When The Word Interprets Scripture
In the first meeting Jesus had with his disciples after his death and resurrection his focus was on interpreting Scripture (Luke 24). He began in Genesis and worked through the Hebrew Scriptures showing how all the texts spoke of him. He was not just mentioned in them; he was the subject of them. He did not just fulfill some of the prophecies; he is the fulfillment of all the prophecies. He is not just the star among lesser stars in the drama; he is the entire show. Jesus does not share equal billing with Abraham, Moses, and David; he is their Lord. When his disciples (who had been taught the Hebrew Scriptures) heard this amazing Bible study, their hearts burned within them. It changed the way they viewed Scripture altogether. It was radical. This encounter with Jesus ignited them to spend their lives preaching this interpretation of Scripture. It cost them their earthly lives, and they considered it a bargain.
I wonder how Jesus explained the prophecy of Joel to be about him? What about Isaiah? What about Ecclesiastes? Later, the apostle Paul said that he had determined to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and him crucified. He said he would not preach anything but the cross of Christ (1 Corinthians 1-2). Of course we have some of Paul’s sermons, and he did much more than just recount the events of the crucifixion. Paul obviously meant that he did not preach any text of Scripture except in light of the Christ and his cross.
One of the major hindrances today for Bible-reading disciples is their failure to interpret Scripture in light of the centrality of Christ and his insistence that all Scripture is about him. It’s not new; he had the same problem with the Jewish leaders of the first century. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39). We have been led to believe that since the Bible is God’s authoritative word to us, we are to read it simply as an instruction book. We tend to ignore the narrative nature of the story it reveals. We resist the historical and literary context of the text and lose the dramatic distinctions between the covenant God made with Israel and the final new covenant in Christ. Thus, we mix law with grace, shadows with substance, and we end up with unnecessary confusion, death-dealing regulations and hope-killing procrastination. While Jesus is still the hero, we practically take him out of biblical context and then foolishly try to make sense of the whole Bible. Is it about land? Temples? Ethnicity? Laws? Nations? Wars? Or heaven?
What did Jesus likely say to his disciples that day on the road to Emmaus regarding some of the Scriptures?
When he got to the prophets did he explain their role as covenant enforcers? God graciously entered into a covenant with Israel that contained stipulations, benefits, and punishments. Israel was to honor God alone and be faithful to his commands. In return, God would be faithful to bless Israel based on this arrangement. God would also be faithful to curse them when they broke the covenant. In the tradition of how covenants were made in that day, witnesses were called upon to make sure that the promised blessings were forthcoming, as well as that the necessary punishments were meted out. God called both heaven and earth to witness his covenant with Israel. When Israel was obedient, heaven sent the rain and other favored conditions for blessings and the earth responded with fruit. However, when Israel disobeyed, both heaven and earth participated in the punishments. Drought, crop-destroying hail, storms, and blight were signs of those curses. Foreign armies were also part of God’s arsenal to enforce his covenant. As covenant enforcers, the prophets were called to bring the blessings and curses into context. They warned of the curses that would come if disobedience to the covenant stipulations persisted. The prophets explained that the curses were the results of God’s faithfulness to his covenant. The prophets also reminded Israel that the covenant provided for a way back to blessings.
Joel was a prophet to Judah sometime between the ninth and sixth centuries B.C. He did his job of warning the people of their covenant violations and explaining what was happening. Joel also spoke of the day of the Lord when God would vindicate his people and judge his enemies.
Joel spoke in visionary language using cosmic pictures to portray covenant relations. When Joel spoke of the sun and the stars darkening and the earth trembling, he was speaking of tumultuous events that would have radical effects on the people, just like if those physical events were to happen. What were those tumultuous events? God sent his own Son to be Israel’s representative (the Christ) to keep the covenant and to absorb the punishments for their breaking of the covenant. Needless to say, that is not what they expected. In fact, most of them rejected it because it was so drastically different from what they expected. All of the admonitions Joel gave to disobedient Israel in his prophecy—Jesus did. Of course it was true that if Israel had thoroughly repented and acted as the covenant required, they would have been restored. However, they couldn’t do it, and so the great God of grace sent another Israel to do for them what they could not do.
In the coming day of the Lord that Joel talked about, the battle would be between this new Israel (the Christ) and the enemies of God. By the way, he made an open display of their defeat (Colossians 2:15). After his death to fully satisfy the demands of the covenant, he arose from the dead as a new people. Those who trusted him would now be empowered by his life and able to act like God on earth blessing the world the way God had instructed both Adam and Israel.
So when we read and preach Joel, we can’t assume the place of the original recipients of the prophecy. The day of the Lord has already come. Peter made that explicitly clear when he quoted Joel on the day of Pentecost and then explained the whole story (Acts 2:1-41). We are not under the covenant that Joel was enforcing through his prophecy. We are in the new covenant, and our stipulation is to believe in him whom God has sent. We can’t repent by simply following Joel’s prescribed “to-do list” which was required of his hearers. Jesus has already done that for us. As we trust him, he empowers us by transforming our hearts so that we more than fulfill those stipulations. We love God and each other the way the Son does. That love produces behavior that exceeds anything the law of the old covenant required. The message of Joel is about Jesus. Only Jesus could fulfill the stipulations of the covenant and pay the penalty of unfaithfulness. When we finish reading Joel’s writings, we rejoice in the faithfulness of God and the grace that is expressed in his strange and unexpected intervention in the story in order to magnify his Son. We do not have to cower in fear of judgments from the heavens and the earth. This revelation shakes the world of religious reasoning. His goodness causes us to wonder at his mercy; to bow before his grace. We thrill to the new love that has captured us and commissioned us to represent him in the whole world.
Judah lost their land, lost their temple, and became slaves to foreign powers. God has now given his people the whole world (Romans 4:13). Jesus has already redeemed it from the curse of disobedience. We get to claim what he has redeemed by preaching and practicing the gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot afford to simply apply Joel’s prophecy to the modern lands of America or Europe or any other countries. God has already called heaven and earth to witness the punishment on sin. When Jesus died, the sun refused to shine. Darkness swept over the city. The earth trembled. Death swallowed hard. Judgment came. A new covenant was established. The effect of this intervention was greater than earthquakes, storms, or movements by heavenly bodies. This was the climax of the story of history. A new Israel was birthed. This new people were not given a law written on stone, but a law written in their hearts by the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the grave.
Joel must be preached as Christian Scripture. That means it has to go through the cross before it can be applied. Otherwise, we are acting as if the story did not have a climax, and we will continue to try to repent of our actions in the power of the flesh, postponing victory to a future that we anticipate, while ignoring the revealed truth that it has already arrived. We are not preaching the Bible as the word of God unless the text reveals the living Word who is Jesus.
Is our land in danger of being overrun by locusts? Are we in danger of being overcome by foreign armies? Maybe. But if so, it is not because we have broken the covenant between God and Israel made in the Old Testament. When we (humans) ignore our stewardship of the earth, and violate our governmental stewardship as nations, we choose chaos over order and suffer the consequences. We must remember that God causes it to rain on the just and unjust, and he always has a purpose for whatever circumstances are allowed in our lives. We can’t simply insert the USA in place of Israel in Old Testament Scripture. The United States of America is not as a nation in covenant with God.1 Those texts were messages to God’s people in that day. God has a message for his people in this day as well, but his people are not defined by geography or ethnicity; they are defined by faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Today’s message relates to Jesus as God’s blessing. Our judgment will be based on what we do with him (Hebrews 10:29-31; John 16:8-11).
The text of Isaiah is possibly the greatest of the prophetic oracles in Scripture. Like Joel, Isaiah was a covenant enforcer. He warns. He explains. He speaks of a future when God will vindicate his name as well as his people. Isaiah tells of his own experience with God’s surprising grace. Filled with remorse for his disobedient nation, Isaiah was ready to call down the deserved wrath of the broken covenant. Then, he saw the Lord (Isaiah 6). His vision of God’s mercy changed him. He went on to tell about how God would save a remnant through a suffering servant who was both Israel and Israel’s savior. This servant would ultimately be a people who not only loved God, but also loved the world God loved.
In explaining the covenant in force at that time, Isaiah confronted those who were doing the outward rituals without heart. He denounced those who thought they could get God to bless them because of their strict observance of religious ritual. They would fast and observe the Sabbath in order to get God to bless them, all the while ignoring justice for the oppressed and love for those outside their camp (Isaiah 58). Isaiah told them that God had chosen another fast that focused on his purposes and that unless they would align with God’s choice their religion was not only useless, but also dangerous. Again, just as in Joel, the steps to correction were accurate, but there is only one person who could really follow them. That one would come as the suffering servant representing Israel and do for them whatever was necessary for them to get the benefits of true repentance. Israel would only enjoy the benefits of obedience as they identified with him, the obedient one. (Interestingly, one of those benefits is the desire and ability to be obedient to God. That is his gift to those who believe him.)
Isaiah must also be read and preached as Christian Scripture. We are living in the fulfillment of what he promised. The suffering servant has come and suffered for us, and he has established us in him by his righteousness. We have been reconciled to God and can now enjoy fellowship with him being progressively freed from our own selfish obsessions and eager to care about what he cares about. All the exhortations given to Israel regarding repentance have been accomplished in him. All the warnings of covenant curses have come true and have been endured by the one who suffered on behalf of disobedient Israel. He is a new Israel, and we are in him. Our identity is not because of ethnicity, or legal righteousness. We are children of Abraham by faith in the eternal Seed of Abraham.
Like Jewish leaders in the first century, we are vulnerable to those who would use the exhortations of Isaiah’s prophecy as things we can do to get God’s blessings. We jump at things we can do to avoid punishment and assure benefits. The truth is that all his blessings go to the obedient one. The good news is that we are in him. Our focus is to know and trust him. As we do, we fulfill the purpose of God who has always desired to have a people on earth who enjoy him as he enjoys himself and who partner with him in blessing the creation.
This sermon from the wise preacher (probably Solomon) is all about what life is like under the sun. It is not prescriptive for our behavior in a literal sense. The preacher speaks from his experience of trying to find pleasure and purpose from man’s perspective (under the sun). When the perspective from above the sun (God’s perspective) is neglected, life will ultimately become meaningless. Though one writes and reads many books, he will become weary. Human knowledge without God’s perspective fails to live up to its promise. Wealth, women, wine (the good life) and wonder all disappoint. To his credit, the preacher concludes correctly that one should fear God and do his commandments, but that leaves us with many questions about what and how.
This sermon must be interpreted through the cross just like the prophetic writings. It is not enough to discover the wise principles of creation. Life defined by observation, reason, and logic is better than life lived in chaos, but it is a far cry from the life of God who gives a perspective from above the sun. The only true wisdom is found in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30). We fear God by trusting his Son. We follow his commands by following the Son. Life is then a beautiful journey of discovery, development and destiny even in the midst of pain and suffering because we have been connected to the one who is the consummation of all things.
When the Living Word interprets Scripture, life and passion are the fruit. When men interpret it, death and fear emerge. At first the human flesh will respond to the exhortations to do better in order to be blessed, but eventually, hearers will either become deceitful refusing to admit their failures, or they will become depressed because they can’t do enough. Every word that God has ever spoken was intended to point to the eternal Word. We should never leave a biblical text until we see how Jesus is magnified. Those who read or hear should always be pointed toward him and not a formula for personal improvement or steps to claim personal blessings. Our faith is a result of looking to him who is faithful. When we truly see what God has done, we cease from striving and become beneficiaries of his grace that moves us by his love.
When our hearts burn with the passion produced by seeing Jesus in all the Scriptures, we are propelled into his mission to proclaim this transforming news in the entire world (Luke 24:45-48). We can expect turbulence!!! Seeing Jesus in the Scriptures is not natural. People steeped in Bible knowledge without the illumination of the Spirit often become stumbling blocks to encountering the Word of God. Jesus and his first disciples were severely persecuted by those who loved the Scriptures but didn’t see the Word revealed in them.
If it was important for Jesus to teach his disciples how to interpret Scripture—important enough to be the first lesson after his resurrection—it is important for us to be instructed by the Word (Jesus himself) today.
1 Though we are grateful for the Christian influence on the many of the founders of this country and the remarkable documents they wrote which espouse a form of government intended to respect the sovereignty of God and the dignity of mankind, the United States is not a replacement for ancient Israel, nor is it as a nation in covenant with God.