Where Is Jesus before Matthew's Gospel?
One of the greatest challenges teachers face is to present Jesus Christ from the Old Testament. Our Savior’s presence, role, and activity are apparent and accessible in the New Testament, beginning with Matthew’s Gospel, continuing in Paul’s letters, and through Revelation. As a result, we tend to underutilize the first two-thirds of God’s Word in the Bible. My hope and prayer is that this blog will enable teachers to open up the Old Testament for themselves and their students.
Remember that Jesus Christ is the central figure throughout the Bible. He is not only most important, but also indispensable. Without Jesus, the Bible becomes nothing more than another long list of rules humanity could choose and try to fulfill in order to please God, or at least assuage His wrath. Christianity is unique among all world religions in that it presents a God who solves His created humanity’s problem at His own expense. All other religions involve some degree of works-righteousness.
Drawing Jesus out of the Old Testament corrects the false impression, from which many Christians suffer, that the Old Testament is all Law and the New Testament all Gospel. Perhaps you had a teacher or parent who, either intentionally or otherwise, presented and reinforced this idea: that from Genesis to Malachi all you will find is a stern, wrathful God who expects perfect behavior and offers nothing but rules and harsh punishment for those who step out of line, and from Matthew to Revelation there is nothing but sweet, gentle Jesus who overlooks sin and brings love, miracles, and the promise of everlasting life. This is too simple to be true. In reality, the entire Bible is a mixture of both Law and Gospel, and, as you will find, to a remarkably balanced degree.
You may be thinking, Sure that makes sense, but how do I go about finding Jesus in the Old Testament, let alone teaching Him? One place to begin is to read the Old Testament as a Christian. In other words, whether in Genesis, the Psalms, or Isaiah, ask yourself, Where is Jesus in what I am reading? Broadly speaking, the Old Testament is God’s billboard stating HERE COMES JESUS! Genesis to Deuteronomy is a record of God selecting the Israelites to be the nation from which He would send the Savior, Jesus Christ. Joshua to Esther presents God’s work to preserve the people of Israel amid internal strife and foreign enemies, despite their wicked disobedience and lukewarm worship. Isaiah through Malachi is God’s work to correct the Israelites and to comfort them with the promise of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ.
One specific strategy is to identify events and objects that point to Jesus in the Old Testament. Here are a few examples: In Exodus we read of God’s work to release the Old Testament Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God sent plagues to break Pharaoh’s will and to glorify Himself before both the Egyptians and Israelites. The final plague is the death of the firstborn. Recall that God taught the Israelites to wipe lamb’s blood on the lintel and doorposts. Seeing this blood, the Lord would pass over that house, leaving no death. Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. His blood covers us, and eternal death passes us over! In Numbers chapter twenty, God instructs Moses to tell the rock to bring up water for the thirsty Israelites traveling in the hot desert. In 1 Corinthians chapter ten, Paul connects the rock in the book of Numbers to Jesus Christ. Further, recall what flowed from Jesus’ side when He was pierced on the cross! There are many others: God provided manna for His people to eat in the desert, which points to Jesus as the Bread of life, His miracle of feeding the five thousand, and even Holy Communion. God instructed Moses to make a fiery serpent on a pole so that the disobedient, poisoned Israelites could look on it and live. Jesus was lifted up on a cross, that all who look to Him for salvation would live eternally.
A second strategy is to compare Jesus to figures in the Old Testament. Consider Moses. Both Moses and Jesus were preserved from death as infants. Moses was drawn from the water and raised to manhood despite Pharaoh’s edict to murder the Hebrew male babies. Jesus was drawn out of danger and taken to Egypt to thwart Herod’s order to kill all the boys two and under. Moses led the Israelites out of slavery and bondage in Egypt. Jesus leads us out of slavery to sin and death through His death and resurrection. Another is Joshua. Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land. Jesus leads us into heaven. God divided the Jordan River so that the people could safely cross and enter Canaan. Jesus opens heaven that His children may enter. A third example is Samson, the long-haired judge who brought the temple down on the Philistines in Judges chapter sixteen. Recall that Samson extended his arms to press the pillars. Similarly, Jesus extended His arms on the cross and died in order to crush sin and bring us forgiveness. What’s essential is to illustrate how these figures point to Christ while preserving the truth that Jesus alone is our Savior.
Here are a few practical ideas to get you started.
- Consider teaching the Old Testament as a yearlong unit. At the beginning of the year, start a wall chart, displaying the events of the Old Testament in chronological order. The craft element of each lesson could be adding a new portion to the chart. With each new section include a cross that will help the students associate Christ with each event.
- After you have presented a number of Old Testament events and connections to the New Testament, play a matching game on the chalk or dry-erase board. List the Old Testament events in one column and those of the New Testament on the other. Students work in teams to connect the events: blood on the lintel to blood on the cross, manna in the desert to feeding of the five thousand, etc.
- For younger students, consider a craft idea that highlights Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Present students with a simple picture of a lamb with sins listed inside: lying, stealing, foul language, etc. Then students glue cotton balls on top of each sin until they are all covered and the lamb is wholly wooly. Help students to see how Jesus is the Lamb who covers over our sins.
- As you consider verses you would like your students to memorize, consider verses from the Old Testament that highlight Christ. Further, have students memorize verses that highlight connections between the Old and New Testaments.
The Old Testament can be daunting. Don’t be discouraged. I pray that this brief introduction of ideas will be helpful. Most important, remember that God will work through you as you teach His Word. Before preparing a lesson or gathering ideas, reach out to your Heavenly Father in prayer. His Holy Spirit will guide your reading and preparations. God’s peace in Christ!