Bible reading can be difficult at times. And it’s even more difficult when reading through the obscure and seemingly irrelevant Old Testament.
So I stumbled on this video recently posted from a friend on Facebook. It’s one of those clips which tries to summarise what the subject of each book of the Bible is about.
I appreciate that it can be hard to wrap up an entire book’s message into a short phrase, so I don’t want to say what is suggested is wrong but I guess you can’t cover all the nuances and details of a book like Genesis which has many themes running through it. And I’m not sure he’s landed Song of Solomon right…
But what the video helpfully highlights for this post is the constant looking forward in the Old Testament to Jesus.
Yes. The whole Bible is about Jesus.
And unless you understand this you’ll never fully understand the Old Testament.
Here is where a short plug for the Ignite Training Conference is apt. The conference is designed to equip Christians in learning how to read and teach the bible to others. You don’t have to be a super mature Christian to go – the only requirement is that you’re a Christian ready and willing to learn. Strand 1 (for first timers) focuses on the basics of exegesis – how to draw meaning from the text before you rather than bring meaning into the text (ie eisegesis). Strand 2 builds on that foundation and applies it to the overarching narrative of scripture, what is known as Biblical Theology. Strand 3 then builds upon this and then seeks to teach people how to draw what scripture says about larger topics (such as Resurrection, or God, or Salvation).
What follows is an expansion on what would be learnt in Strand 2. Point one is what Strand 2 spends most of the week exploring. The following points are adapted from a lecture given by Gary Millar in 2010 on a visit to QTC while I was a student.
So the question each point is answering is: how do I move from the Old Testament to Jesus in a way which is faithful to the text before me?
1. Follow the plan
Follow the plan is the bread and butter of biblical theology. The plan centres around the theme of the Kingdom of God: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. The Kingdom of God pattern forms, as I like to think, the skeletal structure to the body of scripture. It unites scripture from beginning to end and also helps the reader plug into the ‘big picture’ (the metanarrative) of the bible.
Justin Taylor has a helpful summary from the author (Graeme Goldsworthy) who really started a lot of people thinking through scripture this way.
The basic idea of following the plan is that wherever you are in Genesis to Malachi you should be able to determine the three elements of God’s Kingdom by asking who are God’s people in this text before me, where is God’s place of fellowship and communion with his people, and how is God expressing his rule and blessing to his people.
Starting here is fundamental in not misapplying the Old Testament.
A commonly used example of how following the plan helps the reader avoid misapplication is the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The classic interpretation and application of the passage runs something like this: Goliath was a seemingly undefeatable enemy of David. David was only a boy, but by faith in God he was able to overcome Goliath. Therefore we, like David, should have great faith in God and we too will overcome the ‘Goliaths of hardship’ in our lives.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in believing that faith equals victory over hardship. It’s certainly a theme echoed in the New Testament (with true fulfilment, overcoming and victory experienced in the second coming of Christ). But this is a classic misapplication of 1 Samuel 17 for the following reasons:
- David was the anointed King of Israel, he was Israel’s ‘messiah’ – we are not.
- David was an Israelite living centuries before Christ – the modern reader is certainly none of these.
- David lived under the Law of Moses – the modern reader will be under the Law of Christ.
Applying the basic principles of God’s Kingdom to 1 Samuel 17 we get this: God’s people are Israel with David as their representative, God’s place of fellowship and communion with his people is the land of Israel which is currently being attacked by the seemingly undefeatable Philistines and their hero Goliath, God expresses his rule and blessing to his people through the Law of Moses and his Tabernacle presence. What we see in the story, then, is how God raises up an unexpected saviour for his people in order to re-establish his people, his place and his rule. Following this plan through we can see how God is always raising up leaders and saviours for his people in order to re-establish his people, place and rule – until we finally see this happy fully and perfectly in his Son Jesus.
That’s pretty brief. For a greater look into the Kingdom of God I’d strongly recommend reading Vaughan Roberts’ ‘God’s Big Picture’ and Graeme Goldsworthy’s ‘Gospel and Kingdom’ or ‘According to Plan’.
Now, doing this every day or week to week can be pretty boring, and eventually reading the Old Testament simply becomes a chore in getting to Jesus through the plan. So the following brief points are other ways in which we can enhance our application of the Old Testament to our daily lives.
2. Expose the problem
Ask yourself, ‘Is there is a weakness or pitfall in the passage?’ What causes the problem or what is the underlying issue? Exposing the problem helps us look forward to the answer in Christ. Showing the weakness of the character or story helps raise an expectation for something better.
