April, 2018

Reading the Old Testament on This Side of the Cross, Part 1

The Apostle Peter once said, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16). I really hope I have an opportunity in the age to come to ask Peter what exactly he had in mind when he said that!

Have you ever had that feeling reading through Paul’s letters? For my own part, I would include these words in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians among those hard things to understand:

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:1-4)

The Rock was Christ? What does Paul mean by this? He does explain himself in part a little later when he says that “these things took place as examples for us.” That is to say, the stories we read in the Old Testament happened for our benefit; we have much to learn from their examples, or patterns.

Now, that may make sense to you, but you’re probably still wondering how Paul can jump from the Old Testament stories being examples to the Rock that followed Israel being Christ. And that would be a good thing to wonder about. It can be a challenge reading the Old Testament on this side of the cross, especially as we try to see how it all points forward to Jesus (Luke 24:44).

I think the key for us is found in the way that the writer to the Hebrews describes the “examples” of the Old Testament for us in Hebrews 8-10. He says that Moses built the tabernacle in the wilderness after the “example” or “pattern” that God showed him on Mt. Sinai. He also says that this same tabernacle is a “copy” and a “shadow” of the heavenly reality that we see in the life and work of Jesus Christ. To get a feel for what Hebrews means, picture in your mind all of history laid out in a long line from creation to the crucifixion. Along this timeline of history, the cross looms large and casts a shadow backward in time. But, rather than looking like a cross, the shadow that is cast backwards looks like the Old Testament Tabernacle.

When you stand in the shadow of the cross, you stand in the Tabernacle. Said another way, you stand in the midst of the Old Testament stories. However, when you stand on our side of the cross, you see both the cross and the shadow that it casts back into the Old Testament. This picture in your mind should help you to see that, when we read the Old Testament on this side of the cross, what we are reading are “examples” or “patterns” that find their true meaning in the life and work of Jesus Christ.

What this all means for us can be grouped into three summary points. First, as a shadow, the Old Testament does not make everything clear. Just as your own shadow when it is cast on the ground doesn’t capture anything more than an outline of your figure, so also the shadow of God’s plan of redemption doesn’t provide intricate details in the Old Testament. What we read in the Old Testament is only a partial glimpse of God’s plan of redemption; it is only an anticipation of what we see more clearly in Jesus. Second, we nevertheless behold the unchanging pattern of God’s redemptive plan in the Old Testament. While the tabernacle is only a shadow, it still describes in its own way many details about God and his plan of salvation. The same teaching that is pictured in the tabernacle is found in the person and work of Jesus. Third, when we read the Old Testament on this side of the cross, we should expect to see God’s plan revealed more clearly. Using a different metaphor, when you compare an early sketch with a complete painting, you see far more detail in the complete painting. These details were suggested in the sketch, but they are vivid in the final product. In a similar way, the New Testament gives the detail and the color to the shadow of the Old Testament.

Next week, we can dive back into Paul’s words, but a final word about these “patterns” that gives us boundaries as we read the Old Testament. They are always identifiable as a consistent pattern that spans both the Old Testament and the New Testament; they are always rooted in historical people, places, actions, and institutions; the fulfillment of the pattern is always greater than the pattern itself. These are important boundaries to remember, and we’ll use all of this to aid our understanding, not only of Paul’s words but also of how to read the Old Testament on this side of the cross.

The Bible – Book by Book – Deuteronomy

The opening line of John Calvin’s Institutes says, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[1] Calvin makes the point that the most important things we can know are God and ourselves. Furthermore, if we are to know God, we must know ourselves, and if we are to know ourselves we must know God. A true knowledge of the one enables a true knowledge of the other.

If we seek to have a knowledge of God and a knowledge of his people, the book of Deuteronomy is one of the best places to look. It “is the most important book in the Old Testament for writing an Old Testament theology.”[2] J. Gordon McConville says, “It…goes to the heart of the great issues of the relationship between God and human beings.”[3] It is a book that later prophets will turn to for theological content about God. It lays out the contours of the covenantal relationship between God and his people. It is the book most often quoted by Jesus. When he was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the book of Deuteronomy was on his lips. It is referenced fifty times in the New Testament. Only Isaiah and Psalms are quoted more. And yet it is a seldom preached and seldom taught book in most churches. There is a great deal of gold to be mined from the pages of this book.

Deuteronomy was written by Moses. The text of the book makes this claim in several places (1:1, 5; 31:22). Mosaic authorship is also claimed in other places of the Old Testament (2 Kings 14:6) and by the New Testament. The Jewish historian Josephus considered Moses as the author. Now, this isn’t to say that portions, like the last chapter which details Moses’ death, were not added to the book’s current form. This kind of addendum does nothing to negate the authorship of Moses. This book was likely written on the plains of Moab in 1400BC as the Israelites prepared to enter into the Promised Land.

