The 5 Keys to Understand the Old Testament

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A powerful scene from Disney's Prince of Egypt


Recently a popular megachurch pastor told his congregation that the Church needs to "unhitch" herself from the Old Testament Scripture. In his sermon he claimed that the early Christians did not look to the Old Testament for moral guidance. He went so far as to state, "Thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments." He continued, "God has done something through the Jews for the world. But the ‘through the Jews’ part of the story is over, and now something new and better and inclusive has come.”

Admittedly the Old Testament (hereafter referred to as the OT) is not only hard to understand, but often presents both the Christian and the unbeliever with difficult complex issues that must be addressed. However, to simply negate the entirety of the OT by relegating its significance to a different time and different people is to greatly impoverish the Christian message about God. Even worse, it puts us at risk of manufacturing a false god and therefore a false Jesus. And when given the opportunity, we will always make a false Jesus who lets us feel comfortable in our sin! But what did the real Jesus teach about the OT? Jesus taught that he was Son of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Famously he was almost stoned for declaring, "Before Abraham was I AM" (John 8:58). Although it might be easier to "unhitch" ourselves from the OT, we simply can't. We can't unhitch ourselves from the OT because the God of the OT is still our God today.

This Sunday I will continue the argument for why the OT is still the Word of God for us. But I want to take some time in this article to lay out a paradigm for reading the OT correctly at a follower of Jesus. I sincerely believe you will find this helpful as we walk through the book of Exodus together over the next seven weeks.

The apostle Paul spent much of his time in his many letters explaining the relationship between the OT and Christians. I believe he best summarizes his approach to the OT in the following two statements:

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. - Gal 3:24 (ESV)

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. - Rom 10:4 (NIV)

In both verses Paul is speaking from an historical perspective, explaining the importance and function of the OT (which he calls the "law") in relationship to the coming of Jesus and his work and teachings. According to Paul, the OT was like a legal guardian, given by God to protect and mature his people in order to make them ready for God to come into the flesh (to incarnate) as the Lord Jesus Christ, at which point they would reach spiritual adulthood. And so Paul gives us the first key of our paradigm for understanding the OT:

Key 1: The OT is all about preparing the world for Jesus.

It is also important to understand how God desires to work in the world. At the very beginning of the OT we learn that God is committed to ruling the world through humans. He appoints Man and Woman as "made in his image" to rule the world in love. After they fail, God continues to be committed to this purpose. Praise God that he is committed to us! Because of this commitment God promises in Genesis 3:15 that through humans he will work to renovate and heal the broken world.

Key 2: God is fully committed to healing the world through humans.

God begins the process of restoring and healing the world through humans through Abraham. This eventually leads to God creating a special relationship with the descendants of Abraham, the people of Israel. God gives Israel the unique and special job of being a "nation of priests" to the world. As priests they are tasked with showing people the true God and leading the world to know him. This is only fully realized when God himself becomes an Israelite (and therefore human) in Jesus Christ. Notice! This is an important point. This special job given by God to Israel is NOT given to the rest of the nations. And so Israel will be given unique instructions that are never given to other peoples, nor expected of them in order to follow God. We can find an example of this in the OT book of Jonah. The Israelite prophet Jonah is called by God to preach to the foreign capital city of Nineveh. Through his preaching, the entire city of Nineveh turns to God and is saved. Although they are expected to live moral lives as a fruit of their repentance, they are not expected to be circumcised or follow all the OT dietary laws like the people of Israel. We will return to discuss this particular matter later. In the meantime, here is our third key:

Key 3: God gave Israel a special role in being "priests" to the world with unique instructions and responsibilities.

The OT instructions to Israel can be roughly divided into three aspects. The OT laws are 1) national 2) ceremonial and 3) moral. How do these three kinds of laws relate to the OT's function of preparing the world for Jesus?

1) National - Through the national laws God worked to differentiate and separate Israel from the surrounding pagan nations. This is necessary so God could begin to help Israel to unlearn the self destructive patterns of life and worship practices of the surrounding peoples. These laws include the basic laws necessary for the continuance of the nation. Many of the dietary laws also worked to differentiate the nation of Israel from other peoples. The difficult and different diet kept the people of Israel from sharing table-fellowship with the surrounding peoples and therefore helped keep them from being drawn into pagan idolatrous practices. Through the national laws, God is creating the right culture and place for Jesus to come into the world.

