12 Questions Christians Ask about the Old Testament: Part One

Remember: God made the world a good place where we could know Him and He could bless us, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world. So God chose one person, Abraham, from whom He made a nation, Israel, so that through this one nation He would save all nations. The Old Testament is their story, the story of God preparing this people so that He could become a human being by being born to a woman of Israel. He did this in order to become the Savior and King of the whole human race, fulfilling His original intention for us to know Him and be blessed by Him.

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back

Last time we looked at covenants and saw how they connect the Old Testament to the New Testament. We also saw how understanding your relationship to a particular covenant has a huge impact on how you understand what God wrote to and for people under that covenant. This time we will look at some questions Christians often ask when reading the Old Testament.

When Christians read the Old Testament, there are several questions which naturally come to mind for various reasons. These are questions like, “How were people saved in the Old Testament?” “What were the animal sacrifices for?” “Don’t scholars say the Old Testament is unreliable?” “Didn’t Jesus disagree with the Old Testament?” “Did people have the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament” and “Why are there Weird Laws in the Old Testament?” I will deal with these now.

How were People Saved in the Old Testament?

I remember the first time I heard this question answered in a way I understood. The answer I heard was that just as we are now saved by believing that Jesus came and died for our sins, people before Christ were saved by believing that He would come and die for their sins. This is a common answer because it is very easy to fit into our understanding of salvation. I held on to that answer for years until I realized that it doesn’t have the advantage of being true. It’s easy to use because it basically makes Old Testament salvation identical to whatever we perceive as New Testament salvation and doesn’t challenge us in any way.

One thing we should notice is that the Old Testament doesn’t talk about “being saved,” in the sense of going to heaven when we die, very much at all. One reason for this is that people didn’t know much about the afterlife because God had told them nothing about it. They assumed that it was a gray, dusty place where the dead had a kind of twilight existence. Life was something lived now and what was important was that God was faithful to be with them through it all, especially when things were hard. What Old Testament believers did was to trust God, to keep growing in their knowledge of Him, and to try to obey Him.

So, were people in the Old Testament “saved” in the same sense we can be and if so, how? Here are some passages. One of the most famous places we see salvation in the Old Testament is Genesis 15:6, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (NIV). There is also Joel 2:32, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (ESV). Paul quotes these to show that people were saved in the Old Testament by faith, just as in the New (Rm. 4:1-5; Rm. 10:13-14; Gal. 3:5-7). These are good theological verses on salvation because they say a lot in a small space, but they are not the primary way we see salvation in the Old Testament. Old Testament salvation is shown in longer passages in which God speaks or people speak of God.

Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-7 [God is speaking in the first section]

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;”

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (ESV)

Isaiah 44:22

I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. (NIV)

Isaiah 45:22

Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other. (ESV)

Micah 7:18-19

18 Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.
19 You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (NIV)

Many other passages besides these contain accounts of salvation. For example, Rahab and Naaman were both pagan gentiles who professed faith in the God of Israel. That is, they transferred their allegiance to the God of Israel. These are both presented as instances of conversion. Does this mean that they went to Paradise? Did they know that heaven awaited them? The short answers to these questions are, “Yes, they did go to Paradise,” and “They probably didn’t know it because they knew so little of the afterlife.” The main immediate effect was that they began to have a living relationship with God, which resulted in a changed life in the present world.

People in the Old Testament didn’t know much about what would happen after they died, but they did know that if they trusted God, they would be okay. It is like my friend who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and told another patient in the mental hospital, “I don’t have answers, but I do know that holding on to God is the way through this.” Psalm 49 reflects this type of strong faith which was not as informed as is ours. After writing about how foolish people who trust in riches will go down to Sheol (the place of the dead or the grave), “But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
he will surely take me to himself” (NIV). An Old Testament believer who reflected on the mercies of God could see that since His mercies are without end, they would not end at death, even if they don’t have more information than that.

In the Old Testament, God tells people to trust Him – trust Him to take care of their daily needs, trust Him to protect them from terrible dangers, trust Him with every part of their lives. Those that did trust Him found that He is trustworthy. He did take care of them. They found that when they trusted in God, He also put peace in their hearts. This Old Testament foundation is why Jesus in His teachings can assume that God is trustworthy and that His hearers know it. Jesus’ original hearers had read or heard the Old Testament which is filled with testimonies of God’s faithfulness in the real world.

Jesus taught on Old Testament salvation indirectly when he addressed the subject of resurrection. He said, “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:26-27 ESV). Do you see the assumption he makes? The Lord was Abraham’s God, and, therefore he will always be Abraham’s God. Death will not end this fact. But how was the Lord Abraham’s God? It’s very simple; he had Abraham’s allegiance. Abraham trusted God; entrusted himself to God.