As the people prepared to enter into the Promised Land, Moses is not going to go with them. This book is a restatement or reiteration of the covenant God had made with the people. It is a covenant renewal before they take the land. This is seen in the very structure of the book of Deuteronomy. A covenant treaty included a few basic parts. The first part is a historical prologue where the nature of the relationship between the two covenant parties is repeated. Then there are stipulations expressed. These are the responsibilities of one party to the other. Finally, there would be a listing of the blessings and curses. This is what happens when the stipulations are not met. This is basic structure of the book of Deuteronomy.

Chapters 1-4 are a historical prologue. Moses recounts for the people how they ended up on the shores of the Jordan looking over into the land. The wilderness years and the defeat of Og and Sihon are repeated. The people are reminded who they are and who God is.

Chapters 4-26 are the stipulations. The Ten Commandments are repeated (ch. 5). The people are called to love the Lord. The Shema declares that the Lord is One. He is simple (i.e. without parts). He is unchangeable. He is without beginning or source. He simply is. And so, Israel is to love God with a single-eyed devotion. Various laws are enumerated to define what this relationship looks like. These are laws to protect the holy name of God and to protect those who bear his image. They are laws about how the people are to love God and love their neighbor.

The third part, chapters 27-30, detail the blessings and curses of the covenant. The Land before them is most closely related to the blessings of the covenant. Their capture and retention of the Land becomes a “theological barometer” of their obedience to the covenant. And unlike most treaty formulations, the Lord provides a process of repentance for Israel’s sins. The Lord’s gracious blessings will overcome the people’s transgressions.

As the people stood on the shores of the Jordan River and cast a wishful eye over to the land, God renewed his covenant with them. He was their God and they were his people. That’s where Deuteronomy gets its English name. Deutero means second and –nomy comes from the Greek word nomos which means law. It is the second giving of the Law, which itself is a pattern of God’s covenantal treaty with the people. The nature and character of God’s holiness and graciousness are repeated to encourage a sinful and yet chosen people. God would magnify himself through his election and blessing of a sinful but redeemed people.

 

[1]  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; vol. 1; The Library of Christian Classics; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 35.

[2] Bruce K Waltke and Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007), 479.

[3] Quoted in, Waltke and Yu, 479.

The Bible – Book by Book – Numbers

Most Christians know the book of Numbers as the place where “Read through the Bible in a Year” programs go to die. The first chapter of Numbers opens with a long census of the fighting age men of Israel. The English name for this book comes from this and the second census that occurs later in Numbers (26:1-65). The Greek LXX called this book arithmoi and the Latin Vulgate followed with Numberi. But this is a really unfortunate title and understanding of the content of the book. The book of Numbers is actually one of the most dramatic and action-packed books of the Bible. One just has to persevere through the opening head-counting.

This book, as with the rest of the Pentateuch, was written primarily by Moses. The Hebrew title of this book is “In the Wilderness” which is taken from the opening word of the book. This also helps to set the location of its action. And it is this setting that is so crucial to understanding what is going on in the book. God’s People have been brought through the waters and redeemed from slavery and captivity in Egypt. But they have yet to enter into the Promised Land. They are pilgrims on a journey. They will face hardship. They will hunger and thirst. They will grumble. They will face opposition from the surrounding nations. They will see rebellion and sedition from within their own ranks. They will have to trust the LORD and the faithfulness of his promises. All of this takes place in the wilderness.

There are three main sections in the book of Numbers, and they revolve around the two censuses. The first section is the census and consecration of the first-generation army (1-10). The second section is failure of the first-generation army (11-25). The third section is the census and the consecration of the second-generation army (26-36).

The census and the consecration of the first-generation army included those who had witnessed all the plagues and miracles in leaving Egypt. They had experienced the first Passover where death came to every home. The first born of Egypt died but those under the blood of the Lamb walked out of the tomb in the morning. The Levites are the tribe of Israel that is set apart as belonging to the LORD in a special manner. And then the men are consecrated for holy war. They leave into the wilderness dressed for battle and ready to take the Promised Land.

The second section details a number of failures on the part of Israel. The people grumble about their general misfortunes in the wilderness (11:1-3). They complain of the lack of meat and vegetables (11:4-35). Miriam complains about Moses’ wife (12:1-16). The people complain and lament the spies report (13:1-14:38). Korah, Dathan, Abiram, and On rebel against Moses and Aaron (16:1-40). The people grumble about the judgment on the rebels (16:41-17:13). The people complain of no water (20:2-13). The people question God’s goodness (21:4-9). The result of this series of failures to trust in the faithfulness of God is that the people are forced to wander in the wilderness for a whole generation. None of that generation, except Joshua and Caleb, would enter into the Promised Land. And their failure would serve as a warning to the next generation. It is also incredibly important to note that all of these failures began with grumbling and complaining. Outright rebellion against God always begins with an initial grumbling in the heart about our circumstances.

