Christ the Meaning of all Scripture, Life and History (Part 1)
Chapter 1 — Christ and the Old Testament
The apostles preached Christ from the Old Testament and out of the Old Testament background. The Old Testament was the Bible for Jesus and the apostles. They knew no Scripture except the Old Testament, and no God except the God of the Old Testament.
For centuries the law and the prophets had nurtured a hope in Israel. The apostles proclaimed Christ as the fulfillment of that hope. It was as if a veil had been removed from the Old Testament. Now their eyes were opened to see that the entire Scripture existed for the sake of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16). They could now see that Moses wrote about Him (John 5:46). "All the prophets testify about Him" (Acts 1O:43).1 The law and the prophets had pointed to the gospel of God's righteousness (Rom. 1:2; 3:21). Christ died and rose again according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3, 4).
If the New Testament gives a picture of God in the face of Jesus Christ, then we must not forget that the Old Testament provides the framework or setting for that picture. This framework is tremendously important. The gospel cannot be understood without a framework. A person with slides of his latest trip to Africa cannot show an intelligible picture by projecting it in midair. He must have a backdrop, a screen. The screen will either enhance or distort the picture. Likewise, spirit always needs form. The soul needs the body. And faith needs to be expressed in good works. The gospel is spiritual, but it must be expressed in visible form. Just as God designed the human body as the form for expression of the human soul, so He designed the form through which He would express the gospel of His grace. That form was the Old Testament background.
Let us consider the long centuries of careful preparation for the staging of the "divine passion play." The staging was the Old Testament. The New Testament does not discard this staging, this background. In their preaching of Christ the apostles knew how to use this framework in presenting the divine splendor of the One by whom and for whom all things consist (Col. 1:16).
For various reasons we Christians have neglected or discarded the art of preaching Christ out of the Old Testament as the apostles did. Marcion, the great heretic of the second century, wanted to discard the Old Testament entirely. Although the church rejected Marcion, a Marcionion tendency has persisted. The church has not always been comfortable with the Old Testament. Christians often have not known what to do with it. And to the extent that we have neglected the God-given framework of the gospel, we have had to invent frameworks of our own.
Although we might not be consciously aware of it, we need a framework for our theology. Our thinking about God and man must move within the framework of some system of thought. We need a theological structure.
The history of theology shows how different epochs and different sections of the church have developed different theological systems. We are all familiar with such terms as Romanism, Calvinism and dispensationalism. They represent systems of theological thought-frameworks in which God's method of saving men is explained. To these we could add other "isms" such as mysticism, pietism, enthusiasm, rationalism and the twentieth-century phenomenon of existentialism.
These systems of thought have developed because the human mind cannot hold spiritual truth apart from form. We all sense the need of a framework. God not only gave the church His gospel. He gave that gospel in His framework. Too often His framework has appeared like "a root out of dry ground." It was unappealing to the rationalistic Greek mind. Western Christian civilization has been permeated by this Greek mind set. To the extent the church has lost the original gospel framework, she has devised one of her own. Some of these theological frameworks have had tremendous hold on the minds of Christians. But these frameworks have often distorted the original purity of the gospel. The Christian message has often been pressed into supporting exaggerated individualism or triumphalistic hierarchy, external ritualism or internal pietism.
One of the most encouraging developments in Christian scholarship today is a renewed interest in the Old Testament and its place in the proclamation of the gospel. This development is crossing all classical boundary lines. There is a new openness for the apostolic presentation of the gospel in the thought forms of the Old Testament. There is a new willingness to allow these biblical thought forms to call our traditional thought forms into question. The proper place and use of the Old Testament in preaching the gospel is where the action is in Christian scholarship today. Men who have done their work in the Old Testament now find new acceptance in departments of theology in the best Christian schools. This is an exciting and challenging moment in the history of the church.
Two Outstanding Features of the Old Testament Background
The Old Testament background has two outstanding features. It is historical, and it is legal.
Historical. Anyone who reads the Old Testament books without presuppositions must be impressed with their historical nature. They begin with an account of God making the world and of man defecting from God's authority. Then they trace the subsequent history of God's dealings with the human race, highlighting such events as the Flood, the creation of the Hebrew nation and its history for over a thousand years.
Old Testament theology is a theology of history. This is the unique feature of biblical religion. It is the only truly historical religion. It is not a mystical religion. The God of the Old Testament does not reveal Himself in diffuse mystical experience nor in abstract propositions, but in concrete historical acts. As far as the Old Testament is concerned, history is the stuff of revelation. God is revealed by His mighty acts—both in the event itself and in the interpretation given that event. For example, in the Old Testament, righteousness is the fundamental attribute of God. But when the Old Testament sets forth the righteousness of God, it does not do so with abstract propositions about God's righteousness in Himself. Hebrew literature is dynamic, concrete, and moves on a relational plane. God is righteous by what He does. The emphasis of Scripture is that God is righteous in all His ways and acts (Judges 5:11; Ps. 145:17).
We have ignored this "theology of history" far too often. We have tried to theologize in an abstract, rationalistic, metaphysical and speculative framework. But this moves outside the framework of biblical theology. That is why most systematic theologies do not sound like the Bible. They contain good and helpful biblical data. But the thought framework is more Grecian than biblical. The first and foremost biblical truth is the doctrine of God Himself. But classical systematic theologies present this doctrine in a rationalistic, speculative and nonhistorical framework.
We must refuse to know any God but the revealed God. That revelation is found in the historical acts recorded in the Bible. The Word of God is more the acts of God than the oracles of God.
Since God is known by His acts in history, the true worship of God—giving God His worth—consists in recounting or rehearsing the acts of God. G. Ernest Wright calls the Old Testament "a theology of recital." In his pathfinding essay, God Who Acts, he points out that Israel's earliest confessions of faith were simple recitals of how God had acted for her deliverance in the Exodus (Deut. 6:20-24; 26:5-9). An examination of Israel's worship shows that her Sabbaths, ceremonies, harvest festivals and institutions were all directed to commemorating and rehearsing the redemption of the nation in the Exodus. Many of the psalms worship God by rehearsing the acts of God in Israel's formative history. Bible writers never tire of recounting what God did at the Exodus. Psalm 66 is typical:
Legal. Biblical history is special history because it is preoccupied with the salvation of God's people. In theological circles this is called heilsgeschichte.2 We could propose another name—covenant history. In many respects this would be a better designation for the history we find in the Bible.
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;
sing the glory of His name;
give to Him glorious praise!
Say to God, "How terrible are Thy deeds!
So great is Thy power that Thy enemies
cringe before Thee.
All the earth worships Thee;
they sing praises to Thee,
sing praises to Thy name.
Come and see what God has done:
He is terrible in His deeds among men.
He turned the sea into dry land;
men passed through the river on foot.
There did we rejoice in Him.
—Ps. 66:1-6 (cf. Ps. 78, 105, 106).
The covenant is the treaty or arrangement which binds God and man together in fellowship.3 It is the basis for the God-man relationship. It is so basic we could even say that God has no dealings with man outside the covenant.
The covenant is a legal conception. It has stipulations which are legally binding on both parties. It decrees blessings and cursings to follow the performance or nonperformance of its stipulations.
The thirty-nine Old Testament books take their name—Old Testament or Covenant—from the covenant God made with the Hebrew nation at Mount Sinai. The words of the covenant are the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:27-29; Deut. 4:13). The commandments are prefaced by a statement of God's redemptive act. Then follow the stipulations, which define the response divine love calls for from the redeemed community.
Israel was a covenant people. God was their King. He ruled them by His law. Fidelity to the covenant meant fidelity to the law. Leon Morris rightly says that the God of the Old Testament is the God of law. He can be relied upon to uphold the law and to act according to its terms with undeviating fidelity. Morris points out that the men of the Old Testament never tire of depicting the relation between God and His people in legal imagery.4 When Old Testament saints appeal to God, they appeal to His covenant and for a hearing before the divine court. When God has a complaint against His people, He too appeals to His covenant and sues His people at the court of law.5
The early Hebrew law court was basic to Hebrew life. Disputes were arbitrated in an open-air law court at the city gate. Here the judges, and later the kings, sat to uphold justice and judgment. God is depicted as the great King. His chief office is Judge. As Judge He acts to cut off evildoers and to uphold justice (Ps. 72, 101). Especially does He deliver those whose cause is righteous. He is a God of judgment (Mal. 2:17). "Justice and judgment are the habitation of Thy throne" (Ps. 89:14).
When God acts to save His people, it is always a just salvation—a salvation according to His covenant and true to the just requirements of His law. As supreme King and Judge He always acts in a way which upholds the constitution. He will never depart from the rule of His law nor alter the thing which has gone out of His lips. Only in this light can we understand what the Bible means when it exalts the power of God to defeat the enemy of His people. If the power of God simply meant the might of God, there would be no contest with Satan, Pharaoh or anybody else. God could overcome them as easily as one casts a pebble to the earth. Their destruction would not constitute a great expenditure of divine energy. But whatever God does He must do lawfully, justly and in harmony with His holy self-consistency. The Bible everywhere teaches that man's salvation is no easy matter for God. It is a costly affair. God's power, therefore, is legal or lawful power.
We think of Darius, the king of Medo-Persia, laboring all night to deliver Daniel from the lions' den (Dan. 5). He could not save Daniel because, as king, he had to execute the law. It was not a question of having military might to execute his wish. He could deliver Daniel or he could uphold the law. He could not do both. But God does what neither Darius nor anyone else could do. He both saves and carries out His law.
This marvelous union of salvation and justice was taught in the ancient sanctuary ritual. The covenantal law was deposited in the ark and enshrined in the holy of holies. The broken stipulations demanded the death of the transgressor. The blood of the sin offering was therefore brought into the holy of holies and sprinkled upon the lid of the ark. Justice and mercy blended. The repentant sinner was saved—and saved justly.
Thus the Old Testament is often and rightly called "the legal economy."
The apostles preached Jesus Christ from the Old Testament. They took the historical and legal features of the Old Testament and used them as the framework for the portrait of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
1 Unless otherwise noted, Old Testament quotations are from the Revised Standard Version and New Testament quotations are from the New International Version.
2 From the combination of two German words that, taken together, mean "salvation history."
3 See Robert D. Brinsmead, Covenant.
4 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pp.256-57.
5 Scholars have identified these legal contests as ribh controversies, from the Hebrew word meaning judge, decide (Isa. 41:1, 21; 50:8; Jer. 25:31; Micah 6:1).