A Vision of the Gospel in Resplendent Color (from the Pentateuch!)
The theater lights are dim and everyone’s attention is fixed on the screen. Those watching are comfortable in their seats and so wrapped up in the story that popcorn sits uneaten on every lap. This is why no one really notices when, fifteen minutes into the action, we tiptoe in. We find a few seats in the back corner and begin to piece the story together. Twenty minutes pass, then thirty, then a full hour, and by the time the theater lights come back on, we have a nagging feeling that we are missing something. Sure, we sort of figured out the story’s high points, but without its essential first part, we could not enjoy the movie the same way as everyone else.
The Pentateuch is a cluster of five books that make up the essential first act in the Bible’s grand story. This means that if we are Christians who want to understand the gospel better, the Pentateuch is a great place to start. Although this might sound counterintuitive, it’s true. As we go deeper in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, a black-and-white grasp of the Bible’s message will increasingly give way to a vision of the gospel in resplendent color. These foundational books are the entry point into the biblical story that continues through the Old and New Testaments and gloriously concludes in the book of Revelation. Without the Pentateuch, there would be no first act in the grand drama.
The First Christians
For the first Christians, these claims would not have been counterintuitive. The apostle Paul—who began his ministry career as Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee—was steeped in the Old Testament (and especially the Pentateuch). After Paul encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he spent his first years as a Christian rethinking the entire (Old Testament) Scriptures that he already knew so well, in light of Jesus as their fulfillment. This was also true for the first Jewish Christians, who were raised on the (Old Testament) Scriptures. And although the first non-Jewish Christians had not been raised with a biblical worldview, their first encounter with the gospel, and then their learning at church gatherings, would have been focused on the (Old Testament) Scriptures.
Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck put it well:
The Gospel is the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament. Without it, the Gospel hangs suspended in the air. The Old Testament is the pedestal on which the Gospel rests, and the root out of which it came forth.1
If these things are true for the first three quarters of the Christian Bible—the entire Old Testament—how much more so for the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch is the first act in the Old Testament story, and it is the foundation on which everything in the Old Testament rests. As we better understand the first act, we will discover a new depth in our understanding of themes as they develop through the rest of the Old Testament, and then as they are revealed with Christ as their fulfillment in the New Testament.
A Wonderful Description of Jesus
Although entire libraries of books have been written on this topic, let’s catch more of the vision by turning to a wonderful passage in Hebrews:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:14–16)
There is a wonderful richness in this description of Jesus: he is our great high priest, and he is the Son of God. As our high priest, he sympathizes with our weaknesses and he can relate to the temptations we feel—because he endured them too! Starkly different from us, though, he never sinned. In light of these things, we are called to draw near to the throne (where Jesus rules) of grace (where Jesus forgives our sins) with confidence (because Jesus wants to forgive our sins). As we do this, we “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Wow.
No matter who we are—no matter how much we know or don’t know about the rest of the Bible—this passage from Hebrews is glorious. And while we are spiritually nourished by these truths in our initial encounters with this passage, we will discover even more spiritual nourishment as we turn back to the Pentateuch.
The High Priest in the Pentateuch
Since Hebrews 4:14–16 presents Jesus as our great high priest, learning about this Old Testament figure will deepen our understanding of our Lord.
First, the Old Testament high priest ministered in the tabernacle. With its entrance on the east side, our minds are harkened back to the exit out of Eden (Gen. 3:22–24), which was on its east side. This hints that the tabernacle was a step toward re-entering Eden. This is confirmed even more when we notice cherubim embroidered on the curtain-entrance to the inner part of the tabernacle—the most holy place. In this way, cherubim were guarding the way to the place where YHWH dwelled (cf. Gen. 3:22–24). As the high priest entered through the curtain he would find the ark of the covenant—a wooden chest overlaid with pure gold. On top of the ark were two more golden cherubim that faced each other, but looking downward in reverent awe. As 1 Chronicles 13:6 put it, the ark represented the throne of “YHWH who sits enthroned above the cherubim.”
As our high priest, Jesus carries us into the presence of God, before his very throne. He is the mediator between Christians and God.
Next, in the book of Exodus we learn that the high priest wore a long, sleeveless apron called an ephod. This ephod came complete with onyx stones on each shoulder, and these were engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. This reminds us of the garden of Eden once again—remember that onyx stones were found there too (Gen. 2:12). And this was also symbolic: the high priest bore the twelve tribes of Israel on his shoulders wherever he went. He also had a breast piece with twelve gemstones woven into its fabric, many of which also appeared in the garden of Eden. Therefore, as the high priest would enter the tabernacle, the twelve tribes were not only borne on his shoulders (engraved on the onyx stones), but they were also front-and-center on his chest. In this way, he symbolically carried the community into the presence of YHWH (Ex. 28:12, 29).
Finally, Leviticus 16 records an annual event in the high priest’s calendar: the Day of Atonement. During one aspect of this day, the high priest was to take two goats to the entrance of the tent of meeting and cast lots over them—the goat whose lot fell on YHWH was to be used as a sin offering, and the goat whose lot fell on Azazel2 was to be “presented alive before YHWH to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel” (Lev. 16:10). L. Michael Morales explains that “the goats, as one symbol, stand for the sake of Israel: the sacrificed goat conveying Israel favorably into the inner sanctum vicariously, the led-away goat conveying Israel’s sins away from the face of God.”3
Our Great High Priest
All of a sudden, our already rich vision of Christ from Hebrews 4:14–16 has been given even more depth. As our high priest, Jesus carries us into the presence of God, before his very throne. He is the mediator between Christians and God. But he is also the ultimate, perfect sacrifice, who died once for all so that we could be cleansed.
Also notice that Jesus is not merely “the new high priest,” but “the great high priest.” While the high priest of the Old Testament needed to atone for his own sins before he could atone for the sins of the people, Jesus was (and is) a sinless mediator (Heb. 5:3; 7:27). And while the Old Testament high priest was a human mediator, the God-man, Jesus Christ, passed through the heavens. Finally, while a divine high priest would be powerful, the incarnation and life of Jesus means that our great high priest can sympathize with our weaknesses, even as he invites us to boldly come to his throne of grace.
As we grow in understanding the Pentateuch as the essential first act in the Bible’s grand story, our experience of Christ will never be the same. Let’s work to be whole-Bible Christians who together grow in our vision of the gospel in resplendent color.
- Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God: Instruction in the Christian Religion According to the Reformed Confession, Kindle Edition (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2020), location 2316. I am thankful to Nick Mitchell, who first alerted me to this excellent quote.
- The significance of the term “Azazel” is debated. For a helpful discussion of various positions, see especially J.E. Hartley, “Day of Atonement,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 59.
- L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, NSBT 37, ed. D.A. Carson (Downers Grove, IL: InverVarsity, 2015), 180.
Ian J. Vaillancourt is the author of The Dawning of Redemption: The Story of the Pentateuch and the Hope of the Gospel.
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