Posts Tagged ‘Phillip Cary’

Devotional Podcast #25: “When God Disrupts Our Lives”

May 15, 2018

There’s a little word at the beginning of the first sentence of the Book of Jonah—”and” or “now”—that most modern Bible translations ignore: “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah.” That little word not only has great significance for Jonah, but for us as well. I’ll tell you why in this episode.

Devotional Text: Jonah 1:1-3; Psalm 115:1

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. And it is Wednesday, May 16, and you’re listening to Devotional Podcast #25.

You’re also listening to the band Stryper, and a song called “The Devil Doesn’t Live Here” from their brand new album—recorded, as always, directly from vinyl. The singer says that he’s “sold out with no fear… only for Jesus.” I want to be sold with no fear only for Jesus. How about you? That’s what I want to talk about. 

To do that, let’s look at the first verse of the Book of Jonah. In the NIV and most other contemporary translations, it reads, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai.” That’s O.K., I guess, but the translations that are descended from the King James6—such as the ESV and NRSV—they’re somewhat more faithful to the Hebrew with this verse. Because there’s a word at the beginning of this sentence: and. “And the word of the Lord”—or “now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.”

At least one commentator I read—Phillip Cary, in his profoundly good commentary on Jonah, published by Brazos Press, the absolute best of its kind! If you’re interested in learning more about this little four-chapter book of the Bible, read Phillip Cary’s commentary on Jonah! I’ll put a link to it in the show notes. Anyway, my point is, he sees great significance in this little word “and”… and who am I to disagree. “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” About this little word and he writes [emphasis mine]:

Finally, before we proceed let us go back for a moment to the first word, that unobtrusive little particle “and” (often translated “now” or “but”) whose force depends so much on drawing no attention to itself. It is over before we notice it, so that we can get on with thinking about weightier words such as “the word of the Lord.” But now is the time to look back at the service it has performed. It got us into the story before we knew it, getting us thinking about the events to come as if they belonged to some larger series of events already under way, as if somehow we had just turned the page to begin a new chapter in a much larger book. And of course that is exactly what has happened. Not only does the book of Jonah belong to the much larger book called the Bible, the book of books, but the story of Jonah is a chapter in the much larger story of the dealings of the Lord God with Israel and the nations. So we begin by getting into the middle of things… For this is how we always begin. Even our birth is always in the middle of an ongoing family history. Only the word of the Lord can begin at the very beginning. We follow.[1]

Hmm… We follow. Or we don’t follow. Or we don’t want to follow. The choice is ours. Jonah’s problem was not that he failed to recognize that the events of his life “belonged to some larger series of events already under way,” as Cary says; his problem was that he knew this full well—he knew that God, the author of the story of which Jonah was one minor character—this God—desired to use Jonah’s prophetic witness to preach to the hated citizens of the capital city of Israel’s enemy, Assyria—and Jonah wanted no part of it; he didn’t want to follow this plot line to God’s foreordained conclusion. 

At least not at first! Instead, Jonah ran away in the opposite direction of Nineveh. In fact, he went as far in the opposite direction from where God wanted him to go as he possibly could—which for him meant sailing to a place called Tarshish, clear across the Mediterranean Sea. The other side of the world, as far as he knew! To Europe! Barbarians lived in Europe! 

But that’s fine… Going to the other side of the world to live with barbarians is far better than going to hideous Nineveh and preaching to those awful Ninevites! Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #11: “If Grace Is Cheap, It’s Too Expensive”

February 3, 2018

How can we be confident that all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven? For starters, by not being confused about justification and sanctification. That’s what this special “flu-length” episode is all about. Enjoy!

Devotional Text: Genesis 18:22-33

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, February 3, and this is Devotional Podcast number 11. It’s a very special flu edition of the podcast, which means it’s an extra long version. In fact, you might even say it’s a sermon-sized podcast. Lucky you! Yes, I intended to record this for Friday, per my usual schedule—but I have been wiped out with the flu since Thursday. Anyway, while my temperature is down and the headache has subsided and ibuprofen works its wonders, here we go…

You’re listening to Keith Green and a song called “Make My Life a Prayer to You,” written by his wife and frequent collaborator, Melody. This comes from Green’s 1978 album, No Compromise, which could easily be a motto for his entire ministry. He is famous for not compromising—even going so far as to give his records away for free to anyone who couldn’t afford them.

I like the line in the song, “I guess I’ll have to trust and just believe what you say.” So honest! Isn’t that the hard part of being a Christian—that it actually takes faith to believe what Jesus said. If you’re a Christian, you sometimes say, “I guess I’ll have to!”

After today’s podcast, I hope you’ll trust and believe what Jesus says about forgiveness and grace.

Years ago, I was reading theologian Phillip Cary’s excellent commentary on Jonah. In the book’s introduction, he wrote something that literally changed the way I read the Old Testament—which is to say, it changed my life. He wrote:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[1]

Did you hear that? Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.

This was exactly opposite what I’d learned in the liberal mainline Protestant seminary I attended. I’ve blogged about this before. It’s not that I didn’t learn a lot of useful things in seminary—I did! But I was spiritually unprepared for it. I was unprepared for the spiritual warfare—by which I mean attacks by a literal Satan—that inevitably accompany one’s decision to uproot one’s life and family, to leave a relatively prosperous career, to go to an expensive school, and to devote oneself to serving the Lord as a pastor. I was a sitting duck for the devil! And it didn’t help that few if any of my professors in seminary even believed in the devil!

Regardless, it was all for the good. I was tested. I failed miserably. But emerged on the other side a much better person for it. Thank God!

Anyway, we were taught in seminary that the Old Testament—which of course shouldn’t even be called the Old Testament, because that sounds pejorative, but rather, it should be called the “Hebrew Bible”… We should call it the “Hebrew Bible” because, by doing so, we recognize that this is a book that doesn’t even belong to us Christians. At best, when we read the Hebrew Bible, we are eavesdropping on someone else’s scripture. We certainly shouldn’t read Jesus into the Old Testament. He doesn’t belong there! It’s disrespectful to our Jewish friends. Or so the propaganda said…

I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me now.

Of course Cary is right: the whole Bible, including every book of the Old Testament, is about Jesus… Jesus and the New Testament authors certainly thought so. I shouldn’t have needed someone like Cary to tell me this, but there you are…

My point is, I can now find Jesus on nearly every page of the Old Testament! Read the rest of this entry »

God wants us to make wise decisions, but he can redeem even foolish ones

April 6, 2017

doRecently, I had a conversation with a friend who was mulling over a major life decision. He sensed that God was calling him to change his career, but it wasn’t clear. He said, “I wish I could know for sure if this is what the Lord wants me to do.”

As I listened, I became newly sympathetic with a complaint made by theologian Phillip Cary. In his book Good News for Anxious Christians, he says that over the past few generations a novel idea has entered the mainstream of evangelical Christian thought: that the primary means by which we hear God speak to us is not through studying the scriptures, reflecting on them, and letting them guide our decisions, but by discerning a “voice” or intuition inside our heart and believing that it comes from God. Cary insists that it doesn’t.

The practice of listening for God’s voice in your heart has only recently displaced Scripture as the most important way, in the view of most evangelicals, that God reveals himself to us… The idea… was that when you have a big decision to make—say, about marriage or your career—then you are supposed to seek guidance from God (good idea!) and the key way to do that is by listening to how he’s speaking in your heart (bad idea!).[†]

While I have no reason to doubt that Cary fairly represents the evangelical tradition, I can’t go all the way with him: Doesn’t God guide us in our decision making—even through intuitions or dreams? And if we refer to this guidance as God’s “voice,” I have no problem with that—so long as we don’t believe that whatever God “tells” us this way is equal in authority to God’s Word.

But I agree with him that we put unneeded pressure on ourselves if we expect to hear this “voice” (sorry for all the scare quotes) every time we have an important decision to make. Like Cary says, God gave us the gifts of our minds and wisdom to reason things through. We are not wrong to use them! In fact, let’s trust that God will guide us as we do so.

Besides, the most important and perhaps least appreciated way that God guides us is through providence. Providence is the doctrine that says that God is always guiding us through everything that happens in our lives and the world. God is always at work through circumstances in our lives, both good and bad.

Do you see how God’s providence takes the pressure off—at least a little? Getting back to my friend’s dilemma, there isn’t necessarily one right choice that he needs to make, otherwise he is “out of God’s will” unless or until he corrects his mistake and gets back on the path that God chose for him. God is infinitely resourceful: not that God doesn’t want us to make wise decisions in the first place, but God can redeem even foolish ones. If my friend makes a poor choice and regrets the decision, guess what? God will bring good even out of that choice.

Haven’t we all had experiences in our lives about which we say, “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, but I’m glad it happened to me”?

Providence means that, in a sense, wherever we are right now is where God wants us to be. Which means at every moment we can accomplish God’s will for us: which is, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 2-3.

