Remember: God made the world a good place where we could know Him and He could bless us, but we rebelled and brought evil into the world. So God chose one person, Abraham, from whom He made a nation, Israel, so that through this one nation He would save all nations. The Old Testament is their story, the story of God preparing this people so that He could become a human being by being born to a woman of Israel. He did this in order to become the Savior and King of the whole human race, fulfilling His original intention for us to know Him and be blessed by Him.
Foundations – Family – Fulfillment and Failure
King – Kingdoms
Kicked Out – Came Back
God Gets the Ball Rolling
After the first eleven chapters of Genesis, it appears that this “Creation” idea was a failure, but God doesn’t see it this way. The next point in the story we need to take a deeper look at is when God called Abraham. Abraham’s story is found in Genesis 12-25. There we read that God chose Abraham to be the founder of a nation which He would use to undo human rebellion and redeem the world. He told Abraham to leave his family and people so that he could become a nation, and Abraham obeyed. In these stories we see themes that will be important through the rest of the Bible: faith in God, righteousness, relationship with God, intercession, and substitution. Abraham acted in faith in God’s promises, doing things that only make sense if God is really going to act and intervene in real life. We see that God wanted Abraham to understand justice and righteousness so that the nation that comes from him would be an example to the other nations. Speaking to himself about Abraham, God says
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him. (Gen. 18:17-19 ESV)”
God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because they were so wicked. Abraham’s response was to intercede for these people. He respectfully argues with God, saying
“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? (Gen. 18:23-25 NIV)”
Do you see that when God chose Abraham, He chose someone who was concerned for the rest of the world, not just himself and his family? This is because his heart was like God’s heart. God does not take any pleasure in destroying the wicked. He would much rather that they turn from their evil ways so He can bless them (Ez. 18:23; 33:11). Abraham was also someone who spoke with God, interacted with God, and wanted to relate to God. This is what the Lord desires from all of us. Later, after waiting for decades, Abraham and his wife Sarah finally had the son they were promised, but then God told Abraham that the promised son was to be sacrificed. Abraham went to obey, but God stopped him and gave a ram to offer as a substitute. In this episode we see a foreshadowing of Jesus, the ultimate promised Son, who was sacrificed. We see that God did not spare his Son, as he did for Abraham and Sarah, but offered Him as the ultimate substitute for the sin of the world.
During the life of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (also named Israel), God directed the family to move to Egypt, where they lived for several centuries, isolated from contact with other nations. In Egypt, the Israelites grew in numbers until they were no longer just a large family, but a nation. When it came time for the Lord to resume His work with them and bring them to their land, they were slaves to the Egyptians. The Egyptian’s king, the Pharaoh, refused to let them go. The Lord viewed Israel as His firstborn son (Ex. 4:22-23). A firstborn son had certain responsibilities in that time as they still do in much of the world today. A firstborn is expected to share in and continue the father’s work, to take on the responsibility to care for the rest of the family. When it came time for Israel to begin the duty of blessing all the nations of the world by bringing them back to a right relationship with God, Pharaoh would not let them go. This resulted in a contest of power between Egypt’s gods and Israel’s God. At the end of the most one-sided fight in history, God’s firstborn was free to leave, while Egypt suffered the loss of all her firstborns.
God’s deliverance of Israel from servitude in Egypt was one of the central events of her history. However, the point is not that God brought Israel out of Egypt to free them from slavery, but He brought them out of serving the world into a life of serving Him. He had a job for them. They were to participate in His work by being a light to the other nations. He made an agreement with them which we call the Mosaic Covenant, but I must skip this because I will write about it later.
God told Moses to build a Tabernacle where He would live among the people. This raises another major theme in the Old Testament, which is God’s holiness. Holiness is a complex idea, but part of it is that of wholeness, completeness and purity. God is absolutely, completely Himself. He is totally pure and perfect. So how can people like us, sinful, naturally self-centered, and broken as we are have any meaningful connection with such a God? We have already seen that He will not make peace with sin because it is so damaging to His creation, but human beings sin regularly and we don’t want to stop. We often think it is the smart thing to do. So we fear God and naturally flee from Him like insects scuttling away from the light when you lift a large stone.
