Our church is going through a one-year Bible reading for 2014. We are just about to finish Leviticus, which historically, is when the most people stop the reading. It makes sense. You start the year with cosmic creation narratives, family drama, and faced-paced adventures in Genesis, then move into a climactic rescue of millions of people in Exodus, replete with miraculous displays of power. These book-ends are a gourmet of stories, and leave you with an expectation of greater sequels. But to your dismay, Leviticus opens with seven brutal chapters of bloody sacrifice, not sparing any details, and organized in bullet-points. After several chapters, you are mentally exhausted, and recite the remainder with the same enthusiasm of a tax planner reading a 1099 form. Is it any wonder how easily a reader can become dislodged from the rest of the Bible? It’s the Old Testament speed bump. But Leviticus (and other similar books) is not a hopeless endeavor if you know how to read it. And part of reading Leviticus, means reading it in connection to the whole story of the Bible. Leviticus, in fact, is a vital part of that story. Let’s step into it for a moment…
You may have enjoyed Genesis and Exodus, with their overwhelming escapades, but now the story that captivated your heart at the beginning is shifting into a different style, and it’s answering a conflicting question at the same time. A question that was left hanging ambiguously in the air at the end of Exodus: how can a holy God dwell among sinful people? The answer punches you in the gut with the opening chapters. The price of God’s dwelling is holiness; and since Israel had none, the cost of His dwelling was sacrifice. And so Leviticus 1-7 lays out detailed instruction for various types of animal sacrifice for any given situation.
Now the thought of animal sacrifice surely sounds barbaric to many people. Why would God need something so bloody and horrific? You may even say, “A benevolent God should just let it go.” Yet this is not what you would expect from any upstanding judge in a criminal court–especially if he’s trying a case that is particularly awful. Most decent people cannot turn a blind eye towards the evil around them; when the defenseless in their company are oppressed, they often cry out for justice! But the most glaring inconsistency with this is that no one is righteous according to the Bible (Rom 3). We cry out for justice, yet with the hope that we will be the lone exception (punish the wicked, but show mercy on me!). We know that if the Bible is true, we would not be able to withstand a trickle of God’s blazing holiness. This is what the Israelites must have felt like when Leviticus was first written. The indictment of our sin is incredibly costly. When you glimpse the mess in the opening pages of Leviticus, you are looking into your own heart.
I want to present to you another angle to the story. Consider that instead of being a barbaric act, those Levitical sacrifices are the merciful side of God piercing through our sin. That there exists a God who would rather spill the blood of animals than see people made in His image be destroyed is an act of compassion. In fact, God even makes allowance for the poor of the community (those who cannot afford the appropriate sacrificial offering) to bring a cheaper form of sacrifice: “Two turtledoves or two young pigeons,” or “whatever he can afford” (Lev 14:22). Let me summarize that one more time: God even provides the sacrifice for sinners who cannot afford it. And there lies the shadow of the greater promise…
What this means for you.
Do you ever come into a community of believers pressured to muster up enough enthusiasm to worship, yet feel increasingly like you have nothing good to offer? Do you ever feel like you’ve done all you can do just to get out of bed and show up? You may be the “impoverished” version of what Leviticus speaks of, which means that God mercifully accepts the little that you have. In heaven, desperation is greater currency than enthusiasm, and spiritual poverty is the food of God–he cannot deny it (Psalm 51:17). This, I believe, is what Jesus was referring to in the Sermon on the Mount when he opened with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). That’s why Christianity is a movement of faith, not performance. What this means for you is access to God despite your spiritual bankruptcy.
The good news.
Leviticus, it turns out, is not barbaric. It is dripping with compassion. For the God who cannot look upon evil, has found a way to look upon us–nay, to embrace us. And when Leviticus closes, you will be left with God’s empathy on your lips, yet still an empty stomach, for the blood of animals cannot wash away your sins–it can only cover them until the next sacrifice. But as you veer through the beginning stages of the story, some pieces come together, and you realize that Leviticus is also ushering you to a better sacrifice. One provided for in the New Testament, with the coming of the “Lamb,” when the Son of God Himself, no longer requiring sacrifices from afar, would come down to us, immerse himself in our lowliness, and offer His own blood as the sacrifice for our sins. This is good news. In Anglo-Saxon English, they referred to it as gōd-spell, which later turned into the word, “gospel.” The gospel is the good news that sinners have been embraced by God through Jesus Christ.
But as you can see, it’s only good news against the backdrop of horrible news. The price of our salvation is costly. God did not purchase us on sale–he paid the full price for us. He paid with his own son (Jh 3:16). So next time you read through the tedious bullet points of death and decay in the Old Testament, remember two things: your sin is costly, yet as Elvina M. Hall writes,
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
For the following reasons. First, Dr. Thomas Schreiner is one of my favorite scholars. I read through his prestigious commentary on Romans, and developed a deep appreciation for his scholarly writing voice, and well as the sheer width of his focus. Second, Biblical Theologies are a favorite area of study for me—at least for the last year. It is often entrenched in complexity, so Graeme Goldsworthy’s definition will serve the purpose of this blog post well: Biblical Theology is “the study of how every text in the Bible relates to every other text in the Bible” (Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, 40). To boil it down further, it’s the unifying storyline of Scripture, which I address more in this blog post. Third, the name alone is awesome: The King in His Beauty. This just makes me want to pick it up and swim in glorious truth!
