Salvation in the Old Testament
God has worked diligently throughout time to save His people. As the people of God in Christ Jesus, we Christians tend to understand salvation and related ideas through the prism of what God has accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and eventual return. This is right, good, and appropriate for us today in the new covenant; nevertheless, we must be careful about projecting what has been made known in Jesus back onto the Old Testament, before the mystery of the Gospel was made known (cf. Ephesians 3:1-11). We do well to explore what salvation looked like in the Old Testament.
As Christians we tend to think of salvation first in terms of forgiveness of sins and (as a result) the opportunity to put our trust in the hope of the resurrection to come (John 3:16, Romans 8:1-25). For the Patriarchs and Israel, salvation was much more physical and concrete.
The author of Hebrews well encapsulated the nature of Israelite service before YHWH in Hebrews 9:1-8: in Exodus and Leviticus YHWH made provision for Israel to build a sanctuary for His presence and name, first a tent, and later a temple, with an altar, a priesthood, and commandments for the offering of animals and produce in order to atone for sin or guilt or make peace with God (Exodus 25:1-Leviticus 27:34). All Israel would assemble before YHWH at prescribed times and the requisite offerings were sacrificed; Israelites would bring their produce to thank God, atone for their sins, and make peace with Him.
In Christ we understand that our hope will not be complete in this life, but in the promise of the resurrection to come (Philippians 3:1-21). The Patriarchs and the Israelites only knew of the afterlife as Sheol, the underworld place of the dead, the habitation of the righteous and the wicked alike (Genesis 37:35, Numbers 16:33, Psalms 9:17, 88:3, 89:48, Ecclesiastes 9:10). Yes, some Israelites nourished hope of being redeemed from Sheol (Psalms 16:10, 49:15), and Daniel would be given the promise of the resurrection (Daniel 12:2), but how exactly this would work out for Israelites in the end was not yet fully made known to them. We can therefore understand why the hope of the Patriarchs and Israel tended to focus on this life.
Job provides a great example for our understanding. God had blessed Job: he had seven sons and three daughters and great wealth, and conscientiously offered sacrifices for himself and his children lest anyone happened to sin against God (Job 1:1-5). Then Job was considered as one forsaken by God when his children were killed, animals slaughtered, and struck with illness (Job 1:13-22, 2:7-9). Afterward, when God blessed him again, Job maintained twice as much wealth as he had before, and again seven sons and three daughters, very beautiful were born to him, and saw his great-great-grandchildren (Job 42:10-17). God redeemed Job by rescuing him from disease and destruction; Job’s blessings were his children and his wealth.
The list of blessings and curses in Leviticus 26:1-46 also prove instructive for us. If the Israelites would observe the Law YHWH gave them, He would bring rain at the right time to nourish a bountiful harvest, give them security and safety in their land, defeat their enemies before them, multiply their number, maintain His tabernacle in their midst, and be their God (Leviticus 26:1-12). Israel could have this confidence because He had saved them, defined in the exodus from Egypt: YHWH sent plagues upon the Egyptians and delivered Israel with a powerful hand from their midst (Leviticus 26:13; cf. Exodus 6:1-15:21). If the Israelites did not observe the Law YHWH gave them, He would send illness among them, cause their enemies to eat their harvest, defeat them before their enemies, send further plagues against the land, render them barren or strike their children dead, and ultimately cast them out of the land in exile (Leviticus 26:14-43). And so it would be throughout Israel’s history. In the good times, as in Solomon’s day, Israel and Judah dwelt in safety, every man under his vine and fig tree, with confidence in the future with children and great-grandchildren (1 Kings 11:25). In the bad times, as in the end of Israel and Judah, untold thousands died of plague, famine, and war, the cities and sanctuaries of Israel and Judah were put to the torch, and the people exiled out of the land (2 Kings 17:1-41, 25:1-21).
Salvation and redemption, therefore, looked very different in Israel than they would in Jesus. Sheol was a drab affair; one’s place in Israel among the people of God would be secured by having sons and grandsons continuing the family lineage on the plot of land given to their ancestors. Dying without children or losing one’s ancestral land were the ultimate disasters, leading to the extermination of the family lineage in Israel and their place among the people of God. If an Israelite lived to a good old age, enjoyed prosperity in the land, saw Israel’s enemies defeated and had sons and grandsons, he would have considered himself blessed, fortunate, and saved and delivered by YHWH from evil. If an Israelite died young, suffered persistent drought or pestilence, endured plagues, were oppressed by Israel’s enemies, and died childless, he would have considered himself cast off by YHWH and accursed.
In Jesus of Nazareth YHWH would provide the ultimate deliverance and salvation for His people Israel, if they chose to accept it. All of the plagues and difficulties Israel experienced ultimately derived from the work of the Evil One and the powers and principalities; Jesus defeated them all by suffering on the cross and dying for the sins of the world, and God raised Him from the dead (Romans 8:1-25, Colossians 2:11-15). The blood of bulls and goats could not truly atone for sin (Hebrews 10:4); Jesus’ blood would cleanse from sin all whom God would rescue in faith, from Adam until the last man on the final day (Hebrews 7:1-9:27). Through Jesus all can have direct access to God and participation in His household (Ephesians 2:18-22); God dwells among His people through His Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20). The fullness of the salvation in which Israel hoped can be found in the resurrection of life in Jesus: life in the presence of God for eternity in prosperity and health, without pain, suffering, or death (Romans 8:17-25, Revelation 21:1-22:6).
In truth, salvation throughout time has always involved maintaining a strong relationship with God and depending upon Him for deliverance and blessings. Nevertheless, the differences in understanding salvation between the Old and New Testaments remains profound, especially as they relate to this world. We do not rightly divide the Scriptures if we impose a new covenant understanding of salvation on the Old Testament; we also miss the mark if we look for confidence in our salvation in the new covenant according to the standards of salvation in the Old Testament. May we put our trust in God in Christ, obtain salvation and a restored relationship in Him, and put our hope in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry