Friday, October 28, 2005

Start at the Beginning

Start at the Beginning
Seeing Christ in all of Scripture

Many thanks to Kerry Lewis for helpful suggestions that greatly improved this article.

OK, so this guy walks into a bookstore (stop me if you’ve heard this one) and after absolutely no searching at all, finds a huge display with about four thousand copies of the Harry Potter books. He’s hasn’t read any of the six titles released so far, but has finally succumbed to cultural peer-pressure and decided to see what all the fuss is about. He buys one of each and heads for home.

Back at the house, he has all six books spread out on his coffee table. They all have interesting covers and he ponders where to begin. Finally, he notices that each of them seems to have some sort of chronological designation: year one, year two, and so on. But he likes the cover of book 4 better than book 1, so he decides to begin there. Puzzled by the end, he then skips to the newest entry, book 6, and reads that one. Even more confused, he next reads book 5, but there is obviously a back-story he is missing, so he goes back to book 2, then, 3, and finally, book 1. At last, he chunks them all in the trash, deciding that if the author can’t make herself clearer than that, she should find another job.

Ridiculous, you say? Unreasonable? I agree, but why? Obviously, because, though there are many books in the Harry Potter series, there is only one story. Those who start in the middle are bound to be confused. Not only will they misunderstand what’s going on, they will actually miss a lot of it. No one would recommend that a new reader start in the middle of a story.

No one, that is, except Christians. What’s the first thing we do with a new believer? Why, send them to the Gospel of John, of course, which, in some ways, is just like starting with book 4 of Harry Potter.

“But,” some will say, “that’s because we want new Christians to start with the story of Jesus, the most important part of the Bible, and not get confused with a lot of stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with Him!”

Now, it is perfectly true that we should start our Bible reading with the story of Jesus. The question is: where does this story begin? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The Word, of course, is Jesus Christ. According to St John, He was “in the beginning” and indeed, the one through whom “all things were made.” The story of Christ, then, begins, not in first century Bethlehem, but before the world was made. Not in John 1, but in Genesis 1.

So, yes, by all means, let new readers begin their reading with the story of Jesus; but you must realize that this will include, not only the Gospels or Epistles, but the writings of the Old Testament as well. Put another way, there is only one story in the Bible, and it is all about Jesus Christ.

Surprised? Perhaps you have been taught, like many, that the Old Testament is a lot of confusing stuff that doesn’t relate to “New Testament” Christians. Before answering that objection, I should probably point out that I am not saying “don’t read the New Testament until you’ve read the Old.” For children, especially, a focus on the narratives of Christ’s Incarnation, the days when He walked the earth, is essential. Any good Bible teaching plan should do that. In addition, it would be beneficial to include appropriate passages from the letters of Paul, or John, or Peter (to help understand the significance of the story of Christ), and readings from the Old Testament, including a generous portion of the Psalms (to help understand the context of the story of Christ). Whatever you do, don’t just skip the Old Testament, or treat it as something completely alien to the New Testament accounts.

But again, what does the Old Testament have to do with the story of Jesus in the New Testament? Scripture itself teaches us the connection. After His resurrection, Jesus walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Luke tells us that, “…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27) Note carefully what is said here. Jesus goes through the Old Testament (“Moses and all the Prophets”) and shows them “the things concerning himself.”

On another occasion, the Jews asked Jesus (who had just informed them that “if anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death”), “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died?” Jesus responded:

“Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:53, 56-58)

Here we see Christ’s claim to be the eternal God, “I Am,” who revealed His name to Moses and said he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:6).

These passages are important, for they show that the life of Jesus was a fulfillment of all that the Old Testament looked forward to. There are three main ways in which Jesus is revealed in the Old Testament. For simplicity and clarity, we will call them prophecies, appearances, and symbols.