Sermon 01-29-17: “Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets”

February 7, 2017


Do Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” contradict our Protestant understanding of justification by faith alone? To answer that question, we need to understand what Jesus is saying in verses 17-19. This sermon explores these verses. In the process, I talk about the inspiration of scripture and the way in which Jesus fulfills the Old Testament.

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:17-20

[No audio or video this week due to an iPhone error. They will be available for next week’s sermon.]

leah-remini-cover-768x1024Leah Remini, the actress who played Doug’s wife, Carrie, on the TV show King of Queens for many years made news in 2013 when she announced to the world that she was leaving the Church of Scientology—after being an active member of the cult for 35 years. Over the past couple of months, she produced an eight-part documentary on the A&E Network about Scientology—and the great harm it does to its followers. Which is kind of brave—because they have an army of lawyers and private investigators and more money than they know what to do with. They will use these resources to try to ruin your life!

As Remini describes in the documentary, the path to spiritual enlightenment that scientology promises involves spending basically all your time and all your money on classes, books, and so-called “auditing” sessions. All together, she estimated that she spent nearly $5 million on Scientology.

After all the money, all the time, all the work, she was supposed to have reached a level of spiritual enlightenment at which point she was completely free from fear and anxiety; she was in a place of perfect peace—a place free of pain and suffering. And did she achieve that? “No,” she said, “not even close.”

Even after all that money… all that work. And I do mean work. She said that when she wasn’t working on King of Queens, she was taking Scientology classes—from 8:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. Every day. She spent much of her time in Clearwater, Florida, which is the international headquarters of Scientology. At one point, the documentary shows her walking on the beach in Clearwater, and she said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been to the beach.” The first time? And she’s like, “Yes, you don’t get vacation time in Scientology.” Read the rest of this entry »

“Opening the Scriptures”: A new sermon series starting this Sunday

May 5, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

I wrote the following for our weekly electronic newsletter.

In Luke 24:13-35, two disciples of Jesus are returning from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus, about eight miles away. It’s Easter Sunday. Although some of their fellow disciples told them that they found the tomb of Jesus empty, they don’t know what to make of it. As of yet, alongside most of their fellow disciples, they don’t believe that their Lord has been resurrected.

So they head for home, discouraged and confused.

Jesus meets them on the road, but “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” At Jesus’ prompting, they tell him about the events of Good Friday as well as the reports of the empty tomb.

Jesus tells them: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then Luke writes: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Beginning with Moses and all the prophets… in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

I don’t blame you if these words surprise you. Except for a few scattered verses in Isaiah and Malachi that we hear every Advent or Christmas season, we modern Christians probably don’t think that the Old Testament has much to say about Jesus.

After all, we call it the Old Testament because it’s obsolete, right?

Needless to say, this was not the attitude of Jesus or the early Church. In fact, the only Bible they had at the time was the Old Testament. When Paul told Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he was literally talking about the Old Testament (even as we rightly apply these words to the New Testament as well).

From the perspective of Jesus, Paul, the other New Testament writers, and the early Church, the Old Testament, far from being obsolete, was a treasure trove of information about Jesus.

I confess, like many of you, I didn’t always see it that way.

But my attitude began to change several years ago, when I was preparing to preach a sermon on Jonah. I was reading a new commentary by theologian Phillip Cary, who turned my world upside down with one startling sentence: “Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.”

This Old Testament book was about Christ? Like all the other Old Testament books?

I then discovered that until very recently, that’s the way the Church had always read the Old Testament. We modern Christians are the weird ones who often think that the Old Testament has little to say to us.

In a new sermon series starting this Sunday, I hope I can instill within you my enthusiasm for seeing Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. We’re going to begin near the beginning, with Genesis 3:1-15.

How does God “speak” to us?

February 2, 2016

In a blog post today, Anne Kennedy tackles a popular idea in evangelical thought: that God speaks to us outside of his Word—so much so that we say, “God told me to do this,” or “I feel that God is leading me to do that” without reference to what God tells us through scripture. She admits she’s tempted to use this language, and she has used this language in the past, but she’s giving it up.

