The Bible – Book by Book – John

Why are there four Gospels? There was a tradition in the early church of taking the four living creatures of Ezekiel 1:10 and Rev. 4:7 as symbols of the four Gospels. The “tetramorph” (lit. four forms) likely originated with Irenaeus in the 2nd century. Most commonly (though not uniformly), Matthew is connected with the man, Mark is the lion, Luke is the ox, and John is the eagle. Matthew is the man because he begins with the genealogy of Jesus. Mark is the lion, roaring in the desert with prophetic power, Luke is ox, because he shows Jesus as the temple sacrifice, and John is the eagle, soaring in the heavens as the divine Word. Ezekiel paints the picture of these four distinct creatures, and yet they were in many ways one creature. There was a diversity and unity in the four as they presented the glory of the one God. The diversity and unity of the Gospels is similar.

To understand why there are four, we need to understand something about the writing of Holy Scripture and the purpose of the Gospels. The Holy Spirit’s work of inspiration in the life of the individual authors of the Gospels is crucial to understanding why we have four accounts. And nature of gospels, as literature, help us understand the Gospels, as four authoritative accounts.

There is not a “zero-sum game” in the inspiration of Scripture. As the Holy Spirit inspires the human authors of the Gospels, their human-ness is not eradicated so that only the Holy Spirit comes through their pen. Instead, there is a sanctifying effect on the human-ness of the author, such that they are truly free and liberated from sin. They experience and express the realities of true fellowship with God, such that it is not an either/or (these are either the author’s or God’s words) but rather a both/and (these are both the author’s and God’s words) situation.[1] This is why the personality and the style of each author is not flattened into one homogenous account of the account of life and death of Jesus. Instead there are four accounts. Each one expressing what the Holy Spirit desires to express through the personality and style of the particular author, and each one expressing it in an equally true but differently nuanced way. The complete picture is no less truthful, right, pure, or inspired, even though each account provides a different facet of the story.

These four documents all detail something of the earthly life of Jesus Christ. Neither individually nor corporately do they constitute what would properly be called a biography. They make no attempt to be thorough or complete in their telling of the life of Jesus. They each spend much more time detailing the circumstances of his death than that of his life. And each of them tends to focus on a slightly different aspect of that life and death. This is done to address different audiences and different contexts. The Gospel of Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience. Mark was written to a mixed Jewish and Gentile audience in Rome. Luke was written to primarily Gentiles. And John was written a few decades later to supplement those accounts with a more theological picture of Jesus as the Son of God.

The Gospel of John was written decades after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The apostle John put this Gospel to paper sometime between 80-90AD while he was residing in Ephesus. After a lifetime of reflection on the person and work of Jesus, John wrote, “so that you may believe the Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). He does not open with a birth narrative or nativity. Instead it opens at the dawn of time. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This prologue to John presents Jesus as the eternal Logos, or Word, who presents to us the Father. By the Holy Spirit, Christ reveals the Father because he shares in the Father’s deity. He was present at creation. He fed Israel in the desert. He is the Great “I AM.” John is laying out the deep and timeless theological reality of Jesus, that we might believe.

If we understand the Gospel of John as being written later than the other three, then we’ll see the supplementary nature of the Gospel. This is why the nativity, the baptism, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper are not in it. Almost all of Jesus’ Galilean ministry is omitted. Instead of parables, John presents long dialogues between Jesus and others. John emphasizes the signs and wonders of Jesus. It is because John is assuming the reader is already familiar with these aspects of Jesus’ life because of the other Gospels. But it is clear that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are all writing about the same Jesus. They are four accounts that represent four different situations and contexts. They are four different authors. They are four different perspectives. But there is one subject to their gospel. There is one inspiring author in the Holy Spirit. And there is one goal for all four Gospels. They all agree that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who came in the flesh for the salvation of the world.[2]


[1] Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, 66–69.

[2] Machen and Cook, The New Testament, 220–21.

The Bible – Book by Book – Luke

Marcion was son of a bishop, born around 85AD. Through his study of the Hebrew scriptures, Marcion became convinced that the God of the Old Testament was incompatible with the Jesus of the New Testament. Around 144AD, he began to develop a theological system that incorporated two gods. There was a god of the Old Testament, the Demiurge, who created the material universe, but who was a legalistic and wrathful god. Another god, the one professed by Jesus, was altogether different. He was merciful and gracious, full of compassion and love. As a result of this, Marcion developed what could be considered an early canon of Scripture. Essentially, Marcion went to the New Testament with a knife and began removing everything he didn’t like. When he was finished, he was left with the Gospel of Luke (minus parts he didn’t like) and ten of Paul’s letters (also trimmed to fit his views). He had removed anything that favorable referenced the God of the Old Testament.

