Three Ways the Old Testament Anticipates the Birth of Jesus

Thirty-nine books precede the story of Jesus in the Four Gospels, and these Old Testament books foreshadow and prepare for the coming of Jesus. The first advent doesn’t happen in a vacuum but amid a matrix of hopes and promises and patterns and shadows that interpreters can see in Scripture. I will point to three ways the Old Testament anticipates the birth of Jesus.

First, consider direct prophecies of a deliverer. In Genesis 3:15, God tells the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” A son will come, and he will come by birth. From Genesis 3:15 onward, readers are looking for the birth of the Promised One. He would come from Judah’s tribe (Gen 49:10), he would descend from David’s line (2 Sam 7:12-13), and he would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). When Jesus is born, he fulfills the age-old hope that first sounded in the garden.

Second, consider the power of God upon the womb. There are multiple stories in the Old Testament about God enabling conception by overcoming barrenness. Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren (Gen 16), as was Isaac’s wife Rebekah (Gen 25), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Gen 30), Samson’s mother (Judg 13), and Samuel’s mother (1 Sam 1). There were certainly more barren women than these in the centuries of Old Testament history, but these five are highlighted explicitly by the biblical authors. A pattern is established: when the text draws attention to a woman’s barrenness, God soon overcomes it. There is no obstacle that thwarts his plan. These stories anticipate God’s greatest display of power upon a womb. Mary was unmarried and a virgin. Yet the Spirit of God would move upon her womb and bring life.

Third, consider birth stories. In the case of most Bible characters, we hear about them while they’re already alive. But sometimes we learn about characters before they’re born or as they’re born. In Genesis 21, we read of Isaac’s birth, and his name was announced ahead of time (Gen 17:19). In Exodus 2, we read of Moses’s birth, and his significance unfolds as the one to deliver the Israelites. In Judges 13, we read of Samson’s birth, and it’s even preceded by angelic visitations and instructions. In Ruth 4, we read of Obed’s birth in Bethlehem, and he was the father of Jesse who begat David. These various birth stories showcase characters who fulfilled promises, achieved victories, or brought restoration. When Gabriel visits Mary in Luke 1, he prophesies that she’ll bear a son, and the name is announced ahead of time. The most important birth story occurred in Bethlehem during the days of Caesar Augustus.

The birth of Jesus fulfilled prophecies and patterns from the Old Testament. Stories of covenant faithfulness and divine power had prepared the way for the Lord.

For more on how the Old Testament relates to Jesus, see my new book 40 Questions About Typology and Allegory.

Calming the Storm: Something Greater Than Jonah Is Here

In Mark 4:35-41, Jesus calms a storm. And when you read the story, there are multiple correspondences to the story of Jonah. In fact, the way Mark narrates the story seems to have been influenced by the events in Jonah 1. There are at least eight points of correspondence:

  1. The key character gets into a boat (Jonah 1:3; Mark 4:36)
  2. A storm arises on the sea that threatens everyone on board (Jonah 1:4; Mark 4:37)
  3. Everyone on the boat panics (Jonah 1:5; Mark 4:38)
  4. The key character is found sleeping in the boat (Jonah 1:5; Mark 4:38)
  5. Those on board wake up the key character (Jonah 1:6; Mark 4:38)
  6. Those on board question the key character and bring up the notion of perishing (Jonah 1:6; Mark 4:38)
  7. The sea becomes calm (Jonah 1:15; Mark 4:39)
  8. The men on board the boat respond with fear (Jonah 1:16; Mark 4:41)

The sheer number of correspondences, as well as the parallel order of events in Jonah 1 and Mark 4, indicate the influence of Jonah 1 on Mark’s account of Jesus’ miracle. But there are also important differences between Jonah 1 and Mark 4. Here are five:

  1. Jonah was on a boat because he was fleeing the will of God; Jesus was on a boat as he continued to fulfill the will of God.
  2. Jonah’s presence on the boat was the reason the storm arose; Jesus’ presence on the boat was the reason the storm became calm.
  3. Jonah was woken up but did not call upon the Lord; Jesus woke up, and he was the Lord whom the disciples called upon for help.
  4. Jonah was on a boat in order to not go to the Gentiles in Nineveh; Jesus was on a boat in order to go to the Gentile territory that we see in Mark 5 (the very next chapter).
  5. Jonah had to be delivered from death; Jesus delivered everyone else from death.

