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By Tom Flannery
The Easter story of Christ’s passion and bodily resurrection from the grave will be celebrated in churches around the world this weekend. And while it’s true that the secular aspects of Easter (the rabbit, egg hunts, etc.) are rooted in paganism, the religious aspects (the cross, blood redemption, etc.) have their foundation in the Bible – not the New Testament, where they were fulfilled, but in the Old Testament, where they were first prophesied and foreshadowed.
It was in the Old Testament God revealed, hundreds of years before it happened, that the promised Messiah would be “cut off” (put to death) but “not for Himself” (Daniel 9:26). He would die a substitutional death for the full payment of the sins of the world. The prophet Isaiah was given a vision of His death some 800 years in advance and described it in detail in the 53rd chapter of his book. In this chapter, God foretold through Isaiah that Messiah would be a Suffering Servant who would take our sins upon Himself and through His personal sacrifice make it possible for us to have peace with God.
Verses 5-6 tell us: “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord [God the Father] has laid on Him [God the Son] the iniquity of us all.”
Furthermore, the animal sacrifices instituted by God in the Old Testament foreshadowed Christ’s substitutional death. As we are told in Leviticus 17:11, “It is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” In Exodus, we read that God used the shedding of the blood of spotless lambs in the Passover to save His people and deliver them from bondage. In the Gospel accounts of the New Testament, we read that Jesus was the Lamb of God whose precious blood was shed at Passover for the salvation of all men who would ever trust in His sacrificial death for them. Through Christ alone, we are saved and delivered from the bonds of death to live forevermore.
Isaiah revealed that Jesus was the Spotless Lamb who would not speak to defend Himself at His trial though He faced a horrific death. The prophet wrote: “He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
In verse 9 of that same chapter, Isaiah prophesied that Jesus would die with the wicked (He was crucified between two criminals) yet be buried with the rich in His death (He was buried in the tomb of a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea).
Some Jewish critics have labeled Isaiah 53 as “The Forbidden Chapter” and either banned its reading or simply ignored it. Others have said the Suffering Servant predicted in this chapter is the Jewish people – but that cannot be so. After all, God declares through Isaiah that the Suffering Servant would die “for the transgression of My people” (verse 8), and the only people God addresses as “My people” in Scripture (certainly in the Old Testament) is the Jews. Thus, the Jewish people are not only referred to separately and apart from the Suffering Servant, but they are identified as beneficiaries of the sacrifice He makes.
God also gave a vision of Messiah’s substitutional death to King David, who wrote Psalm 22 from the point of view of Jesus on the Cross about 1,000 years before the fact: “I am poured out like water, and all My bones are out of joint. … They pierced My hands and My feet … they divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots …” and so on.
All of the prophecies of Psalm 22, like those of Isaiah 53 and many others throughout the Old Testament, were fulfilled in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ as recorded in the New Testament by men whose lives were radically transformed by these events and who died as martyrs rather than retracting their testimonies.
The Old Testament also contains numerous stories that uncannily foreshadowed significant events in the life of Jesus, including His substitutional death and bodily resurrection. For instance, the Genesis account of when God commanded Abraham to take his beloved “only son” Isaac, the “son of promise,” up on a mountain and sacrifice him (Genesis 22). When Abraham had Isaac on the altar of wood and was about to obey, God stopped him and revealed a ram whose horns were caught in a thicket (a crown of thorns). Abraham loosed Isaac and used the ram with the crown of thorns as a substitutional sacrifice as directed by God, just as Jesus wore a crown of thorns and was a sinless substitutional sacrifice on a mountain for each one of us on the wooden altar of the tree, or cross. The Old Testament states that “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree,” and Jesus literally became our curse upon that tree, the curse of our sin, and paid for it in full there.
Before climbing the mountain, Abraham told His servants that he and the boy would be returning together. That’s because God had already assured him that the Messianic line would continue through his seed (Isaac, the first natural-born Jew whose descendants would include Moses, King David and ultimately Jesus, the divine “Son of Promise”).
Now, Abraham had every intention of obeying God and sacrificing Isaac, as he demonstrated at the altar. So by telling his servants that the boy would be coming back with him, he was essentially saying he believed that God was going to raise his son from the dead. This, of course, foreshadowed the promise of a future bodily resurrection, the one hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide will celebrate this Sunday.
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Tom Flannery writes a weekly political column called “The Good Fight” and a continuing religious column called “Why Believe the Bible?” for a hometown newspaper in Pennsylvania. His opinion pieces have appeared in publications such as Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, and Christian Networks Journal. He is a past recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for Outstanding Opinion Journalism from News Corp/The New York Post, in addition to winning six Amy Awards from the Amy Foundation.