What the Old Testament Says about the Resurrection

We know that the New Testament (NT) teaches the fact and reality of the resurrection, teaching which includes the foremost resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eventual resurrection of all believers, and also the eventual resurrection of nonbelievers to judgment and eternal punishment.

We also know that both the Old Testament (OT) and NT provide examples of historical resurrections, in which a deceased person returned to life due to the intervention of a prophet, apostle, or Jesus Christ himself. Can you recall any of these resurrection instances, from either the OT or NT?

Though these are incredible occurrences which demonstrate the supernatural power of God, they are not the same thing as our future resurrection. I say this because all such people who returned to life miraculously eventually died again.

So, what does the OT teach about the doctrine of resurrection, focusing specifically on the resurrection of Christ and the eventual, eternal resurrection of people, as well? How do we know this is not only a NT doctrine but was also a long-expected OT hope? Let’s take a look!

Abraham Believed in God’s Ability to Resurrect (Gen 22:5)

This instance of resurrection truth dates to approx. 1500 B.C., during the lifetime of Abraham. In this instance, God had instructed Abraham – whom Paul points to as our premier example of saving faith (Rom 4:1, 12, 16) – to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering on an altar atop a mountain in Moriah. From what we can tell, Abraham fully expected to obey these instructions.

Yet, as he approached the sacrificial site, he told some men who had accompanied them there to remain at the base of the mountain, while he and Isaac completed the journey to the top. To these men, he said, “Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you” (Gen 22:5). From this preliminary comment, it sounds as though Abraham expected both (a) to sacrifice Isaac on the altar and (b) to return with Isaac alive afterwards.

The writer of Hebrews affirms this conclusion, saying, “concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense” (Heb 11:19). From this statement, we see that Abraham did indeed believe that God not only could but would resurrect Isaac if he had died as a sacrifice. This may be the earliest clear evidence of resurrection belief in the OT.

The added clause, “he also received him in a figurative sense,” acknowledges that though Isaac did not need to be resurrected, he was still resurrected “in a figurative sense,” for he was snatched – as it were – from the jaws of death, having almost died on that altar before God intervened at the last moment.

Job Believed He Would be Resurrected (Job 19:25-27)

This may also be the oldest recorded Bible reference to resurrection truth, since it was also written during the patriarchal period, either just before, during, or after Abraham’s lifetime. In this instance, the man Job declares in plain language that though his physical body of flesh would be (lit.) “struck off” (a graphic allusion to death), he would still stand before God and see him for himself, in his physical body (“in my flesh”).

David Foretold the Resurrection of Christ (Psa 2:7)

This reference to the resurrection of Christ may not be as immediately or plainly clear to us, but the NT writers viewed this as a key reference to the resurrection of Christ. In this verse (and psalm), David foretells of a future time when God would officially enthrone a man as the unquestioned king of his eternal kingdom. This king would sit upon the throne of David, descending from David’s royal line, and would reign forever on God’s behalf.

According to a sermon preached by Paul, this king and Savior and descendant of David was Jesus himself (Acts 13:23-24). Later in the same sermon, Paul demonstrates exactly how Christ fulfilled this promise to David (Acts 13:30-37). It was through the resurrection that God raised him up, not only from the grave but to be King and Savior of his eternal kingdom. After all, Paul observes, David died and remained dead, so it was impossible for him (or any of his other descendants, for that matter), to reign over God’s kingdom forever. But Christ, though he died, did not remain dead and did “not experience corruption,” meaning he didn’t decay and rot in the grave, but resurrected.

(Note that there is a running “play on words” or “double meaning” running not only through this message but also throughout Scripture using words for “lifting up,” “raising up,” and “resurrecting” to refer collectively to Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and overall exaltation and enthronement as God’s King and Savior.)

Ultimately, because Christ resurrected, he – not David – must be Savior and King spoken of in Psa 2:7. Paul observes repeats this message, in condensed form, to the church at Rome at the start of his letter to them (Rom 1:3-4):

concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.

And the writer of Hebrews makes similar observations (Heb 1:5; 5:5).

The Sons of Korah Believed in the Resurrection (Psa 49:15)

In this statement, the sons of Korah (worship leaders in the tabernacle and temple) contrast the death of those who die, having trusted in themselves and their material possessions, with those who die having trusting in God. By doing so, he affirms his belief that God would pay whatever the necessary cost might be to rescue him from the grave. He would be rescued from death and brought (received) into the presence of God.

Isaiah Believed in the Resurrection (Isa 53:12)

This prophecy speaks specifically about the resurrection of Christ, not directly but through a clear inference. In the first lines, Isaiah announces that God will award Christ as a triumphant victor in battle, but in the later lines, he announces that Christ would die beforehand. The only way for both announcements to occur would be for Christ to resurrect after his death.

Hosea Foretold the Resurrection of Believing Israel and Christ (Hos 6:2)

At first glance, this prophecy foretells Israel’s eventual restoration as a nation, one that not only will entail a nationwide, saving knowledge of Christ, but also a resurrection of Israelites who previously died with a saving knowledge of Christ. Somehow or another, though, this prophecy also corresponds with the death and resurrection of Christ.

We recognize this connection because the NT makes this connection multiple times. Both angels at the empty tomb (Lk 24:1) and Paul (1 Cor 15:4) use the same language as Hosea 6:2 and claim that Christ’s resurrection fulfilled OT prophecy, a connection which Christ himself had taught his followers to anticipate (Lk 18:31-33). Though Christ also taught that Jonah’s three-day and three-night submersion in the belly of a great fish had foreshadowed his own coming death and resurrection (Jon 1:17), this prophecy in Hos 6:2 is the only OT statement that clearly specifies a three-day resurrection.

Daniel Announced the Resurrection of All People (Dan 12:2-3)

In these verses, Daniel foretells the end of all things. Those people throughout history who will have died apart from God’s salvation will enter eternity in bodily form, plagued by the guilt of their sin and tormented for their abhorrent behavior forever. On the other hand, those who will have died as redeemed children of God will enter eternity with resurrected, renewed bodies, free from sin, death and decay, living triumphantly in the brightness of God’s presence forever. (see Matt. 25:46; John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15)

So, from this overview of OT allusions to and mentions of the doctrine of resurrection, we see that belief in the supernatural, eternal, bodily resurrection of mankind and also the expectation of the supreme and ultimate resurrection of Christ have been long-held expectations of God’s faithful followers throughout history, from ancient times until today. Thank God that we get to look back on this long line of faith and see its initial, historical fulfillment in Christ. May we who follow Christ by faith – with this evidence – live with confidence as we follow Christ, knowing that we, too, will be resurrected from the grave to rule and reign with him forever.

Questions for Personal Reflection

  • Which OT reference to the doctrine of resurrection is your favorite and why?
  • Are you aware of any other OT reference to the doctrine of resurrection? What is it?

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