Why I Am A Christian (#4): Old Testament Fulfilment (1): Genesis 22

Caravaggio, ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ (circa 1603). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Caravaggio, ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ (circa 1603). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

[Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11]

The Christian faith is not infrequently derided as irrational, delusional, fairyland. Though such arguments are sometimes made in an intellectually vigorous manner, I would argue that at least as often such arguments are made facilely, and without any proper understanding of what Christianity claims or teaches.

In spite of such attacks on the Christian faith (intellectually vigorous or otherwise), I remain a believing Christian, convinced of the truth of God’s revealed word, the Bible. In this series of eleven posts, I outline some of the reasons why I still find the Christian faith compelling and convincing.

Contents

Reason #4: Old Testament Fulfilment: Genesis 22

It remains the case that one of the most compelling arguments for the truth of the Christian faith is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.

“When we speak about Old Testament prophecy fulfilled, we are not merely speaking about the ‘Old Testament prophets’ in a formal sense — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, and the rest — but about all of the Old Testament writings pointing forward to, and being in some sense fulfilled in, Christ and the New Testament. So that even the historical narratives and the Old Testament’s Wisdom Literature are in some sense fulfilled thereby.”

Whatever skeptics may say about self-fulfilling prophecy, or about New Testament writers ‘re-interpreting’ the theological significance of events they saw in order to present them as fulfilled prophecy — and there is a certain validity to these arguments, since Old Testament foreshadowings and prophecies are frequently fulfilled in the New Testament (most usually in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ himself) in ways that are non-trivial to understand — it is still remarkable how comprehensively the Old Testament finds its fulfilment in the New.

Following the example of the New Testament writers themselves, Christians today when they read the Old Testament, are expectant of finding on every page events, sayings, songs, themes, ideas, or spoken and written prophecies which point forward to Jesus Christ.

And [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures [i.e., the Old Testament] the things concerning himself.
Luke 24:25-27[1]

And when we speak about Old Testament prophecy fulfilled, we are not merely speaking about the ‘Old Testament prophets’ in a formal sense — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, and the rest — but about all of the Old Testament writings pointing forward to, and being in some sense fulfilled in, Christ and the New Testament.

So that even the historical narratives in, say, Genesis or Numbers or 1 & 2 Kings, are in some sense fulfilled in Christ and in the New Testament.

Likewise, the Old Testament’s Wisdom Literature such as the books of Job and Proverbs are in some sense fulfilled in Christ and the New Testament.

The fulfilment of the Old Testament in the New is in some cases more obvious than in other cases, and so it behoves us to show a couple of examples of non-obvious fulfilments of the Old Testament in the New, according to the New Testament itself.

Two examples of non-trivial Old Testament fulfilment

“When he was forty years old, it came into [Moses’] heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarrelling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ But the man who was wronging his neighbour thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.”
Acts 7:23-29[2]

The above is part of Stephen’s long speech given in his defence when brought to trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. In it, Stephen refers to the account of Moses’ killing the Egyptian who was oppressing a Hebrew, and then later being told that his crime was known when he subsequently tried to resolve a dispute between two Hebrews (Exodus 2:11-15).

“What becomes clear as Stephen’s speech goes on — and comes to its forcefully delivered conclusion — is that he sees Moses in his being rejected by his own people as in some sense foreshadowing Christ.”

What becomes clear as Stephen’s speech goes on, and comes to its forcefully delivered conclusion wherein Stephen accuses the religious leaders of being a stiff-necked and spiritually uncircumcised people, is that he sees Moses here as in some sense foreshadowing Christ — that is, just as Moses was rejected by his fellow Hebrews, saying, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” (although he was later to become God’s appointed deliverer of the people out of Egypt), so now the Jewish people and especially the Jewish leaders have rejected their Messiah, saying as it were to him, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?”

We see from this how, rather than direct prophecy alone, the New Testament frequently expects to find both events and people of the Old Testament fulfilled in Christ.

A second and even less intuitive example can be found in Hebrews 13.[3]

In the Old Testament, the presence of God among his people is symbolized by the Tabernacle which God commanded the Israelites in the wilderness to build for him. Even more strongly is his presence symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant, the box of acacia wood overlaid with gold which lived in the holiest part of the Tabernacle. (Later the Tabernacle came to be replaced by the fixed, immoveable Temple. But the symbolism is the same.)

We see this at work very clearly in the law code of the Torah — especially the book of Leviticus — where the penalty for sin or for contracting some uncleanness is to be excluded from worship at the Tabernacle until the defilement has been cleansed (see, e.g., Leviticus 5:1-6).

“According to Hebrews chapter 13, where should we look for the Messiah’s final and everlasting sacrifice of atonement to take place? Should we look for it to take place in the temple? — No! we should look for it to take place outside the city walls, the place of all those who were rejected and despised by men. And so Christ’s rejection by the Jewish people outside the city walls, sets the pattern for the Christian life: we, too, as Christians, are to expect rejection and exclusion from the world.”

Christians (following the New Testament itself) view the death of Christ on the cross as the fulfilment of the Old Testament’s system of sacrifices and offerings, especially the burnt offering (Leviticus 1), the sin offering (Leviticus 4:1—5:13) and the guilt offering (Leviticus 5:14—6:7), and well as — supremely — the most solemn day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).

