One of my biggest mistakes I believe that I was making as an early bible student was assuming that scripture was all about how to ‘get saved and go to heaven.’
To my pleasant surprise, (as it turned out) that was not what scripture or God himself was concerned with trying to reveal. I’m so glad that the year I had decided to do the SBS in YWAM, a Chronological SBS was starting in Los Angeles and that happened to be the place where I was planning to go. I spent the first 6 months of the bible school trapped in the Old Testament. I was just nineteen years old when I began the CSBS and I struggled with the violence in the OT but for the first time was struck by the goodness and mercy of God. Instead of being fixated on his wrath or anger It became clear that though God interacted with violence at times mankind was constantly prone to violence, murder, lies, cheating, stealing, and many other violent and destructive behaviors. God not man is the hero of the OT.
Often people struggling with God, fixate on specif instances of his judgement. But the consistent story of the OT is about the ongoing and worsening behavior of man. Yet the primary theme emerges. Scripture when given a chance and looked at as a unified whole reveal a good God, a loving and patient God, a just and right God who does not gleefully destroy anyone or anything that he lovingly created.
The emerging theme is what we sometimes call the theme of Gods Redemptive Plan. It is evident from book one that he had a plan to turn everything around. To reverse the curse that began with mans rebellion from God. Abraham was the man God chose and his family to undo the sin of Adam and bring blessings instead of curses onto the earth and to every family in it. Just as God planned in Adam and Eve to fill the earth with Adam seed and nurture Eden until it consumed the whole earth. God wanted for Abraham to continue in that great vocation though sin and its curse had already begun to have its effect on the earth and on all the families of the earth including Abraham’s family.
The overarching story of those first 6 months of bible study told us that this chosen family was failing. Though there were many bright spots, many shining examples of faithfulness, the people of Abraham failed. They again, like Adam faced exile from their home, from the place which in Gods design they would spread out from and bless the world. When we arrive at the gospels in the New Testament Jews believed that though the had been preserved they were still in an exile of sorts. Still awaiting the day when God would act on their behalf. The day when God would restore their fortunes and make the world notice that God was for Israel.
Interesting for me that after about 5 years in the CSBS I had not developed a strong appreciating for the New Testament. I did not dislike it. But I was intrigued and drawn to the Torah and to the story of Israel and their God. But after 5 years I finally fell in Love with the gospels. In particular I fell in love with the the Gospel of Matthew. This makes a lot of sense to me since Matthew is the most Jewish Gospel. Written to Jews no doubt, Jesus engages a lot with Pharisees (with the lament of the pharisees in particular), Law (with the Sermon on the mount in particular), and Temple (with the Olivet Discourse in particular). It is a master piece seeking to convince any doubters that Jesus really is the Messiah that the Jewish people have been waiting on. But its going to be tricky cause he is a little different than expected. I found it more exciting because Jesus was not simply telling people ‘this is how you get to heaven or get saved.” It was more rich than that. He was teaching what his kingdom was like, how those who were a part of his kingdom must live, think, and feel about the world that they live in and will inherit. Only after I really grasped some of these essentials about Jesus and his kingdom, about the ongoing use of the Jewish Narrative and their Law was I able to appreciate the work of Paul the Apostle.
For many Christians, I believe, their “Christian” Theology is actually a “Pauline” Theology. Whether they worked for it or inherited it from sermons and popular teaching people understand the OT through Paul’s lens, and people understand the Gospels through Paul’s lens. Not that there is anything wrong with Paul’s lens in itself. Its just not the way Christians, I believe, should go about study and compression of the Canon of Scripture. I have heard it pointed out that our “Theology” is often based on creeds rather than on Canon. That theology is inherited from the teachings, the sermons, the songs, the liturgy, and the creeds, of the church. This is a valid point that Reformers themselves fought against. We tend to think that the reformers had a great victory in riding the church of allegiance to creeds and bring the people of God back to the whole witness of the Canon of Scriptures. But they did not once and for all rid Christianity of allegiance to creeds over Canon. They simply set an example to follow. It remains a task of Christians to follow in their footsteps and not allow Tradition to overtake fresh engagement with the Word of God. Even if that means that we challenge some of the traditions developed in our post reformation christian world. Of course I am not suggesting to throw out doctrine of John Calvin, Martin Luther, and the like. We should work with their readings and commentaries and go back to the text and have fresh insights that derive out of careful exegesis.
