Mapping God's Mercy: The Gospel in the Old Testament

Reading Time: 16 mins

How can we best talk about the Gospel with an Old Testament accent? Chad Bird provides us with a helpful "map" that highlights Egypt, the Red Sea, and Jerusalem. These three places represent the ways in which God graciously redeems, delivers, and sanctifies us. This brief essay was delivered at the 1517 Regional Conference in Bentonville, Arkansas, on April 17, 2021.

In 1976, Carson Bird and Lee Roy Bird, my father and grandfather, traveled from Texas to Hopewell Village, Pennsylvania, for the celebration of our nation’s bicentennial. In a way, they were returning to their roots. Hopewell Village was a small community, around 850 acres, a so-called “Iron Plantation” that was established in the 1700’s by a man named Mark Bird, who is my great, great, great, great, great grandfather. Hopewell Village is now a National Historic Site, primarily because Mark Bird was instrumental in helping George Washington and his army during the Revolutionary War by supplying cannons as well as shipping flour to Washington and his men when they were at Valley Forge.

A few weeks ago, when I visited my Dad, who will turn 80 this year, he and I talked about his visit to Hopewell Village 45 years ago. He has copies of the letters that Mark Bird wrote to his business associates. He has a family Bible that dates back into the late 1700s, complete with the documentation of marriages and births and deaths. Most importantly, however, my Dad seems to have a very real connection to his past. It’s as if these family members, long dead, he actually knows. He gets where he came from, where I came from. His interest in genealogy isn’t just a mental exercise or hobby; it shapes his self-understanding. He often reminds me that, had he known our family history before I was born, you wouldn’t be calling me Chad but Mark Bird. I would have been, so to speak, the living image of our family’s past reality.

Maybe because I was raised in a family where the past was present, where we knew where we came from, our family roots, my way of thinking and teaching is founded on the conviction that we, as the family of God, must never forget where we came from. Our roots. We believe in and worship the Messiah who is a Jew, a descendant of David and Abraham, circumcised according to the covenant, hailed as Rabbi—a man whose identity and calling and mission were entirely molded by the scriptures and history of Israel. Thus Jesus tells the woman at the well, “Salvation is from…” where? From the Jews. It’s not from the Samaritans. It’s not from the Egyptians. It’s not from the Greeks or the Romans or the Germans and, believe it or not, it’s not even from the Texans. Salvation is from the Jews, the olive tree into which we Gentiles have been grafted, the family into which we have been adopted. And if salvation is from the Jews, then it goes without saying that the Gospel is from the Jews as well.

The Good News is thus the Oldest News. As old as Genesis, with the skull-crushing Seed of the Woman. As old as Exodus, with the sacrificed and consumed Passover lamb. As old as Leviticus, with the high priest sprinkling blood on the ark of the covenant. On and on it goes, every jewel and precious stone of the OT is a tiny but important piece of the massive messianic mosaic. To miss the Gospel in the OT would be like a guy who reads through the Lord of the Rings but can’t recall any mention of Sam and Frodo.

What I want us to do, for a few minutes, is to attempt to un-Americanize, un-modernize, and un-individualize our minds and to stick a Hebrew brain inside our heads (or, as they would say, to put a Hebrew heart inside us). The Lord who strolled through Eden, boomed the Ten Words down from Sinai, and visited the prophets to teach them, he is none other than the Son of God. Jesus wasn’t sitting in the dugout of heaven, waiting for his turn at bat in the incarnation. He was always in the game. He was always there, in Egypt, in the burning bush, in the Red Sea, in the Holy of Holies. At the top of every page of the OT, write, “This is about Jesus, who brings salvation and the gospel from the Jews, for the entire world.”

A helpful way to picture the Gospel in the OT is to imagine a map—a map with three major locations: Egypt, the Red Sea, and Jerusalem. These three places are both historical and archetypical. You can visit all three of them today, stand in the shadow of the pyramids, splash water from the sea, and stand beside the wailing wall. But you’ve also lived in all three of them, even if you’ve never left the continental US. These are also archetypical locations; they map our lives, map from where God has taken us and to where he has brought us. And this map, every square inch of it, is a map of mercy. This is the cartography of grace.

