Old Testament saints went to Heaven by way of Jesus Christ just as we do today. They looked forward to His coming through the prophets as we look back on His coming through the Gospels. The plan of salvation has never changed -- only the sacrifice has!
“Going to Heaven . . . Old Testament Style”
Has the definition of salvation always been the same, since the beginning of time? Is it, “justification by faith” for us in the New testament, and justification by works in the Old Testament . . . or justification by circumcision . . . or justification by Levitical dietary laws . . . justification by adherence to the system of Judaism?
How was an Old testament person saved? How were they granted forgiveness? How did an Old Testament believer go to Paradise?
Abraham never asked Jesus into his heart . . . nor did Moses or Joshua. None of the prophets ever got down on their knees and said, “Father, right now I know I’m a sinner and I place my faith in your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to save me and forgive me of my sins.”
They never prayed anything like that. You say, “But I thought that’s what you had to do to go to heaven!”
How does an Old Testament person, who lived before the crucifixion and burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, find forgiveness.
Didn’t they need forgiveness?
Did God change the rules for certain Old Testament saints? Did He play favorites?
Haven’t you ever wondered how Abraham could be called the “friend of God?” How does a lying coward become the friend of God? How does a man who puts his own wife’s virtue at risk . . .up for grabs, by making her tell everyone she wasn’t his wife, but only his sister, so that when the king sees her and wants her because she was beautiful, he won’t kill Abraham to get her. And, according to Genesis 12 Pharaoh himself spotted Sarah and added her to his harem . . . God later plagued the house of Pharaoh to protect Sarah.
What kind of husband would do that to his wife? Not once, but twice!
Later, Genesis chapter 20 records, Abraham again made his wife tell the same half-truth to protect Abraham’s skin. They were literally half brother/half sister. But Sarah was also forced to tell everyone that she was unmarried. A king named Abimelech spotted Sarah and took her to be part of his harem, giving Abraham all kinds of gifts. God came to Abimelech in a dream and said, “You are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.” I would think by now Sarah’s had enough of Abraham. What kind of husband would risk his wife’s life do a thing like that? But God called Abraham his friend.
Or what about Jacob. Since when does a deceiving, manipulating, compromising, self-centered man get a name change to Israel, which means, “prince of God.” Is that someone whom God would consider a prince? Is that how a prince of God acts? Furthermore, how does a man like Jacob get into heaven?
What about Moses – the great leader of Israel. The dispenser of the law. How in the world does God place in Moses’ bloodstained hands the tablets of law that read, “Thou shalt not kill!” What kind of God would allow a hypocrite to deliver the message of truth?
One more. Consider David. He did perhaps some of the most repulsive sins recorded in the Old Testament. He commits adultery, then after he finds out the woman is pregnant, he orders his general to abandon the woman’s husband during heavy fighting, so that he’s easily killed. Then he brings the dead soldier’s wife into his palace, goes through the charades of marriage and announces they have a baby on the way. And God calls David, “a man after God’s own heart.”
How do you call murderers and adulterers and deceivers and liars friends and servants and kindred spirits of God?
Donald Grey Barnhouse asks the honest question, “If God is holy, these Old Testament men should be separated from God forever. Would not a holy God dirty Himself in holding such sinful men to His bosom in love?”
Donald Grey Barnhouse, Romans Vol. 2 (Eerdmans Publishing, 1982) p. 136
How does an Old Testament man or woman, living and dying prior to the cross of Jesus Christ, find cleansing and forgiveness.
You say, through animal sacrifices, right? Listen to the writer of Hebrews, who writes in chapter 10, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near. 2. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? 3. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. 4. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
The Greek verb aphairew (afairew) could be translated “to permanently remove.” You could translate the phrase, “It is impossible for animal sacrifices to completely remove sins.”
If that’s true, and it is, than that would mean that it’s impossible for any Old Testament believer to go to heaven because none of their sins were completely or permanently removed. They were certainly covered by the repetitive sacrifices, but not removed.
John was given a tour of heaven and, in the Book of Revelation, he recorded what he saw. He described the throne of God – and the winged creatures who hover about it continually chanting, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.” (Revelation 4:8) Nobody fellowships around that throne who is dirtied with lingering sin. John further describes the citizens of heaven as those who’ve been washed clean and pure. He even states in chapter 21 that no unclean person can ever inhabit the holy city (Revelation 21:17).
Unless God changed the rules, then there’s no way that any sinful person, no matter if they happened to be Abraham or Jacob or Moses or David, could ever hope to live forever with a holy God when they never had their sins removed.
How did an OT believer ever go to Paradise? What’s the answer?