This fear we have is based on the knowledge that if we had actual contact with our Creator His presence would blast us to oblivion. But God wants to have a relationship with each of us. How can this happen? How can a fire dwell among dry twigs? This idea of God’s majestic, unapproachable holiness is a major theme of the Old Testament which is necessary if we are to really understand the New. Without understanding this we have a tendency to take God for granted and to treat Him in a casual way. This is why it was hugely significant when God told Moses to build a Tabernacle so He could live among the nation of Israel. He had not lived among people on the earth since the Garden of Eden. It shouldn’t surprise us that the Hebrew vocabulary used to describe building the Tabernacle is very similar to that describing the Garden of Eden. The instructions are detailed as are the instructions for how the priests must approach God on behalf of the people. Maintaining purity was very important, not because God feared human sin, but to protect sinful humans from the blasting intensity of God’s holiness that simply destroys everything that is not perfect. Think of the rituals as being like the safeguards engineers make when building and operating a nuclear reactor. They aren’t there to protect the radiation from contamination, but to protect us from the radiation. The fact of God’s holiness should keep us from ever taking Him for granted and treating Him causally. It is vitally important that we do not treat Him casually. The Lord Himself underlined this soon after the Tabernacle was built. We read:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying,
‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy,
And before all the people I will be honored. (Lev. 10:1-3 NASB)’”
The human reaction is to say that this was totally unfair. These guys just used the wrong incense. It is just as unfair as an employee at a chemical plant dying because he wore the wrong kind of respirator when he went into the presence of poisonous gasses or a skydiver dying because he hadn’t checked his parachute and it was defective. These people failed to take seriously the dangerous environment they were in. They were dealing with something that deserved their full attention, but treated it casually. The ocean is a wonderful thing, but countless people have been killed by it. We know that God dearly loved those two priests, so the lesson He was conveying when He struck them down must be very important indeed. We cannot take a holy God for granted or treat Him casually.
How can sinful people relate to a holy God? This was a question Old Testament believers didn’t know the answer to. They were just happy that God was merciful and loved them in spite of themselves. In the New Testament we see this question answered in the person and saving work of Jesus Christ (Rm. 3:23-26).
After several centuries, the Lord chose David to be king of Israel based on what He saw in David’s heart. When David said that he wanted to build a house for God, God responded by saying, “You will not build a house for me. Instead I will build a house for you.” (2 Sam. 7:4-16) Meaning that God promised that David’s descendants (the “house of David”) would rule forever. This is important not only because it meant that the Savior would be a descendant of David, but it reveals that the promised Messiah would be royal. He would not be just a savior from sin, but a king, the ruler of the human race and all creation.
Exile and Return
The final point to focus on is that ultimately, Israel was a failure. Israel didn’t keep up its end of the Mosaic Covenant. Israel didn’t function as a light to other nations. Israel eventually was thrown out of God’s Promised Land, but after seventy years they were allowed to return, but not to have a king. So the Old Testament ends on a note of waiting. They have seen a partial fulfillment of what God promised, but not all. This shouldn’t surprise us, since the book of Genesis ended with Israel living several centuries in Egypt, growing, but not having what God had promised Abraham. Then Deuteronomy ends with Israel as a nation who have a special relationship with God, but they don’t possess the Promised Land. They have partial fulfillment, and are waiting for the rest. Then the whole Old Testament ends as Israel is brought back to the land, but are waiting for the full promises of God to come to completion. Then, Jesus came and we can think that with His death, Resurrection, and Ascension to rule at the Father’s right hand God’s promises are fulfilled. We can assume that Israel had to wait, but we have arrived. However, the world is still a broken and painful place. We see that many more of God’s promises are indeed fulfilled and we have a much clearer understanding of God’s plans than did the believers in the Old Testament, but we don’t have everything yet. Christians, too, are waiting. We experience a mix of fulfilled promises and waiting for the final fulfillment.