Jesus surpassed Jonah. He was a true and greater messenger of God who came to be the Light of the world (John 8:12). Jesus himself insisted, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:41).

Isaac and Jesus at Gethsemane

While studying for a sermon about Jesus at Gethsemane, I noticed several Matthew commentaries highlighting an echo of the Abraham-Isaac story in Genesis 22. They pointed to Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:36, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray,” as an echo of Genesis 22:5 when Abraham told his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”

Echoes of Isaac would not be surprising in Matthew, for the opening verse of the Gospel says, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). Jesus is the true and greater Isaac, the Father’s Son who would be sacrificed.

Consider some correspondences between Genesis 22 and Matthew 26.

  • Both stories involve a mountain. Abraham journeyed to a mountain in the land of Moriah (Gen. 22:2-4), and Gethsemane was at the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30).
  • Both stories involve a son who is facing death. In Genesis 22, the plan is to sacrifice Isaac. In Matthew 26, Jesus is facing sacrifice as well, an experienced heightened by the reality of the “cup” he will drink.
  • Both stories involve other people traveling with the person who will be sacrificed. In Genesis 22, young men from Abraham’s household joined them on the journey. In Matthew 26, eleven of Jesus’ disciples came with him to the Mount of Olives.
  • Both stories report instructions to stay and wait. In Genesis 22, the two young men receive instructions. In Matthew 26, the eleven disciples receive instructions.
  • Both stories climax with a son being alone with his father. In Genesis 22, Isaac is alone with Abraham. In Matthew 26, Jesus is alone with his heavenly Father.

Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, facing sacrifice and wrath. But no voice from heaven would stop the proceedings. There would be no ram provided in a thicket. The Father would not rescind the knife. The Son would willingly lay down his life, in obedience to the Father and in the stead of sinners. Jesus is the true and greater Isaac.

Job and Jesus at Gethsemane

Jesus was a righteous sufferer. There were righteous sufferers in the Old Testament but none like Jesus. As the sinless Son of God, his suffering was as the consummate righteous person.

The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane was especially sorrowful. Jesus, on his face before his Father, prayed that the cup of wrath might pass from him (Matt. 26:39, 42, 44). Someone close to him–Judas–had already turned against him (26:14-16). And his three friends–Peter, James, and John–slept instead of watching and praying with him (26:40-41, 43, 45). In his hour of need, they failed him.

There was a righteous sufferer in the Old Testament named Job. Someone close to him–his wife–had turned against him and against God: “Do you still hold fast your integrity?” she asked. “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). And during his suffering there were three friends–Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar–who sat with him and sympathized for his situation (2:11-13). But as time went on, as days compiled into more than a week, they ultimately failed to be the comforters he needed.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was the true and greater Job. His three disciples didn’t have to last for days like Job’s three friends did. Jesus needed them for a few hours of prayer, but they couldn’t persevere even through that. Compared to the emotional and physical turmoil Job endured, the “cup” for Jesus was still more dreadful. Job was a righteous sufferer, but not sinless. Job endured great hardship, but not the cup of God’s wrath.

Jesus the Last Adam: Temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane

jesus finding the three disciples sleepingAt the Mount of Olives was a place called Gethsemane. It was where Jesus took his disciples, where he pulled aside Peter and James and John, where he fell on his face in fervent prayer, and where his sorrowful soul communed with his Father. John 18:1 calls Gethsemane a “garden,” which is where the name “Garden of Gethsemane” comes from.

This garden was not just a place of sorrow and prayer. It was a place of temptation. The hour of God’s wrath was nearer than it had ever been, and this prospect was an enormous weight on the soul of Jesus. As our Lord prayed about the “cup” he was facing, he resolved to do his Father’s will no matter what (see Matt. 26:39, 42, 44).

