How Did People go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection? Updated

Early in the life of this blog, Stu asked this question.

If salvation is only attained through faith in Jesus Christ, how were people in the Old Testament saved, ie before Jesus’ death and resurrection? Were they able to (do so) through obeying the Old Testament laws? If not how else would they be saved?

I thought it would be good to revisit these questions.

(John 14:6) Jesus said to him, I am l the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (7) If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

(8) Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” (9) Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

One assumes that this question is asked in the light of this exclusive claim of Christ in response to Philip’s question. This claim eliminates all other ‘religious’ pathways to God and indeed, excludes all other so called prophets and deities.

Jesus is held dear by many for his loving, compassionate and forgiving ways, but one must come to grips with this claim. Either he was God incarnate or he was a mad liar. We hold that Jesus was and is who he claims to be, the Son of God incarnate, very God and very man.

Back to the question. In the light of this claim of Christ, how did people prior to Jesus redeeming work on the cross get to heaven; were they saved some other way? I like the way John MacArthur answers this question.

Everyone is saved through Christ. He died for the sins of the world. For them, it was future. For us, it is past, but it was still through Christ. It was His death, His sacrifice. It atoned for the sins of the OT saints as well as the NT saints. And, every time they sacrificed a lamb, and every time they sacrificed a ram, and every time they sacrificed a turtle dove or a pigeon, every time they sacrificed any animal, it was the picture of Christ, the picture of Christ, the picture of Christ. So, they had to know that there was coming one who would pay the penalty for their sins, one ultimate sacrifice. Christ, alone, can save.

Now, the means for salvation has always been the same: Faith. And, at any given point in the unfolding revelation of the Word of God, salvation came through faith, believing God. Abraham believed God. It was counted him for righteousness. What did he believe? He believed as much as God had revealed. And, God had revealed even by that time that he was sinner and that the only savior was God, and that God would pay the penalty for his sin. Now, he didn’t understand all there was to know about Jesus Christ, but he understood enough to know that he was a sinner and needed a savior and God would provide a savior. That is why it says in Hebrews 12, that Moses could foresee Christ, even Moses.

So, I believe, the OT people were saved by faith in God. They believed God’s word as much as was revealed to them, and knew their own sinfulness. In fact, the reason they would carry out the sacrifices, and the reason they would do all the things God told them to do was an outworking of an inward faith. It was not to earn salvation. It was to demonstrate the reality of it. They were saved by faith in Christ. They didn’t know who Christ was. And, they didn’t know specifically when and how and all of that, but they believed God. They were sinful, and God would have to provide a sacrifice for them.

The same promise repeated throughout the Old Testament—that God will be our God and we will be his people—is also repeated in the New Testament. At the end of the age, when Old Testament and New Testament believers alike stand before their Redeemer, we are told that “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3).

What do you think?

Did people prior to the cross earn entrance to Heaven by keeping the law?

Has God changed the rules?

Or perhaps there’s two ways to Heaven – if we keep the law God might accept us – hmmm!

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2 responses to “How Did People go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection? Updated

  1. Don: Great question. The Westminster Larger Catechism answers this very question and it may be helpful reading the same conclusion as your post yet expressed slightly differently:

    Question 34: How was the covenant of grace administered under the Old Testament?

    Answer: The covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament, by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the passover, and other types and ordinances, which did all foresignify Christ then to come, and were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal salvation.

  2. wayne nelson

    I totally agree with pastor John.

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