Monday, March 22, 2010

"It came out of nowhere"

We sometimes talk about the Old Testament as being preparation for Christ, and at some level that must be right. Jesus came at just the right time, when everything was ready to be fulfilled. But at some other level I want to ask a question. Who exactly was prepared by the OT?

When you look at the characters in the gospels, none of them get who Jesus is on the basis of the OT. That's a pretty strong statement, but I advance it as a hypothesis - can anyone contradict it? Think of Nathanael in John's gospel - he needs a miracle before he believes; Peter in the synoptics has Jesus' identity revealed to him by the Father; the people who are really well trained in the Scriptures actually cite them to show that Jesus cannot be the Christ (a prophet from Nazareth?!) The big one for me is the beloved disciple, looking into the empty tomb. He 'saw and believed' but 'as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead' (John 20:8,9). The miracle came first, and only then did they go back to the Scriptures and understand them.

Outside the gospels, I think Paul is a test case. His conversion is related by Luke three times, and I can't help thinking that is because Luke wants us to see this as a paradigm of someone coming to Christian faith. Paul knows his OT, no doubt about it. But it takes a personal intervention from Christ before he understands that those Scriptures speak of Christ.

For all these people, despite centuries of careful preparation and witness to Christ in the OT, revelation came out of nowhere and bowled them over.

I think that's important for our understanding of how revelation works. Revelation is always grace - if anyone sees Christ, it is because he freely reveals himself to them. That means revelation is never something that I can get hold of, possess, tame, and call my own. It is always something that can jump out at me, as something new and quite possibly alarming. In that sense, the relation between the OT and Christ is a chronological representation of the relationship that always exists between the Scriptural witness as a whole and Christ.

But when they have seen Christ - and in particular, when they have seen the risen Christ - all these witnesses understand the OT to be all about Christ. They don't think they are significantly reinterpreting it. They are not reading Christ into the OT. But their understanding has changed. They see now, in the light of the resurrection, that Jesus is Lord. Specifically, that means Jesus is, and always has been, Lord over and in Israel's history. The resurrection vindicates Christ, shows that he is the Messiah and the culmination of Israel's hopes and dreams, and in the process shows what those hopes and dreams really were. It always was about him.

That means that when I approach Scripture - Old or New Testament - I approach it as something that genuinely is about Jesus. I do that even for the bits which don't immediately seem to be about him, and the bits which I just don't understand. I study it, wrestle with the content, try to work out what it is saying about Jesus. But I do all that on the understanding that my study and work is not able to produce a view of Jesus which will prompt me to faith and adoration. That would require a work of grace. Jesus is Lord, even over the Bible.

So as a Christian - as someone who has encountered the risen Christ through the Biblical witness applied by the Spirit - I have to read the OT this way. And yet every time I do, there is the possibility (in God's grace) that I will be bowled over again.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reading along the Old Testament

Oops. I accidentally didn't write on the blog for a month. Well, there will now follow a series of thoughts on reading the Bible in a Christocentric manner. Nothing too original, but just to get me back into the habit!

Whenever I start to read in the Old Testament, I should expect to see Christ there. By 'see Christ' I do not mean that I will always find explicit reference to Christ, or that the OT is shot through with appearances of the preincarnate Word (although there are plenty of both occurrences there). What I mean is that my reading of the OT should be a 2 Corinthians 3:16 experience (read the whole passage to get what I mean). Now, to a very great extent whether in fact I have such an experience is not down to me, but is a work of the Spirit. But it is promised, and therefore the action of faith is to read properly, with expectation, and await the Spirit's work.

So what reading practices do I employ as I set out to read by faith, to 'turn to the Lord' as I read the OT? Here are a few.

1. Look for explicit forward-looking references to the Messiah and his work. Despite all the sceptical work of OT scholars over the last 150 years, these are plentiful. Where you find them, consider whether they might not be the key to the understanding of the particular part of the OT you are reading. It's helpful to consider the particular import of each of these 'previews' of the person and work of Jesus - don't just think 'here's a prophecy of Christ', think through what in particular about Jesus this is highlighting. I personally find it very useful to try to imagine what it would be like to look forward to this as an initial step in understanding.

2. Look for types of Christ. A type is a character who, through their own life and actions, plays out some aspect of the life and work of Jesus. Whenever we look for types, we are engaging in an imaginative process. After all, nobody measures up to Jesus or strictly speaking does anything remotely like what he does. It is more of a case of catching the echoes of the life of Jesus - except these echoes are cast backward through history. Where we do see types of Christ, we should focus first on the particular aspect of Jesus' life and work that we have been reminded of; then (more cautiously) we should ask whether we are being commanded to show that aspect in our lives also (and the type can help us here to think what that might look like).

3. Look for patterns of events which recall Christ's work. Just like the characters who serve us as types of Christ, so events can serve us by bringing to memory different aspects of what Jesus has done. In the OT, we see the work of Christ refracted, as it were, through the history of Israel. Often that refraction will help us to bring out and focus on a particular side to Jesus' ministry which might otherwise get lost in the whole.

4. Look for problems which cannot be solved in OT terms. Where we see a passage which sets up a paradox - especially one of which the author seems very conscious - we will more often than not find that paradox resolved in Christ. These sorts of problems will more often become clear if we read longer passages, or try to fit particular passages into the OT as a whole.

I want to work this out in a particular example - the book of Job - before the end of the week. But I have an intervening post for those who react by saying something like: 'what a terrible hermeneutic! You've already decided what the text will be about before you even read it!'

...Although probably not many of those sorts of people read this blog.