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Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch

For over two millennia, the Old Testament has been a heavily contested text (Jer 8:8), and the heart of this debate concerns its witness to Christ (or “Messiah”) and the new covenant. Is the OT a document of the “old covenant,” focusing on the Sinai/Deuteronomic law? What then of its direct predictions of a “new covenant” (e.g., Jer 31:31-34) and of a suffering Messiah (Is 52:13-53:12)? As such, does the OT bear a coherent message with respect to Christ and the Sinai/Deuteronomic law? Modern scholarship often asks additional questions: does the OT bear direct prophetic witness to an eschatological Messiah, or is its message confined to its historical circumstances in the ancient near East? How much could (and did) the authors of the OT know about a coming Messiah?

Jesus, Paul, and Apollos on the OT’s Witness to Christ

Jesus himself was involved in this sometimes-heated controversy. Whereas Jews who rejected him often cited his (apparent) breaking of the OT Sabbath law as clear evidence that he was not the Messiah (John 9:16; cf. 5:16, 18; 7:21-23), Jesus boldly declared that these same (OT) “Scriptures … bear witness of me” (John 5:39) and that “Moses … wrote about me” (John 5:46). Taking it a step further, Jesus even declared that Moses, this great lawgiver-prophet to whom his opponents were so passionately devoted (John 9:28), would accuse them before the Father for misunderstanding and disbelieving his writings, i.e., the Pentateuch (John 5:45-47). Jesus was certainly aware that the Pentateuch gives extensive attention to the Sinai/Deuteronomic law (John 7:19), but the Pentateuch is more than its laws (e.g., Genesis). Indeed, Jesus holds readers accountable for recognizing the Pentateuch’s testimony to the Messiah (cf. Luke 24:25). Moreover, Jesus’ characterization of Moses as an accuser suggests that Jesus understood this prophetic Messianic testimony as a central part of the Pentateuch’s authorially intended message.[1]

Within this stream of interpretation authorized by Jesus himself, Paul in a Thessalonian synagogue “reasoned with them from the [OT] Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” (Acts 17:2-3). This passage implies that Paul was able to derive a Christology from the OT itself, even one that included the Messiah’s suffering, death, and resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:3-4). Jesus, he argued, fits the OT’s profile of the Messiah and so should receive the worship and allegiance of all the earth. When before Agrippa, Paul reiterated that Christ’s suffering and resurrection were “nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would happen” (Acts 26:22-23). Relatedly, Apollos “vigorously refuted the Jews in public, proving through the Scriptures Jesus to be the Christ” (Acts 18:28). Given Paul’s background as a Pharisee trained under the respected Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3; 23:6), both his previous understanding of the OT had been overhauled, and his new and improved way of understanding the OT had to (and did) stand up to verification and counterarguments. Indeed, the Berean Jews are commended in Acts 17:11 for “examining the Scriptures daily” to see if Paul’s preaching was in accordance with the OT. When these passages in Acts are viewed together with Luke 24:25-27, 44 (cf. 16:31), it seems that the author Luke himself also held to and emphasized the intrinsic Messianic meaning of the OT.

Believers Today and the OT’s Witness to Christ

Though this Messianic meaning was and still is disputed, I do not believe that Christians should therefore treat the Messianic witness of the OT as a matter of indifference. Jesus, Luke, Paul, Apollos, John, Matthew, Peter, and others did not shy away from this debate but actively participated in it. For them, there was a lot riding on these conflicting interpretations of the OT. It was not just about being right, sustaining a certain school of thought, or an establishment trying to maintain control, but at stake was the true meaning of God’s written word along with salvation and eternal life itself. Even though confessing Jesus as the Messiah meant being put out of the synagogue (John 9:22; 12:42), Peter still said to Jesus, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Jesus’ teaching, as seen above, included his views on the meaning of the OT and its testimony concerning himself. Likewise, if Paul and the author of Hebrews were wrong about the OT, then the Galatians very likely would have followed the Judaizers, and the recipients of Hebrews likewise those who were trying to pull them away from the gospel to a more Sinai/Deuteronomic law-focused belief system.

Although the situation is different for believers today since we have the New Testament, what remains the same is that we still need the OT to understand who Jesus is. If Christian preaching asserts, “Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31; Acts 17:3), believers must understand what the OT teaches about this Christ. This will certainly be a process, but the result will be a clearer, deeper understanding of who Jesus is as the fulfillment of this Messianic hope. We will also gain greater confidence in the gospel and in Scripture itself as we see the Messianic vision of the OT fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. The Messianic vision of the Pentateuch serves as a theological and historical basis for the Messianic vision of the OT. Click To Tweet

In order to help with this process, I have written The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch (IVP Academic, 2019). I argue that its Messianic passages, though scattered throughout the Pentateuch and far fewer in proportion than legal and narrative passages, show evidence of strategic interrelationship based on their use of common words, themes, and often poetic form. Such intentionality suggests that the author Moses desired his readers to link these texts together in their minds as they read and interpret the Pentateuch. The result is a coherent, sweeping vision of Messiah who will (among other things) suffer and triumph, defeat Satan and all his enemies, rule the nations in peace, and be worshiped by the whole world (Gen 3:15; 27:29; 49:8-12). It is this “Lion of Judah,” “star from Jacob,” and prophet like Moses who comes “in the last days” (Gen 49:1, 8; Num 24:14, 17; Deut 18:15-18; Hos 3:5) that occupies the center of the Pentateuch’s originally intended meaning, not the Sinai-Deuteronomic law, as important as it was. In turn, the Messianic vision of the Pentateuch serves as a theological and historical basis for the Messianic vision of the OT.


After the resurrection, the disciples had their minds “opened” by Jesus so that they could understand the OT rightly (Luke 24:45). As a broad parallel, I used to have a hard time seeing Christ in the OT, and I can understand why it can be hard to go little further than Messianic hints, shadows, or trajectories.[2] But after I was shown Christ in the OT while still using more rigorous exegesis, I can’t “unsee” him. I hope that more believers, whether through my book or otherwise, will see Jesus Christ as he is genuinely presented in the OT. In the ongoing debate over the meaning of the OT, let me succinctly state my view: the central message of the OT is its Messianic vision. It is breathtakingly beautiful – because he is. May you see it, and may he capture your heart.


[1] Michael Rydelnik and Edwin Blum, eds., The Moody Handbook of Messianic Prophecy (Chicago: Moody, 2019), 27.

[2] It is hard to imagine Paul and Apollos’ messianic interpretation of the OT being convincing and powerful if it were limited to these, which would be hard-pressed to demonstrate their claim and refute opposing Jewish interpretations.

Kevin S. Chen

Kevin S. Chen is associate professor of Old Testament at Christian Witness Theological Seminary in San Jose, California. He completed his PhD under the late John H. Sailhamer and taught for nine years at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.

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