The Resurrection of Christ in the Old Testament
By Matthew Barrett—
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, . . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:2, 3-5).
If you have been a Christian for a long time, then you, like me, have read these words a thousand times. But have you ever noticed that Paul, in explaining the gospel, not only says that Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, but that he was also raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures? While most of us can think of several passages in the Old Testament that point towards the atoning work of Christ on the cross, what passages come to mind from the OT concerning the resurrection of Christ?
Time is up. Do not be embarrassed. My guess is that most Christians have never thought about where the resurrection of Christ is foreshadowed in the OT. Furthermore, what makes this task difficult is that Paul does not list specific OT passages in 1 Corinthians 15, but rather assumes his readers are aware of them. That said, here are a few he may have had in mind.
First is Isaiah 53, that famous text that we so often like to appeal to for the death of Christ. Here we discover that this suffering servant will be crushed for our iniquities (53:5). But Isaiah goes on to say “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper his hand” (53:10b). Granted, Isaiah does not spell out the specifics of the resurrection, but nonetheless it is inferred. This suffering servant will taste death, a death that is substitutionary in nature, and yet this death is not the final word. God will “prolong his days” and “prosper his hand,” the latter phrase indicating that the servant will be victorious, as a victor who receives his spoils (53:12) and claims his offspring (53:10). While it is true enough that Jacob “sees his children” (29:23) as this servant “sees his seed” (53:10), Jacob does so, as Alec Motyer explains, as a “mere watcher from the sidelines of history.” “Not so the Servant! He who was crushed under the will of the Lord lives as the executor of that will.” And while Sheol has claimed earth’s inhabitants and death has “dethroned them,” with the servant “death ushers him into sovereign dignity and power, with his own hand administering the saving purposes of the Lord, and as victor taking the spoil ([Isa. 53] verse 12).”
Second, consider Psalm 16:8-11. Here the psalmist sets the Lord before him, as his rock and assurance, his gladness, joy, and security. He takes comfort knowing that God will not abandon his soul to Sheol or “let your holy one see corruption.” This psalm, however, not only provides future hope to the Israelite in David’s day, but it also is applied to Christ, even predicting his resurrection. At Pentecost Peter applies Psalm 16 to God raising Christ from the dead (Acts 2:22-28). Peter points out the obvious, namely, that David is dead in his tomb to this day (2:29). But not so for Christ! “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he [David] foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (2:30-32). The apostle Paul agrees. Proclaiming the gospel at Antioch in Pisidia, he appeals to Christ’s resurrection by quoting Psalm 2 and 16. Like Peter, Paul observes that David is long dead, but God raised Christ up and he did not see corruption (Acts 13:34-37).
Third is Jonah 1:17, and perhaps the most surprising OT passage of all. In Matthew 12, the scribes and Pharisees demand a sign, but Jesus responds by calling them and their generation evil and adulterous. No sign, says Jesus, will be given to them but the “sign of the prophet Jonah” (12:39). “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). As Jesus explains, Jonah and the big fish is an analogy of the death and resurrection of Jesus, though Christ is a much greater prophet than Jonah. Craig Blomberg is insightful: “Just as Jonah’s time in the fish would have proved meaningless had he not been spit up onto the shore to continue his appointed ministry of preaching repentance to Nineveh, so also the crucifixion is not the decisive sign of who Jesus was, for his subsequent rescue from death is what vindicated his ministry and enabled his mission to go forward” (Commentary on the NT use of the OT, 45).
I have only scratched the surface of these passages, and there are other passages that we have not even explored (e.g., Hosea 6:7). Nevertheless, with Easter nearly upon us, these three passages remind us that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was not only predicted by Jesus himself (e.g., Matt. 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19), but, as Paul states, occurred “in accordance with the Scriptures.” Therefore, not only Christ’s death, but his resurrection as well is an event in redemptive-history that God had planned long ago (Acts 2:23-24) and at the proper time brought about for us and our salvation (Heb. 1:1-4).
Matthew Barrett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University (OPS). Barrett has contributed book reviews and articles to various academic journals, and is the author of the forthcoming book with P&R, Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration. He is the editor, along with Ardel Caneday, of the forthcoming book: Four Views on the Historical Adam (Zondervan, 2013). He also edited Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy.