The One Who Redeems Israel


This article is part of the The Study Center spring 2015 newsletter. Read more articles from this newsletter.

Do we believe the Old Testament is relevant? Richard Hays, in his book Reading Backwards, argues that our inattention to the Old Testament has left us without a vision for how our lives fit into the story of God’s dealings with Israel, a story reaching its definitive climax in Jesus.

Hays, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, suggests we can more faithfully read the Old Testament by attending to how the Gospel writers read scripture. Take Luke’s account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to two disciples along the road to Emmaus. Unrecognized, Jesus asks Cleopas what they are discussing. Cleopas responds, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” However, it is Cleopas who does not understand. While Jesus goes on to explain things to the two disciples, Luke has been showing all along how the Old Testament points to the necessity “that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory,” (Luke 24:26).

How does Luke “read backwards” from the story of Jesus to the Old Testament story? Hays highlights how Luke connects the dots throughout his Gospel. In the words God speaks from heaven at the baptism of Jesus, “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased,” there are echoes of the Davidic king (the “son of God” in the Old Testament), the sacrificial son (Isaac, Abraham’s “beloved son”), and the suffering servant (“with whom I am well pleased,” in Isaiah 42). These allusions identify Jesus as the human Messiah whose coming was prophesied throughout the Old Testament.

Still, what about the hope that Jesus would “redeem Israel,” proclaimed by Zechariah and longingly repeated by Cleopas? Here Hays sees an allusion to Isaiah, and to the numerous passages promising God’s restoration of Israel.  “I will help you, says the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.”  (Is 41:14)  Hays rejects the scholarly tendency to dismiss Jesus’ divinity, instead insisting that Jesus, the human Messiah and true representative of Israel, is also “the Holy One of Israel,” the Lord God who redeems his people. These are the “things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27) that Jesus showed Cleopas.  This is the biblical vision of God himself coming down to rescue his people (now including us) in the person of his Son and Messiah, the Lord Jesus.

Hays’ close reading of scripture leads him to conclude, “There is only one reason why Christological interpretation of the Old Testament is not a matter of stealing or twisting Israel’s sacred texts: the God to whom the Gospels bear witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Either that is true, or it is not.”

Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard Hays is available in the Study Center library.