Now that I’m done with this hefty book (700+ pages), I’ve provided a not-brief summary of what it’s about, some reasons for reading it, potential drawbacks, and a few concluding remarks. Let’s go for a swim!
The King in His Beauty is foremost a Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Biblical Theology (BT) may sound confusing if you’ve never heard the term before, because we sometimes use the word “biblical” when referring to something correct or orthodox; so it may sound like we are talking about a theology that is orthodox. But that’s not what we are talking about (although it assumes the theology is correct!). BT is an area of study, dealing primarily with the story of Scripture, a search for the “center” to that story, and the process of how God reveals that story. Think of it as a view of the Bible from 30,000 feet: you are taking it all in at once.
Schreiner’s intent with writing a BT is simple: to focus on a prominent Biblical theme as it is unfolding so that the average, non-academic reader can understand and enjoy. As Schreiner moves through Scripture, he does so in segments which I’ve found very helpful in following both his train of thought, and the storyline of Scripture. The segments are as follows:
- Creation to the Edge of Canaan (Genesis-Deuteronomy)
- The Story of Possession, Exile, and Return (Joshua-Esther)
- Israel’s Songs of Wisdom (Job-Song of Songs)
- Judgment and Salvation in the Prophets (Isaiah-the Twelve)
- The Kingdom in Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts (Matthew-Acts)
- Eternal Life in the Gospel and the Epistles of John (John, John’s letters)
- The End of the Ages Has Come according to the Apostle Paul (Paul’s 13 letters)
- Living in the Last Day’s according to the General Epistles (Hebrews, James, 1&2 Peter-Jude)
- The Kingdom Will Come (Revelation)
As Schreiner moves through these segments of Scripture, he shows them all anchored in the prominent theme of the Kingdom of God, or as he refers to it, The King in His Beauty. He argues that the Kingdom of God, defined as the rule of God spanning the cosmos, including human beings, by means of covenant, and expressed in judgment, “thematically captures the message of Scripture” (xiii-xv).
The book was not written for scholars, but is scholarly (the footnotes are a feast!). So as he teases out the theme of God’s Kingdom in the Bible, he stays out-of-the-way, yet within close distance to the events as they happen, speaking with a depth of clarity and simplicity even in such seemingly abstract books as Amos or the Psalms. It is this simple clarity on complex topics that makes Schreiner magical. Here are a few other delicacies in the book… Read the rest of this entry
On Friday, I wrote that the Bible is a healthy mixture of both Law and Gospel, which, when read in its entirety, brings a person low by showing them the impossible commands of God’s holy Law, and yet elevates the one who puts their faith in Christ. When you read the Bible with a full view of both Law and Gospel, you nourish the soul! But if these two elements are the whole of Scripture, it still leaves us wondering about the point of Scripture. We can get this by walking through the narrative of Emmaus.
Luke 24:13-25 (HCSB)…
Now that same day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 Together they were discussing everything that had taken place. 15 And while they were discussing and arguing, Jesus Himself came near and began to walk along with them. 16 But they were prevented from recognizing Him. 17 Then He asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking?” And they stopped walking and looked discouraged. 18 The one named Cleopas answered Him, “Are You the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened there in these days?”19 “What things?” He asked them.So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene, who was a Prophet powerful in action and speech before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed Him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified Him. 21 But we were hoping that He was the One who was about to redeem Israel. Besides all this, it’s the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women from our group astounded us. They arrived early at the tomb, 23 and when they didn’t find His body, they came and reported that they had seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see Him.”
My commentary: The story starts with a group of discombobulated disciples, still trying to put the pieces together after Rome crucified their Messiah. In an ironic twist, they end up griping about their “failed Messiah” to the risen Messiah Himself, even dumbing down some of the first eyewitness reports of the resurrection (I’m trying to imagine Jesus’ facial expression).
He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
My commentary: Jesus rebukes them for being ignorant to centuries of Scripture that foretold all that would happen. But the great part is in verse 27, when Jesus gives the disciples a Bible study through the entire Old Testament! A Jesus-led Bible study? Yes, please! (I would love to be a fly on that wall). But I want you to notice this key phrase: the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. This is our lens for reading the Law and the Gospel in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is more than just a bunch of disconnected clippings of life in the Ancient Near East, or proverbial moral statements. It is an intricate narrative that points to one hero alone…
The point of all Scripture is Jesus.
But what exactly is the point? Some would say the point of Scripture is to be more like Jesus. Others would say the point is to pay closer attention to his teachings–while others would emphasize his actions. What do you think Jesus said to His disciples concerning the Old Testament Scriptures? He taught them that the Old Testament in its entirety pointed to His redemptive death and subsequent resurrection. The underlying question in the heart of the Torah is, “Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” (v.26).
