I find it troubling how so much of present day Christianity finds so little use for the Old Testament, or, in using it, so mis-use it. Most would not verbally say that the Old Testament isn’t important, (though the more liberal a denomination the more likely you will hear something equivalent to that,) but even if you will never catch many Christians saying that, a lot of Christian living demonstrates a very similar attitude. A lot of Christians don’t bother to read the Old Testament much (if at all). They don’t care to study the Old Testament. The attitude is often something like, “The Old Testament is boring. It’s just a bunch of history. It isn’t relevant.”
Those are the people who find so little use for the Old Testament. Then there are those who mis-use the Old Testament, making it “relevant” by pulling forward the forms, types, and examples of the Old Testament. A prime example are those who try to bring forward Old Covenant Law and relationships. These people have a lot of mis-use for the Old Testament.
The attitudes and actions of both these groups of Christians reveals a deeper fundamental flaw in their Biblical understanding. If they had a proper understanding and grasp of what is taught in the New Testament then they would gain a proper appreciation and approach to the Old Testament. In handling the Old Testament, so many people seem to fail to adequately consider what is said in 1 Peter 1:10-12:
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 Christ and the glories that would follow. 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 to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
Think about it. From Moses through Malachi, the Spirit of God the Father (and of Christ the Son) worked in these servants of God to record the things preserved in the Old Testament. There are a lot of people who will say the equivalent of “Praise the Lord for the inspired nature of the Old Testament,” and then effectively toss it over their shoulder and say, “But thank God for the New Testament which is so much more concise, applicable, and directed toward our present needs.”
Does this kind of attitude properly reflect the teaching of the New Testament regarding the Old Testament?
It says, concerning this salvation (ours!) the prophets spoke of the grace that was to come to you (us!). These prophets searched the Scriptures intently and with the greatest care but 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. Would we so cavalierly disregard that which was written specifically for us, and which even the angels long to look into? I think anyone who properly understands what is being taught here would be appalled to hear people say things like, “Let’s not study Isaiah–it’s not very relevant to our needs,” or “Let’s not do Ezekiel, it’s not very applicable,” or any such similar attitude. Yes, we all might admit that we don’t understand those things very well, but that is the very reason we ought to study them intently and with the greatest of care so we might understand the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.
We ought to remember that,
“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. (Rom. 15:4)
“These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11)
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:14-17)
In considering the Old Testament we must not only remember who it is for (us), but also who it is about (Christ). Those who find so little use for the Old Testament fail to recognize that the Old Testament was written for us. And, those who mis-use the Old Testament fail to properly recognize what the Old Testament is about.
The entire Bible is a revelation of God, the written word of God. And Jesus is preeminently the perfect revelation of God (Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:3) and the Word of God (John 1:1,14). So, as we have just been reading in 1 Peter, the Bible is the revelation of Jesus Christ who is the revelation of God. The Bible speaks of who Christ is and what he will do. Anyone who fails to realize and apply the centrality of Christ to all Scripture will go astray to the degree that they fail to recognize this truth. To take anything apart from Christ is to, in the end and at its heart, set up some form of idol–to take that thing apart from how God intended. As Christ said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (John 5:46).
It is not enough to say, as some say, that Christ fulfilled the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. No, it is far more than that. As Jesus declared, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” (Matt. 5:17) and “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms,” (Luke 24:44). Jesus didn’t come to fulfill just a small portion of the Old Testament, he didn’t come to fulfill most of it, he came to fulfill everything down to every last little word (Matt. 5:18). To divorce Jesus Christ from any part of the Old Testament is to become unhinged in your understanding and led astray in your interpretation of Biblical teaching.
I will say it again. Everything in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, speaks about who Christ is–his nature and his work. From the very act of creation, (and as a side note it is very interesting how writers in the New Testament tie who Christ is intimately with his activity in creation–see for example John 1:1-10, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:2), to the first Adam who foreshadow the spiritual Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), and the sin and curse that look forward to our redemption–from line one in Genesis it is Christ all the way. We must admit that in this life we will never plumb the full depths of the revelation of Christ contained in Scripture, and in some places we may not see the revelation of Christ, but our failure to see fully now should not keep us from approaching Scripture rightly, and approaching all of it eagerly seeking the revelation of Christ in it and in us.
