Monday, November 07, 2011

How Did the First Christians Read the Bible?

I love watching a good movie particularly when a movie involves an unexpected twist in the plot.  When the plot heads in a sudden and unexpected direction it causes the viewer to look back on the whole of the story up to that point in a completely different way as some of the basic assumptions held are turned up on their head.  A great example of this can be seen in The Matrix.  When Neo, a computer hacker living out a mundane existence in the corporate world discovers that what he thought was the real world was really an elaborate computer generated reality it becomes a pivotal twist in the plot that neither Neo or the viewer could see coming and it completely alters the way Neo will live his life from that point forward.  From that point on Neo can never be the same as that revelation has fundamentally changed his view of both reality and his own purpose.

One aspect of the scriptures that is lost on most folks in the modern world is just how unexpected the coming of Jesus as the Messiah was to the disciples in first century Palestine.  The authors of the New Testament whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter or even Paul had been raised in a religion that had saturated their imaginations and hopes in the story of God’s faithfulness to Israel.  They had grown up year after year with the rhythms of Judaism shaping their spiritual formation from Sabbath keeping (based not only on the Mosaic Law but on the creation story where God rested on the seventh day) to the festivals throughout the year such as Passover, the Festival of Booths, Pentecost (Festival of First Fruits) that celebrated how God had heard the cries of his people and intervened to rescue them.  On top of this there was the expectation and hope that God would send the promised Messiah who would set Israel free from here oppressors (at that time the Romans)—Someone like Moses to lead Israel on a New Exodus, one from the line of David who would rule in righteousness a kingdom without end.  But that hope for the Messiah was for a mere man who would likely lead an earthly rebellion against their oppressors.  Sure enough in the years prior to the first century there had been many would-be Messiahs, men who lead revolts and rebellions to set Israel free only to be crushed by the firm fist of the Empire. 

And it was in to this environment that God sent the Messiah.  Yet he was not anything that they could have ever expected.   A man?  Yes, but so much more than a mere man!  As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:7-10

This is the wisdom God prepared ahead of time, before the world began, for our glory.
None of the rulers of this present age knew about this wisdom.  If they had, you see, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of Glory.  But as the Bible says,
Human eyes have not seen,
Human ears have never heard,
It’s never entered human hearts:
All that God has now prepared
For those who truly love him.
And that’s what God has revealed to us through the spirit!

What Paul is saying here in these verses is that no one saw this thing coming.  Even though there had been a fervent expectation for the Messiah, everyone had been caught off guard by the wisdom of God in sending his own son into the story as the Christ.  While Israel had awaited someone who would set them free she got a much bigger Messiah with a much bigger mission coming to set not just Israel but the whole world free! 

If we are to be true students of the Bible we must ask the question, “How did the first disciples of Jesus read the Bible?”  The answer to this question would be similar to the way anyone reading a story or watching a movie is compelled to understand the story once there has been a major twist in the plot.  With the coming of God’s own Son Jesus as the Messiah, these thoroughly Jewish disciples could no longer view the story up to that point in the same way.  The disciples had to reconfigure their whole understanding of the story of Israel around the person and work of Jesus. 

For most of my Christian journey I have been encouraged to read the Old Testament and New Testament as distinctly different stories but this is not how the first disciples and the authors of the New Testament read the Bible.  The books of the New Testament are chock full of references to the Old Testament scriptures as well as parallels with Old Testament stories.  The disciples did not throw away the Old Testament because Jesus came on the scene, rather all of the sudden they began to see the story of God’s faithfulness to Israel with a whole new set of eyes—The story of Israel was a series of signposts pointing to an ultimate fulfillment in Jesus. 

Why is this important to understand?  Because we must learn to view the Old Testament the way the early disciples did, to see it through the lens of Jesus the Messiah, the resurrected King of all!  Apart from this understanding of scriptures we can make the Bible say all kinds of things that it was never intended to say.  The more I am coming to understand this way of looking at the scripture the more I see the Bible as a rich and layered story about Jesus.  What’s more is that this way of reading the scriptures draws one more into relationship with Jesus while keeping one from the pitfalls of both proof-texting to back pet agendas as well as a liberalism which would seek to make the Bible a set of inspirational stories only.  The Bible must be understood first and foremost as the story of Jesus.  My prayer is that this becomes more and more the way that the people of God learn to read the scriptures.

Note: I discuss some of these issues in a recent podcast from Northshore Vineyard entitled The Word that Transcends the Story   You can also download the audio from Northshore Vineyard Church

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