Friday, August 12, 2011

How to Read the Old Testament as a Christian

I want to talk to you today about reading the Old Testament as it was meant to be read. Now there are a lot of books out there on how to properly interpret the Bible, but I want to save you some time. I want to focus now on how to read the "Old Testament," the largest chunk of the Bible from Genesis to Malachi. If we want to honor God in our studies, I think we must learn how to read the Old Testament as Christians. Now I would love to teach you more about the history of the Bible, but I think a broad how to do-it-yourself guide is more beneficial for your own studies. I have met many who refuse to interpret the Old Testament writings through the way I will teach you today because they want to avoid the so-called fallacy of "Christian anachronism." If you are having this problem, I would tell you the reason I interpret the Old Testament through the "lens" of the New Testament is because I think the true purpose of the law and the prophets is Jesus himself. I ask you, did not Jesus say, "the Scriptures testify about me" (John 5:39)? After the resurrection, did not Jesus interpret "what was said in all the Scriptures about himself" (Luke 24:37)? My pastor used to say, "If you don't see Jesus on every page of Scripture, you're doing something wrong!" I think he's right. I have slowly and painfully learned that the Old Testament is really a forward looking collection of books. They are truly inspired writings, but they were never meant to stay at a stand-still, to be read on their own right for all time. I understand now that the message of the gospel is underneath the surface level understanding of the Old Testament text. There is allegory, there is typology, there is metaphor, there is Jesus. The Old Testament was meant to be read through the clear lens of what would come after it, the New Testament. It is not unwise to read an initially obscure story a second time if you know how it ends. Since you know the point of the Old Testament narrative is Christ, then read it a second time through Christ. Paul the apostle himself illustrates my point. He wrote, "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." (Romans 15:4). Paul believed the very rock Moses struck with a staff referred to Christ as the spiritual rock (see 1 Corinthians 10:4; for another example, see Galatians 4:24-26). Paul believed Christ was the true meaning of the Old Testament. Do you?

It took me a few years to digest the fact that the true purpose of the Old Testament writings and stories was to pave the way for Christianity. The Old Testament is to the New Testament like John the Baptist is to Jesus; the Old prepares the way for the New. It is true that the Old Testament is a Jewish text, but I have learned that the Old Testament was not written for a national Jewish people per se, but for "Christians"-- keep in mind I define "Christians" as both Jews and Gentiles who have embraced the message of the gospel. Many people miss Jesus in the Old Testament precisely because they don't understand this point. I have met a few of these sort at seminary, intelligent people who nevertheless fail to make the proper distinctions. They get trapped into reading the Old Testament solely through a Jewish mindset, falsely thinking they are being more faithful to the Scriptures. When I interpret Isaiah 53 or other such passages from the Old Testament as referring to Christianity, they block me in my tracks and complain, "Hold on, that's a Christian interpolation! That's not what the passage meant to the original hearers." But it is no such thing, and though the second point is a half-truth, there is a double meaning in the Old Testament texts that allows for both its original meaning and its extended meaning. Christianity is not new in God's providential plan. I have learned that Christianity is the very promise of salvation God made to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15; this is why Paul repeatedly called the message of the gospel "the promise" of Abraham (Galatians 3:16, 3:29; Romans 4:13; 9:8). I have learned that the gospel moved alongside the law and the prophets from the very beginning of God's progressive revelation. Therefore, I want you too to understand that the gospel is not a "Christian" innovation as some say; it was always a part of God's plan, but was just waiting to be revealed at the right time in history, and its revelation just so happened to be 2000 years ago. I want to share with you what I have learned from my studies and help you grow in appreciation for the Old Testament writings by reading them as a Christian. I challenge you to read them through the message of the gospel. You will read as a Christian if you see Jesus, his work and his person, in all of the Old Testament Scriptures. I want to use the book of Hosea to illustrate my point.