When Jesus found Peter, James, and John asleep, he told them, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41a). They should’ve been doing what he was doing. Earlier he had said “remain here, and watch with me” (26:38), but more was in view than serving as lookouts. His words “watch and pray” (26:41a) expanded on what it meant for them to “watch with me” (26:38). He wanted their Gethsemane experience to be prayerful and Godward. After all, they would face their own temptations to fall away from him (see 26:31).

So by telling his disciples to watch (and pray) “with him” (Matt. 26:38, 41a), they would be battling against temptation (26:41a). But the disciples slept, while Jesus prayed. He faced temptation alone.

This temptation in a garden should make us think of temptation another garden–the Garden of Eden. Both Adam and Jesus faced temptation, but only one was faithful. Adam disobeyed God’s will, whereas Jesus submitted to it. In a garden, Jesus, the Last Adam, overcame temptation.

The Most Important Meal in the Ministry of Jesus

Jesus speaking at the last supper

On the week Jesus was crucified, he shared the most important meal of his ministry. The words and actions were full of meaning, and what took place would constitute the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper in the early church (see 1 Cor. 11:23-25).

To understand why Christians look back to the last supper in the Gospels, we must go back even further in Scripture. Exodus 12 instituted the annual Passover meal. Over a thousand years later, Jesus sat down at a Passover meal with his disciples. His meal fulfilled the purpose of that ancient feast, for he himself would be the lamb of God. He would be slain. His shed blood would bring atonement, a covering from righteous wrath.

Normally at a Passover meal, the family head would explain how the elements reminded them of God’s passing over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt (Exod. 12:27). That had been the explanation of the meal for more than a millennium. No one expected a divergence from the script.

But in the Gospel accounts of the last supper, when Jesus began to speak about the elements on the table, he did something different. He didn’t refer to a lamb. He didn’t mention the Israelites in Egypt. He didn’t remind the disciples of God’s judgment passing over houses with shed blood on doorposts and lintels. Instead he took bread and said, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matt. 26:26). He took the cup and said, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:27-28).

No one had ever gathered at a Passover meal and heard those words. Jesus was doing something new. He wasn’t talking about the past, he was talking about the future. He wasn’t talking about a lamb’s death, he was talking about his own. He wasn’t talking about deliverance from Egyptian slavery, he was talking about forgiveness of sins.

More than a thousand Passovers had come and gone since the days of Moses. Now here in Jerusalem, meeting in secret with his disciples, Jesus spoke words connected to a new and greater exodus and to a new and greater covenant.

Adam and Eve Not Created Physically Immortal

Genesis 2 reports the creation of Adam and Eve. They lived in the garden of Eden, and in the center of this garden were two trees. One tree was the “tree of life” (Gen. 2:9). We may gain insight about this tree when we see God’s words in 3:22: “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever . . . ”

The “tree of life” was (1) accessible to Adam and Eve, (2) able to be eaten, and (3) associated with immortality. Then in Genesis 3:24 God “drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” Here we see that the “tree of life” was (4) guarded after the expulsion of Adam and Eve.

Outside the garden, and at age 930, Adam “died” (Gen. 5:5). But did he die because his body was no longer immortal after his sin? Or were Adam and Eve created mortal yet given the hope of greater life (signified by the “tree of life”)?

Sometimes I’ve heard believers speak of Adam and Eve as if God created them with invincible bodies. The notion of a “perfect” beginning seems to exclude bodies that could die. The impression seems to be of a physically immortal couple who are subjected to death only after their expulsion from the garden. After all, doesn’t Genesis 2:17 say “in the day that you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die”? Doesn’t this imply that if they don’t eat of the forbidden tree, they can’t die?

But I don’t believe Adam and Eve were physically immortal. The words of Genesis 3:22 (“lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever”) suggest that immortal life was what Adam didn’t yet have and what he was then prevented from acquiring (see 3:24). And if he didn’t have immortal physical life, then by implication he had mortal physicality.

