By Jeff Boldt
Between Easter and the Ascension the risen Lord appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Famously, they didn’t recognize Jesus, which is all the more incredible given that one of them may have been Christ’s uncle. It wasn’t until he showed them from Scripture that the Messiah had to die and rise again that their eyes were opened and their hearts began to burn. So why did Old Testament prophecies have this effect?
People avoid the Old Testament because it’s full of obscure laws, lots of genealogies, and unfamiliar names, but also because they’re turned off by it. There are so many stories of moral failure, violence, and strangeness in the Old Testament, that folks are tempted to toss it out when they can’t pull out a simple moral to the story. Few stories end with a straightforward commandment to “go and do likewise.” And yet the Old Testament is the story of Jesus’ ancestors, which include murderers, idolaters, and prostitutes. The history of God’s people, then, is a history of patience and grace as they await the Messiah. More than that: Israel’s history foreshadows the Messiah, their seers see him and their prophets prophesy him.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples. For the gospel writers, it’s the ultimate question they want their readers to ask. But people have answered this question in very different ways. With Peter, who answers on the disciples’ behalf, orthodox (right worshipping) Christians have answered that he is the Son of the God of Israel “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This has tied Jesus very closely to the Old Testament.
By contrast, the earliest unorthodox Christians — the “Gnostics” — answered that Jesus was not the Son of Israel’s God but his enemy. I didn’t see anything this year, but most Easter seasons we get some click-bait articles about the latest ancient Gnostic Gospel find. We’re supposed to ask ourselves, “Why wasn’t this book included in the New Testament? What didn’t the Pope want you to see in this secret book? It must be juicy!” The answer is simple. If there are any books as old as the books of the NT, the reason they didn’t make it in was because they didn’t meet these criteria: they have to contain eyewitness testimony to Christ and tell us how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. Read to the very first verses of Luke’s Gospel:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.
First, “fulfilled” just refers to the way that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures; the way he was in fact shown to jibe with, rather than contradict, the God of Israel. Second, notice that Luke has collected the eyewitness testimony of the things Christ did in fulfillment of the Old Testament. There was no conspiracy to exclude the most interesting books from the Bible. It was a simple qualitative difference between what made it in and what didn’t: our gospels are interested in how the eyewitness testimony of the apostles fits with the Old Testament. The books that didn’t make it in want to show that Jesus contradicts the Old Testament.
So then did Jesus and the apostles think that prophecy proved Jesus was the long-expected Messiah? Certainly. But they thought it was more than that. They believed that insight into Christ’s fulfillment of Scripture facilitates a very specific kind of spiritual experience that is unlike any other kind of spiritual experience. When Jesus opened up the Scriptures to his disciples they said that their hearts burned.
In their day, like ours, there was a contrast between institutional religion and spirituality. “Religion” we are told is external, it’s concerned about boring things like history and morals and fundraising and building projects and political lobbying. “Spirituality,” we are also told, is internal, it’s about health and happiness, altering your consciousness, it’s about fascinating visions or mystical experiences, deep truths, or it’s about emotionally connecting to creation.
By contrast, the kind of spiritual experience the apostles had was the result of their eyes being opened to Jesus in the Old Testament. In fact, Jesus only opened their eyes to see who he was when they understood him through Scripture. That is to say that he didn’t want them to know who he was unless they saw him in Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets. We’ll get back to why that is. What we need to understand first is that Christian spiritual experience is the result of knowing who Jesus is. Remember Moses’ vision at the burning bush:
Then Moses asked God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ What should I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”
Moses, it was said, saw God face to face. His was the highest spiritual experience available, and what it boiled down to was a first-hand experience of who God is and knowledge of his Name.
“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asked Peter. And then right after Peter correctly answers, Jesus takes him up the mountain where he is transfigured before him. About the transfiguration, Peter wrote,
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
But listen to what Peter says next.
We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Pet. 1:16-19)
So what Peter says is that he had a vision of the Trinity, but that his eyewitness testimony is backed up by the prophets. By paying attention to them, the day will dawn in your heart –– in other words, you will have a vision of God as well.
So what’s the value of this vision? John’s First Epistle adds, “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” That’s to say that when Jesus reveals who he is to you, you become like him; you are transfigured too. Your guilty conscience is purified, your soul is fortified against evil, and your body is (or will be when Christ returns) raised from the dead. For, we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Transfiguration and resurrection are exactly what’s at stake when we go to find Jesus in the Old Testament. Indeed, by neglecting the Old Testament we ignore the entire point of the spiritual life, which is to know God and become like him.
But I want to return to why Old Testament prophecies are so important for this. Because I’m in danger of selling a theology of glory: the idea that spirituality is a self-help program; something that numbs the pain of life; an easy escape. That’s not what Jesus provides. When he opened the Scriptures to his disciples on the Emmaus road, he didn’t show them the Messiah they expected but instead a crucified God:
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
The reason our eyes need to be opened is because our concept of God blinds us. What kind of Messiah were the disciples looking for? Were they looking for one so humble that he would give up a heavenly throne in order to die on a cross for the sake of his enemies? Not at all. We were looking up to the clouds when the Son of God came down to the dust, beneath our feet, as a servant to us.
The revelation of Jesus, then, transfigures us into the likeness of Christ the crucified servant. This is what makes Christian spirituality different from all others. And either you love it or you hate it.
Right after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, Christ revealed that he would be killed:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
A spirituality without the cross, while glorious and uplifting, is nothing but Satanism, says Jesus. That is why he refuses to open your eyes to see who he is unless you will accept that his crucifixion was the plan all along. This is why the Old Testament is so important. The Name revealed to Moses communicated that the I AM was the same yesterday, today, and forever. There was never a time, then, that the Son of God had not already chosen to die for you. This is his character from the beginning. And without knowing his most distinguishing characteristic, you can neither say that you know him nor that you are being transfigured by him.
Furthermore, when we realize that Immanuel (“God with us”) is the transcendent creator of the Old Testament, and that he crossed an infinite distance to become our servant, the Christian is overwhelmed with surprise and wonder. There’s a limitless amount of art, and song, and writing that the Church has and will produce to express this wonder. But it should be clear that there is a stark difference between a spiritual experience that does and does not dwell in the tension between Jesus and the God of Israel. Tidily breaking them apart or exclusively affirming either God’s transcendence or immanence does not have the same spiritual combustion. And so turn to the Old Testament, expecting to find Jesus revealed there, and so be transformed.
Jeff Boldt has a Th.D. from Wycliffe College and serves as a priest in the diocese of Toronto.
Behr, John. The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. Crestwood, N.Y: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006.