Today I am giving an exam in my Bible classes that reinforces the overarching stories of the Old and New Testaments with an A – Z Timeline. Twice a year I teach through the timelines, driving the story into my brain, keeping it fresh. More than ever I think the Church has lost touch with its own history and, as the saying goes, may be destined to repeat it.
Why do we even need the Old Testament? Sure, it’s fun to tell children stories about Moses splitting the Red Sea, and David killing Goliath, and Daniel not getting eaten by lions, but in the grand scheme isn’t it just one big set-up for Jesus? How much of it remains relevant? The first three chapters of Genesis? Maybe the Ten Commandments? Prophecy?
In my opinion, our discontinuity with the Old Testament story is not just an intellectual tragedy, but an oversight that may lead us down a dangerous path.
Why else would Paul tell Christians that the history of the Jews was passed down for their instruction, so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes (I Cor. 10)? Why would he warn the believing Gentiles that they should not get arrogant in their salvation, reminding them that it was for lack of belief that Israel was removed as the chosen people of God, and that God could just as easily switch them back?
Consider the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. Romans 11:22 (NIV)
Wait. Doesn’t Paul know about faith and love? Doesn’t he know that this is about Jesus, not the strength of our beliefs or our efforts against sin? Did the same Paul that wrote the warnings of Romans 11 read his own description of grace in chapter 8?
I’m not talking about personal salvation here. I’m not talking about unforgivable sins. I’m talking the destiny of the Church. Jesus died for something. He has a vision for something, and his feelings, actions and judgments are all based on that vision.
So what does he really want from us? I think the answer can be found in the Old Testament, one that is dramatically affirmed in the New.
The first 11 chapters of Genesis reveal the beauty and freedom of life shared with God (Eden) and the personal and social disaster of life separated from him (depravity). In chapter 12 God starts a new redemptive program with Abraham, a man of faith. He told Abraham that his people would be a blessed people, that they would be a blessing to all the families of the earth. In essence, Israel was meant to be like a new Eden, a beacon of what life with God was supposed to look like, and an invitation for outsiders to join the party.
Over time, this special people was spoiled by their own rebellion, hardened by their own arrogance. Ultimately their inheritance was handed over to those that had no history with God, nothing beyond the simplicity of their faith.
Remember, Jesus was sent to Israel. The Spirit was promised for Israel. Israel would have gone into all the world to make disciples, fulfilling the covenant of Abraham. That’s why Paul calls the Church the new Israel, and calls Christians the true sons of Abraham, sons of faith.
In many ways, Christians have an advantage over Israel. They can live by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, not under the threat of a harsh, impersonal law code. They can enjoy personal and corporate access to God through Christ, not having to approach the temple with animal sacrifices or celebrate bizarre rituals and festivals.
But if we are at such an advantage, why do we look so much the same?
Think about how much we have in common: Israel had Moses, their divine prophet and access point to God. We have Jesus. Israel had circumcision, a physical sign that set them apart for God. We have baptism. Israel was called to be God’s holy bride, God’s elect people. Christians are called to be God’s holy bride, God’s elect people. Israel was meant to bless all the families of the earth. Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples. Israel was anticipating the coming of their Messiah. We’re expecting him to come again.
But what will he find when he comes? The same sinful, pious people that he found the first time, people holding fast to their confessions and baptisms, gripping their tickets to heaven?
These verses from Revelation should be a challenge to us. It is Jesus speaking to churches, to saved people, his own elect.
You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (2:4 – 5)
If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the Book of Life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. (3:3 – 5)
Removing lampstands? Blotting names from the Book of Life? Jesus can’t be serious. He’s just being like those parents at Disneyland that tell their crying kids to suck it up or they’re going home and will never see Mickey, right?
Looking at the grand scheme, I really doubt it.