"somehow got into conversation about the term 'living water' (cross-referencing Old Testament passages) how they worshiped and the different dynamics before and after Jesus such as worship, sacrificing, and sin atonement etc.
For all you Old Testament Scholars... The question was raised: Were the people before Jesus came saved?
My response (because I’m personally studying Hebrews 10 right now) was related to covenants and Jesus' sacrifice resulting in a new covenant from God. Since the old covenant was defunct and because of God's love for us He gave His Son and therefore instated a new covenant. Again the question...were the people before Jesus actually saved?...
Some said yes, because it is in God's character to be merciful, but why then would He have had to give His Son? (Is this just what western civilization likes to think because we like happy endings?"
Ohboyohboy, I love looking at this. My answer is a resounding YES, and I'll tell you why. I'm going to post what I wrote to Jay with more commentary thrown in.
Without question, they were saved. Jay already cited Hebrews. I think the crux of the issue is there.
Hebrews 11:6, 13-16
"And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him....These [OT saints] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city."
I am no "Old Testament scholar," but I'll tell you what I believe. Salvation--from the beginning--has been by faith. So OT saints were saved by believing in the promises of God. What was that promise, ultimately? Cleansing from sin, relationship with God apart from the blood of animals, redemption...Jesus. From Genesis to Malachi, Jesus was the promise of redemption and cleansing. The OT is full of prophecy, theophanies, and pictures of Him. Jesus is the true subject and promise of the entire Old Testament.
"Does this also mean that since the Israelites were the only ones as His 'chosen people' with faith, the covenant and atonement system until Jesus that they were the only ones who were generally saved?"
Salvation has always been individually by faith, not corporately. John the Baptist warned the Pharisees not to assume they are children of God because of their lineage:
"Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith--just as Abraham 'believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness'? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
In Israel, there were always Gentile proselytes, but they had to BECOME Jews. The Ethiopian eunuch is an example of a Gentile who had converted to Judaism. Ruth and Rahab are other examples. These converts saw that the God of the Hebrews was the true God, and they followed Him and believed in His promises. So the same thing applies to them, but they were INCORPORATED into Israel by faith, individually.
Now, in the New Covenant, we Gentiles are grafted in to the vine by faith:
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.
Notice something? We are grafted in and stand fast by FAITH. Not by birthright, being cool, being naturally worthy, etc. Nope, it's by faith. Just like it has been from the beginning.
Our God does not change: He has always looked at the heart, He has always been merciful, He has always had a plan. The blood of animals was a picture of the ultimate sacrifice that was to come--it was not efficacious apart from believing faith that God would do as He promised, and that sins would be temporarily atoned for until the coming of the Suffering Servant.
These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
This makes me rejoice in the character of our awesome God!
This sums up, in my view, the heart of the Lord:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
Worthy is the Lamb pictured here, who was and is and is to come!