Thank God for the Old Testament

Icon HabakkukHabakkuk opens with a question, “O LORD, how long shall I cry out for help and you will not hear?” But I imagine many people were asking another question as we started a three part preaching series in the book: “Why Habakkuk?” This was certainly the opinion of one older man in my church, proving that grey hairs are not synonymous with wisdom or maturity. But if you look at your Bible side on and split it at the page between the Old and New Testaments you will notice that the Old accounts for more than three quarters of God’s Word. Either God is a prodigious abuser of words and trees or he wants us to read all of Scripture.

Sadly, today many churches and those in them consider the Old Testament to be outdated, irrelevant, and too confusing to be of any real worth for living and following after our Lord Jesus Christ. This has lead to the call for the 21st century church to unhitch from the Old Testament. Others are less bold, expressing their low view of the Old Testament more subtly as a preference for the New Testament. This was clearly illustrated to me recently when someone thanked me for choosing to study James in our home groups after a trudging term in Amos. Unfortunately these attitudes are out of whack with Christ himself, who said in Luke 24 that the law, prophets, and writings (the Old Testament) testify to him. Very briefly, by looking at two New Testament passages and making two linked points, I hope to convince you of the God-given value possessed by the Old Testament, from Amos to Zechariah.

1. The Old Testament testifies to Jesus Christ

The apostle Peter writes in his first epistle, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). The Old Testament speaks of Christ, both in anticipation and even by explaining aspects of his life, death, and resurrection. When we read the Old Testament one of the questions we should be asking is: ‘How is this fulfilled in Christ?’ or ‘How does this point to him?’ Peter goes on,  “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel” (1 Peter 1:12). Therefore, in God’s wisdom the Old Testament given to the nation of Israel is also for his church today, which brings us to our second point.

2. The Old Testament was written for Christians

Listen to 2 Peter 1:19, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Here Peter calls the prophetic message of the Old Testament as something we should pay attention to. At best, most Christians are happy to consider the Old Testament reliable, because what was promised about the future has reached a partial culmination in Christ. But that is to wrongly limit three quarters of the Bible to foretelling Christ, stripping it of any importance or relevance today, for the Christian church. This is a huge mistake, tantamount to confusing Nahum (an Old Testament minor prophet) with Nostradamus. We must not lose sight of the prophets as a light shining in the present to which we must look, which is how Peter describes them. It is for this reason that Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that the Old Testament is profitable or useful in teaching and equipping us how to live.

In conclusion, the entire Old Testament is inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). That explains the anticipation and promise of Christ but also impresses on us that it is for God’s people today. So let’s read it in order to have our faith in Christ enriched and learn how to live for Christ while we wait for his return.

Chris Pratt: The Church’s Responsibility to the Next Generation

Generation AwardAppearing repeatedly on my social media feeds this week was Chris Pratt’s speech, after accepting the MTV Generation Award. What has garnered a lot of attention was his ninth rule for living: if we are willing to accept that we are imperfect then we can experience grace. “Grace is a gift, and like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with someone else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.” Putting aside the fact that Pratt accomplished in 15 seconds what Bishop Michael Curry failed to do in 15 minutes at the Royal Wedding, I want to pick up Pratt’s understanding of this particular award and the expectation tied to it. Pratt said, “This being the Generation Award I’m going to cut to the chase and I’m going to speak to you, the next generation. I accept the responsibility as your elder.”

Having recently had our first child, the reality of being responsible for the next generation has become both unavoidable and uncomfortable. I confess it is very likely an indication of my own selfishness that no meaningful thought on this task preceded the arrival of my son, which is to sideline the New Testament model that makes older and more mature Christians responsible for the younger. Pratt seems to understand this call in an age when many Christians only invest in their peers and the nuclear family. In 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Tony Reinke argues that one of the imperative responsibilities we have for future generations is the discerning use of pervasive technology. If we fail in this area those follow us will suffer the consequences. But I want to highlight another responsibility we have towards the next generation, specifically in the church.

God's WordIn the Old Testament book of Amos one of the themes that emerges is Israel’s rejection of God’s truth. As God’s covenant people Israel were entrusted with God’s law and expected to live in accordance with it (2:4-5). His law should have governed their lives and given shape to their worship. Yahweh also sent prophets but Israel silenced them (2:12; 3:7), hating those who spoke God’s truth (5:10). Appropriating Paul’s words in Romans 1, Israel exchanged God’s truth for a lie, for idols, and in order to live independently of God’s rule. How did this happen? As Amaziah said to the prophet in Amos 7, God’s words were unpleasant and uninspiring. They were burdensome, ‘Come on Amos, your unhealthy fixation on sin and insistence on God’s judgment simply isn’t what Israel want to hear. You need to adapt your message for the people, for the culture and their felt needs.’ But listen to Amos’ reply: The LORD took me from following the flock and said to me, “Go prophesy to my people” (7:15). The popularity of God’s truth does not alter its significance.