2) Ceremonial - The ceremonial laws set up the complicated worship practices prescribed by God. These are meant to teach the people about the character of God and the nature of sin. Ultimately all the ceremonial laws are object lessons pointing to Jesus. Through the ceremonial laws, Israel is "acting out" prophecies so that the world can understand what Jesus will accomplish on the cross.

3) Moral - God progressively revealed through the moral laws how he desires humans to relate to himself and to each other. Because humans change slowly, God started by first revealing the very basic moral teachings found in the Ten Commandments. Later through the prophets he explained the deeper meaning behind these teachings. This process is completed when Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount fully revealed God's moral standard for us. Through the moral laws, God shows us how he wants us to live, how we fail to do it, and how we need his forgiveness and Holy Spirit that will come only through Jesus Christ.

Paul teaches us that since Christ has come, there is no longer any need for the national and ceremonial laws of the OT. Their function has been completed in Jesus who is the "culmination" of the OT law (Rom 10:4). National laws are not needed because now through Jesus all nations are equally welcomed into a special relationship with God (John 10:16). Ceremonial laws are not needed because now all of their prophetic value has been fulfilled through Jesus' death and resurrection (Heb 10:1). These instructions which prepared Israel for her unique role have now been fully realized when the Jewish people gave the world Jesus Christ through the Virgin Mary. The non-Jewish people, who were never required to follow the special instructions of the national and ceremonial laws, now have the incredible blessing of also becoming part of the special people of God through Jesus Christ. Paul, talking to the non-Jewish Christians, puts it this way, "although a wild olive shoot, you were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree" (Rom 11:17b). We non-Jewish believers have been made part of the people of Israel through Jesus. This means that the OT is now our story too!

Jesus also fulfilled God's moral law. He is the only human to have ever lived a perfectly moral life before God. He even chose to die instead of denying God by breaking a single one of his commandments. Now Jesus calls all of us to follow his example. This is why both Jesus and Paul make extensive use of the OT when instructing people on how to live a life pleasing to God (Rom 13:8-10). Now that Christ has come, the Church, which is filled with the Spirit of Christ, continues to fulfill the moral law revealed in the OT through loving others. "Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law" (Rom 13:8 ESV). And so this gives us our fourth and fifth key:

Key 4: The OT's unique instructions and responsibilities to Israel are no longer necessary to practice because Jesus has fulfilled their purposes.

Key 5: The OT continues to be the Word of God to us today because it teaches us the character and work of God through Jesus, shows us who we are as part of God's special people, and furnishes us with moral instruction.

I sincerely hope that you will find this short "theology of the OT" helpful as we begin the deep dive into the world of the OT and the people of God. Although teaching through the OT can be difficult, I firmly believe that the effort will be well worth it, as we begin to better understand our God, ourselves, and his mission for us in this world. In the meantime please take the time to become well acquainted with the 5 keys to understand the OT.

To review:


The 5 Keys to Understand the OT

Key 1:
The OT is all about preparing the world for Jesus.

Key 2:
God is fully committed to healing the world through humans.

Key 3:
God gave Israel a special role in being "priests" to the world with unique instructions and responsibilities.

Key 4:
The OT's unique instructions and responsibilities to Israel are no longer necessary to practice because Jesus has fulfilled their purposes.


Key 5:
The OT continues to be the Word of God to us today because it teaches us the character and work of God through Jesus, shows us who we are as part of God's special people, and furnishes us with moral instruction.


Peace,
The Rev. Kurt Hein

Brew Beer Like Jesus?

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Arnold of Soissons AD1040–AD1087. Patron saint of brewers and hop-pickers. 

When we celebrate All Saints Day, we remember all those who have been faithful to Jesus throughout their lives. Why do we celebrate? Because all those who believe in Christ are still alive with him and therefore are still part of his church. They still worship together with us! The author of Hebrews encourages us to imagine those who have gone before us surrounding us and cheering us on to finish running the race that they have already completed before us. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Heb 12:1)."

