Great expectations surrounded the birth of the Messiah. The angel Gabriel told Mary to name Him Jesus (“YHWH saves”), for He would save the people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Mary rejoiced in God her Savior, seeing in her Son God’s remembrance, help, and mercy to Israel (Luke 1:47, 54-55). Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus as the Savior to shepherds (Luke 2:10-11); Simeon confessed Jesus as God’s salvation, the glory of Israel, and a light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:30-32). Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied of Jesus as the means by which God would bring salvation to His people, a horn of salvation in David, and salvation from Israel’s enemies and those who hated them (Luke 1:67-75). The birth of Jesus brought great joy to those who looked for the redemption of Jerusalem (cf. Luke 2:38).
In the covenants which God made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel, and David, salvation had involved deliverance from enemies, blessings and prosperity in the land which God had given them, and progeny to maintain the covenant, the land, and God’s blessings (Genesis 17:4-8, Leviticus 26:1-12). Israelites therefore naturally expected the coming Messiah to bring this kind of salvation to His people in even greater measure than in the days of Moses or David.
All who would maintain such expectations would become disappointed and frustrated by what God accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth, not because He was a false Messiah, but because they set their sights, hopes, and dreams for salvation too narrowly. Israel was focused on the oppression of the Romans. The Romans, however, were only the latest in a long line of oppressors and persecutors. One day they would be gone, and some other oppressor would rise.
Jesus of Nazareth instead proclaimed the good news of God’s reign in the Kingdom He was establishing: defeat over the greatest enemy, Satan, and the sin and death by which he had deceived and tyrannized mankind for millennia (Romans 5:12-21, 6:14-23, 8:1-25). Jesus gained victory over Satan by resisting all of his temptations and suffering evil at the hands of his agents to the point of death (Hebrews 4:15, Colossians 2:15). God gave Jesus victory over death in the resurrection, and gave Him all rule, power, and authority in His ascension and the establishment of His Kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14, Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:14-36, Romans 6:1-11).
Christians do well to understand salvation as it has been manifested in what God accomplished in Jesus. Jesus came, died, and was raised again to save people from their sins and reconcile them to God and to one another (Ephesians 2:1-22). Jesus absorbed and suffered the shame and the curse of sin and in this way secured redemption for all who would trust in Him (Galatians 3:10-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20-21). Jesus now reigns as Lord and Christ, and all do well to follow after Him and His commandments (Acts 2:36, 1 John 2:3-6). In Jesus all are invited to become part of the household of God and to participate in the work of the Kingdom of God in Christ in His church (Ephesians 1:22-23, 2:18-22, Colossians 1:13, 18).
To this end participation in the new covenant between God and Jesus contrasts sharply with participation in the covenant between God and Israel. Israel was a specific people given a specific piece of land; Christians come from all the nations of the world and are citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom which is not of this world, transcending all lands and nation-states (John 18:36, Acts 10:34-35, Philippians 3:20-21). Israel’s blessings and curses were concrete, focusing on offspring, material prosperity, and material security; while Christians may still receive such concrete blessings from God, they are not guaranteed, and their existence or lack thereof do not inherently provide assurance of God’s favor or disfavor (Matthew 6:19-34, 2 Corinthians 11:18-33). The Christian’s strong assurance and hope lay instead in eternal life in the resurrection (Philippians 3:1-15), something beyond this life. A Christian may experience a Job-like event of great material loss: in Israel such would be considered a curse, but in Christ it may be the way the Christian glorifies God and obtains the resurrection of life (1 John 3:16, Revelation 12:11).
The contrast between salvation in the Old and New Testaments is often reduced to “physical” versus “spiritual”: salvation in the Old Testament involved physical deliverance from physical enemies and distress, whereas in the New Testament salvation involves spiritual deliverance from our spiritual enemy.
As we have seen, this “physical vs. spiritual” contrast has a lot of truth in it, yet we must resist making the comparison absolute. Everything God sought to accomplish in Israel would culminate in Jesus’ death and resurrection; the Patriarchs and the Israelites who trusted in God sought to cultivate that spiritual relationship and yearned for a heavenly city and land whose builder and founder was God (Hebrews 11:8-16). Thus, spiritual elements existed in the salvation and covenants of the Old Testament; likewise, the physical is not entirely rejected in the New Testament.
God is a spirit; God desires for the salvation of our souls (John 4:24, Romans 6:3-7, 8:9-11). Yet if God’s salvation in Christ were only spiritual in nature, the story would be about how to escape the enslavement of the hopelessly corrupt creation in order to cultivate pure spirit: this was the story advanced by the docetics and Gnostics, and rightly condemned as heresy by Paul and John (1 Timothy 6:20-21, 1 John 4:1-5, 2 John 1:6-10).
In our zeal to make appropriate contrasts between the old and new covenants we should not go beyond what is written and fall prey to the philosophies of the world (Colossians 2:8-9). God has made humans as soul, spirit, and body; we were made thus as part of His creation which He called very good (Genesis 1:26-27, 31, Hebrews 4:12). God’s creation has never been the problem; the problem was the corruption introduced into the creation by sin and death (Romans 5:12-21). God became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus took on the form of sinful flesh to redeem it (John 1:1, 14, 2 Corinthians 5:20-21). The “game changer” was not Jesus’ revelation to the world of secret knowledge of how to escape, but Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: Jesus’ resurrection is the ground for the hope of our own resurrection, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:18-23, 1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Humanity is not the problem; physicality is not the problem; sin and death are the problems, and when sin and death are fully overcome in Jesus, we can be made ready to obtain eternal life in the incorruptible, immortal, yet still distinctly human, resurrection body (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58). Not for nothing do Peter and John envision life in the resurrection in a glorified “new heavens and new earth,” a setting to right of all that has gone wrong, not a complete abandonment of what God made and called good (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1-22:6).
God did indeed save His people from their sins and gave them victory over their enemies in Jesus their Messiah. God’s work in Jesus did not align with Israel’s expectations, but it was also not otherworldly or escapist. Our hope is not in the here and now, but in Jesus and the resurrection, but it cannot be completely extricated from the creation in which God took on flesh and dwelt among us, died, was raised in power, and now rules over as Lord. May we continually praise God for the hope of salvation in Jesus, and seek to obtain the resurrection of life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry