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Occasional Letters: Finding the Key

D Newell, Glasgow

I wonder how many keys you need to access your property. My mother, I recall, had one tiny key for her bungalow front door, and that was the lot. But when, back in 1993, I purchased a flat in Glasgow I discovered that it required a whole bunch. The first key opens the controlled entry door from the street into the close. The next two allow me to get past the formidable floor-to-ceiling storm-door which stands sentinel over so many Glasgow tenement houses. And the final three permit entrance through the front door itself. That’s six in all. For me, getting home involves quite an effort fumbling for the right keys in the right order. By the time I get in I am worn out.

The books of the Bible often have a key verse which admits us into the riches of their meaning. Let me suggest a few, and you will doubtless think of others. Of course, two great keys which open up the entire Old Testament are John 5.46 and Luke 24.27, with their information that the Lord Jesus is the ultimate theme of the Word, but I want to concentrate on individual books.

Some keys offer a subject summary, giving a clear idea of the overriding topic of the book we are reading. For example, Matthew 1.1 announces the Lord Jesus as the fulfiller of God’s covenants with David and with Abraham, the former taking precedence in a Gospel devoted to the kingly character of Christ. Proverbs 1.7, on the other hand, sums up that book’s vital and pervasive contrast between wisdom and folly. John 20.30-31 (a backdoor key, this!) nutshells the apostle’s evangelistic purpose, encouraging us to use that Gospel with the unsaved.

Other keys provide a structural outline. Let’s try John’s Gospel again. "He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name" (Jn 1.11-12). This intimates a three-part pattern: revelation ("he came"), rejection ("his own received him not"), and reception ("as many as received him"). And we can see this design unfolding in the book as a whole. Thus we find the Lord’s revelation of Himself to Israel (chs.1-6), the nation’s general rejection of their Messiah notwithstanding all His credential miracles (chs.7-12), and the glad reception of Christ by His few genuine disciples (chs.13-21). There is a pointed contrast between "his own" in chapter 1 (referring to the nation at large which, despite all its privileges, refused to acknowledge its Messiah) and "his own" at the start of the third section of the book (13.1). This description alludes to the disciples (those given to the Son by the Father in eternity past) who were about to be entrusted with the precious truths revealed in the Upper Room Ministry (Jn 13-16). What a blessing it is that by grace Gentile sinners like us can be counted among that second "his own"!

Similarly, the book of Revelation provides a clear clue to unlock its contents: "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter ["after these things", CEV]" (Rev 1.19). Once again we find a three-fold arrangement, as the Lord tells John what he is to write. Lest anyone think this key verse is the exclusive interest of assembly commentators, let me quote from the Anglican A R Fausset: "’the things which thou hast seen’ are those narrated in this chapter…’The things which are’ imply the present state of things in the churches when John was writing, as represented in the second and third chapters. ’The things which shall be hereafter’, the things symbolically represented concerning the future history of the fourth through twenty-second chapters’". Our key verse therefore breaks up the book into three unequal parts: the overpowering vision of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ (1.1-18); the messages to the seven assemblies, representative of the range of spiritual conditions in the present church era (chs.2-3); and the disclosure of events to succeed the church age, events which usher in the coming of Christ to judge and reign (chs.4-22).

If the key to Revelation is chronological, that for the Acts is geographical. Again it is found in the words of the Lord Jesus: "ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judæa, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1.8). Note the three distinct arenas of apostolic testimony – Jerusalem and Judæa (chs.1-7), Samaria (ch.8), and "the uttermost parts of the earth". This last is primarily the concern of chapters 12-28, which transfer the focus from Peter to Paul and transport us from Jerusalem to Rome, but it is anticipated in the detailed conversion accounts in chapters 8-10, where – of all people – an African, a Jew, and a European are wonderfully saved. The work of Christ knows no national or racial limits.

Are the letters equally susceptible to structural analysis? Well, it seems to me that the key to 1 Thessalonians is found at the close of chapter 1: "ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come" (1 Thess 1.9-10). This letter abounds in notable triplets: "your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ" (1.3); "what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing?" (2.19); "Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellow labourer" (3.2); "the breastplate of faith and love; and…the hope of salvation" (5.8). Not surprisingly, then, the structure is tri-partite. "Ye turned to God" describes the first three chapters, which look back to the Thessalonians’ conversion under Paul’s ministry; "to serve the living and true God" covers the first twelve verses of chapter 4, in which Paul speaks about present duties in Christian living; and "to wait for his Son from heaven" provides a fitting heading for the eschatological information of chapters 4.13 to 5.11. In fact, we can go further. Paul divides the prophetic data into two sub-categories: his readers have been saved "to wait for (God’s) Son from heaven" (which fits well with the account of the rapture in the latter part of chapter 4), but God’s Son is also, according to Darby’s translation, "our deliverer from the coming wrath". This description of the Saviour anticipates the important teaching of chapter 5.1-11, which makes clear that believers of this dispensation are categorically not appointed to the wrath of the future great tribulation.

What about the Old Testament? Here are two examples. Exodus breaks up into two main sections according to the outline in 8.1: "Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me". "Let my people go" covers chapters 1-18 (which narrate Israel’s emancipation from slavery), while "that they may serve me" captions chapters 19-40 (which deal with Israel’s spiritual occupation as God’s redeemed people). And it is still true that God saves people that they might serve Him. Ezekiel is less straightforward and, like my flat, requires more than one key. For me it is best approached through two great names of Jehovah. Key No 1 is Ezekiel 7.9: "ye shall know that I am the Lord that smiteth [Jehovah makkeh]", which broadly sums up chapters 1-39, with their graphic account of Israel’s divine chastisement. Key No 2 is right at the end: "the name of the city from that day shall be, The Lord is there [Jehovah shammah]" (48.35), which summarises the section from chapters 40 to 48, in which a future generation of Israel enjoys the Lord’s presence in a new millennial temple. The God who disciplines His people also promises to dwell in their midst. Again the practical lesson is clear: our God chastises us that we might be fitted by grace to enjoy the blessing of His nearness. To be really at home in the Scriptures, look out for the keys!

To be continued.


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