Sunday, January 20, 2008

How were Old Testament People Saved?

A friend of mine wrote to me this question:

So, I had an interesting debate with my boss at work. It started when another co-worker (an older man) said he was confused about how people who lived and died before Christ came, could accept Christ if they did not know him. (Basically, how could they be offered salvation?) I said, "Ooh, I know the answer", but my boss ignored me and began to explain that God's chosen people, the Israelites, because of offering sacrifices for their atonement of sins, and those who obeyed God were actually accepting Christ (inadvertently) because God and Jesus are the same. (I hope you are thinking the same thing I am) So I said, wait a minute; the only way to God is through Jesus. The Jews were not redeemed through sacrifices, there sins were just covered. They did not recognize Christ when he did come so how could they have accepted him before? My boss insisted on his view and asked me what I thought. I said, the bible says the gospel was preached to those who already dead. I did not the verses so I had to bring them in today. My dad helped me find them, and my boss just had an excuse for how they did not mean what they said. Next time you're over I'd love to hear what you think of them. I think they are; John 5:24-25, 28-29; I Peter 3:18-20.

Here was my response:

This is a difficult question.

You are definitely right about the Jews not being redeemed through animal sacrifices. (Hebrews 10:1-4) That is the easy part to answer. Also, they were not redeemed by circumcision (Romans 2:25-29) or anything else like that.

One might interpret John 5:28-29 to mean the resurrection of the dead (at the second coming), but John 5:24-25 clearly says that the time “has now come”. So it sounds like you’re right about the gospel being heard by the dead. But was this necessary for their salvation? What about Matthew 27:52-53? Hmmm…

It is interesting that you mentioned I Peter 3:18-20. We are on this very passage in my Sunday school class. So I decided to bring up the question you asked in today’s class. I think this passage is talking about wicked people (or angels or some other beings), not righteous people from the OT (since it says that they were disobedient).

1 Peter 4:6 (KJV) says, “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” The NIV says, “those who are now dead”. The NIV Study Bible notes say that the Greek word for now is not there, but the word “now” was added so that people wouldn’t get the false impression that this passage is saying that they were dead when they were being preached to. Hmmm…

Some people in my Sunday school class have said that they believe that no one has any consciousness between the time they die and the time of their (bodily) resurrection. If this were the case, then what you are saying would be impossible. But I have always taught that this isn’t the case. (See Luke 16:19-31, Revelation 6:9-11.) I have considered the possibly that passages like John 6:48-51, 8:51-53 could be teaching that people who died in the OT were unconscious, but gained consciousness in the NT (John 5:24-25). Hmmm…

We were always taught that no one could be saved after physical death (at least this is what I think I was lead to believe when I was a kid). Consider the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13; the falling asleep represents death and the awakening represents resurrection?). The NIV Study Bible says that Hebrews 9:27 is also proof of this, but I don’t really see it in that verse. This brings up another difficult question—if people from the OT could accept the gospel after they died, then what about people living today who have never heard of Christ?

I agree with you that a person can’t be saved just by believing in God without also believing in Jesus. But people in the OT did know some things about Christ through the prophets. I think Isaiah 53 says enough that anyone from the OT who believes it (along with verses about repentance) has accepted Christ, even though they did not have the full understanding that we do today. The book of Isaiah is sometimes called “the fifth gospel”. It may seem unlikely to us that people who lived before Isaiah 53 was written or before David’s psalms were written could have had a good enough understanding. But look at John 8:56! Hebrews 11:13-16 says that they had not received the promises, but were persuaded of them and embraced them. There are, of course, numerous examples of teaching about Christ in the OT going all of the way back to Adam and Eve.

God spoke to Abraham about his “seed” who is Christ (Galatians 3:16). Romans 4:9-12 says that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness before he was circumcised. And it says that he is the father of all who believe (both circumcised and uncircumcised) because they walk in the footsteps of the faith that he had before he was circumcised. James 2:20-24 indicates that Abraham was considered righteous (:21), was justified (:24), and his faith was made complete (:22) by what he did (offering his son Isaac on the altar (:21)).

2 Corinthians 3:12-16 indicates that the reason why the Jews did not understand was because of the hardness of their hearts, not because there was not enough revelation. But to some extent, God does judge people by what they know (Luke 12:47-48).

I think this question is like a puzzle with a thousand pieces. I’m sure the Bible has a lot more to say about this, and you could get a better picture of this the more you study it. I would say that it all boils down to knowing and trusting in the real God (which must include Jesus).

Thanks for the interesting question,


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