It is easy to fall into difficulties by trying to make all of Scripture reveal Christ from too narrow of an aspect. For example, trying to make everything speak just about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Scripture does say a lot about that, but the work of Christ is more than his sacrifice on the cross. There is his sacrifice and his exaltation. There is his paying of the price, and his redeeming of his own. There is his first coming and his second coming. One could go on and on over the riches and vastness of the revelation of Christ, the point being that if you try to make all of Scripture fit with just a portion of Christ’s work and person, well, obviously you’re going to run into some problems. I have a great deal of trouble with this myself and often find that when I get stuck I need to take a step back and view the matter from a different (or wider) perspective. Often when I get in these holes I need someone else to get my mind out of the rut by offering that different perspective.
Today I want to touch on this just briefly. As I have said, Scripture is the revelation of Christ–who he is and what he has done/doing/will do. But, as I have also said, there are many, many, facets to this. For example, Scripture reveals who Christ is, but in that it also reveals who we are in Christ. Scripture reveals the work of Christ, but in that it also reveals what our work is in doing the work of Christ. Scripture reveals the suffering of Christ, but it also reveals what our suffering will be in filling up the sufferings of Christ (Rom. 8:17, 2 Cor. 1:5, Phil. 3:10, Col. 1:24, 1 Peter 4:13, 5:1). And, as Scripture speaks of the glories of Christ, so it also speaks of our partaking in that glory. Then, Scripture also speaks of our relationship to Christ and his work. That is, Scripture speaks of Christ coming to deliver and redeem his people, and we are those people. Also, Scripture speaks about Christ in relation to those who are hostile to him. In all this we are just beginning to see the depth and richness and manifold nature of what comes out in the revelation of Christ. Fundamentally, of course, it encompasses the totality of what we need as Christians for life and godliness. We have been called to be like our Master, and so the revelation of Christ guides us and reveals this to us in all Scripture (and that same revelation turns us from the example of hostility toward God revealed in Scripture).
Problems crop up when people either disregard this understanding of Scripture or reduce and distort it with very shallow and superficial application. On my mind in particular at the moment is how the Church as a whole and many Christians individually seem to fail in any application of the warnings in the examples in the Old Testament. It is almost as if many have a certain contempt for the abysmal record of ancient Israel. In the slick rendition of modern Christianity the thinking seems to go “Israel failed and fell into all sorts of heinous sins, but we’re Christians. We’re above that. Sure, we have little problems, we have things we could work on . . . but we’re nothing like that.” Thus the edge of all Old Testament Scripture is taken away. That was then, this is now.
Except Scripture has explicitly stated that the warnings and examples were for us. How easily Christianity discards those sober warnings and examples.
Most recently I was thinking of these things while reading Ezekiel, though it often comes to my mind while reading the prophets. I find the words of the prophets cut to the heart–not only in declaring the person and work of Christ, and not only in declaring the failures of the world at large. The words of the prophets through the ages cut to the heart of the failures of the people of God. Whether it be those who have called themselves the people of God and have turned away, or those who truly are the people of God but have stumbled and must be called to repentance, the words of God’s prophets are like a sword cutting through all the bramble of thoughts, actions, and pretensions. When I read the prophets I think of how their words apply so aptly to the visible church today–and what that means. And I try to examine myself in light of the words of the prophets.
Given the terrible, terrible, history of Israel’s “success” at living in holiness and obedience to God, I think most of professing Christianity would recoil at the thought of those words be applied to the church today. Today it is feel good Christianity where God is all love, and the Church is destined for blissful triumphant victory in this age. Professing Christianity at large has no place for the words of rebuke and judgment the prophets had for the people of God. And it is for that very reason that professing Christianity has sunk to the place where those very rebukes and judgments are needed and applicable. People have forgotten the words, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God” (1 Peter 4:17). And when that judgment comes many will be shaken and many will fall, for they did not take heed of the warning and example of Scripture.
I admit the book of Ezekiel is very difficult to understand. From the very beginning of the book where we find the revelation of God to Ezekiel, it is evident that there is a lot of symbolism. The writing is full of extensive symbolism, and while some instances and layers may seem fairly obvious, some do not, and at times it feels like you are standing in the shallow end of a pool and staring at a depths you wish you could plumb. I am left feeling that while I grasp some things in part, and catch a glimpse of others, and could give perhaps give an over-all theme for Ezekiel’s ministry, there still remains much I ponder.
