Q: #31. How were people saved in the Old Testament?
A: They were saved in the same way we are today, by faith. Just as our faith today makes us righteous, they were also declared righteous by faith.
(Rom 4:3) says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” (Also see: Gen 15:6, Gal 3:6, James 2:23)
(Rom 4:6) continues, quoting David as saying a man is blessed “whom God imputeth righteousness without works.”
(Heb 11:4) says Abel was declared righteous by faith.
(Heb 11:7) says Noah, “became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.”
In fact, (Heb 11:6) says that without faith it is impossible to please God. So, the question is asked, “Well, we are saved by faith in Jesus, but since Jesus had not yet been born as man in the Old Testament, in whom did they place their faith?”
They placed their faith in Jesus, just as we do today. As we now look back at Jesus, they looked forward to Jesus. Although they did not know the name “Jesus” they most certainly knew He was coming. The Old Testament is filled with hundreds of prophecies that foretold the coming of Jesus. He was known by such names as the Messiah (Dan 9:25-26), Redeemer (Job 19:25-26)(Isa 59:20), and Immanuel (Isa 7:14). In addition, dozens of things all through the Old Testament pointed to Jesus (i.e. the Tabernacle and the things in it, blood sacrifices, the unblemished lamb, Passover, manna from Heaven, ceremonial cleansing laws, the Sabbath, etc…)
We can also see in the New Testament that Jesus was expected to come (Jn 1:19-25,41)(Jn 4:25)(Jn 6:14)(Jn 7:40-41)(Acts 3:17-26)(Acts 7:37).
(Jn 1:45) gives us a great example of this saying, “… We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (See: Gen 3:15, Deut 18:18 as examples of verses where Moses pointed to Jesus)
We can see in other New Testament verses, as well, that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (Lk 24:44-47)(Acts 10:43)(Acts 18:28)(Acts 26:22-23)(Rom 1:2-4)(1 Cor 15:3)(1 Pet 1:10-11).
***Note: Let me add here, it is my personal belief through my studies, that the vast majority of the appearances of the “Lord” in the Old Testament were, in fact, Jesus Himself. If indeed this was the case, then I believe that their faith in the “Lord” of the Old Testament may have been placing their faith in Jesus. (For more on why I believe this, please see my study: Jesus In The Old Testament.)
One final thing related to this, is that those believers who died in the Old Testament did not go to Heaven, nor was there a Hell for unbelievers. Those who died in the Old Testament went to a place called Sheol. This was basically a place made up of two areas: Paradise (or Abraham’s Bosom) and Hades. Paradise was for believers, and Hades for unbelievers. Jesus gave us a description of this in (Lk 16:19-31). In short, Paradise was a place of comfort, and Hades a place of torment, and there was a large chasm between the two.
The reason no one could go to Heaven was because payment had not yet been made for sin, because Jesus had not yet died. The New Covenant was just like a “will” that we have today, and it could not go into effect until the one for whom it was written had died (Heb 9:16-17). When Jesus died, the New Covenant began.
During the 3 days between Jesus’ death and resurrection, He preached the Gospel to those who were in Sheol (Mt 12:40)(1 Pet 3:18-20)(1 Pet 4:6)(Acts 2:27,31)(Eph 4:8-10). After proclaiming the Gospel, all Old Testament believers (and the thief on the cross Lk 23:43) were taken from Paradise to Heaven (likely by Jesus after His resurrection, during His ascension: more here). This is where all Christians who have died since reside.
The Bible says that Jesus was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8), and the Book of Life, which contains the names of all who are God’s children was “written from the foundation of the world” (Rev 17:8).
The Lord’s plan from the beginning has always been that faith in Jesus Christ would be the means by which we are saved. He has always known from the beginning who would place their faith in Jesus, whether they knew Him by name, or simply as their coming Messiah, Deliverer, Immanuel as they did in the Old Testament. Those who have done so are written in His Book of Life.