We Need the Old Testament to Understand the Work of Christ

Curtis I. Crenshaw

In the volume of the book, it is written of Christ (Heb. 10:7). How does the Old Testament guide us in understanding the work of Christ?

We may ask, "Why Christ at all? Was it an accident that he appeared in human history? Why did he state that he came to offer himself as a sacrifice? Why did he not come as an adult instead of by virgin birth? Who was he? How could he do the miracles he did and teach with such authority?" The Old Testament gives the context to answer all these questions.

First, why Christ at all? It was necessary for him to come because man fell into sin, as we see in Genesis 3. When man fell into sin, he incurred two problems: lack of obedience to God’s law and the penalty of death. Jesus came to obey God’s law perfectly for his people (Rom. 5:18-19) and to undergo the penalty of wrath and death as the substitute (Mark 10:45; Gal. 3:13). Without seeing the fall of mankind into sin in Genesis 3, we would not understand the most basic reason for the Incarnation.

Second, the Old Testament prepares us for his sacrifice, not only with Genesis 3:15, but also with the whole sacrificial system. Therefore, when the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51—salvation comes down from God), we understand the meaning: the Holy of Holies is opened by the blood of Jesus to all believers and forgiveness of sins is accomplished.

Third, he came by virgin birth so that he could be born under the law and obey it perfectly for us in answer to Adam’s disobedience and in fulfillment of Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14. Since Adam was a man, it was necessary for Christ to be the same, sin being the exception.

Fourth, we are prepared for who he is by the Old Testament theophanies to Abraham, Joshua, and others, by direct statements that he was from eternity (Mic. 5:2) and God himself (Isa. 9:6-7). Thus, when we read in John that Christ "dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory" (John 1:14), we are prepared to see deity, especially in the Greek word for "dwelt," which means "tabernacled." As the tabernacle in the Old Testament was outwardly plain but inwardly beautiful and was the place of God’s dwelling, even so Jesus looked like any ordinary man, but he was also God (not just God dwelling in him)! Hence, he could do miracles that no one else could, and he taught with authority because of who he was.

As a pastor, I’m always looking for ways to apply the Bible to the lives of my parishioners. I must guard my flock from heresies as well as edify them. The three great heresies of the church over the centuries have been Pelagianism, Gnosticism, and Arianism.

If mankind could have saved himself (Pelagianism), Christ did not need to come. And if we think that we can contribute one iota to his completed work, even our so-called free will, we have denied the sufficiency and perfection of what he has done. Thus, we do not look to government to expunge our guilt, nor do we engage in self-atonement through our works. Too much of modern counseling is self-atonement through feeling good about oneself.

Gnosticism maintains that the nonphysical aspects of life are holy, like reading the Bible or being a minister, but that the "mundane" and physical aspects are second-rate, such as one’s occupation or the culture as a whole. The Incarnation (Christ adding to perfect deity a real human body), his coming to the earth, and working as a carpenter, preclude such.

We often hear people say that they do not have to attend church to be a Christian, which is to say that physically gathering with the saints is not important—only what one does between his ears counts. The Incarnation, however, demonstrates that doing "physical" things is holiness. God is a covenant God (new covenant), and salvation is not simply an individual matter, but a corporate one as well. The physical sacraments, therefore, are vitally important and so is church attendance, outside of which there is ordinarily no salvation (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2).

Arianism is alive and well today, and not only among Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the Word-Faith movement, the uniqueness of Christ is denied by maintaining that we can do anything Jesus can, by saying that we also are incarnations of God, or by the more subtle but no less heretical view that Jesus may have been God while on earth, but (allegedly) did not function as God. Evangelicals also implicitly deny his deity when they think that they have unique problems, and that even Jesus has no answer for them!

Indeed, in the Old Testament there are persons (Joseph, David, Daniel), places (Jerusalem, temple, tabernacle), events (exit from Egypt), sacrifices (Day of Atonement), things (scapegoat, laver, mercy seat), and direct statements (Ps. 2) that prepare us for the coming of Christ and help us interpret his work. This was how he taught his disciples to read the Old Testament (Luke 24:44-45). We must also learn that such truths have application in every area of our lives, not just between our ears.

The author is the pastor of Reformed Episcopal Church of the Covenant in Amarillo, Tex. He quotes the NASB. This article is reprinted with permission, with slight editing, from Tabletalk, December 1996. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2001.