Is the Whole Bible about Jesus?
I grew up in a denomination that had the utmost respect for the Bible. It was the divinely inspired word of God. All of it! But, while it was not the official position of the denomination, we seemed to generally consider it to be two distinct collections of writings. The Old Testament dealt with the Jews under the old covenant and Law. The New Testament was about Jesus and grace. But is that really true? Or is the whole Bible the story of Jesus?
There are indeed two primary covenants in the Bible. Even the primary division of the Bible into an Old Testament and a New Testament reflects this. Old and New Testaments are synonymous with the old covenant and the new covenant. While there are other covenants mentioned in the Bible, the covenant between God and Israel established at Sinai forms the basis for the Old Testament. And the covenant God established with believers through the shed blood of Jesus is at the heart of the New Testament.
What Is the Old Covenant?
Genesis is a book of origins: the origin of creation, of humanity, of our fall into sin, and a plan for our redemption. Exodus took this plan for redemption a step further. Israel, the family of Abraham who was chosen in Genesis, was delivered from slavery and brought into a covenant relationship with God.
Exodus 19:5-6 briefly expresses this covenant. If Israel would be faithful to obey God and keep his covenant, then they would be his treasured possession. The remainder of Exodus through Deuteronomy fleshed out what it meant to keep the covenant. What Israel was invited into here was, in a sense, a return to Eden.
As you read the Old Testament you find that even though Israel agreed to the term of this covenant, they seldom kept their part of it. Almost immediately after the covenant was agreed to, Israel broke it. And that continued up until their exile from the land promised to them. As Adam and Eve faced exile for their disobedience, so too did Israel.
But throughout the Old Testament, and especially the prophets, there is hope that Israel would return from their exile, that they would live in peace and prosperity as God’s people. And never again would they face exile or threat from their enemies.
What Is the New Covenant?
In Hebrews 9:15 and Hebrews 12:24 we read that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant – a new covenant that was instituted through his blood (Luke 22:20). Jeremiah looked forward to this new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) while Hebrews sees this covenant as being established through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (Heb 10:1-18).
The same words used to describe the people under the Sinai covenant are also used to describe the people of the new covenant. 1 Peter 2:9 identifies them as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and God’s special possession. The same offer made to Israel is made to those who come under the new covenant. A return to Eden.
The old covenant was established with Israel, the descendants of Abraham, as well as anyone who aligned themselves with Israel and kept the terms of that covenant. But the scope of membership under the new covenant is much greater. In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul says that Christ – through his death on the cross – tore down the wall that separated Jew from Gentile, creating a new humanity in himself. Ethnic background no longer matters.
Instead of membership that was based on external criteria, membership in the new covenant is based on God’s grace received through faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 identifies this as the gift of salvation while Romans 3:21-22 calls it the gift of God’s righteousness. But in both places, it is given to us through faith. God’s offer of salvation, of inclusion in the new covenant, is offered as an act of his grace. And all who respond in faith are included.
Was Jesus and the New Covenant a Change of Plans?
So why did God establish two covenants with people who are both described as God’s chosen people? Was the first a failure that caused God to regroup and come up with another plan? Or was this always God’s plan?
If God is truly omniscient, then he would have known from creation that the first covenant he established with Israel would be broken – that Israel would be incapable of living up to the terms of the covenant. So, the second covenant was not something added once it became clear that the first covenant had failed to accomplish its purpose in restoring us to Eden.
Indeed, the purpose of the first covenant was to demonstrate our inability to live a righteous life in our own strength. And it accomplished that. In Galatians 3:21 Paul tells us that spiritual life could not come via the law. Law, the terms of the old covenant, is incapable of producing the life that God desires.
Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Law and Prophets
When Jesus came, he proclaimed the coming kingdom of heaven. Jesus taught as one who had authority, and many may have felt that he was preaching something that was contrary to their Scriptures, the Old Testament. But Jesus affirmed that he had not come to abolish the law or the prophets, or even to change them in the slightest. Instead, he had come to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17-20).
But what did he mean by coming to fulfill the law and the prophets? Was it just in fulfillment of 351 Old Testament prophecies concerning his coming and work? Or was his claim much broader than that? I do believe that what Jesus is claiming here is that all of the Law and Prophets were pointing ahead to him – that the story of the Old Testament was really looking forward to him.
But what about those prophecies that seem to point to a coming Jewish nation led by a descendant of David, a temple, and a reestablished sacrificial system? A kingdom that will be among the world’s greatest? How do they fit with Jesus being the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets?
While there are those who see these prophecies literally fulfilled in a future Jewish kingdom, I do believe the New Testament points to them being fulfilled instead in Jesus. Jesus is the looked-for descendant of David (2 Tim. 2:8). He does reign over the kingdom of God (Luke 1:31-33), a kingdom and reign that will never end. It is a kingdom composed, not of an ethnic people, but by all who place their faith in him, from every nation under heaven (Eph. 2:14-18). His temple is not a physical structure but is composed of his people, with himself as the foundation (Eph. 2:19-22). And Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross was the final sacrifice that dealt completely with sin (Heb. 9:26).
One Story from Beginning to End
So, is the whole Bible about Jesus? The answer to that depends on the level you are viewing it from. At a high level, I believe that the whole story arc is about Jesus and what he came to do. But at a lower, more detailed level, there is much that is not really directed towards him.
There are lessons we can learn from the Old Testament that do not directly point to Jesus. There are consequences when we sin. And blessings when we obey. The story of David and Bathsheba is a story of moral failure. While it does demonstrate our need for a savior, it is not really about Jesus.
Other passages of Scripture, while they had value to the original audience, have little relevance to modern readers. The list of cities that was allocated to the tribe of Judah in Joshua 15 is an example. Most of these cities are unknown today. While these lists of cities may be interesting to some, they hold little significance today.
But the overriding story arc throughout the Old Testament is looking ahead to Jesus. Hebrews 8:5 points to this by saying that the tabernacle/temple where the priests offered their sacrifices was only a shadow and copy of the real sanctuary in heaven. The author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the whole sacrificial system, including the tabernacle, priests, and sacrifices, was insufficient for the forgiveness of sins. They were merely a foreshadowing of the greater reality that came with Jesus.
As Peter preached to the crowd that gathered after his healing of a man who could not walk, he told them, “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days” (Acts 3:24). Peter understood that the message of the prophets was pointing ahead to Jesus. And, for Peter, the prophets included what we understand to be the historical books of the Old Testament. Peter had come to understand that the primary storyline through the Jewish Scriptures was about their coming Messiah.
Peter expresses this again in 1 Peter 1:10-12. As he encouraged his readers amid their trials, he referred to our salvation that is coming. A salvation that the prophets had foretold although not understood. And this salvation was fulfilled in Jesus and his church.
Jesus is the seed of the woman who crushed the Serpent’s head (Gen, 3:15). He is the promised seed of Abraham through whom the promise came (Gen. 13:15, Gal. 3:16). Jesus is the king of the line of David (Luke 1:32) who will reign forever (Heb. 1:8). His kingdom is not an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly one (John 18:36). And the temple is his body (John 21:19-21; Eph. 2:19-22).
The whole Bible is indeed the story of Jesus. While there are other minor storylines in the Old Testament, the primary story arc is looking forward to his coming, his life among us, and life as his body.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden
Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.