In Scripture the many ways in which Christ is revealed are not kept simple and discrete. We don’t have one section about the sacrifice of Christ, another nice little section about the redemption worked by Christ, and so on. No, the teaching of Scripture is rich and complex, different elements woven together like a fine and beautiful tapestry . . . which means that while you may see one thing in a passage you may also see that there is a lot you haven’t grasped yet and Scripture remains a treasure house for ever more wisdom.
In the book of Ezekiel I am often left to meditate on and ponder the full depth and meaning of the symbolism given, and the relation of Ezekiel’s prophecies to the person and work of Christ. But, while I struggle with the revelatory and redemptive aspects of Ezekiel, an aspect that strikes me as much clearer (symbolism included) is the words of judgment Ezekiel directs against the outward people of God. The sins symbolized and spoken against by Ezekiel strike dead-on for the state of the outward people of God today. I could quote at length, chapters at a time from Ezekiel’s judgment of the idolatry and wickedness of Israel, and see it manifested today in the church at large, whether it be the Church’s prostitution with the nations of the world or how the Church is caught up with wealth and worldly things. But I will pick out just one piece that speaks to me so clearly and powerfully:
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying. Say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: ‘Hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! Your prophets, O Israel, are like jackals among ruins. You have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the LORD. Their visions are false and their divinations a lie. They say, “The LORD declares,” when the LORD has not sent them; yet they expect their words to be fulfilled. Have you not seen false visions and uttered lying divinations when you say, “The LORD declares,” though I have not spoken?
” ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: Because of your false words and lying visions, I am against you, declares the Sovereign LORD. My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. They will not belong to the council of my people or be listed in the records of the house of Israel, nor will they enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Sovereign LORD.
” ‘Because they lead my people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, “Where is the whitewash you covered it with?”
” ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: In my wrath I will unleash a violent wind, and in my anger hailstones and torrents of rain will fall with destructive fury. I will tear down the wall you have covered with whitewash and will level it to the ground so that its foundation will be laid bare. When it falls, you will be destroyed in it; and you will know that I am the LORD. So I will spend my wrath against the wall and against those who covered it with whitewash. I will say to you, “The wall is gone and so are those who whitewashed it, those prophets of Israel who prophesied to Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her when there was no peace, declares the Sovereign LORD.” ‘
“Now, son of man, set your face against the daughters of your people who prophesy out of their own imagination. Prophesy against them and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the women who sew magic charms on all their wrists and make veils of various lengths for their heads in order to ensnare people. Will you ensnare the lives of my people but preserve your own? You have profaned me among my people for a few handfuls of barley and scraps of bread. By lying to my people, who listen to lies, you have killed those who should not have died and have spared those who should not live.
” ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare people like birds and I will tear them from your arms; I will set free the people that you ensnare like birds. I will tear off your veils and save my people from your hands, and they will no longer fall prey to your power. Then you will know that I am the LORD. Because you disheartened the righteous with your lies, when I had brought them no grief, and because you encouraged the wicked not to turn from their evil ways and so save their lives, therefore you will no longer see false visions or practice divination. I will save my people from your hands. And then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” (Ezekiel 13:1-23 NIV)
One could do a lengthy study on that chapter alone, symbolism and all, but I will let it stand as it is for today. Quite a bit of the imagery is, at least on a superficial level, evident. We can all understand the imagery of white-washing a flimsy wall well enough.
This passage strikes so clearly and vividly at what I see going on in professing Christianity at large that it almost gives me the chills and a funny feeling in my stomach. Ezekiel is saying things that apply so clearly to this present age. Scripture is not dead and musty, a thing devoid of instruction and meaning. It speaks to us in this very age, to those who will listen.
And we must remember to not simply point the finger at others, true as the condemnation may be. The warning of Scripture is for us, too. We should examine ourselves also, to see if there are any idols in our hearts (Ezk. 14:3) or if we are engaging in spiritual prostitution by trusting in worldly things. We must not overlook the ways, big or small, in which we too have sinned and failed in these things in our own personal lives.