Where do we find Jesus in the Old Testament? Thankfully, the New Testament answers that question for us loud and clear: EVERYWHERE.
The Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament authors to constantly link Jesus, his life, and his ministry with declarations, stories, and, ultimately, the “meta-arch” of the entire Old Testament story. In other words, the Holy Spirit who inspired the writing of the Old Testament likewise inspired the writers of the New Testament to have a “Christo-centric” hermeneutic when interpreting the Old Testament. As Christians, it is incumbent upon us to read the Old Testament the way the Spirit-inspired authors of the New Testament read the Old Testament, and that is with Jesus at the center.
But let’s get more specific. In interpreting Jesus and his ministry, the New Testament is replete with phrases such as:
- “but all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophet might be fulfilled.” (Matthew 26:56)
- “Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let Scriptures be fulfilled.” (Mk. 14:49)
- “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)
Once again, all of these declarations (and there are many more) connect the life and ministry of Jesus with the Old Testament.
The notion that the entire Old Testament points to Jesus is captured in a little story we find in Luke 24. As the story goes, two men are walking to a village called Emmaus. As they were walking and discussing the tragic death of Jesus and rumors of his resurrection, the resurrected Jesus appeared to them. At first, they didn’t recognize him. Luke tells us that at this moment Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27). In short, Jesus showed these two men how the Old Testament is all about him from beginning to end.
A little later on in this same chapter, Jesus also says, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Lk. 24:44)
All this to say, the risen Lord himself teaches us that the Old Testament ultimately points to him. To understand that statement, it’s crucial to see the Old Testament as Jesus saw the Old Testament, which is a single salvation story about Him. As Christians, we believe that the Scriptures—comprised of 66 books composed by dozens of historical authors over a long period—the Scriptures are ultimately one book, with one author (the Holy Spirit), with one overarching, unified message. Furthermore, we believe that that single message of Scripture is the story of redemption in Jesus.
That said, there is an important distinction between direct mention of Jesus in the form of future-predictive messianic prophecies/Christophanies and ways the unified Old Testament story points to Jesus. As far as examples of the messianic prophecies, we can look to passages like the suffering servant song in Isaiah 52:13–53:12, which prophecies Jesus’s substitutionary, atoning sacrifice on the cross, or Psalm 118:22-23 which is quoted numerous times in the New Testament. This passage talks about the stone the builders rejected, which became the cornerstone.
Similarly, we can look to the first time we see the OT directly anticipating a messiah is in the famous “protoevangelium” of Genesis 3:15: “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.” These are examples of direct mention of Jesus in the Old Testament, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, more.
So, what are some concrete examples of where we find the OT maybe not directly mentioning Jesus, but pointing to Jesus, or setting up for Jesus? If we have a true Christo-centric hermeneutic, then technically, we can take any text of the Old Testament and see how it connects to the broader story that climaxes with Jesus as the main character.
Acknowledging that, let’s take the creation account in Genesis 1 as an example of an Old Testament text that does not directly mention Jesus but points to Jesus and redemption in Jesus. John says in the first chapter of his gospel that Jesus was present in those moments of creation as the divine Word through whom and in whom all things were made. God the Father spoke the creation into being, and Jesus is analogous to the “Word” of the Father through which and for whom the material and immaterial worlds were created. Jesus is not directly mentioned in that passage that way, but the Holy Spirit inspired John to make the connection between the creating, spoken Word of God the Father and Jesus, the second Person of the Holy Trinity.
Continuing with Genesis 1, God creates humans in his image on the sixth and last day of creation. In being created last and with more time spent on describing how and why they were created, it’s clear that they are couched in the story as the climax of the creation account. Put another way, they are the pre-eminent creatures of the creation, also known as the “firstborn”. They have first place in God’s creation as the divine image bearers.
Likewise, the New Testament presents Jesus to us as the “firstborn of the creation” (Col 1:15). Without doing a deep dive into the theology of the recapitulation theory of atonement, essentially, the New Testament is saying that Jesus, in his perfect obedience, is the true Adam and undoes what Adam did in the fall. He is what humans were always supposed to be. He fulfills God’s purposes for humanity within the creation by not falling into temptation. This is behind what Paul says in Romans 5:17 when he says:
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.Romans 5:17
Paul says that Jesus reverses the curse brought into the creation through Adam’s rebellion. The Holy Spirit, through Paul, is saying that Jesus is a type of Adam. In this way, this Old Testament story must be interpreted in light of Jesus and his work. Jesus, then, can be found indirectly in this Old Testament story.
Another short and easy example of where we find Jesus in the creation accounts of Genesis is the story of Jesus breathing on his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Jesus is reenacting God breathing into Adam, making him a living being. This little story is John’s way of saying that followers of Jesus are a part of the new human race made perfect in Jesus, and yet another way we find Jesus in Genesis 1–2.
Thus far, we have only considered the first few chapters of Genesis to demonstrate ways in which Jesus is present in the Old Testament. These examples demonstrate that while a story or episode of the OT may not mention Jesus directly, the entire story of the OT ultimately points to Jesus and his saving work.
Let’s look at one more, but this time from the Psalms. We’ve already mentioned Luke 24:44, where Jesus says, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk. 24:44). But where we do find Jesus in the Psalms?
The New Testament links Jesus to several Psalms. First, Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 when he says from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He’s also quoting Psalm 118:22 when he says that the scripture is fulfilled in him when it says that “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Peter connects Jesus with God’s anointed king in Psalm 2 in the book of Acts. While we’re reading these psalms, we may not make these connections with Jesus from the immediate context of the text themselves, but the Holy Spirit makes these connections for us by inspiring the New Testament authors to read the Psalms Christo-centrically. If you were to ask the New Testament authors where they find Jesus in the Psalms, they would answer, “Everywhere!”
Lastly, the New Testament directly connects Jesus and the Temple of the Old Testament. John, for one, tells the story of Jesus cleansing the temple (Jn. 2). The temple officials get angry with Jesus and ask him on what authority he does such things. As a response, Jesus says, “I will destroy this temple and in three days raise it up.” John tells us he’s talking about the “temple of his body.” Paul tells us that the Church is the body of Christ, the temple of God. Furthermore, the temple is a central theme in the Old Testament, and if Jesus is wrapped up in the temple, then Jesus is central in the Old Testament.
So, with the temple being a central motif in the Old Testament and Jesus being the fulfillment of the temple, we have to ask, “How is Jesus like the temple in the Old Testament?”
John, once again, answers that question for us. John starts his gospel saying that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. A little further down in the text, he says, “tabernacled among us.” John is talking about the incarnation. John says that God took on flesh and dwelled with us. God’s dwelling with his people is wrapped up in the biblical notion of the temple.
The temple in the Old Testament is representative of the personal presence of God dwelling with his people. The temple ultimately represents humanity living in a reconciled relationship with God. It is the place where heaven and earth meet. It is Eden restored.
We can use this same language to talk about Jesus. As the incarnate deity, the second person of the Trinity who is fully God and fully man, he is where heaven (deity) and earth (humanity) meet. He is the place where humans and God dwell together in unity.
Another way of thinking about this is that you are with God when you’re in or around the temple. Likewise, when you’re with Jesus, you’re with God. Just as God came down and his presence filled the tabernacle, the personal presence of God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
Once again, the temple is a central theme in the Old Testament. When the Holy Spirit inspires the New Testament writers to make the connection between Jesus and the temple, he’s making Jesus a central theme in the Old Testament.
So, where do we find Jesus in the Old Testament? We find him everywhere.