An example of this came for me recently as we preached through 1 Samuel. In 1 Samuel 23-26 we see David acting very honourably in the face of persecution from Saul. Everything in chapters 23, 24, and 26 demonstrate the outstanding character of David. But in 1 Samuel 25 we’re presented with an almost exact opposite picture: David seeks revenge of a seemingly insignificant insult and only via the mediation of someone else does he calm down. In 1 Samuel 25 we see David, God’s anointed King, acting in very human ways (and possibly here sowing the seeds for his family’s downfall later). What 1 Samuel ends on is a tarnished picture of God’s chosen King – forcing the reader to expect a better ‘David’ to come.
3. Explain the category
Here is where we consider what categories are before us. For instance, ‘The Law’ in scripture is a fairly wide term and could refer to specific laws within Exodus or Leviticus, but it could also refer to the first five books of the bible together (yes, even the narrative).
Within the Law there are many subcategories also – and while I caution people to not too quickly draw hard and fast distinctions within the Law (eg the moral, civil and ceremonial distinctions) these are sub-categories that can help orient the reader.
But the question to ask in this section is really how are these categories fulfilled, or made better, in Jesus? For instance, when you’re reading through Leviticus and notice that lengthy instructions for the priesthood it should help us appreciate the priesthood of Jesus all the better.
4. Highlight the attribute
A common misconception about the bible is that its primary purpose is to tell us how to live. No doubt there are many instructions and imperatives for the believer – but scripture’s primary purpose is to show us the character and nature of God.
For instance, a classic case of how this is often missed is in Jonah’s story in children’s bibles. Quite often children’s bibles will avoid the difficulties of chapter 4 by simply dropping it from their versions. So the story ends up becoming one about God’s forgiveness. But chapter 4, difficult as it is, is there to demonstrate not only the reason for Jonah’s reluctance to go but also how his reason is tied to the very nature of God as revealed in the book: his compassion and mercy for evil and wicked sinners outside of his own people.
Another example of this is found in the Laws of Moses which consistently highlight the holiness of God. Each part of the Law serves to highlight this in various ways. The trick to reading it will be to figure out how that part of the Law highlights God’s holiness.
5. Trace the fulfilment
Where ‘follow the plan’ traces the overall big picture, or metanarrative, trace the fulfilment is more specific.
For instance, the Sabbath has lots of regulations stemming from Israel’s exodus from slavery as well as the creation mandate. The question for the reader will be how Jesus fulfils, changes and transforms our understanding of the Sabbath.
Another clear example from Genesis 3 is the warning given to the serpent of a future head crusher. In what way is this fulfilled in Israel and ultimately through Jesus? Or what of God’s promise to Ezekiel (chapter 36) to put a new heart into God’s people and God’s own spirit as well.
Each of those examples are fairly specific and that’s the point of trying to trace the fulfilment.
6. Focus on the clear action
The emphasis here is to focus on what is clear in the action of the passage before us. A classic example is in 1 Samuel 17 – David and Goliath. This is a fairly well known, but generally poorly understood part of the Old Testament – and you can see how poorly understood it is every time the news uses the narrative as analogous to its reported story.
Often the focus in this chapter is on David’s physical battle with Goliath. But when you read through the chapter you’ll notice that this actually only takes up 30 words. Rather what takes up more space – a whopping 75 words – is David’s speech that God will take on His enemies. Focusing on what is clearly given the bulk of the airtime is what is needed.
So the question is where does the passage spend most of its time and is it clear?
Asking the clarity question also helps us get through things like Daniel 7. Daniel 7 has a lengthy focus upon four beasts and even the interpretation from the angel is a little unclear. But what is clear in that passage is that God, the ‘one like a son of man’, and his people reign supreme.
So always ask where the passage spends most of its time and what is most clear.
7. Point out the consequences
Finally some passages are there to clearly spell out the consequences of our good or bad actions. This is partly how to read Wisdom literature – Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Wisdom literature is there to help us understand how to live rightly in a fallen world. It also needs to be taken as a whole since Proverbs by itself can lead to what is known as ‘retribution theology’ – basically A + B will always equal C. Much of Proverbs is a little like that, whereas Job and Ecclesiastes balance this view and suggest that it’s not always clear cut how we should live because this world is indeed fallen. But that’s the nature of Wisdom – it’s not about formulas for living, but growing in godly discernment so we have the tools to make decisions.
So there are seven ways to help improve your Old Testament bible reading. Have you heard of any other ways to link the Old and New Testaments together? Put them in the comments below.