One of these Post-Reformation ways of engaging with the Canon is to read through the lens of Paul rather. As inductive bible students who seek to establish a context for each book, its author, its audience, and its occasion we should not approach Genesis for instance simply with what Paul said, though we do not dismiss him. It helps, I believe, to approach these text fresh, with as much knowledge of the context as possible. To work through the unfolding story, in context, to arrive at Jesus and the Gospels still engaging with their context, and then arrive at Paul and his letters to see how he engaged with the Old Testament and the Gospels and add on to what we have already learned and perhaps adapt it where it needs to be adapted. The thing I’m not suggesting is a a sort of either or, that we either go with what Paul said about the OT or we just do it on our own. Instead we do a little of both. I believe if we learn to work with the OT in context then instead of forcing Paul to say what we want him to we become familiar with how he may have actually come to think about the OT and Jesus.
In other words, what Paul says about the use of the Law is not extensive and final. Most come away from Paul with clarity that the Law brings condemnation. He says that it does, but for those who are “in Christ” the law does not bring condemnation. Therefore the Law becomes simultaneously; condemnation for those who are not “in Christ”, a tool for those who are to know God better, to look more like God, and to bear a greater witness to those who are not “In Christ.” Multiple uses for the Law abound when we look at Paul’s explanation of the Law from the angle of how Jews in the first Century struggled with the Law and how to actually go about observing it. Paul now has the key, Jesus and the Spirit. All of these uses are evident if we study the law in context. Paul becomes more clear when we see for ourselves that the Law is about humbling the people of God, revealing God to the people of God, and making the people of God a greater witness to those around them.
It is the issue of the Law that brings me back to my own story. Just as I had mistaken all scripture to be about Salvation, or how to get saved and go to heaven. Jews in Paul’s day had mistaken the Law for a formula for assurance of their own future vindication. If they were circumcised, if they ate right, observed holy days, and followed the rabbinic teachings of the day then they would have some assurance of their Salvation. In others words for many Jews in Paul’s day they have mistaken the Law for a way of salvation. Saul of Tarsus certainly must have believed in some form of this, until his conversion, and maybe some time away in Arabia to sort things out a bit. The new Paul was able to clarify that Law on its own brings condemnation, that without Christ there is no hope of future vindication of the righteous, no matter how righteous, without Christ and also the spirit there is not hope for the people of God. So for Paul, if he were asked directly, “How do I get saved?” He might respond with well really its not about how you get saved but about how you have been saved, or better, how salvation has come into the world for the world by way of those in the world. It is a story that in Romans Paul actually decided to tell from Creation, Fall, Judgement, Law, Sacrifice, Atonement, Adam, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Pharaoh, Prophets, exile, and Messiah. This is the story not of how you can get saved and go to heaven but about how God has brought salvation into the world that he loves and to that which he loved the most, mankind.
It would be silly of me to completely leave out what Paul says about “Justification by Faith”. Some might say well actually Paul answers the quest more basically. He says, to those who ask, You get saved by faith in the Messiah. But that I believe is sometimes the answer we give a bit to soon. Paul labors heavily to tell the story of how Salvation was provided for us by God throughout history climaxing in Jesus the Messiah. Then when it is heavily evident Faith in the messiah becomes a reaction, and a work of the spirit, through the telling of the story of Gods Faithfulness. In other words, we are saved by the faithfulness of God. By Faith for Faith as Paul says in Romans chapter one.
Some Suggested Reading on topic
Conversion of the Imagination – Richard B. Hays
Ancient Near Eastern Thought Relating to the OT – John H. Walton
The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah – Alfred Edersheim
Paul and the Faithfulness of God – N.T. Wright
How God became King – N.T. Wright