In What Did Old Testament Saints Believe?

daniel-mccullough-539577-unsplash.jpgIn discussions about salvation and interpretation of the Old Testament, two related questions are often asked.

  1. How were the Old Testament saints saved? Or, in whom or what did they believe?
  2. How much did the Old Testament know about the coming Christ?


Recently, in reading through The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher, I came across a succinct, if slightly archaic, answer to these questions. In conversation form, Fisher explains how the Old Testament saints beheld Christ through the types and shadows of the Law. In short, he answers that the salvation we possess is of a piece with those under the old covenant. There are not two ways of salvation, but one, as Hebrews 11 suggests.

The difference between Israel and the church (which is today composed of Jews and Gentiles) is less about how they are saved, but how they came to know the one savior, Jesus Christ the Son of God. The former saw Christ through a veil of old covenant shadows and types; the latter have seen him in the substance of his person and work, now proclaimed through the witnesses of his apostles.

As always, such questions require elongated consideration about the whole Bible. But for short answers, what follows helpfully explains how the Old Testament saints beheld Christ.

Antinomista: And, sir, do you think that these Israelites at this time did see Christ and salvation by him in these types and shadows?

Evangelista: Yes, there is no doubt but Moses and the rest of the believers among the Jews did see Christ in them, ‘For,’ says Tindal, ‘though all the sacrifices and ceremonies had a star-light of Christ, yet some of them had the light of the broad day, a little before the sun-rising’; and did express him, with the circumstances and virtue of his death, as plainly, as if his passion had been acted upon a scaffold: ‘Insomuch,’ says he, ‘that l am fully persuaded, and cannot but believe, that God had showed Moses the secrets of Christ, and the very manner of his death aforehand’; and, therefore, no doubt but that they offered their sacrifices by faith in the Messiah, as the apostle testifies of Abel (Heb. 11:4). I say, there is no question but every spiritual believing Jew, when he brought his sacrifice to be offered, and, according to the Lord’s command, laid his hands upon it whilst it was yet alive (Lev. 1:4), did, from his heart, acknowledge that he himself had deserved to die; but by the mercy of God he was saved,’ and his desert laid upon the beast [typically]; and as that beast was to die, and be offered in sacrifice for him, so did he believe that the Messiah should come and die for him, upon whom he put his hands, that is, laid all his iniquities by the hand of faith.”

So that, as Beza on Job 1 says, “The sacrifices were to them holy mysteries, in which, as in certain glasses, they did both see themselves to their own condemnation before God,’ and also beheld the mercy of God in the promised Messiah, in time to be exhibited’: ‘And therefore,’ says Calvin, ‘the sacrifices and satisfactory offerings were called Ashemoth, which word properly signifies sin itself, to show that Jesus Christ was to come and perform a perfect expiation, by giving his own soul to be an asham, that is, a satisfactory oblation’ (Institut. p. 239).

Wherefore, you may assure yourself, that as Christ was always set before the fathers in the Old Testament, to whom they might direct their faith, and as God never put them in hope of any grace or mercy, nor ever showed himself good unto them without Christ: even so the godly in the Old Testament knew Christ by whom they did enjoy these promises of God, and were joined to him. [To Christ, by faith.] And, indeed, the promise of salvation never stood firm till it came to Christ. And there was their comfort in all their troubles and distresses, according as it is said of Moses, “He endured as seeing him who is invisible, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, for he had respect to the recompense of reward (Heb. 11:26–7).

And so, as Ignatius says, the prophets were Christ’s servants, who, foreseeing him in spirit, both waited for him as their master, and looked for him as their Lord and Saviour, saying, ‘He shall come and save us.’

And so says Calvin, ‘So oft as the prophets speak of the blessedness of that faithful, the perfect image that they have painted thereof was such as might ravish men’s minds out of the earth, and of necessity raise them up to the consideration of the felicity of the life to come (Institut. p. 207); so that we may assuredly conclude, with Luther, that all the fathers, prophets, and holy kings, were righteous, and saved by faith in Christ to come; and so, indeed, as Calvin says, ‘were partakers of all one salvation with us’ (Institut. p. 198). (91–92)

If there is any weakness in this quotation, it is Fisher’s dependence on uninspired authors. That said, it perfectly matches the testimony of Scripture.

Seeing Christ: What the New Testament Says About Old Testament Saints

In the New Testament, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, and all the Prophets are said to have explicitly beheld Christ. Consider the testimonies about these patriarchs and prophets.


Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad. (John 8:56)

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8)


For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. (John 5:46)

He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (Hebrews 11:26)


For David says concerning him, “ ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken . . . ” (Acts 2:25 citing Psalm 16:8)


Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. (John 12:41, “these things refer to the quotations of Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10)

All the Prophets

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully,  inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10–12)

In addition to these passages are the countless New Testament passages that speak of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings anticipating the arrival of the messiah (see Luke 24:27, 44–49; John 1:45; 5:39; Acts 13:32–33; Hebrews 1:1–3). In other words, while the full corpus of understanding must await the Incarnation of Christ, the Old Testament saints perceived through types and shadows the coming of the one promised to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15).

In other words, these Old Testament believers knew a great deal more than they are sometimes credited. Therefore, to read the Old Testament as pointing to Christ—call it Christological, Christotelic, Christocentric—is not a fabrication overlaid on the text. It is the way the Bible teaches us to read, and the way the Old Testament saints, when they rightly perceived the purpose of the Law, also read.

Christ is the substance of the whole Bible. Thus, when questions come up about salvation or (Old Testament) interpretation, we should take great delight in showing how the whole Bible speaks of Christ. For as he himself told us, Scripture “bears witness about me” (John 5:39).

To that end, let us search the Scriptures and proclaim Christ from all the Scriptures, so that disciples of Christ might be made from all the nations.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash