When did Israel recognize the penal substitution of the Messiah?

A few months ago I discussed why penal substitution is the primary achievement of the cross. (See also what Jesus didn’t die for.)

We often (correctly) say that NT saints are saved through their faith in what the Messiah did and OT saints were saved through their faith in what the Messiah would do. I’m wondering when the Old Testament saints were responsible to put their faith in the Messiah save them specifically by dying on their behalf, taking God’s just wrath against them on himself.

In reverse chronological order, here are some major OT passages that point towards Jesus taking our punishment so we could be shown mercy:

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant

There can be no doubt that Israel was responsible to understand that the Messiah would die a substitutionary death by the time of Isaiah:

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed…
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Isa 53:5,10

There is no mistaking Isaiah’s prophecy of the “Suffering Servant.” The Messiah would suffer for the guilt of his people.

The Levitical Sacrifices

The sacrifices recorded in Leviticus are primarily about payment for sin:

Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.
Lev 16:15-16

My only reservation here is that I don’t find textual clues that would make Israel believe the Messiah would one day become the guilt offering on their behalf.

The Promise in the Curse

The very first redemptive prophecy of the Bible holds a reference to Christ’s sufferings:

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.
Gen 3:15

My question on this passage is whether or not the original audience would have understood “bruise his heel” as substitutionary.

My Questions to You

1. Have I correctly interpreted these passages in respect to penal substitution?

2. What other OT passages point to the penal substitution provided by the Messiah?

3. When was Israel responsible for placing faith in the penal substitute to come?

_______________

Further Reading:
Why does the Bible give us examples?
God will save you… if
How should we use the different theories of atonement?

Image by pOOfkAt


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8 thoughts on “When did Israel recognize the penal substitution of the Messiah?

  1. Dave,
    While it is true that the Old Testament saints were saved by their faith (Hebrews 11 abundantly proves this), I’m not sure you’re ever going to be able to show in the OT that this faith needed to be specifically informed about Christ’s penal substitution. Even Abraham, whose saving faith is used as an example by both Paul and James is not held up as believing in penal substitution per se, but as someone who trusted God. The object of our faith is not the specific means by which Jesus saves us, but Jesus himself.

    Now I don’t mean by this that the ground of their salvation and their imputed righteousness was anything other than the work of Christ in bearing our punishment and fulfilling our righteousness. I deny the so-called “new perspective” which would do away with the necessity of penal substitution. The OT saints could not be saved by Christ if he did not bear their punishment, but I question whether they need to know that specifically in order to be saved by him.

    1. Bryan,
      Thanks for your thoughts. This is exactly the conversation I want to have here. I absolutely agree with you about Abraham – we have no scriptural evidence which would indicate that he had a working understanding of penal substitution. However, as I stated above, I can’t read Isa 53 and not see direct, concrete explanation of the Messiah’s substitutionary death specifically for our guilt. How do you read it?
      In Christ,
      Dave

  2. I agree Dave, how else do you read that? YOu pose great questions, and man- you got me stumped and interested in pursuing more reading to hear what anyone else says on the topic. thanks for pushing me to know God more and study His word more!

  3. Dave, in regards to Isaiah 53… yes, penal substitution is very clear there, but we have the Holy Spirit’s help and a New Testament perspective to understand exactly what is meant by those words. How can we know what an OT saint was “required” to understand from the Prophets? How can we know how the Spirit worked in them to teach them the meaning of those prophets’ words? Perhaps it was only in the “fullness of time” that the prophets’ words were made manifestly clear.

    For example, even though the prophets clearly predicted many details of Jesus’ birth, life and death, the OT saints were not required to have figured out all those things in order to be saved. The NT record shows that those who received Jesus did so not because they had figured all the prophecies out beforehand, but because their hearts were prepared to recognize in Jesus the fulfillment of those prophecies.

    So to answer your third question, my answer would be that Israel was not responsible to place their faith in the penal substitute UNTIL that substitute in the fulness of time appeared and was announced in the apostolic preaching.

    The ground or foundation of the OT saint’s salvation is the work of Christ on the cross in his active and passive obedience, but the means of the OT saint’s salvation was the demonstration of his faith by believing the promises made to Abraham and the fathers. This belief in the promises was likewise demonstrated by that saint’s adherence to the Mosaic Law which was the shadow of what was to come. I don’t think he was responsible to understand everything that the shadow pointed forward to as if the OT saint could know all that is revealed in the book of Hebrews, even though it was happening right around him.

    I’m open to correction on this, but that is how I understand it.

    Bryan

    P.S. It would be nice if you had a feature where a reader could subscribe by email to comments on your blog. I usually read your posts by email, so I didn’t even know you had responded to my comment until today.

    1. Bryan,
      Thanks for the thoughtful response! Here are my thoughts:

      When you asked, “How can we know what an OT saint was ‘required’ to understand from the Prophets?” my reply is to turn the question around on you. My default thinking is that we’re responsible to read, meditate on and apply all the Scripture we have access to. I think the burden of proof would be on you to prove that they weren’t responsible for putting their faith in the prophet’s words – words which explicitly discuss penal substitution.

      I think your example of the details of Jesus birth doesn’t correspond too well. The purpose of his birth and the details are extremely different. We aren’t responsible for understanding the specific details of the second coming – who truly understands Revelation? – but we are responsible for understanding the purpose of the second coming.

      I agree completely that “the means of the OT saint’s salvation was the demonstration of his faith by believing the promises made to Abraham and the fathers.” My question is whether the OT saints were required to believe more specifics about those promises as more about the nature of the promises was revealed (e.g. Isa 53).

      Let me know where you think I’m off base on this one!

      In Christ,
      Dave

      PS – I added a plugin to allow you to subscribe to comments. Great suggestion!

      1. OK, no argument that OT saints had the obligation to meditate on and seek to understand the light they were given, and also that they had to put their faith in the prophet’s words. But even though the “suffering servant” motif in Isaiah seems so very clear to us in hindsight, I just wonder how clear it was to Isaiah’s listeners. I put my faith in everything that the NT teaches, but believe me, there is much I still don’t understand.

        When you ask, “when was Israel responsible to put their faith in the penal substitute to come,” are you implying that there was a turning point in God’s dispensation of grace after which the only way of salvation was by a conscious understanding of and placing of faith in the promise of a penal substitute? As I re-read your reply, this is what you seem to be asking.

        Perhaps the answer is that we simply do not know and can’t know. Yes, the light is there, and yes there was a responsibility to understand it, but to what extent are we responsible to fully understand (even in this dispensation) how we are saved in order to be saved by faith. Believe me, as someone working with an UPG, this is a very relevant question for me!

  4. Re-reading my comment… let me add this further explanation.

    I’m drawing a distinction between responsibility to believe and accept all of God’s revealed truth, and responsibility to understand that truth. I think many OT saints whom we will meet in heaven thought they were being saved by the sacrifices they were making under the Mosaic covenant. They were saved by their faith on the basis of Christ’s work on the cross, even though that work was not fully understood by them.

    As you point out in your post, penal substitution is clearly and progressively revealed throughout the OT dispensation, beginning with Adam and Eve’s being clothed with the covering of the substitute whose blood was spilt for their sin. But even though that is so clear to us, did Seth and his descendants up until Noah place their faith in a future substitute? Did God’s people between Noah and Abraham understand the full redemptive significance of the Ark? I don’t think they did, but as I said before, it really is a moot issue. The real issue for us is what is necessary to believe NOW in order to be saved.

    Bryan

    1. Bryan,
      Thanks again for your insightful responses. I’m going to respond to what I perceive to be your three main points:

      1. “Are you implying that there was a turning point in God’s dispensation of grace after which the only way of salvation was by a conscious understanding of and placing of faith in the promise of a penal substitute? As I re-read your reply, this is what you seem to be asking.”
      That is exactly what I’m asking. I am sure that the Messiah is portrayed as a penal substitute in Isa 53 (and possibly earlier – hence this post). I’m not sure to what extent the OT saints were required to believe this. Certainly they weren’t required to know the particulars of Christ’s life. But I think they may have been required to know the purpose of it.

      2. “I’m drawing a distinction between responsibility to believe and accept all of God’s revealed truth, and responsibility to understand that truth.”
      How can you believe something you don’t understand? Or are you saying that they might have had the responsibility to understand something but not believe it?

      3. “Did Seth and his descendants up until Noah place their faith in a future substitute? Did God’s people between Noah and Abraham understand the full redemptive significance of the Ark? I don’t think they did, but as I said before, it really is a moot issue.”
      My guess is “no” for both of these. But that’s why I wrote this post – to ask the question and start the discussion. I don’t think it’s a completely “moot issue” because understanding the degree to which God holds us responsible for the revelation he gives us does affect us.

      My questions:
      1.
      You said, “The real issue for us is what is necessary to believe NOW in order to be saved.” There are large groups of Christians who deny penal substitution today. Do you think a belief in penal substitution is required to be saved? (I’m not decided on this one so I’m really interested in your thoughts.)
      2. What is an UPG?

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