesus Christ and filling you with joy in Him to the praise of His glorious grace.
This article introduces concepts and illustrations about Biblical Theology as taught by Leadership Resources. Learn more about our pastoral training programs Fellowship of the Word and Training National Trainers.
Authors: Paul Adams and Kevin Halloran.