“How can I be saved?” A man asked Paul. His answer? “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). This is how we, in the age of the church, understand salvation. We follow Jesus.
So reading the Old Testament seems like jumping into a time machine. It’s like trying to imagine living without cell phones – how did our great-grandparents stay connected? We can’t fathom it. How did people know God before Jesus came? It feels just as foreign – or more so.
The answer actually begins with the names of the Old and New Testaments. The word “testament” means “covenant,” which is a historical term we’re not used to today. Covenants were legal agreements between allies. People would set up the stipulations of their agreement, and then each party would bring an animal from their herd and sacrifice them together as a visible sign of your agreement. Different variations of covenants existed but with similar patterns.
From the beginning of time, God chose to connect with mankind through various covenants. Most prominently, he made one with people before Christ, the “Old” Testament (covenant), defining how they would relate to him.
God gave Israel his law, recorded in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. He gave them many specific instructions about life all summed up in two big ones: Love him and love others. In return he promised to be their God, provide for their needs and give them abundant life. Those were the stipulations of their salvation agreement.
To seal the agreement, Israel sacrificed animals yearly. Why death? Why animals? Because God’s law also states that when people break the law, they cannot be forgiven unless blood is shed. Sinning separates man from God. Only death can pay for a broken agreement between God and man. We could physically die immediately when we sin, but we’d be dead by the time we reached our toddler years. God never wanted people to be separated from him, so he set up a system of substitution to save us.
God planned for Jesus to be the ultimate substitute. But until the time was right for Jesus to step into history, God wanted his people to think of animals as the substitute for their sins. When people sacrificed animals in the Old Testament, it was like they were using a debit card. Jesus’ future sacrifice was the money in the bank, so to speak, and by sacrificing animals, people swiped their card in faith that God would send a Savior to once and for all save them from their sins.
Every story in the Old Testament in some way points to Jesus. Israel waited for centuries to see God’s promised Deliverer to arrive. In the meantime, they obeyed his laws as much as they could, but ultimately their faith in God’s promise saved them. Paul wrote in Romans that God gave us the law to show us how on our own we struggle to keep our end of the agreement and need a savior. Today our Savior has come and we look back to how he died and rose again and believe he saves us. Before he came, people waited eagerly for his coming to save them.
Jesus told his disciples at the last supper, before his death, that he was establishing a New Covenant with them. His blood was the sign of the new promise. Animals would no longer need to be sacrificed because Jesus was going to become the once and for all substitute for sin. Hebrews 8:13 says that the new covenant makes the old one obsolete.
Think about it: if the blood of bulls or of goats, or the sprinkling of ashes from a heifer, restores the defiled to bodily cleanliness and wholeness; then how much more powerful is the blood of the Anointed One, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself as a spotless sacrifice to God, purifying your conscience from the dead things of the world to the service of the living God?
This is why Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant: through His death, He delivered us from the sins that we had built up under the first covenant, and His death has made it possible for all who are called to receive God’s promised inheritance.
Hebrews 9:13-15 The Voice
From beginning to end, our salvation has always come by faith in God. God started it, God worked it out, and God finishes it. We simply believe and follow him.