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In Accordance with the Scriptures: Salvation History

January 17, AD2017 7 Comments

Every Sunday at Mass, after the priest gives his homily, we all stand up to recite the Nicene Creed and profess, among other things, that Jesus “suffered death and was buried and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” At first glance this line may seem simple enough, but what does it really mean? When we ask ourselves this question, a few answers might come to mind. Maybe we remember that the Old Testament has a few books written by ancient prophets, or that every once in a while the Gospels will point out when Jesus is fulfilling one of their prophecies. Maybe we understand that the whole Old Testament points to Jesus even when it’s not explicitly foretelling future events, so things like Jonah’s three days inside the belly of a giant fish point towards Jesus’ resurrection on the third day after His death.

Those are all legitimate ways that Jesus’ death and resurrection were “in accordance with the Scriptures,” but they just scratch the surface. Beyond simply fulfilling individual prophecies and repeating various patterns and themes from the Old Testament, Jesus’ whole life, not just His death and resurrection, was “in accordance with the Scriptures” because it was the climax of God’s plan of salvation, what we call “the economy of salvation” or “salvation history.”

One Big Story

See, the Bible is more than just a bunch of loosely connected stories that teach us lessons about who God is and how much He loves us. The Bible is actually one big story. It’s the story of how God created the human race to love Him and be loved by Him, how humanity has seemingly done its best to thwart that plan, and how God plans to save His wayward children and bring us back to Him.

When we say that Jesus lived, died, and rose again “in accordance with the Scriptures,” we are saying that He brought that story to its completion. His death and resurrection were God’s definitive saving acts, His definitive blow against the powers of sin and death that had held humanity captive since the time of Adam and Eve. The Old Testament does not simply point to Jesus or foretell various events of His life. No, it’s fulfilled in Jesus because He is the end of the story that it tells. By itself, the Old Testament is simply a beginning and a middle, a story without an end, and we find that end in the New Testament.

However, the flip side of that is also true. If the Old Testament by itself is a story without an end, then the New Testament is an end without a story. If the Old Testament needs the New to bring it to completion, then the New Testament needs the Old to give it something to complete. In other words, if we read the story of Jesus and the Apostles in isolation from its Old Testament roots, we are going to miss its full meaning; we will be reading, quite literally, half a story. We can still understand a lot of its message, and we can still learn enough to correctly live out our Catholic faith and get to heaven, but we will miss out on the incredibly rich depths of meaning that we can get only from reading the two testaments together. The only way to fully understand the message Jesus preached and the significance of His death and resurrection is to read the Gospels as the climax of the story that began in the first book of the Bible. In the rest of this article, I would like to take a brief look at that story. We obviously cannot go over all the major people and events in Scripture, but I can give a general outline of God’s plan of salvation.

Creation to Abraham

The story begins in the opening chapters of Genesis, when God made the world “and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The crown of this good creation was the first human couple, Adam and Eve, who were made in the image and likeness of God, which means (among other things) that they were His children (Genesis 5:1-3). They were His family, and they lived in perfect communion with Him. Unfortunately, that paradise didn’t last. They had free rein to do just about anything they wanted, but they chose to do the one thing God had told them not to do: they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17, 3:1-7).

As a result, sin and death entered the world (Genesis 3:19, Romans 6:23), and from there, sin proliferated and spread throughout creation. Chapters 4-11 of Genesis tell us how the human race descended deeper and deeper into rebellion against God, to the point that He decided to wipe humanity out with a flood and start all over again with Noah and his family (Genesis 6:11-9:17). Unfortunately, that didn’t work, as sin crept back into the world almost as soon as Noah and his family stepped out of the ark (Genesis 9:18-25).

Abraham to Exodus

Humanity was still mired in sin when God decided to enact His true plan of salvation. He called Abraham, the father of the people of Israel, and promised him, “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:3). God was going to use Abraham to definitively reverse the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin and finally bring His wayward children back to Him. St. Paul tells us in the New Testament that with this promise God “preached the gospel beforehand” (Galatians 3:8), so His ultimate purpose in calling Abraham was to prepare for the coming of Jesus. However, this plan had to go through a few more stages before it could reach that goal.

