Today, I want to talk focus on the Bible and its principal message, because after Jesus’ resurrection, over a meal of fish, Jesus tells his disciples: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:36-49).
The Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms or Writings. The Jews divided their Scriptures into these three parts.
Let’s talk about the first part. The “Law of Moses” is also known as the Pentateuch, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
In Genesis, the creation of the world is recorded, along with humanity’s fall into sin and the introduction of sin, decay, and death into God’s good creation. Genesis also covers the period of God’s calling together a people for Himself centered around a promised Savior; God forms the Church around the promise of the coming Christ. So, in the Church there is, for example, Adam and Eve, then Seth, then his descendants down to Noah, then ultimately Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then, Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, who go down to Egypt to live there and are eventually enslaved. Along with them in the Church is everyone who has faith in God’s promise of salvation through the coming Savior, the Christ or Messiah (i.e. the “anointed one”).
Then, Exodus covers the period of God redeeming His people from slavery as He brings them up out of Egypt. And in light of what He does for them, He gives them His Law, the Ten Commandments, by which they may live in the light of the grace He has given them in redeeming them.
Then, Leviticus covers the priestly and ceremonial laws by which the people of Israel may be kept distinct from the surrounding nations and through which God may continue to dwell with them, bestowing His presence and blessings upon them.
Then, Numbers includes the tally of all those in the “congregation of Israel,” the Old Testament Church.
Finally, in Deuteronomy, meaning “second law,” Moses recounts to the people of Israel their history and God’s saving actions for them as they prepare to enter into the promised land. They are reminded of who they are and what God has done for them.
So, the Law of Moses – these first five books – is the foundation. But, it is not the end. For after Moses finishes his recounting in Deuteronomy, he is allowed to gaze upon the promised land, but cannot enter. His work is done, so he dies and the Lord Himself buries him. The Law has led up to the promised land, but does not lead into it.
So, the books of the Prophets begin, starting with Joshua (“Yeshua” in the Hebrew). He succeeded Moses and brought the people into the promised land across the waters of the Jordan. This Joshua, meaning “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation,” does what Moses and the Law could not, which is bring the people into the land which God had prepared for them. But, Joshua again is not the end, he is only pointing to something greater. Moses himself had told the people, in Deuteronomy 18: “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.”
And then, the rest of the Prophets and the Psalms and the Writings of the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to the coming of this one who was promised. St. Peter quoted from this verse from Moses in Deuteronomy and said that “… all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days” (Acts 3:11-21). Peter’s point is that the prophets were pointing to the coming of the Christ, and these days have been fulfilled in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who is the Christ.
“[W]hat God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled;” this is what Peter tells his hearers. But, this isn’t something that Peter discovered for himself. He didn’t deduce this; rather, it was revealed to him. Jesus himself, when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, “… opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:36-49).
Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, that is to say the Old Testament at that time. The Scriptures only make sense in light of Jesus Christ, because they testify to him. Trying to understand the Bible without recognizing that it is pointing to Jesus is like trying to read a map without grid lines or without a North marker. Jesus is the marker; he’s what the Scriptures are oriented around, all roads lead to him.
Jesus also promised the disciples that he would send them the promise of his Father upon them, and told them to stay in the city until they are clothed with power from on high. This clothing with power would come later on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples, enabling them to fulfill the commission given them by Jesus to be his witnesses. And you see this in Acts 3 as Peter proclaims Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of all of the Hebrew Scriptures: of the Law, and the Prophets, and the Psalms. All of these Scriptures are pointing to Jesus, because He is the Good News, the fulfillment of God’s promises.
In addition – going back to the topic of the Bible – all of Scripture can be divided into either Law or into Gospel and both cut across both Old and New Testaments. The Law is anything that commands or requires obedience; in doing so, it accuses us of sin, because we cannot live up to God’s holy will for us. So, when God says that we must love him with our whole heart, soul, and mind – this is the first three commandments – and love our neighbor as ourself – this is the last seven commandments, we see our sin. We see that we love ourselves above all things. So, the Law commands, and in its commands it also condemns, and no one is ever saved through works of the Law.
The Gospel, though, is God’s promise of the forgiveness of sins that is given through Christ. The Gospel, strictly speaking, does not command or require anything of us; it is simply a gift. Through His Word of Gospel, God shows us our Savior and gives him to us so that we may be saved.
And this working of Law and Gospel has been the way God has dealt with humanity since Adam and Eve. God has always justified sinful humanity in his sight by His promise of the forgiveness of sins given freely to us on account of Christ. The Scriptures, Old Testament and New, are centered around Jesus Christ and the salvation that is found only in Him which comes to us purely on account of the love of our gracious God.
So, you see, God did not save the people of the Old Testament through the Law and the people of the New Testament through the Gospel. This is a common misunderstanding. The truth, rather, is that Law and Gospel are found throughout the Scriptures as they convict sin (the Law) and reveal God’s grace given through the Christ (the Gospel). You see the two tied together both in Jesus’ statement today and in Peter’s. Jesus says that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name.” Repentance comes about through the Law, and forgiveness of sins comes about through the Gospel. And Peter tells his hearers, “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out…” Again, you have the repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
Maybe stated another way, Old Testament Israel is the Church, God’s people centered around the Christ who was to come, just as the New Testament Church is Israel, God’s people centered around the Christ who has come. Christ is the center and foundation of the Church’s faith, in both the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament Church looked forward to his coming, while the New looks back to his arrival as well as his continual presence among the Church through Word and Sacrament “… until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago,” that is, until Christ’s return (Acts 3:21).
There are many prophecies in the Old Testament that point to the coming Christ, and there are many things which are a type of Christ, demonstrating what he would do and be, but going into all of them is beyond the present scope. The point, though, is that this was and is the purpose of the Old Testament: to point people to the coming Christ and to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in his name.
So, things in the Old Testament like the prophet, priest, and king Melchizedek pointed to Jesus as the true, ultimate prophet, priest, and king. Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac pointed to Jesus as the Son of God and as the Lamb being sacrificed for us. Moses in the book of Numbers raising up the staff with the bronze serpent to save those being bitten for their sins pointed to Jesus and his being raised up on the cross for our salvation, and his defeat of sin and death and the serpent Satan. The Temple where God dwelt in the Old Testament pointed to the coming of Jesus as Immanuel, or “God with us,” as the one through whom God dwells with us in the New Testament. The blood sacrifices in the Temple by the High Priest pointed to Jesus as the ultimate High Priest who offered his own blood to atone for our sins.
All of these things pointed to Jesus Christ, the true “Yahweh who saves” who is bringing us into the promised land of the restored creation of the new heavens and new earth. And once our minds are opened by the Holy Spirit to understand the Scriptures, we see Jesus throughout the Old Testament. We see him as the one in whom God’s promises are fulfilled. We see him in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms, and we see in the New Testament that Jesus has fulfilled all that is written in them and that he is returning to complete what he started. If you don’t see all this yet, keep reading the Bible with an open mind and pray that God would open it for you to see Jesus the Christ there.
For, Jesus Christ is the one in whom you have the forgiveness of sins. God promised you a Savior, and He fulfilled His promise. And so your sins are forgiven freely on account of the Christ who has come and who will come again on the Last Day to restore all things. Amen.
(Image: An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments. By Hans Holbein, 1530 – 0gH2qqi0RXigxw at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21865668 )