It’s a principled, theological choice, and it’s been very hard to carry forward. First of all, it has forced me to see where I haven’t really believed scripture to be sufficient. Has God spoken? Why, yes he has. In the scriptures. They were written a long time ago, but God uses them to work on the insides of each Christian in an intimate, personal way. I read the bible all the time, and God uses those words to cut open my heart of stone. Often, it feels like he’s leaping out of the page in bodily form. But he isn’t speaking audibly to me. He isn’t using impressions and feelings. He is speaking to me, through the scriptures. I don’t really always enjoy that process. It is often painful and difficult. I would like something extra and something more than the bible. But the bible itself says it is enough. The scriptures are sufficient to make me complete for every good work.

Second, it has forced me to exercise my mind and will in the making of decisions. I pray differently now than I did before. When I could say, ‘God called me’ or ‘God led me’, the onus was on God not to screw up. And when I did something foolish, I was quick to blame him for my error. Conflating my sinful desires with the leading of God himself was the easy comfortable way. But also, dare I say it, the ugly way. God, of course leads and guides me, but it’s not me sitting around waiting for the word. I don’t get a special Holy Spirit download of words and impressions. I have to read the bible, pray, look at my actual circumstances, act, beg God to stop me if I’m doing the wrong thing, and keep inching forward in what feels like the darkness. But all the time, the more mature I become as a Christian, God is building wisdom in my inner parts, opening and closing the vistas that surround me, providentially moving me in the direction he wants me to go. I don’t need that special word. The scripture is sufficient especially with the Holy Spirit wielding it deftly at the mind and heart.

She is making the exact same point that theologian Phillip Cary makes in his book Good News for Anxious ChristiansIn fact, Cary complains that this waiting around for God to tell us, for example, whom to marry, or what school to go to, or what job to take, or what kind of $65 million private jet to purchase, is a recent development in the history of evangelical thought. According to Cary, it never occurred to previous generations of Protestants to think that God gave such explicit instructions. Instead, they believed, God’s guidance came through the Bible as mediated by the Holy Spirit and our own God-given wisdom.

In the church I grew up in (a Southern Baptist one in suburban Atlanta), we would be rightly suspicious of people who said, “God told me…,” yet even we talked in youth group of being “in” or “out of” God’s will. (Have you heard that before?) That God has one (ideal) plan for each person’s life, and it’s up to each person to discover what it is. You’d better not get it wrong, either. Because being “out of” God’s will—sometimes called “missing” God’s will—could mean a lifetime of misery—unless or until you decided to get back on the path of God’s will.

One problem with using language of “God told me,” being “in” or “out of” God’s will, or “missing God’s will” is that it underestimates God’s sovereignty and providence. God isn’t “in control” inasmuch as we submit our lives to his will; he’s in control regardless. God’s plan for our lives isn’t sidetracked by our failure to do one thing or another. Why? Because, with his foreknowledge, he’s already accounted for our actions—good and bad, faithful and unfaithful—and worked all of them into his plan for us.

Another problem with this language is that it underestimates God’s grace. Yes, we may feel more confident and courageous knowing that a particular course of action has been sanctioned by a specific “word” from the Lord. But even apart from such a word, we can be confident that God will redeem our actions and use them for good.

Having said all that, while Kennedy’s (and Cary’s) words serve as a helpful warning, I don’t buy in to their argument completely. For one thing, I’ve had those strong intuitions that God is “speaking” to me. Maybe that’s an understatement: I’ve felt as if God has zapped me with lightning sometimes. Maybe that’s not God’s “voice,” but it’s something! So perhaps the language we use to describe these intuitions is imprecise or inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t guiding us in some way through them.

Besides, God foreknew that we would have these strong intuitions, including how we would interpret and respond to them. Therefore, it’s no stretch to imagine that he uses them—as he does everything else—for our good. If we’re wrong, he’ll redeem this mistake too.

The gospel in Genesis 18

December 17, 2014

Phillip Cary begins his Brazos commentary on the Book of Jonah with these powerful and convicting words:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[†]

Like the whole Bible, this particular Old Testament book is about Christ. 

For the past year or so, I’ve taken this message to heart, and it’s changed my preaching for the better. It’s also changed the way I read the Old Testament. It’s not that I now read the Old Testament as allegory: I believe the Old Testament reports the history that it does first because these events really happened. But I’m convinced that the Old Testament is filled with signs that point to Jesus, whether its authors intended them or not.

For example, I’m currently re-reading Genesis. In Chapter 18, when the Lord warns Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom, Abraham intercedes on their behalf. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Likewise, Abraham is emboldened to ask if God will destroy the city if there are only 45 righteous within it, then 40, then 35, on down to ten. Even for the sake of ten righteous people, God says, he will not destroy the city. Abraham doesn’t dare to ask about fewer than that, but he probably got the point: no one in Sodom was righteous. Lot and his family were saved, but as the men of Sodom complained to him, Lot and his family were merely sojourners (Genesis 19:9), not citizens.