The saints that have gone before us also help us understand what it means to be like Christ. Jesus is the perfect image of God and he shows us how we ought to live in this world. But Jesus was sent for a specific purpose (or profession, if you will). He was sent to die for our sins and atone for the world. That mission was unique to Jesus. God has given us other callings. But this raises some questions. What does it look like to be Christ-like in the workforce? What does it look like to be like Jesus as a mother raising children? What does it look like to brew beer like Jesus?

The saints help us answer these questions by demonstrating in real life, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ-likeness in a variety of places, times, and callings.

Arnold, was a Benedictine monk who founded the Abbey of St. Peter in Oudenburg, Belgium. He brewed what is known as "small beer" in the abbey along with fellow monks. Small beer is low in alcohol and high in nutritious yeast. The boiling necessary to make the beer frees it from harmful bacteria. We must remember that Arnold lived before germ theory so no one knew about germs yet. But Arnold, moved by God's spirit, encouraged the poor in Oudenburg to not drink water but rather drink the healthful small beer. He also taught the villagers how to make beer for themselves. When plague ravaged nearby towns, all the inhabitants of Oudenburg were miraculously spared. God worked a miracle through Arnold's beer making!

So can you brew beer like Jesus? Yes you can. And in each of our various callings we can strive be like St. Arnold and therefore like Christ. Whatever God has given you to do, do it for the love of God and neighbor, and see what miracles God works through you!
 
Peace,
The Rev. Kurt Hein

Forgiveness Not Tolerance


Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. - Ephesians 4:32

How do I forgive someone when they have done something very wrong to me? This good question reveals a cultural misunderstanding of what it means to forgive. Forgiveness is not ignoring an offense, or tolerating something or someone that has hurt you. Forgiveness is not pretending that something bad didn’t happen, nor is it saying, “It’s really not that big of a deal.” In short, forgiveness is not tolerance. Here are three ways that make forgiveness different. 

First, forgiveness is truthful. The first step of forgiveness is a clear and honest assessment of the wrong committed. Forgiveness looks the wrong squarely in the face and affirms that it is sinful, and harmful. Now we must be careful to judge a deed according to God’s standard in Scripture and not simply by how we feel. But unlike tolerance, forgiveness does not tolerate evil. Forgiveness speaks truthfully about sin and the wreckage it creates. 

Secondly, forgiveness is to “let loose.” Forgiveness means that even though I was hurt by this action, I choose to not hold onto feelings of bitterness or hatred.  Unlike tolerance, forgiveness does not mean that I must trust a person or allow them to hurt me again. Instead forgiveness makes the hard, and difficult choice of choosing to bless our enemy instead of curse them. Every time hatred or bitterness arises in the heart, forgiveness chooses to give those feelings up to God in prayer and “let them loose” to Him. 

Thirdly, forgiveness is love. We tolerate what we hate or dislike. I don’t like kale, but my wife does, so I tolerate it. God does not call us to tolerate our enemies but to love them. Forgiveness is how we express love to our enemies. Therefore there is more to Christian forgiveness than letting go of negative feelings. Scripture calls us to make a positive move of love toward those who have hurt us. The simplest way to do this is to pray for their blessing. In prayer, God will often reveal another way that we can show love. In 2006 a gunman massacred five Amish schoolchildren in their one room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, PA. He then turned the gun on himself. How did the Amish community respond? As they were burying their five murdered children, they began to raise money to help support the newly widowed woman and orphaned children of the deceased gunman. That is the supernatural love of Christ!

Unlike tolerance, forgiveness is difficult work that takes time and prayer. Furthermore it is impossible without the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit. Let us continue to pray for his grace and mercy to forgive others as he has forgiven us.