Born in Egypt

There’s been a mistake made on each of our birth certificates. Mine says I was born in Jal, NM. True but false. My wife’s says she was born in Houston, TX. Again, true but false. We all were welcomed into this world with Egyptian sand blowing through the maternity ward. Pharoah is our tyrant king and we are all far, far from our true fatherland. Beginning already with Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, continuing in Exodus, and recurring in prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah and Hosea, Egypt is the archetypical prison of exile. We all start our life behind bars.

The Bible, of course, describes the condition of unbelief in many ways. We’re probably more comfortable with the NT language of being dead in trespasses and sins, children of darkness, enemies of God, and the like. None of these, of course, would I ever deny or downplay. I do think, however, that this distinctive way the OT maps the life of unbelief can be especially helpful as we not only think about our own condition but also as we engage in evangelism and preaching.

For one, to riff off Augustine, our hearts are homeless until they’re at home with God in Zion. Every time unbelievers talk about searching, feeling lost, trying to find their place in the world, though they don’t realize it, they’re speaking Egyptian. Theirs is a hieroglyphic life, where the symbols may be IG posts and Twitter laments they carve onto their social media pyramids. They’re craving a place to belong. They miss what they have never known, the city they have never inhabited, but to which God is calling them. Such is life in Egypt.

Thinking of life apart from Christ as “Life in Egypt” also helps to explain the feverish attempt to dress up the land of captivity with the garments of Zion. This, of course, is why we see the religionizing of everything. Creeds of wokeness, high priests of political parties, shopping malls as vast liturgical temples, a greater reverence for the flag than the cross—all these are but symptoms of people trying to scratch a religious itch that will not go away. Humans can no more stop being religious than they can stop breathing. Egypt is awash in religion, every manifestation of which is reaching in the darkness toward the hand of an unknown God but grasping an idol by the tail.

Living in Egypt as a way of describing life apart from God also bleeds into the NT. When Jesus tells parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and especially the lost or prodigal son, he is borrowing this OT imagery. The “faraway country” of the prodigal, in the Jewish imagination, would have been the equivalent of Egypt.

Here’s something fascinating, too. When, on the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus and Moses and Elijah are speaking of his exodus that Jesus is going to accomplish in Jerusalem, that means Jerusalem can be only one thing: Jerusalem has become thoroughly Egyptianized. John will say as much in Revelation 11:8 when he describes the “great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified” (11:8). The whole of Passion week, therefore, is Christ riding on the back of a donkey into Egyptian Jerusalem, confronting the Pharaoh-like religious establishment of his day, enduring three hours of darkness (like the three days of darkness in the 9th plague), and finally becoming the Passover Lamb of God whose blood was not painted on the doorways of the Israelites but smeared on the cross of Rome.

He did all this because there is no getting out of Egypt on your own. You think you’re strong? Sin is stronger. You think you’ll shimmy over the walls of Egypt by climbing your ladder of virtue? It will collapse under the obesity of your ego. There is no moralizing or willing or seeking or praying our way out. We are like Israel. Trapped in Egypt. Unable to liberate ourselves.

There’s only one way out: by the one who comes in. Jesus didn’t send Moses to stand right over the border of Egypt and whistle for Israel to come on over if they wanted to be free. He didn’t go around asking Israelites if they wanted to make Yahweh their personal Lord and Savior. He didn’t travel around Egypt, with a Joel Osteen smile on his face, giving inspirational speeches designed to whip the crowd into believing in themselves. No, he marched in, spoke and did the Lord’s word, and marched out with the nation on his heels. Israel only got out because Moses came in. And we only get out because Jesus came in. Here’s a little Hebrew grammatical gospel for you: over and over in the Torah, we encounter the Hiphil form of the Hebrew verb יצא (yatza), which means “cause you to come forth” or “brought you out” or “made it to happen that you exited,” as in the introduction to the Ten Words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). God yatza’d the people, caused them to come forth. Now there’s monergism for you, Hebrew style. No one voluntarily vacates the Egypt of sin and shame, death and the devil. The one who comes in is the one—the only one—who carries us out.

Reborn at Sea

Now were I to stop right here, say Amen, and sit down, this Hebrew-accented gospel would be impressive enough. And, often enough in some preaching, it does stop there. It’s the language of “God saves you. You were lost, now you’re found.” Period. True enough. That glass of gospel is full to the brim. But here’s the kind of God we worship: every time our gospel glass is full, he just goes back to the kitchen to get us a bigger glass. And when that glass is full and we think we surely now have all God’s grace, he brings us a still bigger glass. In other words, our Lord, if he is anything, is extravagant in his grace toward us, always finding new ways to map his mercy in our lives.

We see this in the life of Israel. The Lord was not content just to get his people out of Egypt. He didn’t simply get them out of prison, hand them a backpack full of clothes, a wad of cash, two packs of cigarettes and say, “The bus station with rides to the promised land is that way; have a nice trip.” No, he wasn’t content merely to move them from slavery to freedom, then drop them off to fend for themselves. He wanted to do more for them; he always wants to do more for us. So, he staged that scenario at the Red Sea that’s about the most famous rescue situation of all time. But the full implications of God’s gospel act at the Red Sea is easily missed if we look at it in isolation.

To get the Red Sea, we first need to get the biblical view of seas and oceans. And to do that, we need to do some mental purging. So, purge your mind, forget your images of the ocean from the deck of a cruise ship. Forget your relaxing picture of the waves of the sea gently lapping the shore as you sit on the beach and sip your pina colada or down another cold one. Instead, see yourself trapped on a tiny boat; waves of freezing water cascading over you; entirely out of control; in a vortex of chaos and impending death; and, as if that’ not enough, also add a dragon’s head rising out of the water with its mouth open in ravenous anticipation.

In the Israelite imagination, land=good, sea=bad.

Why? In a way, it begins in the second verse of the Bible, where “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” Let’s make sure we understand the two images here.

Tohu vavohu means there is no form, organization, or God-given division. It’s all a cosmic chaotic mass of water. Because of this, that language of tohu vavohu will be picked up by Isaiah (34:11) and Jeremiah (4:23) to describe what happens when God’s people regress from the good worship of Yahweh into bowing before Baal or offering children to Moloch: there is an unworlding of the world, a digression into chaos and confusion, a regression into disorder.

Now “the deep.” The “deep” in Hebrew is tehom, which is almost always treated in the OT as a feminine proper name. Mrs. Deep. Deep with a capital D. A personified Deep. It came to be treated like a villainous woman who was out to kill you. The deep was not a place you went scuba diving and took really cool videos of weird-looking fish and underwater rock formations. The Deep getting hold of you was like Thanos getting you in his grip. So, when you’re an Israelite and you hear Genesis 1 read, with this language of tohu vavohu and the Deep, you’re hearing words that, over time, bore very negative connotations. The Deep and Tohu Vavohu are not places for family vacations. They are dangerous places from which God and God alone can deliver you.

With all that in mind, jump ahead to what God for Israel at the Red Sea. Exodus 14 gives us a fairly straightforward account: Israel is trapped at the shore of the sea, with Pharoah and his armies greedily loping toward them. So, the Lord fights for his people by doing what? By sending (1) “strong east wind” (2) “all night” and (3) dividing the waters so his people could go from death to life. And at the same time, these waters then crushed and drowned Pharaoh and his army, thus destroying Israel’s enemies in those selfsame waters.

What we just saw happen in Genesis 1 rebooted; a new creation just went down at the Red Sea. Do you hear the echoes of creation?

  1. The Hebrew word ru‘ach means both Spirit and wind; just as the Ru‘ach of God hovered over the waters of creation to bring forth life, so the strong east ru‘ach blew over the sea to bring Israel to life.
  2. And just as the Spirit did this when “darkness was over the face of the deep,” so this happens for Israel at night, when darkness covers those waters.
  3. And just as God brought forth dry land (יַבָּשָׁה) in the midst of the waters of creation (Gen. 1:9), so he brings forth dry land (same Hebrew word) in the midst of the sea (Exod. 14:16, 22, 29.

This is God using Spirit, water, and dry land to give his people a Gospel of recreation.

But there’s more. That was how Exodus described what went down. But when Isaiah wanted to describe what God did for Israel at the sea, he didn’t give a blow-by-blow historical account. He lifted some of the language of Genesis 1 and threw in some mythological language to season things up: “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep [tehom]?” (51:9-10). Rahab, the Dragon, and Tehom: they’re mythological designations or creatures that the prophet has borrowed from his surrounding culture (much like a preacher today might reference Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings). What Isaiah does, the psalms also do. Psalm 77:16, “When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep [Tehom] trembled.” Psalm 106:9, “He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry, and he led them through the deep [Tehom] as through a desert.”