First, prophecies: Jesus was the promised Messiah, the long-awaited Saviour of God’s people. Hundreds of years before his birth, God sent prophets who foretold many things about the Messiah, all of which were fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Just a few examples would include his birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), heralded by a star (Numbers 24:17); his conception by a virgin (Isaiah 7:14); his flight to, and return from, Egypt (Hosea 11:1; cf. Matthew 2:15); his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection (Psalm 22:1-18; Isaiah 53).

Second, appearances: “the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him” (Genesis 18:1-2). Many Biblical scholars understand this to be an actual appearance of Christ, the Son of God. The Second Person of the Trinity comes to Abraham in the appearance of a man. Puritan John Gill wrote that, “the truth of the matter seems to be this, that one of them was the son of God in an human form, that chiefly conversed with Abraham…and the other two were angels in the like form that accompanied him in that expedition….”* This happens throughout the Old Testament. When Jacob wrestled with a “man” (Genesis 32:24), the patriarch himself concludes, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (v. 30). Often, when “the Angel of the Lord” appears to God’s people in the Old Testament (for example, Gideon, in Judges 6, or Manoah in Judges 13), he is also referred to as “the LORD” or “God.” Biblical scholars suggest that these are appearances of Christ, not the Father, or the Holy Spirit, who are never said to appear as humans.

Third, symbols. Many Old Testament passages refer to Christ in an indirect manner, by way of types or symbols. From St Paul, for instance, we learn that even the Israelites wandering in the wilderness knew Christ, and he compares their experience with what New Testament Christians receive in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper:

I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (I Corinthians 10:1-4)

The prophet Jonah was a symbol of Christ, as Jesus himself tells us: “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38-40). Think of the ways Jesus is described in the New Testament: “the lamb of God” (John 1:29); “the good shepherd” (John 10:11); “prophet” (Luke 24:19); “priest” (Hebrew 3:1); and “king” (Matthew 2:2; 27:11). Yet God had given to the people of Israel lesser prophets, priests, and kings, as well as sacrificial lambs. In addition, there are shepherds in the Old Testament, like Jacob, David, and Amos. So, when we read the Scriptures, and read about a lamb, a shepherd, a prophet, a priest, a king (and these are just a few examples), we should think of Jesus, and see what we can learn about Him from these types and symbols.

In doing this, we should let the New Testament be our guide. Even the simple tool of a good reference Bible can help. When the New Testament quotes a passage from the Old Testament, or the margins list an Old Testament reference, look it up. It will enhance your ability to help children understand the significance and context of whatever passage you are teaching.

The Bible is essentially one book, one story, though made up of many individual books and stories, just as the tales of Lancelot, Galahad, and Gawain are all parts of the legend of King Arthur. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the centre of the Bible’s story.

Look around at the landscape painted by Scripture, and on every hill, in every valley, in every wood and plain, there is Christ. Hear the story of God’s people, and in every scene, at every moment, there is Christ. Read the scriptural account of God’s work in history, and on every page, in every song and letter, there is Christ.

With this understanding, all of Scripture takes on a new significance for parents and teachers. We come to see, for example, that the story of David and Goliath is not primarily about “how to conquer the giants in our lives.” Rather, this story is told because it is a significant moment in the life of David, the ancestor of Christ, who was the Son of David (Matthew 1:1; 9:27). Adam’s story foreshadows the Second Adam, Christ (I Corinthians 15:45). Moses points ahead to One greater than Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6). All of this ought to infuse our teaching with life and energy, with drama and wonder. All is about Christ. Every book, every chapter, every passage, every verse, no matter how difficult or obscure, ultimately finds meaning in union with the story of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul put it, “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). Children, with this understanding of the Bible, will not be bewildered at the vast array of stories and characters, but will begin to see this diversity as part of the unity of the One Story, the story of Christ. Add to that the fact that it is, above all, a true story, and you have (of course!) the greatest tool for the transformation of young lives that could ever be imagined.

*From the commentary on Genesis 18 in John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, which can be found here.

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