Peace,
The Rev. Kurt Hein

God's Mountain (Repentance)

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. - Isaiah 55:12 (NIV)

In my experience, nothing in nature sings the praises of God as beautifully as mountains. Anna and I visited Colorado for our honeymoon and we both agree that the majesty of the Colorado mountains nourishes the soul. The mountains stand tall yet stable, lifting high into the clouds, their jagged rock peaks salted with beautiful white snow. In the presence of their beauty and grandeur you become lost. For a blissful moment, you are drawn away from thinking about self into the immensity of creation. It is a glimpse of God. A glance of the great Artist that painted this world.

We often think of repentance as primarily something we do. We think of it as a choice that we make. While we do make a choice when we turn away from our sins and follow Jesus, that’s not the deeper truth. The alluring power of the crucified Christ turns us from sin toward God. Like the beauty of mountains moves us away from self into another greater reality, the beauty of Love turns us from selfishness and draws us up into Love Himself. 

This reality is highly practical. When our love for God and others grows cold, and old sinful habits start to rear their ugly head again, we need to realize that simply fighting sin is not sufficient. Yes fight the sin, but do so through the power of the cross. Read the Gospels again. Spend time in quiet, meditating on what God did for you on Mount Calvary. Gaze upon Christian art that depicts the crucified Christ. Take the holy Sacrament. Put yourself in the presence of the majestic mountain of God’s love, of Mount Zion, our heavenly home. It is through the cross that we live victoriously. In the words of Bernard of Clairvaux:

What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this, Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever!
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never,
Outlive my love for Thee.

Peace,

Father Kurt

Radicalized Christians

After the recent mass shooting in Orlando, there has been a renewed rise in discourse surrounding “radical” religion. With all of the talk about radical Islamic terror, we can begin to feel that the problem is found in being too radical. If the problem is being radical then the solution to this senseless violence must be moderation. After all doesn’t the common proverb say, “In all things moderation?” The not so subtle message is, “Don’t take your religion too seriously. Be moderate and everything will be OK.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines radical as, “very different from the usual or traditional:  extreme.” If being a Christian means anything then it means following Christ. What does Christ require of his followers? “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Matt 16:24).” Christ’s call to discipleship is a call to complete self sacrifice. It is a call to death. In this respect, the call of Christ is very similar to the call of radical Islam. We are both called to die for our God.

However, we find the crucial difference in the goal of our radical extremism. This difference becomes markedly manifest upon a comparative study of the lives of Muhammad and Jesus. Jesus, through his life and actions, clearly and consistently taught the fundamental principle of a God pleasing life. Simply put, the radical calling of the Christian life is to love to the death. And that radical love knows no bounds or limitations, such that Jesus taught and demonstrated in his death on the cross, “Love your enemies. Bless those that curse you (Matt 5:44).” In fact, each one of us were enemies of God when he chose to die on the cross for us.

The center of the Christian faith is a radical Love to the death. We should not run from the label of “radical extremist” because our extremism is the only balm strong enough to heal those forms of extremism in the world that are bent on violence. Moderation is fool’s gold, providing no enduring solution.

How do we live out our Christian extremism? In this moment we are called to radical love in word and deed. Even though we disagree with their lifestyle, we are called to love those who have been traumatized and deeply wounded by the events of the last week. If the Holy Spirit is in us, he will turn our hearts to have compassion on those who are hurting and to weep with those who weep. Whether we agree with someone’s lifestyle is quite beyond the point. If Christ died for them (and he did), then we love them too. 

However, our extremism doesn’t stop there. Remember, God’s love has no bounds or limitations. The Holy Spirit also turns our heart to love the radical Islamic extremist. It appears that this poor man was caught between his confused sexuality and a religion that only provided him with rules and consequences but not with the unconditional love and forgiveness that only Jesus can give. How I wish that Omar Mateen had found himself forgiven at the feet of Jesus! And like the woman in our Gospel lesson on Sunday (Luke 7:36-8:3), experienced the joy of his guilt completely released and his body re-purposed toward radical love instead of sin. As Christ’s disciples we are called to bring that message to others who may be in a situation similar to Omar.

So through the events of this week, do not let seeds of hatred be sown in your heart. But rather embrace the radical message of Jesus. Be a love extremist. And find ways, through word and deed to demonstrate that love to all. The radical love of Christ is this broken world’s only true hope.

Peace,

Father Kurt Hein