What name do Isaiah and the Psalms give the Red Sea? That Genesis 1 word, Tehom, the Deep. What they are doing is nothing more than echoing what had already been sung at the Red Sea, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The deeps [תְּהֹמֹ֖ת] covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone” (Exod. 15:4-5). The “Tehoms” covered them. In other words, the enemies of God’s people, the ones who wanted Israel dead, sank into the darkness of the deep, into oblivion. And—this is important—not one enemy survived. As Exod. 14:29 says, “All the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.”

When God saves, he saves utterly. And when God destroys enemies, he destroys utterly.

We don’t have enough time to look at all the other occurrences in the OT where the sea and oceans are seen as personifications of evil, chaos, death, or demonic forces, but you get the point. Think of Noah’s flood and the cosmic watery graveyard of rebellious humanity. Think of Jonah himself cast into the watery deep. Now jump ahead to the NT and what do we see? The same view of the seas and watery deep! This is why Jesus walks on the water of the sea of Galilee during the storm, while his disciples are trapped in their boat, on the verge of death and disaster. It’s Jesus going retro; going Genesis 1; going Red Sea; walking on Tehom. He walks on the deep, just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of the deep in creation. And what does he do? He speaks another “Let there be.” He says “Hush! Be still,” and the waves and the sea obey him for he is the creative word of God. He is Lord of the deep, King of the Waters. This also explains that enigmatic statement toward the end of Revelation where John, when describing the new heavens and the new earth, says that “there is no longer any sea” (21:1). There is no place for Tehom in the new creation.

And what does all of this rich theological background of the OT have to do with us? It all comes to its climax, for Christians, when God uses water and the Spirit to bring about a new creation for us in our baptism. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, which itself was a mini-Red Sea, since the Israelites crossed it on dry ground just as they had crossed the Red Sea. Peter speaks of baptism as the corresponding reality, the antitype (ἀντίτυπος) of the Flood (1 Peter 3:21). Paul, wanting us to connect our own baptism and the Red Sea, says to the church in Corinth, “All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (10:2). He didn’t say “all were led by Moses.” He wants us to think of the Red Sea as a national baptism of Israel.

Drawing on OT imagery and theology, we would say baptism is this: God plunging us into the waters of the Deep, where we die with the likes of Pharoah and his army; God casting us into the waters of the Flood, where we die with the world; God—in other words—uniting us the death of Christ, where all humanity and sin and evil died and was buried, so that we might emerge into the new creation, the other side of the Red Sea, be lifted into the ark of life, by the resurrection of Jesus.

In these waters, we die and rise; we are crucified, buried, and raised with Jesus; we walk through dry land, atop the shoulders of Jesus, and out onto the Easter side of the Red Sea.

Jerusalem: City of Sanctification

Now as we shift our focus from Egypt and the Red Sea to the third location on the map, the city of Jerusalem, we are in for a definite challenge as modern believers. In fact, I would argue that it’s the same challenge that has faced the church since the 2nd century. Things get a little tricky here because in Jerusalem a lot of things come together that we don’t typically imagine as Gospel Things.

The typical Christian does not think of things such as temple and priesthood, lots of dead cows and sheep, what you can and can’t eat, and worshiping on sacred soil as in any way connected to the gospel. Most of this stuff is weird and foreign to us, if not off-putting or even disgusting. It certainly doesn’t come to the forefront of our minds if we’re talking about God’s good news for us. But I would argue that, when it comes to Jerusalem and all it represents, we are looking at a perfect expression of what our salvation in Jesus is all about. I’d summarize it this way: Jerusalem, with its temple and priesthood and sacrifices, typifies our arrival back at Eden as priests who have been sanctified in the kingdom of God.

Let’s work our way from Hebrews backwards. After the preacher has proved the superiority of Jesus to the OT priesthood, sacrifices, covenant, etc., in the first nine chapters, he says this: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Not “you will come” but προσεληλύθατε, proserchomai in the perfect tense: “you have come.” You’ve arrived at Mt. Zion, God’s city, the heavenly Jerusalem. How so?