The Marcionite heresy continues to rear its ugly head. There is nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9), and old heresies just get rewarmed in a modern context. The mega-church pastor Andy Stanley recently preached that the Gospel needs to be “unhitched” from the Old Testament. He does this because he sees a fundamental difference between the “worldview and the values system depicted in the story of Ancient Israel” and the one depicted in the New Testament. Stanley is well-intentioned. His fear is that a mean, wrathful, and legalistic god of the Old Testament will scare away people from the merciful, gracious, and compassionate god of the New Testament. But his good intentions are just a re-hashing of Marcion’s errors.

What’s interesting about Marcion is that he has inadvertently been a great gift to the Church. What others intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen 50:20, Rom 8:28). In response to Marcion, the early Church had to clarify those areas where Marcion attempted to attack. The continuity between the Old and New Testaments was affirmed. The incarnation of Jesus Christ was explained. And the canon of the New Testament, which had been universally but unofficially received, was more formally acknowledged in order to refute Marcion’s canon. It is interesting to note that Marcion’s canon was clearly an attempt to cut away the pieces with which he disagreed. But for him to do that, there had to be an understood and received canon from which to cut. Marcion’s canon points to the fact that there already was an established, though somewhat unofficial, canon of the New Testament.

Out of the 2nd century response against Marcion came a prologue to Luke’s Gospel. This so called “Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke,” written around 160AD, helped to firmly establish the authorship of the anonymous Gospel. It says the physician Luke was the author of the Gospel and the book of Acts. It also points out that Luke wrote his Gospel to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world. The reason Marcion liked the Gospel of Luke is that Luke presented Jesus to a non-Jewish audience. Luke was careful to couch the narrative of Jesus in its proper Jewish context, but it was not emphasized like in Matthew or Mark.

Luke tells us in his opening why he wrote his Gospel. “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative…it seemed good to me also…to write an orderly account for you…that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4). Luke was a physician and a historian. He took all the reliable accounts circulating at the time and he compiled them into an accurate and orderly account of Jesus’ life. As the fledgling Christian movement was growing, it was competing with a number of other religious and philosophical systems in the Greco-Roman world. Luke is presenting the best case that Christianity is not just for Jewish people, and why Christians are the true heirs of God’s Old Testament promises. For example, when Luke details the genealogy of Jesus, he traces it all the way back to Adam, whereas Matthew only goes back to Abraham. Luke also points out how Jesus commended Gentiles, like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:25-27), and the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10).

Luke makes some important and unique contributions. Luke provides for us a much more sweeping birth narrative of Jesus. Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist and then moves to the much-loved nativity scene of Jesus. Luke also spends a great deal more time on the journey to Jerusalem than Matthew or Mark. What constitutes a mere chapter in them is extended to ten chapters (chs. 9-19). Included in this are some famous parables like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

Luke was a physician. And he presents Jesus as the compassionate and merciful healer. But he is also a Savior who denounces injustice and hates evil. Jesus is the one who not only heals the sick and ill, but he saves the lost from their sins (Luke 19:10). “The seeking love of God, as it appears [in Luke], is not the good-natured complacence that is being mistaken for it today, but a wonderful, paradoxical, saving will, that led the Son of God finally to the cross.”[1]

[1] Machen and Cook, The New Testament, 208.

The Bible – Book by Book – Mark

“’Who chose which gospels to include?’ Sophie asked. ‘Aha!’ Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. ‘The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.’” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code)

Dan Brown’s fiction made even more popular the misconception that the Gospels were chosen by Constantine in early 4th century. This isn’t even remotely true. The common story in the secular academy is that whoever had the largest army picked the Scriptures. But the history just does not support this theory.