The most glorious display of Jesus is seen in the horror of the cross.
But how should this inform our reading of the Scriptures? Surely not every obscure passage is about the cross, right? Should I read Obadiah or Philemon as though every verse and passage was a reference to the cross of Jesus? Well, no, not exactly. But yes! Here’s what I mean…individual verses deal with a scattered variety of topics, but you must see them through the narrative of Scripture–the full story–as one that is about Jesus redeeming the world through his gruesome death. Even if a verse does not directly make reference to the cross, the framework surrounding the verse is looking forward to (or looking back to) the finished work of Jesus. THIS is what Jesus is telling His disciples. But even after what must have been the most mind-blowing Bible-study ever given, these men are still not receptive of the message–proving even further that the Holy Spirit must open our hearts to understand God’s Word–but let’s finish the story…
They came near the village where they were going, and He gave the impression that He was going farther. 29 But they urged Him: “Stay with us, because it’s almost evening, and now the day is almost over.” So He went in to stay with them. 30 It was as He reclined at the table with them that He took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him, but He disappeared from their sight. 32 So they said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?”
Wow. Just wow. At the moment that Christ gives out the sacraments, the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to recognize Jesus, not only physically, but as presented rightly in the Scriptures. Specifically, it says that their hearts were “ablaze” leading up to the full recognition of Jesus. This is profound. Yes, we need to do the hard work of studying and exegesis when reading the Bible, but we also need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see the glory of Christ, or it will be nothing more than literature for us–or, even worse, a set of moral teachings–instead of broadcasting the treasuries of Christ.
This is also attested powerfully by the Apostle Peter, as he explains to a group of second generation Christians the times he has personally seen the Lord. But then he pulls an unexpected move: he tells them they are better off because they have the Scriptures.
“So we have the prophetic word strongly confirmed. You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dismal place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all, you should know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21, HCSB).
Based on all of this, I suggest that while you are prayerfully reading the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit might be already working in your hearts (setting it “ablaze”), even when you are struggling to understand, and that you must tenaciously continue until “the day dawns and the morning star [Christ] rises in your hearts.”
Keep reading the Scriptures until a glorious Christ emerges!
The cross is the blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough to it for its sparks to fall on us. – John Stott
Our church is going through the Bible in a year starting in January. I don’t use exclamation points in my writing often, but last night at Adorn (college/young adults), I asked if anyone was going through the 1 Year Bible reading, and a couple hundred people responded! Gahhh, I can’t wait!!
There is something riveting about reading Scripture in community. I think Paul had this in mind when he exhorts to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3:16). I can gladly imagine so many of us digging into the Word of God, mining the depth of his thoughts, and retrieving treasure beyond comparison to speak about to one another.
Of course, the Bible is a big book, and there are some difficult areas to navigate. I say this, because if you are unaware of how or what to navigate, this journey can quickly grow tedious. We will have to keep consistent, frequent conversation with one another about the readings, including questions, dialog, insights, prophetic, etc. I want to extend the invitation to read through Scripture to any of you who do not attend Adorn, to be bound together with us by the Word of Christ instead of proximity.
Let’s start the conversation now, shall we? Below is a short outline of the Bible, Old Testament first, followed by the New Testament. These are compartments of Scripture that will help us to digest the whole…
- Pentateuch (1st five books of the Old Testament, aka O.T.)
- History of Israel (1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Chronicles, 1&2 Kings, etc)
- Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel)
- Minor Prophets (The twelve short books at the end of the OT)
- Poetry (Psalms, Songs, Lament)
- Wisdom Literature (Proverbs, Eccless, etc)
- Gospels (The first five accounts of Jesus’ life in the New Testament)
- History of the church (The book of Acts, chronicling the beginnings of a worldwide movement)
- Letters to the church (epistles by Paul, Peter, James, and John)
- Apocalypse (John’s vision, also known as Revelation)
When you see these soaring themes, what comes to mind? What do you think about? What do you struggle with? What are you excited about? What are you most looking forward to? What are you most apprehensive of? What do think about all of this? Are you excited? Just talk! I want to talk to people about the Word of God!
There are bad things that come in life, and there are good. This is one of the good things. Let’s soak it up together, and in it, encounter Jesus.
Since I brought up Leviticus in a prior post, I didn’t want to leave you hanging on that particular book without a little more hands-on direction. (Leviticus is a doozie!)
For those of you who are interested in reading up on that book of Moses, here is an excellent article called Daring to Delight in Leviticus by Collin Hansen of the Gospel Coalition. He spells out how to read through Leviticus without wanting to kill yourself by chapter seven.
Take these same principles and apply them to “imperative” books like Proverbs, James, Romans 12, etc. And don’t kill yourself. Jesus already died for you while performing perfectly for you in your place.
And that, my friends, is the Gospel.