Rev. Mark Buetow
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel...Thou Wisdom from on high...Thou Lord of Might... Thou Branch of Jesse’s tree...Thou Key of David...Thou Dayspring...Desire of nations.
In that familiar Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (LSB 357), we see the hope and heart of the Old Testament. What is the Old Testament about? It’s about Jesus: Genesis with its stories of the creation and the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Exodus and the Red Sea; the Law written on stone tablets; the Promised Land, Judges, King David, the prophets, all of it. From the very first promise of a Savior to Adam and Eve (“He will crush the serpent’s head!” Genesis 3:15) to the very closing pages of the last prophet (“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet.” Malachi 4:5), the Old Testament is pointing to Jesus, for in it we see God’s repeated promise of a Savior who would be born of a woman, suffer and die for our sins and rise again.
A pastor was leading a Bible Study on the book of Judges. One of the people asked, “Why are we studying the Old Testament?” It’s as if now that Jesus has come, we don’t have to learn all of that stuff that happened back then. But the answer to that question is given by Jesus Himself, to His enemies and to His disciples. To the Jews, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” (John 5:39). After His resurrection, Jesus explains it to His disciples on the Emmaus road: “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). When we say that the Old Testament is about Jesus, we’re not just making that up. Jesus Himself tells us that!
So why is this important? Everyone reads the Old Testament and gets different things out of it. Many so-called Christians read the Old Testament merely as examples of good or bad behavior. Others read it as the definitive treatise on everything, even though clearly the Bible doesn’t address every topic. A good example of this is trying to reconcile science and the Bible. The Bible is God’s Word but that does not make it a science textbook. The Bible was not written to refute the theory of evolution. Others read the Old Testament as a merely made-up record explaining how monotheistic (one God) religion developed. Some people read it only as great literature. Still others use the Old Testament as proof that religion is silly and false, pointing to a God who kills so many people and plays favorites with His chosen tribes. People can read the Old Testament and get pretty much whatever they want out of it; that’s because they’re reading it through the wrong lens.
The Old Testament is about Jesus. It answers the question of where our sin comes from and what God is going to do about it. The Old Testament, when we read it as Christ teaches us and as the Spirit enlightens us, opens the eyes of faith to see a God who is a “right there” God—a God who shows up in certain places. And He doesn’t come just to kill but to give life. All of the appearances of God in the Old Testament, whether in burning bushes, or pillars of fire, the beautiful tabernacle or the preaching of the prophets, are teaching His people: God shows up where He says He is going to show up. And all of these lead up to God finally coming in the flesh, as a man, when Jesus is conceived in Mary’s womb and born into this world.
Christmas is proof that God keeps His promises. Through all those centuries, the Lord remembered that sinners need saving and in “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4) He sent His Son to be born under the Law for us, to grow up and keep the Law for us, to suffer and die under the curse of the Law for us, and to rise from the dead for us, too. We know the Scriptures are true because Jesus was alive on Easter. His tomb was empty. He did what He said He would do. And if what He said about that is true, then what He says about the Old Testament is true, too: It’s all about Him.
Since the birth of Jesus on Christmas is the proof that God keeps His promises, there is something else to learn. We are reminded and taught that the church didn’t begin with us or our grandparents. It didn’t begin with Martin Luther. It didn’t even begin with Jesus and the Apostles. No, God’s people, our brothers and sisters who trusted in this promise, go all the way back to Adam and Eve. We believe in Jesus who died and rose. The people of the Old Testament believed in the Savior who was to come. Same Savior! They just didn’t know all the details. So the Lord continually reminded them and pointed them to this Savior who would arrive someday. They sang of Emmanuel (“God with us”) and the Branch of Jesse’s tree, that is, the one from King David’s line. They knew. The Spirit called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified them in Jesus, too, although they fell asleep before they could witness it.
When you read the Old Testament, ask this question: “What is this telling me about Jesus? Where is Jesus in these verses?” Jesus didn’t just show up when He was born. The Son was always with His people. But now, in these last days, He has come in the flesh so that we can behold His face. Now, the promise is complete in Jesus. All that remains is for Him to come again and bring His saints of all times and places together into His everlasting paradise.
The Old Testament is important because it’s about Jesus! This is why the church today still sings songs of the Old Testament in her liturgy. The words of the Psalms speak the voice of Jesus into our ears. And, in order that we understand what we hear in the New Testament, the Spirit teaches us the Old Testament, which is about Jesus.
So rejoice, Israel! Rejoice, church! Rejoice, because Emmanuel was coming and has come and is still “God with us.” Jesus in the flesh is the Savior of sinners. He is the Savior of sinners back then, sinners right now, and sinners who haven’t even been born yet, because in the Old Testament, God made a promise, and He always keeps His promises. Jesus, born on Christmas, crucified and risen, is that promise kept for you. Merry Christmas and enjoy those Old Testament books about Jesus!
Rev. Mark Buetow is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in DuQuoin, Illinois and serves as the deputy and media services executive for Higher Things. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.