Later in Abraham’s life, God reiterated this promise to him but made it a bit more specific. He said, “By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Genesis 22:18). In other words, God didn’t intend to use Abraham directly to restore humanity. Rather, He was going to use his descendants, the people of Israel, for that purpose, and Abraham was simply His instrument to bring them forth. This promise was then passed on to Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 26:4) and to Isaac’s son Jacob (28:14), whom God later renamed Israel (Genesis 35:10), signifying that the nation of the same name would stem from him.

If we jump ahead a bit to the Book of Exodus, we can see that the Israelites were later given this very same vocation. At the foot of Mt. Sinai, right before God made His covenant with them, they were given a charge to be God’s “own possession among all peoples… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). God did not specify exactly what this meant, but a priest is by definition someone who mediates between God and humanity and who represents each before the other. Think of a Catholic priest when he celebrates Mass. He mediates between God and the congregation, representing both the people before God and God before the people. He prays to God in the name of the whole congregation, and he stands in the place of God when he consecrates the Eucharist and imparts God’s blessing to the people. Similarly, the people of Israel were supposed to be God’s priestly people among all the nations of the earth. They were supposed to mediate between God and humanity, imparting the promised blessing to “all the nations of the earth” and thereby bringing God’s wayward children back to Him.

Exodus to Exile

Unfortunately, things did not quite work out that way. The rest of the Old Testament is basically the story of how Israel kept sinning and turning away from God no matter how many times He forgave them. It started with the infamous golden calf, the idol that the Israelites made at the foot of Mt. Sinai while they were waiting for Moses to come down with God’s law (Exodus 32:1-6), and it culminated in the destruction of their Temple, the conquest of their capital city Jerusalem, and the exile of many of their people away from their land as a punishment for their continual disobedience (2 Kings 17:7-23, 25:8-21).

As a result of Israel’s failure to live up to its vocation, God sent them prophets to indict the people and call them back to Him. These prophets foretold a day when the exile would finally be over, the kingdom of Israel would be restored, and the Gentiles (non-Israelites) would finally be brought back to the worship of the one true God. For example, the prophet Daniel explained that the punishment and exile of God’s people would last about 490 years (Daniel 9:24), and afterwards God would give His people a kingdom that would last forever (Daniel 7:17-18, 23-27). Complementing this vision of the future, the prophet Zechariah told the Israelites that once the exile was over, the Gentiles would join them, and all the nations would become God’s people (Zechariah 8:7-8, 20-23).

The Good News of Jesus

These prophecies had not yet come true in the first century, so when Jesus came onto the scene preaching that the Kingdom of God was near (Mark 1:15), the people who heard Him knew exactly what He meant: God was going to establish the eternal kingdom prophesied by Daniel, so the exile and the punishment for Israel’s sins were finally coming to an end. In other words, Jesus did not preach simply that God was going to forgive everybody’s sins or that the gates of heaven were finally going to be reopened for us. No, He preached the Kingdom of God, which meant the restoration of Israel as foretold by the prophets. That is why His earthly mission was “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24) and why the Apostles preached only to the Jews before His death (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus did interact with a few Gentiles during His ministry (for example, Matthew 8:5-13, John 4:4-26), but these encounters were the exception rather than the norm.

Only after His resurrection, after He had restored Israel and its kingdom (albeit in a spiritual, non-political way), would the Gospel be brought to the rest of the world (Matthew 28:20), just like the prophets had said. Before that, however, Jesus had to restore and gather around Him a faithful remnant from the nation of Israel, and after His earthly ministry was over, that remnant was then able to go out and bring the Gospel to the other nations. Just like God had promised back in Genesis, He was going to bless the whole human race and bring them back to Him through Abraham’s descendants, the people of Israel. This is why St. Paul said that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Salvation was given to the Jews first, and then it spread to the Gentiles.

That’s what we mean when we say that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were “in accordance with the Scriptures.” Yes, he fulfilled specific prophecies, and yes, we see various patterns and themes from the Old Testament repeated in the Gospels, but beyond that, Jesus brought the story of the Old Testament to its conclusion. The first couple, Adam and Eve, fell from grace soon after their creation, so God decided to use the people of Israel to bring the human race back to Him. However, Israel was mired in sin as well, so they too had to be saved before they could help save the other nations. As a result, Jesus came to restore Israel first, thereby allowing the faithful members of the renewed Israel to bring the saving benefits of His death and resurrection to the rest of the human family. In this way, He finally reversed the sin of Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12-19) and made us God’s children again (Romans 8:14-17), just like God had promised Abraham all those thousands of years ago.

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About the Author:

JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America's doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn't where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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