There were lists of the received books of the New Testament that began circulating in the church in late 3rd and early 4th centuries. There was a general accepted consensus of what we would understand as a canon by the early 2nd century. The lists don’t always mesh perfected, but it is close. The Muratorian Fragment contains a list that is roughly the same as the Table of Contents in your Bible. Some scholars say it should be dated to the 4th century because this list fits with other 4th century lists. But that is a circular argument. Everything else about the list points to an early 2nd century dating. These lists point to a settled canon that was received by the Church well before Constantine. When asked the question, “Who chose the Gospels?” Dr. Charles Hill summarized, “second-century Christian leaders would have said that neither individuals nor churches had the authority to ‘choose’ which of the many Gospels they liked, but to receive the ones given by God and handed down by Christ through is apostles.”[1] No one ‘chose’ the Gospels, rather these were the books that had always been received as the Word of God for the Church.

As far as the earliest dates for the writing of New Testament books, Mark is among the earliest. Mark was likely written between 55 and 65AD. This would be the earliest of the Gospel accounts. And like the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark is technically anonymous. But very early tradition attributes it to John Mark. Mark wrote as one who was recording the testimony of the apostle Peter.

Mark was a companion of Paul and Barnabas early in their missionary journeys. But there was a falling out between Paul and Mark in Acts 15. Apparently Mark had abandoned Paul at some point. Mark would continue on with Barnabas, while Paul took Silas on as a traveling companion. Later on we learn from 2 Timothy 4 that Paul and Mark are reconciled, and Paul even mentions that Mark is “very valuable to me.” A final reference to Mark appears in 1 Peter 5:13 where we learn that Mark is in Rome with Peter. This is where Mark would have compiled and written his Gospel.

During this period of time in Rome there was a growing Christian Church. It was composed of both Jewish believers and also Gentile converts. During this time there was the rise of Nero as emperor. His reign was marked by an increasingly erratic and despotic style of governance. Christians were largely ignored until Nero needed a new scapegoat. The Gospel of Mark was likely written during these (or similar) hardships. Mark is writing to strengthen and encourage the Church in their suffering and potential martyrdom. Nothing in their experience was foreign to the experience of Jesus. He suffered. He was betrayed. He was crucified. He tasted death. And yet he rose victorious.

Mark’s Gospel does not assume a deep knowledge of Judaism or Hebrew terms. Often these are translated for the reader (this is a difference with Matthew). Mark also begins with John the Baptist and goes straight into Jesus’ ministry. Unlike Luke and Matthew, Mark skips over the Nativity. And from this starting point, Mark outlines the two key points of his Gospel, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The title of Christ is built up to the crescendo of Peter’s response to Jesus’ question, “’But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ’” (Mark 8:29). And then the response of the Centurion witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus, “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). The Jewish disciple, Peter, and the Roman Centurion declare the reality of Jesus. He is the Christ, the Son of God.


[1] Hill, Who Chose the Gospels?, 246.

The Bible – Book by Book – Matthew

Nowhere in the New Testament do you see the word “gospel” used to refer to the four accounts of the life of Jesus which were penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The term “gospel” and the verbal form “preach the gospel” are used throughout the New Testament. This term in the Greek, euangelion, literally means the “good news” (eu- good and –angelion news). It is used to denote the message of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Likely, it was Mark’s use of the term “gospel” in Mark 1:1 that led Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century to refer to the work of Mark as, “The Gospel according to Mark.” It is important to note that the Gospels were never seen as a gospel written by Matthew, rather they always referred to one Gospel according to a particular author (e.g. Matthew). In fact, in Greek texts of the New Testament today, the Gospels are titled simply as “Kata Matthaion,” which means “According to Matthew.” The emphasis has always been on the singleness of the Gospel even though there are four different authors. As such, there is a recognition that there is one Gospel, and yet the four accounts recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can collectively be referred to as the Gospels (plural).

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually developed a new form of literature. There were literary biographies of figures written at and before that time. But what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did was unique. Most biographies were anonymous. These were not. The Gospels combined preaching and teaching into their description of the life of Jesus. They are neither strictly a collection of teachings from Jesus, nor are they just a chronological sketch of his life and activities. Among other reasons, this is why Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John stand out from other apocryphal gospel writings like, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Truth, and the hypothetical document Q. On style alone, these accounts should be rejected as Gospels.[1]

It may be surprising to you that the Gospel of Matthew nowhere claims to have actually been written by Matthew. But the historical attribution to Matthew is strong. The earliest manuscripts include the title, “According to Matthew.” And there is little reason to question this. Matthew was one of the apostles (Matt. 10:2-4). He was a tax collector on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In the parallel accounts of Mark and Luke, he is known as Levi.