So let’s ask the question Abraham didn’t ask: What if there were only one righteous person? Would God spare the lives of the people for the sake of the one?

We already know the answer to that. God answered that question on the cross. Jesus Christ was the one righteous person for whose sake God offers salvation to the world. Christ lived his life and died his death on behalf of the ungodly.

Isn’t that beautiful? It wouldn’t have even occurred to me to make that connection even a couple of years ago. The next time I preach this passage, I promise I will!

I’ve written about this Christ-centered approach to reading the Old Testament before, including right here.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

Does God speak to us personally through his Word?

October 27, 2014

As I blogged about last year, theologian Phillip Cary, an evangelical, would say that the only way we hear God’s voice is through scripture. How we apply this word from God to our lives is a matter of God-given wisdom, not any kind of divine revelation. I appreciate what Cary is saying: among other things, it guards against believing that the Spirit will reveal to us something that contradicts God’s Word, which is near the heart of my disagreement with fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger Jason Micheli. Moreover, whatever word we “hear” from God will never be as authoritative as the word that he’s given us in scripture.

All that to say, like Cary, I’m suspicious of Christians who speak with great confidence about what God “told” them. How do they know for sure that they’re hearing the voice of God, rather than their own intuition? If what God tells us, by contrast, is written in black and white (and sometimes red) in the Bible, then at least the answer is clear.

My friend Tom Harkins shares my concern. In the comments sections of this blog, he’s described an experience in which he heard a Christian singer-songwriter say, “The Lord gave me this next song.” Upon hearing it, Tom thought, “If that were true, then the Lord must be a really bad songwriter!”

Nevertheless, I can’t agree completely with Cary. I think all of us Christians have a sense from time to time of being “led” by God or “spoken to” by God. (The scare quotes indicate that, as far as I can tell, God rarely speaks to us in an audible voice.) I certainly have had that sense! I don’t see anything wrong with that. In my own Methodist tradition, all of us clergy have had to defend our “call” from God to the Board of Ordained Ministry. We believe that God does tell certain individuals that he wants them to go into ministry. This call seems more personal than merely saying that, given this combination of gifts, talents, and interests that I possess, going into ministry would be a wise thing to do. (As best I can tell, that’s Phillip Cary’s position.)

So I would say that the Bible is the primary means by which we hear God’s voice. I would also say that when we read scripture, we may have a supernatural encounter with God—and that the Holy Spirit may speak a personal word to our lives and situations.

But what is that experience like? How do we discern God’s voice speaking directly to us and and the situations we face through scripture? As I said in my sermon yesterday, N.T. Wright offers some helpful words from his commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16-17. He says that when Paul talks about the Bible’s “rebuking” us,

It means, clearly, that as we read scripture it will from time to time inform us in no uncertain terms that something we’ve been doing is out of line with God’s will. Sometimes this will lie plainly on the surface of the text; other times, as we read a passage, we will begin to hear the voice of God gently, or perhaps not so gently, telling us that this story applies to this area of our lives, or perhaps that one. When that happens—as it may often do for those who read the Bible prayerfully—we do well to pay attention.

This seems exactly right to me. Do any of you disagree?

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 121-2.

More on a Christ-centered approach to reading the Old Testament

October 5, 2014

Last week I wrote about how I’ve come to believe that all of the Old Testament is about Jesus. I believe that when I preach Old Testament passages, I am obligated to find Jesus in them and preach Jesus through them. I like the way one commenter on that post put it: “the new, in the old, contained; the old, in the new, explained.”


Tim Keller showed me how easy it is to make connections between Old Testament passages and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As I said in the previous post, theologian Phillip Cary was the first Christian thinker to show me this truth, but Tim Keller, my favorite contemporary preacher, taught me how to put it into practice.

Predictably, not everyone likes Keller’s approach to the Old Testament. This Christian apologist, Tim Chaffey, accuses Keller of eisegesis—reading something (or someone, namely Jesus) into the text that isn’t there (at least a lot of the time). Chaffey says that people like Keller use the Emmaus story, specifically Luke 24:27 to justify reading the Old Testament in a Christo-centric way. Chaffey writes:

Those who promote the Christo-centric approach generally defend their view by quoting Luke 24:27. Take a close look at the two statements below. The first is the actual text of Luke 24:27, the second is how most Christo-centric proponents explain the verse.