The answer is found, believe it or not, in Romans chapter 3 (you’re probably saying, Stephen, you think the answer to everything is in Romans chapter 3).
Romans chapter 3:
23. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24. being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25. whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;
In other words, the cross of Christ was a demonstration of God’s righteousness. The demonstration was needed because God could have been viewed as unrighteous – partial and inconsistent. Why? Because He hadn’t treated the Old Testament believers with justice. Their sins hadn’t been removed – yet they were God’s friends – in fact, paradise was a place known as Abraham’s bosom. How’d Abraham get there?!
The word translated “passed over” – notice in verse 25b – “because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed (that is, committed prior to the cross of Christ) – that word is paresis – and it refers to the temporary passing by or the temporary withholding of judgment against sin for a certain period of time.
Did God do that? Yes. After Adam and Eve sinned, He could have meted out full justice for their sin and condemned them to die immediately. Yet He covered them with? With the skins of animals, thus instituting the principle of substitutionary death to cover over sin.
That pointed the way to a coming substitute who would shed His blood and give His life as sinful mankind’s substitute.
In the Book of Leviticus, Moses formalizes God’s instructions on atonement and animal sacrifice for the purpose of temporarily covering over sin. Because animals do not share man’s nature, they are not immortal beings, they do not have the will to rebel or worship God – they are not spiritual beings – that means among other things that when they die, they don’t exist. They are not immortal souls. But, because they do not share human nature, they are sinless. That is, they do not have the conscious thought of rebelling against God and violating his standard. They’ve never read the Bible and don’t act in any way other than what their instincts allow. That horse or cow or dog or cat or whale or giraffe lives out their one life – following their instincts unless you train them to act otherwise – to use that little box in the laundry room, or to wait until you let them outside and they can go in the neighbors yard, which is by far the most convenient.
The principle of atonement and animal sacrifice was that a sinless animal was judged, as it were, in the place of sinful humans.
You may remember, God’s system of atonement for sin for the Old Testament believer revolved around the ark of the covenant. It was a box a yard long, covered with gold.
Inside the box were a number of things, the most significant perhaps were the tablets of stone upon which God had inscribed the 10 commandments.
The covering of the box was called the mercy seat. In fact, that’s the very word Paul used in Romans chapter 3 to refer to Jesus Christ. Once a year, the High Priest, killed a bull and a goat – took their blood into the holy of holies – the inner room of the tabernacle, and sprinkled the blood on the cover of the ark.
God then, in effect, came down and viewed the law, that had been broken by everyone, but He saw the tablets of stone, as it were, through the shed blood of the sinless animal.
And God was temporarily satisfied that while his people had sinned, they had put their faith in His acceptance of a sinless sacrifice on their behalf.
Something still had to be done – this was a temporary covering, not a permanent solution.
Remember Hebrews 10 – “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to permanently removed sin.”
So how did the Old Testament believer experience full and final forgiveness during his lifetime? He didn’t! Not until the crucifixion of Jesus Christ were the sins of the Old Testament believer permanently atoned for.
That means the Old Testament believer was literally saved, on credit. In fact, one author wrote, if Christ had not died on the cross to pay the penalty for their sin, they would have had to be brought out of heaven and sent to hell.
The full and final payment for sin, was the Messiah. He summarized, finalized, fulfilled, confirmed and completed the system of substitutionary atonement.
You could understand it this way:
- OT saints went to heaven by faith in the forgiveness that was yet to come.
- NT saints go to heaven by faith in forgiveness that has come.
In that light, the plan of salvation has never changed. It is faith in the death of someone or something sinless for someone who is sinful.
The Old Testament believer knew the dying animal was his substitute so that he could avoid judgment and live.
In fact, in David’s classic song of confession recorded in Psalm 51 he wrote, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” What did he mean, “cleanse me with hyssop.” You need to understand that hyssop was the plant used by the priests to dip into the blood of the sacrifice to sprinkle it’s blood on the mercy seat. In other words, David was pleading for forgiveness on the basis of being cleansed by the blood of God’s appointed sacrifice.
That’s how David was saved – he placed his faith in God’s appointed sacrifice.
The Old Testament believer knew the dying animal was his substitute so that he could avoid judgment and live; the NT believer knows that the dying lamb of God is the final substitute so that all who believe can avoid judgment and live forever.
- Let me say it another way; for the OT believer, the sinless animal foretold redemption.
- For all believers, the sinless Savior fulfilled redemption.
For the OT believer, the cross of Christ was prophecy.
For the NT believer, the cross of Christ is history.