The date of the writing of Matthew has been a source of great debate in modern scholarship. Traditionally, the Gospel of Matthew as seen as the earliest of the Gospels. This was likely due to the fact that it was always listed first in the collections of the Gospels. But recent scholarship has questioned this assumption. The broad and generally accepted scholarly consensus is that Mark was the first Gospel written and Matthew was written sometime afterwards, but using Mark’s material. It should be noted that some Christians struggle with the idea that the human author Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as part of his source material. Rest assured, this is no reason for concern regarding the inspiration, inerrancy, or authority of the Scriptures. That Matthew used Mark’s writing as a source for his own in no way diminishes the role of the Holy Spirit in the writing of Scripture. In fact, Luke tells us from the beginning that he compiled a variety of sources to write his Gospel account. For a variety of reasons, I take Mark as being written sometime in the early 60’s. If Matthew used Mark, then I would view Matthew as having been written sometime just before 70AD.

The Gospel of Matthew has a different feel from the other Gospels. It is decidedly more Jewish. Matthew more frequently references the Old Testament. Ten times Matthew will use a variation of the phrase, “this was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching also focuses on in five major discourses: ethics, discipleship and mission, the kingdom of heaven, the church, and the end time. Some scholars view these categories as mirroring the themes of the Pentateuch.[2] If this is the case, then Matthew is presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises given through Moses. Matthew is presenting Jesus as the Messiah and as the inauguration of the Kingdom of heaven. But in this Jewish character, Matthew does not present a Messiah who is only for Jews. In fact, Matthew is the Gospel where the Great Commission is found (Matt. 28:19, 20). “The Jesus of the First Gospel is not only the Jewish Messiah, but also the Savior of the world, and the Jesus, not of fiction, but of history.”[3]


[1] For a good introduction to the nature of Gospels in general and the Gospel of Matthew in particular, see D. A Carson and Douglas J Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009) pp.77-168.

[2]  R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2005), 1360.

[3] J. Gresham Machen and W. John Cook, The New Testament: An Introduction to Its Literature and History (Edinburgh [Scot.], Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 194.

Slaves of Righteousness, Part II

“But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” — Romans 6:17-18

Last week we took an initial look at why Paul describes Christians as “slaves to righteousness” in Romans 6:17-18. We saw that one reason why Paul uses this description is to teach us about our limitedness as human beings. As Christians, we are not radical free agents, we are constrained and directed by another: our Lord Jesus Christ. God rules and reigns over the entire world, including us – we are fundamentally servants of God, not masters of our own destiny. God has made us limited, both in creation and redemption. In neither the natural nor the spiritual realms can we say “I have made myself,” but rather we must say “God is creator, and His creation is very good.”

This week we want to look at a second reason why Paul would call us slaves of righteousness: to emphasize that our salvation involves a radical transformation of life.

Last year we celebrated the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. One of the great truths that the reformation brought back into light is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that we are made right with God through His grace, through our union with Him by faith. Luther realized the transformative power of that underserved grace – that our spiritual restoration to God, through a free act of divine mercy, is the way we are brought back into God’s family. Our status as children of God does not depend on how good we are at doing stuff, and does not depend on how much we do for God. It is a gift. It is free. It is undeserved.

But, the reformation also recovered another truth and called for another renewal — A Reformation of Life. All of life must be reformed, transformed, and subjected to God. We must walk in a manner that pleases God. We must walk in righteousness. We must present our very persons to God to walk in His ways. This is not in order to earn our salvation, but because we are transformed. We have been conformed to the likeness of his death, and we are being renewed in the likeness of his resurrection. Our body of sin has been done away with. We are freed from sin. We are new creations. To be a believer is to walk in a transformed manner. We present ourselves now as slaves to righteousness.

Note how this newfound slavery to righteousness is described as “obedience from the heart.” Obedience is an active thing – it’s something we must do. To be enslaved to something is to actively serve it as a master. As Paul puts it in Romans 6:16, we are all “presenting ourselves” to someone – either sin or obedience. Having been transformed by God’ grace, we now actively offer ourselves up not to evil, but to God Himself. To be a Christian is to have an active, transformed life.

If “obedience” is the activity of Christians, and if “from the heart” is the way we should do it, then “the pattern of teaching to which you were committed” is the matter or substance of it. Unlike our old conformity to sin, we now conform to a different “teaching.” Through our obedience we become more and more like God Himself – we are conformed to His image, which is holiness!