Case Study: The Book of Hosea

Hosea is all about the faithfulness of God. If you want to read it as a Christian, you must see the gospel in the book of Hosea. In this book God instructs Hosea the prophet to marry "a wife of whoredom" (Hosea 1:2), whose unfaithfulness to her husband would serve as an example of Israel's unfaithfulness to God. Whenever we sin against the Lord, we are like that unfaithful spouse who cheats on her husband, and then once having her fill asks for his acceptance once again. It is quite an evil cycle. All people sin, but only some, the true Christians, are truly repentant for that sin. God does not want perfection from you; he wants repentance, an attitude of godly sorrow that comes from the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). Hosea teaches us that God's patience with us is meant to bring us to repentance. The reason God takes back the unfaithful spouse is so she can be fruitful in his kingdom. God plucks her out of the dung and begins to make her a fertile soil. You are that unfaithful and exceedingly sinful spouse. You were that dung, enslaved to the elemental spirits of this world, but now you are on fertile soil, if you are Christ's, and Christ will tend to his soil. As you can see, the message of the gospel is everywhere in the book of Hosea. In fact, Hosea is the message of the gospel. We are the Church, the bride of Christ, and God is calling us to repentance and faith. Did not Jesus say, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32)? If you want to read like a Christian, see the gospel in the book of Hosea.

My pastor harps on reasoning "from the general to the particular." Well, now that we have seen Hosea as generally a "gospel structured" book, I will quote a few particular examples of the gospel in Hosea. Most of these texts are quoted by the New Testament authors, so I am not merely anachronistically reading the gospel back into the text. I am not denying the original, historical meaning to all of these texts, but I am just looking back at these texts through the lens of the New Testament.

Hosea 1:10 “Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God." Paul quotes this passage in Romans 9:26 to refer to the gospel preached to both Jews and Gentiles, the true "Israel" which is the Church.

Hosea 2:19 "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion." Paul alludes to this passage in 2 Corinthians 11:2, for we are betrothed to Christ as the people of God and are declared the "righteousness of God" through faith alone (Romans 3:22).

Hosea 6:2 "After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence." Though literally about restoration of the people of God at the time of Hosea, the ultimate meaning of this verse forms the basis of our resurrection in the resurrection of Christ. "Jesus told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47).

Hosea 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." Quoted in Matthew 2:15 during Jesus' flight to Egypt, this passage is about our salvation in Christ. We are ransomed from slavery, out of the world, and adopted as children of the kingdom of God, much like the people of Israel were led by Moses out of Egypt.

Hosea 13:14 "I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?" Quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55, this passage is ultimately about "the death of death in the death of Christ." It is about our redemption from sin and the grave in the gospel.

Hosea 14:4 "I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them." Surely this passage alludes to nothing but the love of God in the gospel, for we were by nature "children of wrath" and "once darkness but now light in the Lord" (Ephesians 2:3; 5:8).

You must understand that the Old Testament is ultimately about the gospel because Jesus Christ is the be-all and end-all of Scripture. Everything that Scripture ever was and ever will be is about Jesus. He is truly "the Word of God" made flesh (John 1:1, 14; Revelation 19:13). Therefore, if you want to read the Old Testament as a Christian, see Jesus there on every page. This is what I call reading through the hermeneutic of faith. Only then will you see Christ as the underlying meaning of stories like the Flood of Noah, because Christ is the "ark" in whom we take refuge from the waters of this world; of Joseph sold to slavery and "rising" to power in Egypt; of Moses leading the people out from slavery in Egypt as Christ leads us out from slavery to this world; of the Israelites sent to spy out the promised land of Canaan, bringing back from its fertile soil the "cluster of grapes" that is Christ (see Numbers 13); of the rock Moses struck with his staff that quenched the people's thirst as Christ quenches our spiritual thirst; of David defeating Goliath like Christ defeated this world. Time would fail me if I told you of more, because every story ever told in the Old Testament points to Christ, alludes to Christ, breathes out Christ. If you see Christ as the true meaning of all Scripture, how much greater will you exalt his name, how much greater will you love Scripture, and how much more will you appreciate the Old Testament? 

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