The third section begins with the census and consecration of a second-generation army. The Levites are once again set apart for the LORD. Joshua is then appointed to succeed Moses. This second-generation receives a foretaste of victory by defeating the Moabites and Midianites (31:1-54). And the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manassah are allowed to settle the Trans-Jordan (the area east of the Jordan), but only upon their commitment to fight with their brothers. The book closes on the plains of Moab by the Jordan in sight of the Promised Land with some final exhortations to the whole people. Remember the failures of your fathers. Trust in the Lord and act faithfully.

The book of Numbers details an important period in the pilgrimage of Israel from captivity to the Promised Land. As such, it has tremendous application for the Church today. We live between two worlds. We are pilgrims on a journey from this world into a better country. The failure of Israel’s first-generation should be a clarion warning for us to remain faithful and trust in God’s provision. Our grumbling and complaining will spread like gangrene and lead to spiritual death. Paul warned the Corinthians with the example from Numbers, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:6, 11-12).[1]

[1] Please see, Numbers by Michael J. Glodo, in  A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised. ed. Miles Van Pelt, et al., (Crossway, 2016), 107–31.

The Bible – Book by Book – Leviticus

My maternal grandmother kept an immaculate house. Everything had its place. As an adult with 4 children, I look back on the tidiness of her home with envy. As a young child, I looked at the tidiness of her home with fear and trembling. There was a small pond immediately behind her house. I loved to fish in that little pond, but occasionally while walking down to the pond my shoes or pants would get a little muddy. I would try to enter the house through the garage and my grandmother would yell from the down the hallway, “Take off your shoes!” And somehow, I’ve never figured out how she knew, but she would know whether my muddy pants needed to come off. My grandmother didn’t care that I found it very embarrassing to have to take off my pants in the garage, but there were rules to entering grandmother’s house. The dirty grandchild was loved but the dirty grandchild was not allowed to enter without getting clean.

The book of Leviticus, along with the rest of the Pentateuch, was written by Moses. It is God’s instruction for how an impure people can live in the presence of a holy God. Leviticus explains what is necessary for the sinful Israelite to live in a covenant relationship with a holy God. This is often a difficult book to understand because the ritual and the requirements stipulated in it are so foreign to our modern minds. The concepts of sin and holiness, sacrifice and atonement, and uncleanness and purity do not always find ready analogs in our lives today. But the themes presented in Leviticus are ones that re-emerge throughout the New Testament and find their fulfillment in Christ. So understanding the book of Leviticus is important if we want to understand the Old Testament background to the New Testament.

Three important themes in Leviticus are 1) the Divine Presence, 2) Holiness, and 3) Atonement through Sacrifice. The act of worship was to be done “to the LORD” (Lev. 1:2). The tabernacle of meeting, described in Exodus, was the place where this was to happen. It was the place were God would most readily manifest his visible glory (e.g. Lev 9:23, 24). The greatest delight and privilege of the Israelite is that God would dwell with them. “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:11, 12).

The requirement of God for his people to be in his presence was holiness. “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to by your God. You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45). Man is made in the image of God. He is, in a manner, to reflect the nature and character of God. God is holy, so man is to be holy. Holiness requires an exhibition of the purity and perfection of God’s character in physical, spiritual, and moral areas. The laws about cleanliness and uncleanliness in Leviticus 11-16 are often confusing to many people. Why does the Bible have bodily discharges and mold in houses? When we understand that holiness is comprehensive to all life because holiness is based in the perfection of God’s character, it begins to be clearer. How you relate to one another, how you love one another, how you worship, and how you give of your wealth all relate to the holiness reflected in God’s perfection. All that we are comes from God. All that is in God is perfect. All that we are must conform to God’s perfection.

This demand for holiness is impossible. It was impossible for my 10 year old self to remain clean enough to enter my grandmother’s home. But my grandmother loved me. And she provided a way for me to get clean. God loves his people. And he provides a way of atonement. Atonement comes through sacrifice. The sacrificial system is described in chapters 1-7 and the role of priests in chapters 8-10. (The name of the book of Leviticus comes from the Latin which means “about the Levites.” The Levites were the priestly tribe of Israel.) The great national feasts are detailed in Leviticus 16, 23, & 25. Some of these feasts were the Day of Atonement, the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Year of Jubilee. The Day of Atonement was the one day the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and offer a sacrifice for the people. The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorated when God separated the people from Egyptians and called them to live a holy life. The Year of Jubilee was a time when God set the people free from their bondage and slavery to various debtors. These symbols, rites, and festivals were meant to point to the redemption that God offered the people. That redemption is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is the perfect High Priest who offers up the perfect sacrifice, his own life, as an atonement for sin. Through that perfect offering, an imperfect people can dwell in the presence of a holy God.