The Westminster Larger Catechism in question 97 asks “What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?” Its answer is rich. Part of it reads the way we would expect, that the moral law is there so that Christians take “greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.” God’s will for our lives, the pattern of sound teaching which we are to obey, directs us toward holiness and righteousness.

But, before it says that, it says that the moral law is of “special use” to Christians because it “shows them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness.” We so often attempt to make law and gospel into enemies that passages like this can be jarring. The moral law doesn’t alienate us from God, but draws us closer to him. It makes us thankful for Christ and helps us see how our ultimate good depends upon Him. It makes us thankful. And, it inspires us to take greater care to conform ourselves to God’s image, to holiness, to Christ. Why have we given ourselves as slaves to righteousness? Because we have given ourselves as slaves to God (Rom 6:22).

In this day and age we must ask ourselves some hard questions about our allegiances. What “teaching” are we following in our lives today? Brothers and sisters, I ask you, have you given your allegiance to God? Not a political party, not a country, not your family, not your job, not your idea of yourself, not your dreams, not some fantasy of your own devising, not the practical needs of today, but have you given your allegiance to God, your loving Father and Lord? If you have, then this is what it means: we are now slaves to righteousness and we cannot, we cannot present ourselves as slaves to another.

Being saved, becoming a Christian, knowing the Gospel, means a radical reformation of life.

Slaves of Righteousness, Part I

“But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” — Romans 6:17-18

How would you describe your life as a Christian? There are many ways to do it, some emphasizing joy and hope, others emphasizing suffering in the midst of difficulty. In Romans 6 the Apostle Paul describes Christians as “slaves to righteousness.”

He is employing surprising rhetoric here, to say the least. He’s turning something bad into something good. Slavery is not a good thing, either in the ancient world or today. Indeed, Paul himself tells Corinthian slaves to get their freedom if they can (I Cor. 7:21). And, yet, Paul describes us as slaves.

Over the next two weeks I’d like to consider two reasons why he would do this. First, one reason he does this is to emphasize that humanity is limited. As humans we have a tendency to think we ourselves are ultimate and absolute. Our own concerns loom large in our own minds. Our own judgments seem right, and fixed. When we want something, we want something. Adam and Eve did this in the garden, choosing what seemed right in their own eyes.

But, we are not our own ultimate authorities. We are limited. None of us gets to be the boss of the universe, or even the boss of our lives. We all have to take direction from others, and above all from God Himself. We belong to God; we are His creatures. Everyone has a master in heaven, regardless of his position here on earth.

So, don’t think that the Christian life is one of absolute self-directedness. It’s not. The idea of Christian living is not to be totally unhindered in every possible way. Christians acknowledge God’s supremacy.

Of course, in the truest sense, we do have freedom. We have the best kinds of freedom, beginning with the freedom from the guilt and shame of sin.  Paul says “You were slaves of sin. You were bound to obey sin. You used to present yourself in service to sin.” Before we were justified by faith in Jesus, before we were united to Him and His death (6:5), we presented ourselves to sin.

Some of us can remember what it was like before we became slaves of righteousness, back when we were slaves to sin. It was horrific. We went down and down while we lived like that. God describes that descent in Romans 1 – giving ourselves over to idols and thereby perverting the goodness of what God made. Think of what happened before the flood: all the thoughts of men were evil continually. Life in the free pursuit of sin leads not to happiness, but to misery.

David, in Psalm 1, shows us the alternative: we are happy if we delight in the law of the Lord. When we reject God’s law, we are hindered: when we delight in setting traps for others, when we delight in evil — we are ruined. Our foot slips. But when we walk in the pathways of righteousness, we flourish.

When we were slaves of sin we were not free. Our own “degrading passions” directed our lives. Recently I taught a unit on Augustine in my ethics class at The King’s College. One of the things he says in Book 19 of City of God is that slavery to our own passions is the worst kind of slavery. Other philosophers agree – to not be directed by your passions, your emotions, your desires – that is the kind of freedom we really value.

In other words, the best kind of freedom is the freedom to do what is good, the freedom to acquire what is truly best. That is the kind of freedom really worth having.

But, that kind of freedom does not come through making ourselves absolute – we are not lords of the universe. No, God is in His holy temple. God is ruling and reigning – and we are under His kingship – his mastery.