What is the outcome of Israel’s rejection of God’s truth? Look at Amos 8:11, “I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” He goes on in 8:12 to describe people desperately searching for a word from God without finding or hearing it. D. A. Carson comments on these verses, “The point is that people who do not devote themselves to the words of God eventually lose them. The loss is catastrophic.”

What does any of this have to do with Chris Pratt or the next generation? In the next verse we are told that by abandoning by the words of God and God allowing that decision spells death for the generation to come, “the lovely virgins and strong men” (8:13). Israel’s rejection of God’s truth, his life-giving word, would lead to spiritual death and exile. Part of this tragedy we often miss is that those who came next would suffer a similar fate. The next generation will experience God’s silence and judgment because the current one had abandoned God’s truth. This should jolt us from our complacency and impress on us the responsibilities we have for the next generation in the church. The church that undervalues God’s gospel, contained in his inspired and true Word, brings death on the generations that will follow. The church that undervalues the Bible is not relevant, they are robbing the next generation of hearing from God.

Malachi on Divorce, Godly Offspring, and the Gospel

Two months ago I responded to an article posted by Tim Challies. He developed a few points made by Christopher Ash, in Married for God, arguing that it is sinful for married couples to deliberately not have children (you can see my brief response here). Another arrow in the quiver of those who are convinced married couples must at least attempt to have children is found in Malachi 2. With our home groups working through the post-exilic prophet, I have enjoyed much time for reflection on the book of Malachi. The ESV reads, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (2:15). In case you missed it: God desires children from marriage.

Duccio di BuoninsegnaHowever, a few comments are necessary before concluding what this passage might say. Firstly, the Hebrew is messier than a two-year-old’s attempt to write out a physics equation. In his technical commentary, Douglas Stuart admits: “It is not at all clear what point(s) three-fourths of verse 15 is making.” The only clause that is not disputed is the last, “Do not be unfaithful to your childhood wife.” This disagreement over rendering becomes apparent when comparing the ESV (above, similarly NIV) with the NET, “What did our ancestors do when seeking a child from God?” The ESV makes God the subject of the verb ‘to seek,’ whereas the NET makes Israel’s forebears the subject. Douglas Stuart confirms this ambiguity, offering: ‘Israelites who divorced and remarried were (vainly) seeking godly offspring,’ as another potential rendering. Considering just how contested this text is, we would do well to treat it cautiously and not dogmatically.

Our second consideration is the larger context of this verse. Nearly every commentator agrees that it belongs to the larger section of 2:10-16, where Israel is being castigated for its faithlessness (2:10, 11, 14, 15, and 16). This faithlessness is expressed in two sections: firstly, intermarriage and spiritual syncretism (2:10-12); secondly, divorce without good reason (2:13-16). Our embattled verse falls into the latter. Therefore if we decide to go with the more traditional rendering of the 2:15 (ESV and NIV), which says God desires godly offspring, we must locate it within Malachi’s reproach for those who are divorcing. We could then give the general sense of our verse like this: ‘Don’t divorce because God is seeking godly offspring.’ This would mean that the emphasis is not so much on God desiring children from marriage as much as it highlights to the spiritual devastation divorce does to the effected children.

This line of thought fits with the explicit purpose God ascribes to marriage in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-33), though undoubtedly consistent with the Old Testament (Hosea). Marriage is an expression of the gospel. Christ’s self-giving love and unconditional love for the church is an expression of Yahweh’s faithfulness to the covenant Israel repeatedly broke. The gospel is pictured in unbroken marriages, kept vows and selfless love. God hates divorce because it is antithetical to that purpose; marriage is driven by grace while divorce in some ways denies it. A repeated contrast in Malachi is between Yahweh’s faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness. Divorce is not merely an indication of Israel’s moral collapse; it is detrimental to their children’s picture of God’s faithfulness, his grace and the gospel.

