On what basis could salvation be obtained in Old Testament times? Jesus was not yet born, and the New Testament affirms that there was no other way to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6). What about all those Old Testament believers? Was there a way for them?
In Samuel Schultz’s book, The Gospel According to Moses, it is noted that salvation has never been by works, but has always been by grace through faith. The Old Testament sacrificial system was a means of providing a temporary “covering” for sin, but not a permanent “removal” of our sin. The means of salvation, both then and now, was trusting in God’s gracious provision of One who would remove sin.
As divine revelation unfolded, it became clear that the means by which salvation would come would be via the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, in the person of an individual from that nation. The Old Testament prophets portray this individual in a number of ways, including the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) and the Messiah (Jeremiah 23:5-6).
An interesting example of this development is Simeon (Luke 2:25-32), portrayed as an elderly devout Jew who longed for the coming of this promised individual. Simeon had lived his life with faith in God’s provision, not knowing when this person would come or who it would be. This was typical of Old Testament believers – they knew the Lord would provide His salvation, but did not yet know the identity of the One who would come.
One day, the Holy Spirit told Simeon that he would not see death before he would see the consolation of Israel, which was understood as the revealing of the Messiah (“the Anointed One”). When Simeon came into courts of the temple, he was led to a child brought there by his parents. At that moment Simeon realized the identity of this child, and, while holding him in his arms, declared in prayer, “My eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30). The object of his faith had not changed, but the identification of God’s provision had now come.
The means of salvation had not changed. Then, as well as now, salvation is by grace through faith in God’s provision (by means of the shedding of blood). For Old Testament believers (Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, etc.) salvation came through looking ahead to God’s provision. For us today, it comes through looking back on God’s provision. What has changed is that now we have more information and clearer identification – that Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth is the One whom God has sent.
It is significant that Simeon quoted Isaiah 49:6 (cf. Luke 2:32):
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.
Simeon, like Isaiah, recognized that the Lord’s promise of provision was not only for the Jewish people, but for everyone.
Some will say that there cannot be only one way to be saved. Yet, if it weren’t for God’s love, there would not be any way at all. If there was any other way, God would not have given His only Son (John 3:16).
Today, God’s provision can be clearly seen and identified. That which Old Testament believers looked forward to, and which we in this New Testament era look back upon, is God’s means of salvation – “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Jew and Gentile alike may receive God’s gracious provision. That “light” and that “glory” have been revealed in Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth.