Preparing for the Messiah

Question 21.

In this article we look at the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Q 21. "What is the importance of the Old Testament for Christians?"

See also Catechism 121-123.

In the Compendium we read that above all, the Old Testament was written “to prepare for the coming of Christ the Saviour of the universe”. Why was a preparation needed for the coming of Christ?

Why could the divine Word not simply have been incarnated in any society at any time without preamble?


1. God Had a Plan

God has infinite respect for our freedom, and his plan for our salvation is inextricably entwined with our humanity. God wants to save the human race ‘from within’, according to what and who we are. This means that God is restricted, so to speak, to using means that do not infringe our freedom. We also observe from experience that God's ways, although sometimes dramatic, are more commonly ordinary and even quite subtle, so that we have to look to find them.

We could say that God is deferential towards us. After all, we are his creation, which is very good (Genesis 1-3).

The presence of God in the garden with Adam is how things should have been.

2. God Makes the First Move

Yet our need for salvation arises because human sin has created a distance between us and God. The world order is somehow alienated from God, so that, if we are to be saved, it is God who must try and bridge the gap. We are unable.

3. God Forms a People

Since God has already willed to respect our nature and our freedom, it follows that God's plan to bridge the gap between us will be slow and laborious. This is solely because of the obstacles we place in the path, not because of any lack of will on God’s part to bring us back into union with him. We know because of the Gospel that it is faith that makes possible our salvation. As well as being an inner gift, faith also involves a word from God spoken to us in human words so that we can understand it. It is the necessity of this understanding that requires a long preparation for the coming of the Saviour.

The Old Testament (OT) is the communication of this preparatory understanding. Jesus could not have done all this. One lifetime would not have been enough to get this across.

This is especially so because the intrinsic content of this understanding is about a call to communion. This requires a people, not just an individual. So the revealing word of God actually creates the people through the act of communication. To some extent there is an originating natural community, such as in any family, tribe or nation. But more decisively, it is revelation that forms the Israelites into a distinct people. The continuity that counts most in the identity of the people is fidelity to the God who reveals himself as One. This is why the OT is first and foremost the story of a people. The relationship between God and Israel is expressed as a covenant.

4. God Is Faithful

A crucial part of what is revealed to this people is their own infidelity. This stands out more starkly by contrast because the nature of God has been presented more clearly to them. The fidelity of God and the infidelity of the people are mutually clarifying.

5. God Makes Clear His Expectations

This process of clarification is made systematic by the Law, because it sets down clearly what is expected by God. It is precisely this clarity and detail that enables the people to subsist as one people through time. It is not just an interior reality in each person, but is a public and communal code. It takes centuries for the people of God to learn these lessons. God sends prophets to try to teach them again and again what the law requires.

6. God's Helpers Fail

A deeper problem arises. Those who are aware of being especially chosen by God can become presumptuous. They can take for granted their special status and begin to fail, not simply through weakness, as before, but through self-righteousness and presumption.

7. The Fulfilment of the Plan

This prompts God to a deeper solution. He sent the prophets but people would not listen, so now he will send his own son. What is required is a deeper liberation. Yet this deeper liberation has been prefigured in Israel's most formative experience, the Exodus, the liberation from slavery in Egypt. Liberation precedes the law, because we can only become a people of God if we are not enslaved.

It is freedom that makes true obedience possible. But such liberation can only be a work of God.

All of what has been said here so far applies just as much to Christians as to the people of the Old Testament. The OT People of God has a perennial validity as a 'type' of the church. The lessons they had to slowly learn are lessons every generation must learn. Christ comes to fulfil this process, not to truncate it, or bypass it.

8. Faith Is Communal and Personal

Yet even with all this preparation, not everyone accepted Jesus when he did come. Many did not recognise in him the promised Messiah. So although it was necessary to form a people, a community, a culture, a religion, this was not enough. Recognising Jesus as the Messiah also requires a personal act. Faith is not only hearing a word proclaimed by others; it also requires hearing an 'inner word' spoken by the Spirit in one's heart.