Hunger will Pass

Grain FieldHave you ever read the Bible and thought, “why is this even here?” Me too… and that is especially true when I read Numbers 7. But, I have just found a way of reading at least some of it in a new light. In the NIV for Numbers 7:87 we simply read,

The total number of animals for the burnt offering came to
twelve young bulls,
twelve rams and
twelve male lambs a year old,
together with their grain offering …

Numbers 7 is (I think) the most repetitive chapter in the Bible; the offerings brought by each tribe are enumerated (for all the twelve tribes). By the time we reach verse 87, we are in the summary section that recounts (in laborious detail for the thirteenth time) what each tribe had brought. But recently I read this verse in a Rabbinic interpretive translation (the Targums), which says:

The total number of bulls for the burnt offerings came to twelve;
a bull for each leader of the father’s house;
twelve rams, because the twelve chiefs of Ishmael will perish;
twelve one-year old lambs, because the twelve chiefs of Esau will perish;
and their grain offerings, because hunger will pass from the world;

The Rabbis have added these interpretive elements to the end of each line. They’re all interesting but take a look at the end of the last line – yes, pause and re-read it. Question: Why should we offer grain offerings? Answer: because hunger will pass from the world.

because hunger will pass from the world!

That’s an awesome justification – imagine living in an evironment in which you work your land, growing all the crops you possibly can and, when harvest comes, knowing that this is what you will be surviving on until the next harvest. Before you start gathering it all up though, you take a bunch of it and offer it to God. Why? Because hunger will pass from the world. That is, because the harvest you are gathering in right now is from him and by giving an offering you are acknowledging that if you needed more, God would have given you more and, as his child, one day he will; one day hunger will pass from the world.

 

Doodle: Hellenism, Ethics, and Old Testament Eschatology

Max Bemis, of the band Say Anything, sings: “God and death are none of my concerns / I’m no philosopher”. And these words have often struck an uneasy chord with me, provoking much reflection. Studying philosophy at college I noticed that from the pre-Socratics through to the Hellenistic philosophers, Greek philosophy gave little thought to god, except for when a godlike being was invoked to explain their philosophy, see Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. But this is not to say that the Greeks did not believe in the gods, however anthropomorphic the Olympians were. Coming back to Bemis’ words, a difficult question to get one’s mind around is the difference between religion and philosophy, or perhaps faith and reason.

Antonio Verrio - OlympusIt seems to me, that the Greeks separated philosophy from their religious beliefs, as my lecturer Nathan Lovell said, ‘They no longer wanted to attribute the workings of their world to capricious gods seemingly little more than infantile projections of men.’ Philosophy came about to explain the world around us, what it is, why it changes, and where it comes from. And this was done with little reference to the Greek gods. Philosophy could provide epistemology and ontology, though both then and today it struggled to provide complete or consistent ethics. Furthermore the question of death, which, though running the risk of reductionism, we might call eschatology, fell largely by the way side. Perhaps these then are two distinguishing features between philosophy and religion. Only, they are not distinguishing features because philosophy does not deal with them, but because it lacks the depth to do so.

Generally, in Greek thought all the deceased went to Hades, but we must not assume that this the same as Sheol of Jewish thought. Without going into major detail, it is a well attested to fact that the Jews understood death very differently to their Greek counterparts. At the transfiguration we are shown that Elijah and Moses lived with God (Mark 9); in the Old Testament some believers did not die and went to be with God (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11); this was also asssumed of believers who died (Psalm 23:6; 16:10-11; 17:15). We are not given much explanation of it but, at the raising of Lazarus, an embryionic theology of resurrection is evident amongst the first century Jews (John 11). In Hebrew thought the great hope of a future when God would be with his people is hard to get ignore (Psalm 27:4; 73:25-26). A personal God, contrast with impersonal philosophy, offers eschatology, an answer in death. Whereas philosophy battles to provide any real answers about our future.

Raphael - AthensHow philosophers got around this is seen in the Hellenistic philosophies of the Epicureans, Cynics and Stoics. If we look at the Epicureans, their solution to this problem was extravagant and unchaste hedonism. Such an approach was (and is) not only exclusive and classist, since few could afford such an extravagent lifesytle, it was ultimately nothing more than hopeless distraction. Cynicism, on the other hand, radically devalued human life, reducing us to little more than stray dogs scrounging for scraps. But it is hard to think that the avoidance and abandonment of happiness is an argument proving that it cannot be lost. Lastly, Stoicism approached life rationally, excepting all that happened in a fatalistic manner, attempting to merely make the most of what is. This philosophy, not unlike existentialism, gives a bleak coating to life and denies questions of justice, while also leaving moral decisions to the aristocracy. It is therefore no wonder that most of these philosophies, at least in terms of their operating titles, did not last. But if we look beneath surface of how people think today we will discover more Hellenistic philosophy than we think.

