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A Series of Letters on Bible Study (8): Studying Narrative (ii)

D Newell, Glasgow

Dear John,

Last time I wrote, I tried to suggest ways in which you can squeeze the juice out of a narrative passage from the New Testament. One thing I did not mention (as it was not relevant to that particular extract from Luke) is that a distinctive joy of gospel study is comparing and contrasting different but equally inspired accounts of the same episode. What we call the Synoptic Gospels (because they give roughly similar accounts of the Lord’s earthly life) are full of such opportunities, but even John records the feeding of the 5,000 (the only miracle to be mentioned in each Gospel). Try collating the four records of the Saviour’s burial (involving Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea) and see how each writer gives a slightly different but nevertheless complementary slant to the story. Look up Matthew’s version (Matthew 27.57-61) and you should find the other references in the margin of your Bible (Mark 15.42-47; Luke 23.50-53; John 19.38-42). Newberry is especially good for this. Each gospel writer has his special angle of vision, directed by the Holy Spirit, which can best be seen by printing out the passages in parallel for close examination. E-sword enables you to do this easily, and it is well worth the work.

But now for the Old Testament. The earthly life of the Lord Jesus and the evangelistic endeavours of His apostles recorded in Acts are of course full of lessons for us, but all those accounts of battles, sacrifices, ceremonials, and unpronounceable kings in the Old Testament may not immediately seem so relevant. As a result many saints confine their reading to the New Testament. Let me therefore reassert the abiding value of the Old. Its authority is spelled out in 2 Timothy 3.16: as "God-breathed" it is God’s fully inspired word, as significant as an audible voice from heaven itself (Deut 1.3,6). Inspiration guarantees reliability (1 Cor 10.11), for what God says cannot be untruthful (Titus 1.2). "All these things happened", writes Paul, whether we think of the supernatural blessings of the Red Sea crossing, the sheltering cloud, the water-giving rock and the heaven-sent manna, or solemn judgments such as the punishment at Sinai (Ex 32.1-6,28,35), the pestilence at Shittim (Num 25.1-9) and the poisonous serpents (Num 21.1-6). All these things were written "for our admonition [nouthesia, a putting in mind]" (1 Cor 10.11), and "for our learning [didaskalia, instruction]" (Rom 15.4), to teach us about God’s ways with His people. Believers who do not study the Old Testament therefore run the risk of spiritual malnutrition.

So it is important never to forget the basic principle: whatever God sees fit to record in His Word is for His glory and our good. The basic purpose of the Old Testament is to provide first, an infallible historical account of God’s dealings with His people Israel; second, illustrations of abiding moral principles of behaviour; and third, typical foreviews of a coming Saviour. Its narratives are neither fiction nor legend but God-inspired historical records. Yet we still have to account for all those distasteful details of savage warfare, the annihilation of the Canaanites, and a messy sacrificial system. This is done by properly understanding the central people of the Old Testament. We shall never comprehend pre-Christian history until we grasp God’s plan for Israel. From Genesis 12 to Malachi 4 the Old Testament is all about God’s dealings with a tiny nation, past, present and future. Why ever did He select such a people? As they say, how odd of God to choose the Jews! Well, one reason was that they might picture His ways with believers today, but that does not exhaust their function. For a start, on the eve of entering into the Promised Land they were commissioned to exterminate the Canaanites (Deut 20.16-18), and no stretch of exegesis can escape a mandate for genocide. To understand this let’s categorise Israel’s role in the divine plan. As a nation they were chosen to be:

1. The Channel of God’s Salvation (Rom 9.4-5; Jn 4.22; Deut 18.18-19). They were educated to recognise and receive the ultimate anointed one, Christ who, being born under Jewish law, "came unto his own" people (Gal 4.4; Jn 1.11).

2. The Guardian of God’s Revelation (Rom 3.2; Ps 147.19-20; Deut 31.24-26). They were exclusively entrusted with God’s written word, which included a detailed system of laws and ordinances.

3. The Testimony to God’s Uniqueness (Is 43.10; Deut 6.4). Redeemed from Egyptian slavery, they were to witness to the true God in a planet given over to polytheism and idolatry.

4. The Instrument of God’s Judgment (Gen 15.16; Deut 2.30-35; 4.38; 9.4-6). As God’s police-force and judicial system upon the earth, they carried out His righteous judgments upon the wicked. Unlike believers today who are "pilgrims and strangers" on the earth, Israel was a nation under God with a commission to execute vengeance upon the ungodly. Once we allow that the sovereign creator God has the right to judge His creatures when and how He pleases, Israel’s activity falls into place.