If you live in relationship with God, this will never end because God doesn’t want it to. Would anyone who has a loving and healthy relationship with another person ever say, “I want them to die and go away”? The only times this happens is perhaps when the one we love is suffering; but if we could end their suffering and have them back, then we would do it in an instant. This is even true of beloved pets, how much more people God loved enough to die for? What is true of Abraham is true of everyone before Christ. If the Lord was their God, then He is still their God or, in our terms, they’re saved. As Jesus said, “To Him they are alive” (Luke 20:38 paraphrase).

In summary, in the Old Testament, people related to God by faith and were given righteousness as a gift based on their faith in God, not their acceptance of something they were told about God, but by trusting Him, giving Him their allegiance, entrusting themselves to Him.

What were Animal Sacrifices for?

You may wonder about the role of animal sacrifices. Didn’t people have to make blood sacrifices in order to be forgiven? Clearly, people offered animal sacrifices. In fact, God gave Israel a religious system that included animal sacrifice in a prominent place. If you committed certain sins, you would have to offer a sacrifice in order to be forgiven. So did you have to offer a blood sacrifice every time you sinned in order to be forgiven? No, you did not.

Remember that Israel’s covenant with the Lord was unique because it meant that this nation alone could be certain that they were acceptable to God and had the favor of God. Their instructions spelled out very clearly what the nation had to do in order to maintain this relationship and what individuals had to do to have access to God. These requirements included sacrifices. If you read carefully, then you will see that there were no sacrifices for the forgiveness of serious, deliberate sin. If you intentionally sinned, then your only hope was to confess it, hurl yourself on God’s mercy and hope he forgave you. The overwhelming testimony we see from those who do this is that God forgives everyone who confesses his or her sins to Him. To be forgiven, you just have to ask. We see this in Ps. 51, which is a whole psalm confessing sin and asking for forgiveness. The author, King David, says:

For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. (Ps. 51:16-17 NASB)

In the Old Testament, they did not bring sacrifices in order to be forgiven. God even says that he rejects the sacrifices of people whose hearts are not right.

22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:22, 24 NIV)

What God was looking for was a genuinely contrite heart, a heart that seeks God’s way, the way of righteousness, and not its own way. David also wrote about another time he had sinned.

1 Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them

and in whose spirit is no deceit.

3 When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

6 Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
will not reach them.
7 You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance. (Ps. 32:1-7 NIV)

So people who brought sacrifices with an unrepentant heart were not forgiven, and people who repented, but did not bring a sacrifice were forgiven, though bringing a sacrifice would be the natural result of a repentant heart. It seems that what actually brought forgiveness was a matter of the heart, not an external action.

Under the Mosaic covenant the sacrifices were a way of maintaining your relationship with God, but what actually brought forgiveness was confession to God (see v. 5 above). No animal sacrifice has ever been the means of forgiveness. When the author of Hebrews wrote, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4 NASB) he was not introducing a brand new idea. The idea is clearly stated in the Old Testament prophets. Before the Mosaic covenant people such as Noah and Abraham offered blood sacrifices to God for various reasons, but one reason they did not do it was to earn God’s forgiveness. Perhaps we should think of it as a very serious way to either express thanksgiving or repentance, though buried in this custom was a powerful sign pointing towards the eventual sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, for the sins of the world. They, however, did not know this.

If we need an analogy, the sacrifices were something like confession of sin today. Nowadays, a Christian that has sinned needs to confess it, to agree that it was sin, in order to maintain a right relationship with God (1 Jn. 1:9). When we don’t do this, we are either like Adam, hiding in the garden, or Jonah, running from God. Neither of these people were relating to God at these times, and neither are we when we refuse to admit that we sinned.

Name Famous stories and people
Foundations Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood
Family Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph
Fulfillment and Failure Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth
Kings Saul, David, Solomon
Kingdoms Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah
Kicked Out Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace
Came Back Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure

King – Kingdoms

Kicked Out – Came Back


Questions for Discussion

  1. How would you describe how an Old Testament believer perceived salvation?
  2. How does reflecting on Old Testament salvation effect how you perceive your own life now? Your own salvation?
  3. Could you explain why it makes sense that all who are in a relationship with God will live forever?
  4. Romans 12:1 In what way are we to be a sacrifice today? What was a sacrifice and how is 12:1 like it? Discuss what it means to present ourselves as a sacrifice?
  5. If God does not hold us guilty of sin because of the sacrifice of Jesus (Heb. 10:10-14), why is it important to confess our sins?

Lesson Eleven

Lesson Thirteen