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.


  1. for some reason i find this more compelling, and truer to my experience (for what it's worth) than various ...retrojected readings of OT which assume more revelation in scriptors than in scriptures (eg Abe's knowledge of the angel of the LORD, or even perhaps Moses' knowledge of trinity in Gen 1:1)...

  2. It's a relatively recent thought of mine, and totally ripped off from the Church Dogmatics. I think it preserves the important theological point that revelation happens through Christ alone without us having to pursue readings of the OT which seem... imaginative, shall we say? Still working it through, though. BTW, I'm just thinking about my reply to your e-mail - if you don't get it in the next few days, hassle me.

  3. Reminds me of what I was doing with the teenagers on Sunday - inspired by a chapter in Andrew Wilson's God*Stories and Luke 24. It's like one of those films with a twist where you realise due to some revelation toward the end that you've seen the whole film wrong: you go back to the beginning and spot all you missed and interpret it rightly, because of the revelation later.

  4. Er, Simeon? Anna? Herod?

  5. Not so sure about Herod, but Simeon and Anna - well spotted. Of course, in the case of Simeon at least there has been some private revelation supplementing the OT. And both of them see Jesus only as a baby - we don't know what they expected him to be or do. Perhaps what's most striking about them, though, is their isolation in the narrative. Their reaction is not the normal one. I think they broadly fit the pattern I've talked about, if perhaps requiring more detailed nuance.

  6. Anonymous2:43 pm

    All good. So long as we say:

    The 'deficiency' is not in the OT itself, but in the hearer/ reader.

    Only this can account for both the faithful who did get a lot of it right, and the unfaithful who didn't and yet are chided by Christ for not understanding the scriptures.

    Or something like that

  7. Anonymous2:45 pm

    So, the fact that Simeon etc. are exceptions rather than the norm is not because of some inadequacy with OT revelation per se., rather it is an indication of the spiritual condition of 1st century Israel.

  8. Well written post. May our Lord continue to shine through you and your blog. God bless, Lloyd

  9. Hi Dan,

    I'm not sure I 100% follow this post.

    To clarify, what is your answer to your question, "who was prepared by the OT?"

    Is it nobody, or Christ, or something else?

    I think you are right to keep the element of surprise and God's initiative, but I think it is a problem if you think that before the surprise there is no revelation or action by God. As if people are a blank slate.