Does that mean that the Old Testament believer knew that a Redeemer was coming – a literal person – who would ultimately die for the sins of mankind? Absolutely. Isaiah wrote in chapter 53:
5. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed
for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
and by His scourging we are healed. 6. All of us like sheep have gone
astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused
the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. 7. He was oppressed and He was
afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to
slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not
open His mouth. 11. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see
it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant,
will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities.
It was on the cross, that God the Father placed on God the Son the sins of David and Moses and Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob and every other old Testament believer and every NT believer who had placed their faith in God’s word – and God’s coming redeemer.
Let me say it another way,
- OT saints were saved then by faith in the future death of Christ,
- NT saints are saved by faith in the past death of Christ.
In other words, everybody who goes to heaven, gets there because of Jesus. There has been, and there is no other way to Heaven.
The truth is, this auditorium is filled with people who’ve lied and murdered and adulterated and deceived; people who’ve been angry and selfish and petty and covetous and lustful and greedy and proud.
And you’ll never be able to clean up your act enough to ever hear God say, “For you, I’ll change the rules.” No . . . God never changed the rules. He’s never changed the plan of salvation. Abraham is not in heaven because God kinda liked him; Moses isn’t in heaven today because he spent all those years putting up with ornery people; David isn’t in heaven today because he was a talented gospel song writer.
No . . . they, and everyone in this auditorium today, go to heaven because Someone died on behalf of your sins. Because Someone took your punishment for you and shed his blood and died so you could live.
The truth is, we’re a lot more like David and Moses and Jacob and Abraham than we thought. We’re all in need of a Substitute who will be punished in our place, for our sin.
Did you notice the point Paul makes in verse 26 of Romans 3? He say of the cross, 26. “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
In other words, God remains just – the penalty for sin is paid for in Christ. He didn’t change the penalty – eternal separation from God. But because Jesus was God the Son, an infinite being, He was able to pay the infinite price for an infinity in one moment.
That’s the amazing thing! God was able to retain his justice and yet, at the same time, justify the sinner . . . pardon the murderer . . . forgive the liar and the adulterer and the self centered and embrace the disobedient who what? Verse 26 says . . . “the one who has faith in Jesus."
For the Old Testament believer, all their animal substitutes pointed toward the final Substitute who was God incarnate, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, and for those of us in the New Testament, having the benefit of history and knowing the Greek name of this Redeemer - IhseuV - if you’ve placed your faith in His final and ultimate sacrifice, then your sins, past present and future are forgiven.
Here’s how it works:
- The Old Testament believer looked forward to Christ through the eyes of prophecy.
- The New Testament believer looks backward to Christ through the eyes of history.
But the vision remains the same for both. It is a vision of a dying substitute who took our penalty and paid the price for our sins.
Cliff Barrows, the long time song leader the Billy Graham crusades, tells a story about how his children learned to appreciate the price that Jesus paid for their sins. When they were fairly young, the children had done something they had specifically been told never to do. Cliff gave his children a good talking to and then told them that if they did it again, the would get a spanking. Upon returning home, a saddened father discovered that his children had yet again disobeyed their father. The thought of spanking them just overwhelmed him at this particular time. He wrote, “I called Bobby and Bettie Ruth into my room, took off my belt . . . they knew what was coming and were already beginning to cry. But then I took off my shirt, and with a bare back I knelt down at the bed. I handed them the belt and then told them that I was going to take their punishment for them. I made them give me ten straps each with the belt. You should have heard the crying. It was from them. They did not want to do it. But I told them the penalty had to be paid and so through their sobs and tears they administered the penalty. After it was over, we hugged and kissed each other. And then we knelt together and prayed.
Adapted from Romans: Holman New Testament Commentary by Ken Boa and William Kruidenier (Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville), 2000, p. 114
Cliff Barrows was able to keep his standard of justice and at the same time, allow the law breakers to go free.
You like Abraham? A liar and a coward? Are you like Moses? A murderer and often angry man? You like David? Adulterous, immoral. Like Jacob? Manipulative, self-centered, deceptive?
Because of God’s justice, no sin will ever go unpunished; yet, because of God’s grace, no sin is beyond forgiveness.
John MacArthur Jr., Romans (Moody Press; Chicago Illinois) 1991, p. 218
The incredible story of the cross isn’t that it was just a demonstration of justice. But it was a demonstration of grace and love. For our holy, righteous God chose not to punish the sinner, but He sent His son to bend down, take off His shirt of omnipotence and splendor and take our punishment for us.
And for those of us who place our hope and faith alone in His Son, will also go to heaven . . . and meet Old Testament and New Testament believers alike, who have that one thing in common. Faith in the One who paid the penalty for all our sin.