5. The Sample of God’s Creation (Rom 3.19-20; Deut 8.2). Just as a blood sample discloses the condition of the whole body, so Israel, entrusted with God’s standards in the law yet failing to live up to those standards, proves the sinfulness of the entire human race.

Finally, here’s a principle to remember when reading Old Testament history. Whereas the Christian’s walk, warfare and worship are spiritual, Israel’s was primarily physical. We are to walk worthy of our high calling (Eph 4.1), they had to follow the guidance of the cloudy pillar (Ex 13.21-22); we fight against internal sinful desires (2 Cor 10.3-4; Col 3.5), they battled with human enemies (Deut 20.1-4); we worship in spirit and in truth (Jn 4.24), they worshipped in a worldly sanctuary (Heb 9.1). If you bear this in mind, you will be able to draw much practical encouragement from Old Testament history. Let’s try an example.

EXODUS 17.8-16 records one of the earliest of Israel’s battles. Although it is not my intention here to emphasise typology (Old Testament anticipations of the Lord Jesus) it is worth noting that this chapter contains three lovely pictures of the Saviour: (i) the smitten rock suggests Christ crucified, the source of all our blessings (1 Cor 1.23,24); (ii) Moses on the hill hints at Christ on high as our intercessor (Heb 7.25-27; Rom 8.34); and (iii) Joshua in the battle represents Christ in the believer, strengthening us in our struggle with temptation (Col 1.27; Phil 4.13). And in that battle Amalek represents everything opposed to God, perhaps especially the indwelling flesh nature (Rom 8.8). Note that he attacked Israel immediately they had drunk from the smitten rock. There were no battles in Egypt, and at the Red Sea it was God who did the work, but now Israel itself had to engage in action. The moment we get saved, spiritual warfare begins in earnest as the new believer becomes conscious of a hostile world and internal sin.

You can learn about Amalek by using your concordance. There you will discover his origins (Gen 36.12; Deut 25.17-19). Like his ancestor Esau "he feared not God", a reminder that the flesh in sinner or saint can never be improved and must be judged. That’s why we experience an inner conflict (Gal 5.17) between flesh and spirit (that new principle of life received at conversion). Amalek’s great opportunity was provided by Israel’s stragglers (Deut 25.18), who made it easy for the enemy. If we drag our heels in the Christian life or remain on the borders of assembly fellowship we shall be vulnerable to temptation and failure. Lesson: keep up with God! Until the Lord Jesus returns there will be constant war with the flesh, but each skirmish can be won by prayer (v.10) and reliance on the Word (v.13).

Try reading this story as an illustration of a prayer meeting (Ex 17.9-12). The three men on the hill can be viewed as a company of saints at prayer, interceding on behalf of the nation. Like believers at the assembly prayer meeting, they had a united purpose (17.10; Acts 12.12), sought a suitable place of quietness (17.10; Acts 1.13,14), enjoyed practical fellowship (17.12; Acts 1.14; 4.24), had a real impact (17.11; Acts 12.5,7), engaged in spiritual effort (17.12; Col 4.12), and saw the resultant blessing (17.13; Acts 4.31). Interestingly, it was the older, spiritually mature men who prayed, while the younger ones fought in the battle below. There is, you see, perfect harmony between praying to God and working for God. Finally, since this is his first appearance in the Word, you could initiate a study of Joshua. Moses was training him for a future leadership role. Unlike so many who love to cling on to power at all costs, Moses was not primarily concerned with his own honour but with the future needs of his people, and therefore sought to prepare a young man for coming responsibility (Ex 17.9,10,13-15). To serve God effectively demands early preparation. Joshua may have been young (Ex 33.11; 1 Tim 4.12), but he was trustworthy (Ex 17.9; Acts 16.1,2), for Moses obviously had confidence in him. He was obedient (Ex 17.10; 17.6; Phil 2.20), shrewd enough to choose suitable warriors (Ex 17.9; 2 Tim 2.2), and willing to be taught (Ex 17.14; Mt 28.20). The lesson is clear - young men and women must cultivate spirituality now, for it will be too late when they are older.

There is, after all, plenty in the Old Testament to nourish our souls. So keep reading and feeding.

Lots of love in Christ Jesus


To be continued.


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