Brothers and sisters, let’s contemplate the reality that we are not the Lord of our lives. We don’t live for ourselves, but instead in service to God and to one another.

And this is a wonderful thing. Where else would we rather be? Where could possibly be better than under the love, care, and direction, from an all-powerful, all-loving Father who has given His only Son for our salvation? Where else would be better than in His loving arms, walking according to the wise paths he has given us. Who would leave such a place? Remember the first question and answer in the Heidelberg Catechism? “What is your only hope in life and in death? The answer: That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

It’s a glorious thing to belong to another, when the one whom you belong to is your creator and redeemer.

So, by calling us slaves to righteousness, Paul teaches us about our limits as humans – God is our Lord. Brothers and sisters, let us solemnly consider that God is our Lord. Our service to Him, what Paul calls being “slaves of righteousness,” is actually the surest pathway to true freedom and happiness.


Elder David Talcott

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

Last week, we saw that the Old Testament stories can be read as “examples” for those of us on this side of the cross. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that these “examples” or “patterns” from the Old Testament are shadows cast by the New Testament reality. Since all of the Old Testament speaks about Christ (Luke 24:44), these shadows are actually cast by Jesus Christ himself. What this means is that the vague details of the Old Testament stories find clarity and vivid detail in the person and work of Jesus. However, because they are shadows of Christ, they still retain the broad outline of God’s redemptive plan. That is to say, when we read the Old Testament on this side of the cross, we do so expecting to see consistent patterns that find their end point in either Jesus himself or the work that he performs.

As we return to those words of Paul that seem difficult to understand, we are better equipped to see what Paul sees in the Old Testament stories. As a reminder, those difficult words were: “For [our fathers in the wilderness] drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). The primary difficulty is seeing how Paul can relate a rock in the desert to Christ. Using what has been said about reading the Old Testament on this side of the cross, we can make more sense of Paul’s words. What we will discover is that Paul has in mind a distinct pattern found in Scripture: divine self-sacrifice. But to see this, we need to begin with the Old Testament story that is the background to Paul’s words, Exod 17:1-7.

In Exod 17:1-7, we read that Israel “thirsted [at Rephidim] for water” (v3). There, the people quarreled with Moses and accused him of bringing them into the wilderness only to die (v3). They were so angry that Moses was afraid they would stone him (v4). As Moses cries out to God for help, God says, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (vv5-6). God thereby proves that he is among Israel (v7) and is also able to deliver them.

So, Exodus 17 is a picture of divine self-sacrifice. God is present on the rock when he “delivers” Israel from thirst. Moses is to “strike” the rock/God. The end result is a flow of water that quenches Israel’s thirst. In summary, God is personally present as he miraculously provides for his people through a violent (note that the verb “strike” is the same verb used to describe what Israel does to its enemies) act of deliverance. Said another way, this is a story about deliverance through divine self-sacrifice. Now, we know Paul has this pattern in mind because he speaks about spiritual food and drink in 1 Cor 10:3-4. The context of his equation of the rock with Christ is the Lord’s Supper, which itself is a picture of divine self-sacrifice.

Does this pattern repeat elsewhere? It certainly does. Tucked away in the Minor Prophets is another example of this pattern. In Zech 12:10-13:1, the good news of future salvation for Israel takes an unexpected turn toward divine self-sacrifice. God says that he will pour out “a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. But then, God says, “so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him” (v10). That is to say, God will be personally present in the salvation or the deliverance of Israel, but it will also include piercing him. This piercing will result in deliverance, for “on that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1). This passage in Zechariah is a picture of deliverance through divine self-sacrifice.

But there is one more passage worth noting in this pattern. In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham. As a part of the covenant ceremony, animals are cut in half (15:9-10), which would be customary, but then only God passes between the pieces (v17), which would have been unusual. By passing through the pieces on his own, God pledges that he will be faithful to his promises and only he will bear the curse of death for a breach in the covenant.

What does it look like for God to honor such a pledge? It looks like God being pierced for our transgressions (Isa 53:5; Zech 12:10). It looks like a fountain of cleansing (Zech 13:1). It looks like deliverance from thirst in the desert through the striking of God/the rock (Exod 17:1-7). It looks a soldier piercing the side of Jesus Christ, out of which flowed blood and water (John 19:34-37).

Paul can confidently say that “The Rock was Christ” because the rock in the wilderness was one instance of the pattern of divine self-sacrifice that found its fulfillment at the cross.

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.