A note from the editor: I’m delighted to have Jason guest posting some ideas about scripture! I’ve been encouraging him to do so for weeks. So please welcome Jason — a brilliant philosopher and theologian, a great man of God, and a champion Smash Brothers player — to Diligent Leaves!
Appropriating Old Testament Scripture
I’ve been struggling lately through the book of Hebrews. It’s a challenging book for me because the author uses Old Testament scriptures in rather peculiar ways to support Christ’s divinity.
Take, for example, the very first quote out of Psalms: “You are my son, today I have become your Father.” If you go on to read Psalm 2 it describes this Son as one whom will “rule with an iron scepter” and “dash [the nations] to pieces like pottery.” And perhaps even more poignantly it states “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.” I don’t know, doesn’t sound much like Jesus to me.
This is not the only place that Old Testament verses are re-appropriated (or misappropriated one could argue) to New Testament contexts/audiences. Many of these seemingly misapplied OT verses have been vindicated to my satisfaction with some exploration; perhaps they all can be in time. But even in the cases where exploration has brought some semblance of understanding, it has often taken, shall we say… creative thinking. What are we to do with such verses?
Today, if someone tried to do something similar, we’d call it misleading, manipulative, or just blatantly false. But this well accepted rabbinical practice is right there in holy scripture! This creative reuse of OT verses to defend the Messianic claims of Christ compels me to (re)consider how this all must have sounded to first century Jews
It would be wrong for me to judge the events of the NT anachronistically. I take Christ’s divinity for granted. Of course, it makes sense — I am a “Christian” after all. But what I can’t help but notice looking back on OT scriptures regarding the Messiah is how incredibly justified the Jews were in killing Christ. Many OT scriptures describe a warrior Messiah who would smite the enemies of Israel. A Messiah sent by a God who was on Israel’s side against their enemies. The warrior Messiah image wasn’t a stretch, Christ is the stretch.* (Don’t take my word for it, start reading OT quotes in context, it’ll blow your mind). Christ was not what was hoped for. And if he wasn’t the Messiah, then he was a blasphemer, subject to death by Jewish law.
But of course, that’s not the whole story. We also find OT scriptures supporting a God who was very much concerned with redeeming the entire world (including the enemies of Israel). A God who sends Jonah to Nineveh as much for their well-being as for Israel’s. A God who describes Israel as a beacon to draw all other nations unto Him and commands full acceptance of foreigners who have “bound [themselves] to the Lord”.
Understanding God’s Character through the Messiah
So what was God up to?** What is his character? Maybe biblical authors occasionally misrepresented God’s actions and saw Him as they wanted to see Him. Maybe in some Ultimate Justice kind of way God is both a warrior (slaughtering directly or indirectly thousands of people for various reasons) and the embodiment of love/compassion/grace (in his desire to see all nations redeemed, his commands for care of aliens, etc.). I don’t know! Perhaps I never will! But what I find interesting here, is what Jesus and his followers do in the midst of these pictures of God.
Jesus enters the Jewish narrative and completely transforms it. He claims to be the Messiah hoped for and then dies on a cross without ever picking up a sword for battle. And his followers hold to this Messianic claim in the face of barbaric torture and death! Despite his apparent failure, Christ’s followers say he is the incarnation, the true revelation of the character of God. Hebrews refers to him as the “exact representation of God’s being.”
Christ’s picture of God is even more radically loving than any given to us in the OT (in my opinion). In short, he brings in to focus and completely redirects much of what is in the OT. It’s not surprising they killed him for it.
Viewing Christ as the Messiah offers a beautiful Truth here, God is often much more than we hoped for. The Jews wanted to be free from their enemies oppression, instead, God came down and freed all people from all oppression (in a sense). The Jews were promised a Messiah who would destroy their enemies, Christ got rid of all enemies by establishing a common humanity narrative in which notions of position and power have no place. I could go on, but you get the picture.
Now, if it was only Christ who practiced this radical re-framing of OT scriptures, I might feel less unsettled. I could feel secure in the claim that this act is the purview of God alone. But I don’t have that luxury. The followers of Christ (most notably Paul) utilize a similar practice in their writings…writings which the church has accepted as cannon for centuries. The NT is full of this re-framing of OT understandings, a progressive plea along the lines of “when God said [this] he meant [this]…don’t you see, Christ fits the bill!”
Living in the Tension
I have to say, I sympathize with the Jews! What Jesus and His followers were doing was the worst kind of heresy, changing the entire trajectory of a rich tradition. Or if not changing the trajectory, certainly clarifying it! What are we to do in the midst of all these conflicting messages!
God is a warrior who is going to smite your enemies and bring vengeance upon them, if not in this age than rest assured it will happen in the age to come! No, God is more loving than you can imagine, he descended from on high taking on our humanness, dying for us, pleading with us to promote peace and abandon blood-shed! His love shines like the sun, on the wicked and righteous alike! The Word is God-breathed and we are not to change it at all, neither to add to it, nor take away from it! No, the Word is living, and Christ and his followers demonstrate for us that it can mean something new and unexpected, something completely different from what we thought if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear!
It’s this kind of confusion that makes me cry out for a starting point, a foundation on which I can test all ideas. It’s in this confusion that I find myself humbly returning to the only place I can find solid footing; the only place where I feel confident saying, “Yes, this…this is something I can and I want to believe in…”; and that is Jesus…the refiner and finisher of my faith.
It’s a critical choice! On what and whom we choose to base our view of God has ripple effects on every idea we glean from the Bible, every action committed, and every judgement uttered. I’m going to suggest that we live in the tension offered us by scripture between recognizing the Bible’s sacredness and Truth principles while allowing it to speak in different ways in different times and different cultural contexts. I think we have a good basis for doing this! Christ after all broke Jewish law on more than one occasion didn’t he? Saying effectively, “you worship and uphold the rules but have forgotten the purpose of those rules.”
I want to suggest we take the scary and challenging route of digging for Biblical principles not Biblical mandates: that we spend less time finding specific rules to hold over and against people and more time engaging the living God with people, drawing on Biblical principles to guide our moral compass and doing our best to exercise sufficient care and sufficient grace.
Anyone with me?
Notes on this post:
Although I feel justified in my claims above, I’m not a biblical scholar. I don’t have the training some have in this area and welcome any corrections.
* At least by-in-large. Some scriptures which seem to describe Christ in detail don’t include a militaristic Messiah picture, but many verse which have the militaristic Messiah picture are still used in reference to Christ in the NT.
** I certainly am aware of and understand many of the arguments which attempt to reconcile the love we see demonstrated on Calvary with the wrath we see demonstrated by the flood. I can get behind many of them. I think the seemingly apparent conflict between the two pictures of God still raise important issues even if these reconciliatiatory tactics are taken.
Tell us what YOU think:
What tools do you use to understand/interpret scripture, especially the tough passages? How do you take action in a situation when you don’t have full information or understanding to do so? What is one of your most burning questions about scripture?