As Catholics, we’re often taught to read the Old Testament in light of the New. Jesus is the center of Scripture, so everything in it ultimately points to him even if it’s not explicitly about him. For example, various people and events in the history of Israel foreshadow Jesus and his saving death and resurrection. In this way, we can read the Old Testament through the lens of the New, thereby reading the entire Bible as a Christian book.
However, the inverse is true as well: we should also read the New Testament in light of the Old. See, the Bible is essentially one continuous narrative stretching all the way from creation in Genesis to the new creation in Revelation, and the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the climax of that story. Consequently, if we don’t know what came before him, we won’t be able to fully understand his role in God’s plan of salvation. If we don’t know the story that he came to complete, we’re inevitably going to distort his mission. Simply put, we can’t fully understand the New Testament without understanding the Old. With that in mind, let’s take a brief look at the story of the Old Testament and see how it sheds light on Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels.
The Beginning of Our Salvation
The Bible opens with God’s creation of the entire world (Genesis 1-2). He made everything in heaven and on earth, and these opening chapters tell us that in the beginning, everything was just as it should be (Genesis 1:31). Unfortunately, this paradise didn’t last long, as Adam and Eve disobeyed God and committed the world’s first sin, spoiling the good creation he had made for them (Genesis 3:1-24). Throughout the next several generations, mankind descended deeper and deeper into sin, and there seemed to be no stopping this downward spiral (Genesis 4-11).
However, God had other plans. He called a man named Abraham (at this point he was just known as Abram, but God would later change his name to Abraham, the name by which most people know him) and promised to bless the entire human race through him (Genesis 12:1-3), and St. Paul tells us that this was a foretelling of the Gospel (Galatians 3:8). In other words, this promised blessing was in fact the salvation that Jesus would one day win for us. God later clarified that it would come through Abraham’s descendants, not through Abraham himself (Genesis 22:18), and he reiterated the promise to Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 26:4) and to Isaac’s son Jacob (Genesis 28:14). This is important because Jacob had twelve sons, and those sons became the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
This tells us why God chose Israel as his special people in the Old Testament. He chose them not because he loved them more than anyone else but rather because they were supposed to be his instruments to save mankind and reverse the sin of Adam and Eve along with all its consequences. Simply put, he chose them for the sake of the other nations, not to the exclusion of those nations.
The Problem with God’s Plan
However, God’s plan hit a little snag. The Israelites proved to be just as sinful as the rest of humanity, so they failed to live up to their calling. They were supposed to evangelize the other nations and bring them back to the one true God, but they instead let the other nations corrupt them and lead them to worship false gods. Things eventually got so bad that God punished them by letting them be conquered and exiled away from their land (2 Kings 17:7-23, 24:20, 25:21), and only a small portion of the people ever returned. Most of the twelve tribes remained in exile and eventually became assimilated into the nations among whom they were scattered, and only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin along with a few from some of the others were left (Ezra 1:1-12).
In response to this, the prophets foretold a day when God would finally end his people’s punishment and restore their nation. For example, they said that God would reunite the twelve tribes (Isaiah 11:11-12, Ezekiel 37:21-22), that he would raise up a new descendant of King David to rule over them (Hosea 3:4-5, Jeremiah 33:14-21), and that the Gentiles (non-Israelites) would join Israel in worshipping the one true God (Micah 4:1-4, Zephaniah 3:9-10). As a result, God now had two sets of promises to keep: he had to restore the nation of Israel, and he had to use that restored nation to save the rest of mankind.
Jesus’ Role in God’s Plan
In the first century, these prophecies hadn’t come true yet, so the Jews were anxiously awaiting their fulfillment and the restoration of their nation. This is where Jesus comes into the picture. People today tend to think that he preached a vague, generic salvation for the entire human race, but that’s not true. Rather, he came to save mankind by first restoring Israel, and the Gospels give us several indications of this.
First, his role as Messiah implies this. In first century Judaism, the Messiah was expected to restore Israel, not save the world (although many people believed that the restoration of Israel would entail the salvation of the Gentiles as well, just as the prophets had said), so if Jesus was the Messiah, he must have come to restore the nation. Secondly, the Gospel of Luke tells us that he came to fulfill the people’s hope for the restoration of Israel (Luke 2:25-32, 38). Thirdly, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus limited his ministry to the Jews (Matthew 15:24), a detail that doesn’t make too much sense if he came simply to save the world. However, if he came to save the world by restoring Israel first, it makes perfect sense. Finally, Jesus fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel. For example, he was the new descendant of King David destined to sit on the throne of his ancestors (Luke 1:32-33); his choice of twelve Apostles symbolized that he had come to reunite the twelve tribes of Israel; and after his death and resurrection, the Gospel would be spread to the Gentiles so they too could worship the one true God.
Now, this raises an obvious question for us: how did the restoration of Israel lead to the redemption of the entire human race? To answer this question, we need to pay close attention to the way the story works out. Jesus’ death and resurrection redeemed all of humanity, but that redemption was given to the Jews first (remember, the first Christians were all Jews). During his earthly ministry, he gathered around himself a faithful remnant of Jews, and when that remnant received the salvation he won for them, they became the restored Israel. Afterwards, they went out to preach the Gospel and bring the saving benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the rest of the world, thereby fulfilling the vocation that Israel had from the beginning. In this way, God was able to keep all of his promises from the Old Testament. He fulfilled his promise to restore Israel, and he then used the restored Israel to fulfill his promise to bless and save the world through the descendants of Abraham.
The Importance of the Old Testament
Once we understand all this, we begin see that the Old Testament is much more important than we often realize. It’s not just an optional prologue to the New Testament. Rather, it’s the key to understanding the mission of Jesus, and without it, we’re inevitably going to misconstrue his role in God’s plan of salvation. His ministry, death, and resurrection brought the story of Israel to its intended climax, so we have to know that story to fully understand what he accomplished.