Adam and Eve could die, and this ability coexisted in a state of being without sin in the garden. The ability to die doesn’t equate to a state of sinfulness. If it did, wouldn’t this objection also apply to Jesus? When Jesus was born, he was born physically mortal, able to die. And if we are to remain biblical in our christology, we must assume that mortal Jesus was also sinless Jesus.

In the situation of Adam and Eve, God clearly promised that “in the day that you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17), but the fulfillment of that promise did not involve a reversal of physical immortality. If immortality could be taken away, was it ever true immortality in the first place? The “death” Adam and Eve experienced was first an effect on their relationship with God, but there was a physical component as well because God exiled them out of the garden. Exile was a kind of death, and it ensured their physical death.

The garden of Eden had provided the conditions for physical immortality, for in the center was a tree called the “tree of life” (Gen. 2:9), and any who ate its fruit would live forever (3:22). But the hope for immortality was outside the bodies of Adam and Eve. Apart from the tree of life, their bodies would not live forever. And barred from the garden of Eden, their bodies would and did die. Their death outside Eden was not the reversal of immortality, it was the proof of mortality.

Fast forward to 1 Corinthians 15. There was a first Adam in Genesis, but Paul speaks of “the last Adam” Jesus (1 Cor. 15:45). Jesus, the Last Adam, was raised from the dead as the firstfruits of all who will be raised at his coming (15:20-23). At the future resurrection of the dead, “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (15:53).

Jesus was born mortal, able to die. But he was raised immortal, never to die again. His glorified body is now imperishable. Like Jesus, we will be raised imperishable and put on immortality. This hope means that Adam and Eve, who were created mortal, will be raised immortal too. The first couple will finally have what they never had in the garden of Eden.

Five Barren Women in the Old Testament

When a woman is identified as “barren” in the Old Testament, you can depend on God to reverse it in the story. There are five such women in the Old Testament, and each experiences the power of God leading to a fruitful womb.

  1. Isaac’s mother, Sarah (Gen. 11:30; 21:1-2) who had married Abraham
  2. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah (Gen. 25:21) who had married Isaac
  3. Joseph’s mother, Rachel (Gen. 29:31; 30:22) who had married Jacob
  4. Samson’s mother, who was unnamed (Judg. 13:1-3) and had married Manoah
  5. Samuel’s mother, Hannah (1 Sam. 1:5-6, 20) who had married Elkanah

You can count these women on one hand, which shows the rarity of such accounts. Their stories nonetheless showcase the power of God as He advances His promises by overcoming obstacles.

Viewing the five women as a whole, three (Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel) were wives of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), all in Genesis. And since Abraham had Isaac and Isaac had Jacob, barrenness was an important motif for three generations in a row.

The other two women–the unnamed mother and Hannah–appear not only after Genesis but outside the Pentateuch and even after the entrance into the promised land. Any thoughts as to the timing of the births of Samson and Samuel in the history of Israel?

Foreshadowing the Conquest of the Promised Land

Genesis is filled with the foreshadowing of later events. In the book of Joshua the Israelites enter the promised land and begin its conquest, and this event was foreshadowed in Genesis 12.

Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Morah. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (Gen. 12:6-7)

Three observations: first, the land is currently occupied (“the Canaanites were in the land”); yet, second, the land would eventually belong to Abraham’s offspring (see the promise in v. 7); and third, the future possession of the land by Abraham’s offspring would ultimately be the work of God (“I will give this land”).

If the current occupants of the land were only temporary stewards, then a conflict was inevitable. For the land of Canaan to become the land of Israel, a conquest is in store.

Last Supper, Lord’s Supper, or Marriage Supper: What Do the Miraculous Feedings Foreshadow?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus miraculously provided food for a crowd of 5,000 (Matt. 14:13-21) and 4,000 (15:32-39). Scholars recognize that these feedings allude to Old Testament stories involving Moses, Israel, Elijah, and Elisha. But in addition to pointing backward, do the stories point forward? And if these feedings are forward-pointing, what is being foreshadowed?

