It’s often said that people who lived before the cross were saved by looking forward to the cross; and those who lived after the cross were saved by looking back. This is a nice thought because it puts all focus on the cross. It also emphasizes that no one goes to Heaven without the blood of Jesus washing away their sins. However, it is technically an incorrect theological statement.
Those in the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, didn’t understand the cross. They didn’t understand that Jesus, who is God, would come to earth, take on human flesh, live an earthly life, die for the sins of the world, be buried, and rise again. Although prophesied, the Old Testament people did not understand these things. They were looking for a Messiah, a King, who would liberate them and make them a ruling nation. Therefore, they could not have looked forward to something of which they knew nothing.
Salvation Before the Cross
Those who lived before the cross were forgiven of their sins and saved in the same way we are. They were saved by grace, through faith (Eph 2:8). It was by faith in the God they knew. They did not understand a Triune God, nor did they understand God’s plan of complete redemption by the blood of His Son. But they did know the God of all Creation. They knew God because He had revealed Himself to them through Moses and the prophets. They knew God had made covenantal promises to their fathers and they knew their God was a faithful God who would fulfill His promises.
People in the Old Testament demonstrated their faith by obedience in following God’s commands. This included offering sacrificial animals to atone for their sins. Both the sacrificial system and the Levitical priesthood, in which the High Priest made atonement for their sins only once each year, “whispered” of Jesus who would be their true and better mediator and would offer Himself as the complete atonement once and for all.
Saved by the Blood of Animals
The sins of Old Testament saints were atoned for by the shedding of animal blood (Lev 17:11). If they died in faith, their salvation was eternal, just as ours is, and yet their inheritance was different. Because animal blood could never fully pay for the sins of man, they did not go to Heaven. They went to a place of comfort in the heart of the earth, called Abraham’s Bosom. There they remained until Jesus gave his life to fully atone for the sins of mankind.
Saved by the Blood of Jesus
Only after Jesus’ complete payment for the sins of all the world could anyone enter into the presence of God in Heaven. When Jesus entered into Abraham’s Bosom at the time of His death (1 Pet 3:18-19), the Old Testament saints then understood the cross and looked to Jesus as the perfect Lamb of God, sent to die to cleanse them of all sins. And when Jesus ascended back to Heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand (Luke 22:69), He took those in Abraham’s Bosom with Him (Eph 4:8 — Read: Where Did Jesus Go When He Died?)
“Eyes” of Understanding
We can look upon something with our eyes and see it in the reality of our time and space dimension. Or, we can look upon something with the “eyes of our understanding” (Eph 1:18). That means we have knowledge of something and thereby we can perceive it to be true and trustworthy.
- Those who live, or still live, after the cross look back with the eyes of their understanding.
- But those who died before the cross could only “see” with the eyes of their understanding after the cross. So they also looked back.
- Praise the Lord, for we have also a more sure word of prophecy…(2 Pet 1:19).
- The Word illuminates the cross and we “see” with the “eyes” of our understanding (Eph 1:18).
- And by faith, we trust in Jesus unto salvation:
1 Pet 1:8-9 Whom having not seen, you love; in whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.
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