When Jesus bursts onto the scene we see a major contrast to Hellenism, which was the fruition and expansion of Old Testamant eschatology. He promises a resurrection to new life, guaranteed by his own. He does not offer a pipe dream salvation or distract our eyes from the horizon, but gives us his Holy Spirit in the present who is a downpayment of our future, enabling us to live in light of it. Ethics, then, make sense, for we belong to a new kingdom; and they are not merely set forth by Scripture but are also engraved on our hearts by the Spirit who enables us to live as kingdom people. Does philosophy need god to make sense? I do not think it does. But does philosophy make sense of the burning questions that surround death? I do not think it can.

Daniel 7: The Kingdom will be Given to the Saints

Chris Koelle - History of redemptionDespite the difficult details and apocalyptic flavour of Daniel, the overarching theme is not too complicated and I think correctly summarised as: “God is sovereign. He overrules and eventually will overcome human evil” (Dillard and Longman, An Introduction to the Old Testament). In my previous post, on Daniel 6, I attempted to highlight the book’s juxtaposition of Yahweh’s divine sovereignty and humanity’s derived power. Kings delude themselves into believing that within their remarkably brief lives they possess omnipotence, answering only to themselves. As each bright human star fades from view, Daniel’s point is clear: Yahweh alone rules forever and because he gives dominion to mankind, every person is answerable to him. Commenting on Daniel 4, Ernest C. Lucas writes that the imago Dei means humans have the right to rule (and much good is achieved by human rulers who recognise Yahweh’s rule over and through them) yet when humans try to be God they forfeit that right, becoming “bestial.” The desire to rule autonomously has corrupted our God-given rule over the rest of creation. And I think Daniel 7, undergirded by covenant theology, presents the Lord’s plans for our glorious reinstatement.

If we follow covenant theology, in Genesis 1-2 Adam and Eve who are made in God’s image and likeness were commissioned to work as Yahweh had and, following the pattern set by their Creator, bring their work to completion and ultimately rest (VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, p40). The conclusion of the Eden narrative, the telos of creation, was something not fully present in the Garden. VanDrunen writes, “The first Adam did not bear God’s image in order to work aimlessly in the original creation but to finish his work in this world and then to enter a new creation and to sit down enthroned in a royal rest.” As image bearers our future was always to carry out Yahweh’s dominion as co-regents in the new creation once we had fulfilled our task given in the covenant of creation. Michael Horton (Introducing Covenant Theology, p106) puts it like this: “Humankind would lead creation into a triumphal procession into the consummation, represented by the Tree of Life.” Horton utilises Ancient Near Eastern language to develop this idea, saying that Adam and his posterity were to take their place as vassal rulers beneath the great Suzerain King. But this work, perfectly assigned to those in God’s likeness, was frustrated through and ultimately fails because of sin.

Book of Revelation - Chris KoelleThe reversal of mankind’s rebellion and their reinstatement towards an eschatological reign is looked for throughout Scripture (see this theme in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce). One allusion to this theme found in Daniel 7 is, in my opinion, often overlooked as the mysterious “son of man” steals our attention. This figure is presented before the Ancient of Days and invested with everlasting dominion (7:13-15). Far from being some abstract divine transaction, this vision anticipates the eternal destiny of man. N.T. Wright (Simply Jesus, p158) says this enthroned “son of man” is literally a human being and stands as a symbol of the faithful people of God. It is through this figure, who we might call a “figurative head”, that the faithful saints will receive everlasting dominion (7:18, 22, 27). God’s faithful people are not only vindicated in the book of Daniel but the glorious promise of reinstatement is clearly reiterated, through the reign of the Son of Man. Read Paul’s wonderful juxtaposition in Romans 6:17, ‘as death reigned through Adam, those who receive abundant grace the free gift of righteousness will reign through Jesus Christ.’ The reversal of the fall in Eden will be achieved and rest will be attained through the mysterious and powerful Son of Man; when he receives the kingdom of the Most High, all the kingdoms under heaven will be given to the saints.

Revelation 21-22 - Chris KoelleFor the original readers of Daniel, the Son of Man was a momentously encouraging figure, for he shares his dominion with God’s people. It is an important point because Daniel’s vision also looks forward to ferocious and violent human kingdoms that stand opposed to Yahweh and his people. Very similar imagery can be seen in Revelation 13 where a bestial human kingdom makes war on the saints, and John records, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” While ultimate triumph is secured in Christ’s headship, that day is yet to come. I am sure this is why Daniel closes with the promise that God’s faithful people who die, sleeping in the dust of the many troubles history throws up, will awake to everlasting life (Daniel 12:1-3). We wait, with the many who have gone before us, for the consummation of Jesus’ enthronement that is still to come. “Night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and forever” (Revelation 22:5).