1)      “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:27)

2)      And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them that all of the Scriptures were things concerning Himself.

I wouldn’t go nearly so far as number two. When I say that “all of the Old Testament is about Jesus,” I don’t mean that every single passage, much less every jot and tittle, is really pointing to Jesus if only we could learn to interpret it in the right way. (I also don’t think Keller believes that, either.) Rather, as the author of margin notes in the ESV Study Bible puts it, “Jesus explained to them how not only the explicit prophecies about the Messiah but also the historical patterns of God’s activity again and again throughout the OT looked forward to Jesus himself.”

That seems exactly right: the Old Testament doesn’t point to Jesus only in its explicit messianic prophecies, but also in “historical patterns of God’s activity again and again.”

In my church’s electronic newsletter last week, for example, I applied this interpretive lens to the David and Goliath story as follows:

Even in last week’s scripture about David and Goliath, for instance, it was easy to see how this story points to Jesus. The people of Israel were facing a fearsome enemy that they were too weak, too afraid, and too powerless to defeat on their own. Just as Goliath was a “champion” for the Philistines (1 Samuel 17:4), Israel needed their own champion to fight and win the battle for them—a representative or substitute who could do for them what they were unable do for themselves.

Their champion, David, had the kind of faith in God that they couldn’t muster on their own. And in rejecting Saul’s armor and weaponry, David confronted his enemy not in strength but in apparent weakness and vulnerability. Yet he defeated the enemy and saved his people in the most surprising way imaginable.

Do you see how this reminds us of Jesus? Our Lord became humanity’s representative or substitute. He lived a life of perfect faithfulness to his Father that we were unable to live for ourselves. On the cross, he defeated the fearsome giants who threatened to destroy us—sin, Satan, and death. And he did so in the most surprising way possible—through the cross, a symbol of weakness and shame.

Is this unwarranted eisegesis, or do you believe that the Lord intends for us to make these kinds of connections?

In my next post on this subject, I’ll talk about how the early Church read and interpreted the Old Testament.

The whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is about Christ

September 29, 2014

A couple of years ago I read an excellent commentary on Jonah written by Phillip Cary. He said something in the second paragraph of the introduction that changed my life:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[†]

“Like the whole Bible,” this Old Testament book is about Christ.

If, unlike me, you never attended a mainline Protestant seminary, you might miss how shocking these words are. But trust me, one would never hear this sentiment expressed at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. On the contrary, we mostly didn’t study something called the Old Testament; we studied the Hebrew Bible. To call it the Old Testament, after all, would imply a continuity with the New Testament that critical scholarship within the realm of mainline Protestantism denies at every turn.

While the Hebrew Bible happens to be included in our Christian Bibles, it doesn’t really belong to us Christians. At best, we’re overhearing someone else’s conversation. Therefore, the strange first-person plural pronouns (“let us create”) for God in Genesis 1 cannot be a Trinitarian reference. The “prophet like Moses” of Deuteronomy 18:15 cannot be Jesus. The “virgin who shall conceive and give birth to a son” of Isaiah 7:14 cannot be pointing to Christmas, irrespective of what it meant in its original context. The suffering servant of Isaiah 53 cannot say anything about Christ’s atoning death. (Worse, from a liberal mainline perspective, this chapter says the most about penal substitution, so it certainly can’t be referring to Jesus!)

Why would an ostensibly Christian seminary, much less one aligned with the United Methodist Church, fail to emphasize the continuity between Old and New Testaments in its core Old Testament classes? After all, this wasn’t an undergraduate Bible class at a secular public university, whose students come from a variety of religious backgrounds. We’re under no obligation to respect religious pluralism. Yet I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that we were discouraged from thinking that the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New.

Did the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the Old Testament not foresee the coming of Christ? In which case, as this Christianity Today article implies, the Old Testament era was a mistake (Plan A) that God put right with the coming of Jesus (Plan B). What kind of doctrine of scripture would this imply? Where would this leave doctrines of God’s foreknowledge and sovereignty?

It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

So I can sympathize with the average layperson who dreads hearing a sermon on the Old Testament for fear that it won’t be about Jesus. I’m guessing that in most mainline churches, that’s the case. (After all, their pastors went to places like Candler!)

But I hope that my parishioners know better. Every sermon I preach is about Jesus, in one way or another. I preach the gospel through every sermon. I preach Christ crucified in every sermon. And why not? I can’t improve on that message. And that message never gets old.

Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.