All these sacrifices and offerings took place in the Tabernacle (later the Temple). And yet, Christ’s death on the cross took place outside the city, on the hill known as Golgotha (or in Latin, Calvary) — “the place of the skull.”[4]

For the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, even the fact that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice outside the city and the temple, is a fulfilment of the Old Testament:

We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.
Hebrews 13:10-13[5]

According to this passage, where should we look for the Messiah’s final and everlasting sacrifice of atonement to take place? Should we look for it to take place in the temple? — No! we should look for it to take place outside the city walls, the place of all those who were rejected and despised by men.

For the writer of Hebrews, this is predicted in the Old Testament in the fact that the ashes of the sacrifices were taken outside the camp of Israel (later, the city Jerusalem), to be burned on the ash heap.

“There are two obvious responses we can make when we see the New Testament present us with this (counter-intuitive) kind of fulfilment of the Old Testament. Either we can say, ‘That’s not a fulfilment! That makes no sense!’ Or we can humbly admit that perhaps Jews in the first century had a richer, fuller way of reading the Old Testament than we have today.”

And so Christ’s rejection by the Jewish people outside the city walls, sets the pattern for the Christian life: we, too, as Christians, are to expect rejection and exclusion from the world.

For modern Westerners such examples of Old Testament fulfilment are quite hard for us to get our heads around. But it was quite natural to (certainly) Jews of the first century.

There are two obvious responses we can make when we see the New Testament present us with this kind of fulfilment of the Old Testament.

Either we can say, “That’s not a fulfilment! That makes no sense!”

Or we can humbly admit that perhaps Jews in the first century had a richer, fuller way of reading the Old Testament than we have today (with our modern insistence on everything being empirical and obvious); and let the writings of the earliest Christians shape how we understand Old Testament fulfilment.

I would respectfully venture that the kingdom of God is for those who are humble enough to adopt the latter position.

An example of the Old Testament fulfilled: Genesis 22

“After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.”

Genesis 22:1-3

Having briefly examined a couple of tricky examples of how the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New, let us now consider a far more obvious and striking example.

I can remember the first time I read this passage, aged twenty and having been a believing Christian for considerably less than a year.

At this stage in my Christian faith, I already knew that the New Testament views Christ’s death on the cross as his great sacrifice of atonement:—

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
John 1:29[6]

For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
1 Corinthians 5:7[7]

And then I came to the passage, Genesis 22, in which God calls on Abraham to make the supreme sacrifice, to offer up his own son Isaac as a sacrifice to him:—

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.
Genesis 22:1-3[8]

And again, a little farther on:—

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
Genesis 22:7-8[9]

Reading this as a new Christian was astonishing.

The book of Genesis reached its current form at least hundreds of years (if not around a thousand) before the birth of Jesus. And here is Abraham called to offer up his son to God, saying to his son, “God will provide the lamb for the offering, my son.”

“From a Christian viewpoint, what’s going on in Genesis 22 is that Abraham and Isaac are prefiguring the central event of the New Testament (indeed, of human history) — the cross. Thus, Abraham ‘stands for’ God the Father (a point reinforced by Scripture’s frequent references to ‘father Abraham’), and Isaac stands for Jesus — the only-begotten Son of God.”

Before anyone cavils at the notion that the Judeo-Christian God demands human sacrifice, he actually spared Abraham from going ahead with the fateful deed. The point of the demand was not to see Isaac sacrificed to God, but to see whether Abraham truly trusted God in any and every situation. And indeed, later on the Old Testament, God makes it repeatedly and abundantly clear that he detests human sacrifice (e.g., Jeremiah 32:35).

Now from a Christian viewpoint, what’s going on in this incident is that Abraham and Isaac are prefiguring the central event of the New Testament (indeed, of human history) — the cross.

So Abraham ‘stands for’ God the Father (a point reinforced by Scripture’s frequent references to “father Abraham,” e.g., Luke 16:24; Romans 4:12), and Isaac stands for Jesus — the only-begotten Son of God.

And so Abraham and Isaac are acting out in advance — except only without dealing the final blow — the voluntary offering of Jesus on the cross as a sacrifice of atonement to God the Father.

Isaac in the Genesis account even appears to be willing to be sacrificed by his father (Genesis 22:7-10).

“Nearly two thousand years after this incident, God did provide the lamb for the offering — ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,’ Jesus Christ.”

And when Abraham tells his son, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” this also is remarkable. For one day, nearly two thousand years after this incident, God did provide the lamb for the offering — “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” Jesus Christ.

The parallels here between one of the earliest stories in the Old Testament, and the death of Jesus, are astonishing.

And this is another major reason why I find the Scriptures, and the Christian faith, so convincing.

As I said earlier, however much skeptics may sneer at Old Testament fulfilment, it remains the case that the way the Old Testament finds its fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth and in the events of the New Testament, is remarkable. It is almost as if God spent thousands of years causing the Old Testament to be written as a job description for Jesus the Messiah.

*        *        *

In the next instalment in this series, I will examine another remarkable Old Testament passage which finds its clear fulfilment in Jesus: Psalm 22.

 

[Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11]

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+24%3A25-27&version=ESVUK

[2] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+7%3A23-29&version=ESVUK

[3] Despite the name, Hebrews — or the Letter to the Hebrews, to give it its full title — is actually a New Testament book.

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+19%3A17%3B+Luke+23%3A33&version=ESVUK

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Hebrews+13%3A10-13&version=ESVUK

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A29&version=ESVUK

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+5%3A7&version=ESVUK

[8] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+22%3A1-3&version=ESVUK

[9] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+22%3A7-8&version=ESVUK

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