Let’s begin by recalibrating the conclusion of the exodus. We ordinarily think of the exodus as wrapping up after the 40 years of wilderness wanderings, when Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan to take possession of the land of promise. Well, yes and no. Listen to these two verses, one from the Song of Moses at the Red Sea (Exodus 15) and one from when the temple was built in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6). At the Red Sea, Israel sang, “You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established” (Exod. 15:17). The song, which musically foretells the future of Israel, begins with Israel at the Red Sea and concludes with God building his sanctuary on his own mountain. Now listen to this from 1 Kings 6:1, “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the people of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel…he began to build the house of the Lord.” The dating of the temple’s construction is done on the basis of the exodus. Why? Because the temple’s construction is the exodus’ completion. The journey that began in water ends on a mountaintop. The exodus isn’t over until the temple is built. Then, and only, then can you write “The End” to the exodus.

Now what exactly is this mountaintop? Or more specifically, what is the temple on this mountaintop? It is the Garden of Eden 2.0. The sanctuary was decorated all over, inside and outside, with images of animals and vegetation, like a garden sanctuary. The menorah is the replacement tree of life, where the fruit of light illumines the holy place. The two Hebrew verbs used to describe the duties of Adam, to avad and shamar, to serve and guard the garden, are repeatedly used in the Torah as the summary duties of the priests who served at the sanctuary. Every priest was an Adam, serving in and guarding this new Eden, the temple, where God once more dwelt among his people.

What’s more, the temple was located on a mountain, and so was Eden. In Genesis we’re told Eden was “in the east” (2:8) and later biblical writings elevate Eden as a mountain paradise. Ezekiel places “Eden, the garden of God” in parallel with “the holy mountain of God” (28:13-14). He also locates the end-time temple, with its Eden-like river, “on a very high mountain” (40:2). In Revelation, John patterns his river after Ezekiel’s (22:1-2). He also sees the “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven” while he stands on “a great, high mountain” (Rev. 21:10). Eden, therefore, in the biblical imagination, was Mount Eden. Thus when the temple, the replacement Eden, was built on a mountain, it was perfectly fitting. Here was the mountain paradise, the mountain of God, the place where the Lord dwelt among his people to welcome their worship, forgive and cleanse them through sacrifices, and to sanctify them, that is, to bestow his gift of holiness upon them by grace. The people of Israel, who like rebellious Adam and Eve, were living in exile, having been redeemed and liberated through the Red Sea, finally reach the new Mt. Eden when the temple is built. There they are, as Exodus 19:6 puts it, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Now, with all that said, let’s circle back to hear this word of gospel from Hebrews 10: because Christ has come as our new and great high priest; because he has offered a better sacrifice in his own flesh and blood; because he has given us a new and better covenant; because he has passed through the heavenly tabernacle; and because, in him, we have the confidence we need to enter the Holy of Holies—because all of that is true—the preacher says, “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”

This is the gospel of the Lord. What does this look like? It looks like the communal life of the people of God as we, his priesthood, gather around him in his word, his baptism, his meal, as brothers and sisters in Christ who are joined as one mystical body. And what is Christ doing when he gathers us around himself? He is sanctifying us. Now contrary to what you might have heard, sanctify is a word that is simply saturated with gospel. It means “to make holy” and the only one capable of making holy is the one to whom the seraphim sang, “Holy, holy, holy,” in Isaiah’s vision.

When Christ makes us members of his body, the new temple; when he cleanses us, inside and out, with the blood of his sacrifice; when he makes us co-priests with him; he is sharing his holiness with us. This has nothing to do with morality. This has nothing to do with us making ourselves holy. No, when Christ sanctifies us, “holy’s” us, he is filling us with what he himself is: holiness. To be sanctified is to be given Christ, the holy one of God.

Let me see if I can wrap up all this in one sentence, the gospel of the OT, the gospel for you: the incarnate Yahweh, Jesus, has carried us out of Egyptian bondage, through the baptismal death-and-resurrection of the Red Sea, all the way to Mt. Zion, the new Eden, where we bask in the grace of his life-giving holiness.

Egypt, the Red Sea, Jerusalem: these three places are the map of mercy, the cartography of grace.