Perhaps the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, or perhaps the Lord’s Supper which believers practice, or perhaps the eschatological Marriage Supper. Let’s take these options in reverse.

  1. Least controversial is that the miraculous feedings foreshadow the Marriage Supper. Matthew has already reported Jesus’ words about an end-time banquet: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). And near the end of the Gospel, Jesus refers to “that day” when he will drink “this fruit of the vine” with his disciples “in my Father’s kingdom” (26:29), another reference to the eschatological meal. In Grant Osborne’s commentary on Matthew, he represents the view of many scholars when he writes, “This was truly a messianic miracle pointing forward to the messianic banquet, an eschatological meal often emphasized by Jesus (Matt. 8:11; Luke 14:15; 22:30) and also a common theme in Judaism.”
  2. But what about the Lord’s Supper? Could the miraculous provision of loaves find meaning in the frequent practice of believers sharing bread and wine together? Leon Morris is hesitant to see in the language any application to communion. Ben Witherington says “it is doubtful that the First Evangelist had any major intent to portray this as a Eucharistic meal.” Craig Blomberg says a eucharistic reading would be anachronistic, though some foreshadowing might be possible. R. T. France is more open to the view, though, writing, “The feeding of the crowd is . . . a ‘foretaste’ of the central act of worship of the emergent Christian community, even though the menu was not quite the same.” Furthermore, consider that the order of taking, giving thanks, breaking, and eating (Matt. 15:36-37) is the pattern of the Lord’s Supper in Acts 27:35 (“And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat”).
  3. The miraculous meals may point to the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples. Grant Osborne rightly notes that the sequence of verbs in Matt. 14:19 (taking, blessing, breaking, giving) is found elsewhere in the Gospel only at the Last Supper in 26:26 (“Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples”). David Turner says it is “at least plausible” that the miraculous feeding foreshadowed the Last Supper. The second miraculous meal tells us that Jesus gave thanks, and this notion was during the actions of taking and giving (15:36). At the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to his disciples (26:27).

Before we evaluate these options, let’s avoid the mistake of assuming only one view can be held. Why couldn’t two views be true simultaneously? Or even all three? The eschatological feast is surely the end point of what the miraculous meals foreshadow. But the Lord’s Supper is itself an anticipation of that final feast. In the bread and wine, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26), a coming which leads to table fellowship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11). And isn’t the Lord’s Supper the ordinance which Jesus established at the Last Supper? And wasn’t it at the Last Supper when Jesus also spoke of the eschatological feast in the Father’s kingdom? (26:29).

The original audience of the miraculous feedings may not have realized the significance of the meals. But the point isn’t whether the original eaters or listeners would have sensed a deeper resonance of truth. The point is for the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel, readers which had an inspired collection and organization of stories and narration and teachings. The readers of Matthew’s Gospel were decades after the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry and thus decades after the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:24-25; Luke 22:19). When these readers and hearers of Matthew’s Gospel learned about Jesus taking, blessing, breaking, and giving bread, discerning elements (pun intended!) of the Last Supper, Lord’s Supper, and Marriage Supper is not only plausible but reasonable and, I think, even probable.

So, yes, I’m saying the miraculous feedings foreshadowed the meal Jesus shared in the upper room, the meal the church shared (and shares) together, and the meal on the last day when we recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

We need not be bound to only one view of what the feedings point to. If you look at a map and locate Nashville, Tennessee, you will notice that I-40 leaves Nashville to the west, and it will take you to Oklahoma City. And if you said, “I’m going to travel on I-40 from Nashville to Oklahoma City,” it would also be correct for someone to say, “You know, along the way, you’ll go through Memphis and even Little Rock.” This is true because I-40 takes you from Nashville to Oklahoma City but through other cities along the way. The trajectory of travel is advanced, not hindered, by these other places prior to your final destination.

The map illustration is a way of saying that the miraculous meals point to the Marriage Supper, but this trajectory does not exclude a foreshadowing of the Last Supper and Lord’s Supper–which themselves continue pointing to the final feast at the table with the patriarchs.