1. God Is a Teacher

The Compendium of the Catechism tells us that the books of the Old Testament (OT) “bear witness to the divine pedagogy of God’s saving love”. In order for the Bible to be the word of God, it must be possible for truth to be known and communicated. We can imagine the people of Israel as a class of pupils with God as its teacher.

The Old Testament is an account of how God the teacher tried to teach this difficult class about the truth of who God is.

2. The Pupils Are Slow to Learn

As we know, pupils are not always model students, but can be unruly, fractious, slow to learn and easily distracted. The OT provides abundant evidence that human beings are like that!

3. The Whole Class Needs to Pass

So God has to find ways of teaching. It is important to note firstly that the class is not meant to be a mere collection of individuals, but a nation, the People of God. A big part of what God is trying to teach them, and us, is that we are meant to be a community. So the OT includes stories about origins, the history of key figures, laws to regulate the common life, prayers and songs, inspiration, warnings and more.

We also discover that God wants his class of slow learners to help each other along; the quicker help the slower. He enlists some as tutors to help him. But they themselves often become part of the problem. The OT is a record of this effort by God to teach a people how to honour and respect God and each other.

But it is not just a record of one historic people. It is the story of the human race. It strikes a chord with us because we recognise the same human nature there as we find in ourselves. The key lesson God is trying to teach in the OT could be summed up in the notion of covenant. God has committed himself to us. In return, there are responsibilities we must meet, in order to give back to God for what he has given us.

4. The Class Learns Some Hard Lessons

The drama of the OT is the constant failures of the people to live up to their part of the covenant. They do the right thing for a while but then fall away. Instead of worshipping the one true God they are attracted to idols. Instead of caring for the poor they seek to enrich themselves at other's expense. So God the teacher punishes them, or rather, allows others to bring misfortune on them. Through suffering they are brought to their senses.

They learn some hard lessons, but lessons fade.

5. God Sends Inspectors

God sent prophets to interpret these apparent punishments. They are a bit like the old school inspectors. They come to examine the teachers rather than the students. Are those in charge of the 'school' teaching the right lessons, and showing the truth of these lessons by their own lives? The prophets ‘lay down the law’ in the sense of calling the people back to the covenant. After all, the covenant is not imposed on them; they agreed to it. The Law is a constant point of reference, for it establishes God as the only God, and requires in response certain duties of worship and upright living. God inspires various writers to teach the wisdom of life and of the ways of God. The OT contains all these kinds of writings.

6. The Pupils Are Unteachable

But running through the OT there is a recognition that people are ‘unteachable’. No matter what God tries, people still managed to turn away and fail to learn the lesson. This gives the OT a sense of incompleteness. There is a vital aspect of the mystery still unknown.

7. The Perfect Teacher Is Coming

Already in the OT there are numerous intimations of a further promise by God. The idea of a messiah develops. There is speculation and gradual clarification of what the afterlife might be. The notion of resurrection emerges. The final vindication of the just is awaited. This sets the scene for the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. So Christians recognise the OT as having perennial validity. It is the same kind of human nature that keeps making ‘OT mistakes’ even while trying to live the New. We understand the New in relation to the Old.

8. Every Generation Has to Do Primary School

Some make the mistake of thinking that we don't need the Old Testament. They think - 'Now that we have the fulfilment of the Old in the New, why can't we just leave the old behind?' This attitude appeared early on, when a man called Marcion was responsible for the establishment of a heresy around the middle of the second century. Marcion believed that Judaism had to be rejected, and saw the OT as a scandal and an impediment to Christian faith. He thought that the New could only be had by rejection of the Old. But on the contrary, Jesus himself said, "For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass away, not the least little stroke of the law shall pass away, till everything is fulfilled." (Matthew, 5:18)

Although the OT records things that happened long ago, human beings are still the same.

We are still in many ways 'Old Testament people', and we have to learn the same lessons they did in order to become fully open to the newness that we have already received in Christ.

This newness is not an abolition but a fulfilment. "Do not think that I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfil." (Matthew 5:17) We can't just start in secondary school; we all have to do primary school first, even though those primary school lessons have now been clarified and improved in the light of what we have learned from Christ.