John Owen on the Glory of Christ in the Old Testament

By Colton Corter

Jesus never rebuked the Pharisees for reading their Bibles too much. His problem was with their interpretive method; how they were reading their Bibles. The self-righteousness of these men came about because they did not understand the nature of God’s revelation and redemption. They searched the Scriptures because they thought that in them they would have life (John 5:39). And yet, it was these very Scriptures that were supposed to point them to the One to come, the One who would be their ransom and righteousness, the One who was staring into their faces.

B.B. Warfield likened the Old Testament to a fully furnished room with all of the lights off. All of the pieces are there but we can’t see them yet. At the coming of Christ, the lights came on. Things that were there all along become visible. The Holy Spirit begins to show in our hearts the truth about the gospel of God that, though veiled, was the chosen portion of Old Testament saints as well. The apostle Paul viewed the Old Testament in the same way. In 2 Corinthians 3 he says that the Jews read the Hebrew Bible with veils over their faces, unable to see the glory of God in the face of Christ. In salvation, God removed the veil that we might see and believe, trusting in the glories of Christ for our highest good and only salvation from the wrath to come. With the same creative power that birthed the cosmos, He made us alive. The veil is removed and we see what God has planned before the foundation of the world.

How many of us read our Old Testaments like this? How often are we guilty of failing to see the glory of God in Christ throughout God’s revelation from Genesis to Malachi? 17th century Puritan, John Owen, shows us a better way. Here are seven ways that Owen gives in his book The Glory of Christ to see the King in His beauty, clothed in the gospel:

1. The Glory of Christ under the Old Testament was revealed in the beautiful worship of the law.

Owen is talking specifically about the tabernacle and the temple. These Old Testament structures might see foreign and even irrelevant to us today, but are nonetheless great pointers to the glory of Christ. Why did God give these things? Why were His prescriptions so precise, even perfect? Owen answers, “They were a shadow of the real person and glory of Christ.” He continues, saying “Everything Moses did in erecting the tabernacle and instituting all its services was intended to testify to the person and glory of Christ which would later be revealed (Heb. 3:5).” These things were the shadows of the substance that was to come.

2. The glory of Christ under the Old Testament was represented in the mystical account which is given to us in his communion with his church in love and grace.

Owen has the Song of Solomon in mind. This book, regardless of if you read it literally or allegorically (or both), it so obviously points towards the great love that the true Bridegroom has for us, his unworthy, blood-bought bride. Owen argues that we will be that much more accountable for forsaking such a great communion with God because we have a clearer picture of who God is in Christ.

3. The glory of Christ was represented and made known under the Old Testament in his personal appearances to leaders of the church in their generations.

Owen gives an interesting argument for Christ being foreshadowed by the anthropomorphisms in the Old Testament. All that to mean that Christ did appear with and in the Old Testament saints by appearing in the form of a man, foreshadowing His actual, unique incarnation. Let me let Owen speak for himself: “It would have been absurd to represent God as grieving, repenting, being angry and well-pleased and exhibiting all other human emotions, were it not that the divine person intended to take on him human nature in which emotions dwell.”

4. The glory of Christ under the Old Testament was represented in prophetic visions.

Isaiah 6 is the main focus of this section for Owen. Sure enough, there is New Testament warrant for seeing that Isaiah in fact saw the glory of the pre-incarnate Christ (Jn. 12:41). When we read of God’s transcendent majesty we see the majesty of Christ. Christ is the full radiance of God! In the trauma of God’s utter otherness we see His great grace as He extends pardon by virtue of a coal brought from the altar. Here there are glimpses of the cross, where God’s justice and love met together in perfect harmony.

5. The doctrine of Christ’s incarnation was revealed under the Old Testament although not as clearly as it is revealed in the gospel.

The Bible is a progressive revelation. Owen would not say that there is not discontinuity between the New Testament and the OId. However, God has always dealt with His chosen people in the same general way in the gospel. The incarnation of Christ should have been discerned by the Jews after having read Isaiah 9:6-7. Owen writes, “This one testimony is sufficient to confound all Jews and other enemies of the glory of Christ. I admit that, notwithstanding this revelation, there remained much darkness in the minds of those to whom the revelation was made. Although they did accept the truth of the revelation, yet they could have no idea how it would be accomplished.” The Old Testament authors wrote better than they knew; not just for their sakes, but for our benefit and instruction (1 Pet. 1:12).

6. The glory of Christ under the Old Testament was revealed in promises, prophecies, and predictions about his person, his coming, his offices, his kingdom and his glory.

These are the very things that Jesus taught his disciples from all the Scriptures concerning Himself on that Emmaus road in Luke 24. Quoting Owen at length, “Christ appealed to the Scriptures against his opponents saying, ‘Search the scriptures, for they are they which testify of me.’ If we do not see the glory of Christ in the Scriptures it is because a veil of blindness is over our minds. Nor can we read, study, or become spiritually strong by meditating on the writings of the Old Testament unless we commit ourselves to considering the glory of Christ displayed in them. So to many the Bible is a sealed book.”

7. The glory of Christ under the Old Testament is revealed under many metaphorical expressions.

“So Christ is called the rose, for the sweet perfume of his love, grace and obedience,” writes Owen. In these great metaphors we see glimpses of the Son. He is meek like the Lamb. Conquering as the Lion. He is our pearl of great price!

Even if one does not agree fully with ever proposition of Owen, surely he read his Old Testament more like the apostles as we do. The work of the Spirit in inspiration is to take what is Christ’s and glorify it (Jn. 16:14). The whole point of the Bible is to lead us to infinite joy in the abundant glory of God in Christ. Owen leaves us this benediction: “From all of this let us learn to behold the glory of Christ when we read the Old Testament Scripture.”


Colton Corter is a student at SBTS and member at Third Avenue Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter @coltonMcorter.

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