Author: Ron Graham
This lesson is a study of forgiveness in Old Testament times up till Jesus died. We answer the question, “On what basis were people then forgiven before the cross of Christ?”
Long before the old testament law was given by Moses, Abraham was justified —made right with God having his sins forgiven (Galatians 3:6-14). Not only was Abraham forgiven before the law existed, but he was not yet even circumcised. Abraham was granted forgiveness and justification because he believed God. God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness.
Now Moses did not improve on this by bringing in the law. For (hypothetically) to be justified by the law without faith you would have to keep the law perfectly without a single fault. One transgression and the law would condemn you without providing a remedy.
So people still relied on a faith like Abraham’s. Without that faith they would be cursed by the law. Certainly the law was a good thing. However any transgression of that law was sin, and that law within itself provided no means of forgiveness. People had to have faith in a means of forgiveness beyond that law, namely the death of Christ. The law foreshadowed this means of forgiveness, but lacked a means of its own.
In old testament times prophecy looked forward to the suffering servant whom God would exalt because by his death he would justify many (Isa 53:1-12). The people of the Mosaic age could do nothing on their own to remove their guilt. They transgressed, the punishing stroke was due them, and they had no recourse except this promise of God's Servant who would be punished in their stead. This was true not only for them but for people in every age. Because the Lamb would be led to the slaughter, people of faith could sing, "You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin... Lovingkindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Psa 85:2,10)..
The sacrifices made under the law could not take away sins; it was impossible; and those sacrifices only pointed to the offering of Jesus's body and blood (Hebrews 10:1-18). Once he made that sacrifice there was no longer any need of further sacrifices. Sins could now be remembered no more.
God never took pleasure in the sacrifice of animals for the sins of the people who were under the law. These sacrifices could not make perfect the sinner seeking forgiveness through them. Those sacrifices did have a purpose. They served as a constant reminder of sins, and they pointed symbolically to the coming sacrifice that could take away sins. People who believed in that sacrifice would be assured that when that sacrifice came their sins would be forgiven. The death of Jesus enabled "the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant" (Hebrews 9:15). This was their faith and hope.
So their justification and forgiveness of sins rested on the promised Christ. They knew that goats couldn't take away their sins, but by faith in Christ they could have their sins provisionally forgiven against the day that Christ would bring redemption.
In the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) The Samaritan took the wounded victim of the robbers to an inn. He said to the the inkeeper, “Take care of him, and when I return I will repay all expenses.” So, although the account had not yet been settled, the victim received all the benefits of the inkeeper’s care —based on the guarantee that redemption would be made later on. That is similar to the manner in which God dealt with people in Old Testament times.
Suppose a person owes you money and you demand it be repaid. The person tells you, “It's impossible to pay you now, but we have a trusted mutual friend who has graciously promised to pay you in full three months from now upon settlement of an asset he has sold.” You agree to release the person from paying the debt on the guarantee that this friend will pay it later on. So you have freed the person from the debt while it's still unpaid. That is similar to the manner in which God dealt with people in Old Testament times.