The Story of Israel and Humanity is Completed in Jesus
One important question that may be on your mind when you think of the Old Testament is what is the relationship between it and Jesus, or what is the role of Jesus in relation to the Old Testament? The answer is multifaceted because there are different ways of looking at it. The first thing to know is that, in some sense, Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20).
For right now I’d like to emphasize that Jesus came to God’s people after they had failed. They had not fulfilled what the Lord wanted them to do and were being ruled by a foreign nation (this is always a sign that there is a problem between them and God). Jesus came and completed Israel’s story. His life paralleled the experiences of the nation of Israel, and he did what they could not do. We see this most strongly in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew points out that as a baby Jesus escaped a slaughter of baby boys by a ruler, went down to Egypt, and came up out of Egypt; this parallels Israel’s experience. He passed through the waters of baptism like Israel through the Red Sea. God declared Jesus to be his beloved Son, like Israel (Mt. 3:17; Ex. 4:22). He then was lead by God into the wilderness for forty days where He was tempted, much like Israel coming through the Red Sea into the wilderness for forty years. However, unlike Israel, Jesus succeeded in remaining in submission to His Father. Jesus then died and rose from the dead so that now everyone who trusts Him is joined to Him and so is part of the people of God.
We see that the end of human history, a perfect world, is not reached by human efforts, but by God’s intervention. God’s purposes will be accomplished. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought that some day the promised Kingdom of God would come because Israel would be faithful enough to cause it. Israel never was and the Kingdom didn’t come, at least not in they way they assumed it would. Israel thought that when the Messiah came, that would be the beginning of the age to come. Jesus’ disciples had the same expectation, but Jesus didn’t bring the end. As I said above, we are still living in tension, just like Israel did. Christians generally have the expectation that when Jesus returns then the story will end. The reality is that sin and suffering will end, but not the story. When Adam and Eve were created, there were already angels, and there had been some sort of rebellion among them against God. We know almost nothing about this, but it indicates that we didn’t come on the scene until at least chapter two of God’s story of the universe. So it should not surprise us when we read the description of the New Heavens and New Earth in the last two chapters of the Bible, and it sounds like the beginning of a new chapter of the story. This is the story God had originally intended us to be involved in when He created us. Our sin could not prevent God from the perfect goals He had for us. This must be true because God is who He is.
Questions for Discussion
- Abraham did things that only make sense if God really acts in real life. This is faith. Is there something you should so do that, humanly speaking, doesn’t make sense and could only have a good outcome if God is involved and acts? Do you need to be honest with someone, forgive someone, spend your money or time differently? Are you afraid to obey God? If you are, you are not alone.
- When God delivered Israel from Egypt, He had a job for them. He wanted them to participate in His work. Do you think this is the same for you? What kind of work does He have for you?
- God loves us and we do not need to fear Him. God is holy and we must fear Him. How can we reconcile these two facts?
- Israel failed, but Jesus came and was successful for them. So ultimately the success they have is from God. Should you expect that you will never fail? Do you think Jesus can work through you and around you despite your personal failures? Will He?
- The author says that the human race wasn’t created until at least chapter two of God’s story of the universe, but we know very little about what happened before we came on the scene. Why would God tell us so little about what had happened before?
- What do you think of the idea that heaven isn’t the end of the story? Could this have an impact on your attitudes and life now?
- Why can we be sure that sin and suffering will one day end? Does this have an impact on your daily life?
|Name||Famous stories and people|
|Foundations||Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood|
|Family||Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph|
|Fulfillment and Failure||Moses, the 10 plagues, Exodus, 10 Commandments, wilderness wandering Joshua, Jericho, Rahab, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, Samuel, Ruth|
|Kings||Saul, David, Solomon|
|Kingdoms||Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Jonah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah|
|Kicked Out||Ezekiel, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, Fiery furnace|
|Came Back||Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther|