How Luther Pointed Me to Christ in the Old Testament

BY DONAVON RILEY

Jesus is the Word of God. God’s Word—on two legs (John 1:14). I’d read it in the first chapter of John’s Gospel many, many times. God’s Word was born, suffered, bled, and died for the sins of the whole world. It was all there in the Gospels. It was testified to in the New Testament Epistles. But it was a long time before I was shown why this mattered when I read the Old Testament.

It wasn’t that I was deaf to what God had said to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It wasn’t that I hadn’t studied what God had given Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, to proclaim about the Savior. Their words were simple and clear. God’s words, I thought, were simple and clear. I understood the Bible. I’d read it cover to cover so many times I could recite Genesis 1-3 from memory. I could pray through whole Psalms with my eyes closed. I’d committed to memory the prophecies about Christ in the prophets. So then, why had I missed Jesus running loose through the Old Testament for so long?

It wasn’t that the Old Testament was confusing and lacked clarity. It was because, on account of sin, I was confused and unclear. Then, four years after I’d first opened a Bible, I read Martin Luther’s remarks about Genesis 1. When God speaks, Luther noted, he does it through his Word, Jesus Christ.

 
God’s Word was born, suffered, bled, and died for the sins of the whole world. It was all there in the Gospels.
 

There it was. The relation of John’s first chapter, brought together with the Old Testament in a clap of thunderous recognition. “God said...”—“God’s Word became flesh...” The greatest witnesses of the Bible—Moses, David, John, and Paul—had been pointing me to it the whole time and I’d been blind, deaf, and dumb to them. God and his Word were held apart in Scripture. God the Father of all Scripture and God the Son who spoke whenever God spoke revealed to my beloved teacher Martin Luther, and then through him to me, that Christ was not only prophesied about in the Old Testament, he himself was speaking the prophesies though his preachers.

In Genesis 3, for example, Luther pointed to God walking in the Garden of Eden at dusk. God said, “Adam, where are you?” Then, in the midst of disciplining our first parents, God said to Eve that she would give birth to the serpent’s head-crusher. The one whom the serpent would bite, poison, and kill—yet not kill. God said he had appointed them a future Savior. This wasn’t a “proto-gospel” as some scholars have called it. This was the Gospel!—God's Word promising the man and woman a Savior, himself.

 
Christ is then present in the entire history of Israel.
 

I fell in love with Luther in this way. The more I read his Old Testament commentaries and lectures, the more my adoration for him as an exegete grew. He taught me that all the passages in the Psalms and prophets about the future Savior were not just words put into Christ’s mouth later by the Gospel writers. This was God’s Word speaking through the psalmist and the prophets, to point to himself. The words that came out of their mouths are the words of Christ himself. There is no double meaning. No need to figure out the meaning for ourselves. There is one meaning, because there is one speaker: Christ, who uses human mouths and speaks with human words through prophet and poet “in the Spirit” to point us to himself.

Christ is then present in the entire history of Israel. He is always present as the God who speaks and the Savior who is prophesied about. The whole God-man is present in the Old Testament. Not symbolically or allegorically, but in concrete reality. And he gives himself to his chosen people whenever and wherever his promises are believed and received. That is the concrete reality of faith that, as Luther noted, stretches from the first Adam until the return of the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Christ as God’s Word is present in the great signs and wonders done by God in the Old Testament. That is the grace of God.

For example, regarding the relation of Exodus 17:6 to 1 Corinthians 10:4, Luther preached, “In this way he applies and relates all these figures and signs which have happened to the people of Israel through God’s Word, to Christ. For wherever God’s Word is, there is Christ” (Sermon on Septuagesima Sunday, 1525, on 1 Cor. 9:24).

What Luther taught me about reading the Old Testament was that where-ever faith in God’s Word lived, God was present for his people just as he was in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as he is for his people today. Where God speaks, he acts in the present tense for us. For God, to speak is to do. This is faith’s certainty, that God is always present tense when he speaks. So that, as Luther wrote:

It follows powerfully and irrefutably that the God who led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, who guided them in the wilderness through the pillars of cloud and fire, who nourished them with heavenly bread, and who performed all the miracles Moses describes in his book, who also brought them into the land of Canaan and then gave them kings and priests and everything is therefore God and no other than Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of the Virgin Mary, whom we call Christ and our God and Lord... Again, it is he who gives Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, saying “I, the Lord, am your God who led you out of Egypt; you shall have no other gods.” Yes, Jesus of Nazareth, who died for us on the cross, is the God who says in the First Commandment, “I, the Lord, am your God.” (Luther 1534, On the Last Words of David).

In this way, Luther taught me that everywhere God speaks in the Old Testament, Christ speaks. The Word of God; Jehovah, the Lord of Saboath. The God who turns to us, the Word that created all things, who spoke to the patriarchs and prophets—is Jesus Christ.

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.
Twitter @DonavonRiley