Rev. Chip Hammond
I love the First Testament. We often call this the “Old Testament” (a legitimate translation of 2 Cor. 3:14, the only place we find the phrase in the Bible) but I’m afraid that doing so may give a wrong impression. The word “old” may incline some people to think that these writings are passé, rather than what the Greek word palaios really conveys in this context: “ancient,” and thus, venerable.
The First Testament tells a story that the New Testament continues and concludes. Christians sometimes miss this fact. Because the places, people, customs and concepts are strange to us, sometimes Christians don’t know what to do with the First Testament. They’re not sure how to read it, so they stick to the New Testament, and in so doing they miss two-thirds of what God has to say to them. When Paul wrote to Timothy “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” the New Testament had not yet been completed. Although the words certainly apply to the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, what Paul had in mind when he wrote these words were the thirty-nine books of the First Testament.
How much do you read the First Testament? The answer to that question probably depends on the answer to another: How do you read the First Testament? It’s not too uncommon to hear Christians (even preachers!) treating the First Testament as though it were a collection of Aesop’s Fables – short stories with a moral. They might read the story of Samson in Judges and say, “Now the moral of the story is that boys with long hair or who keep company with evil women come to a bad end.” But this is not the point of the story.
To read the First Testament profitably you have to keep two things in mind. The first is that there are no great heroes in the Bible save God himself. God does his work through fallible and sinful men. Some people feel uncomfortable in the First Testament because the characters seem so flawed and evil, “but of course they must not be, otherwise they would not be given to us as an example.” We may stay away from the most ancient Scriptures because we think that they require us to deny the obvious. But this is not so. We are invited to look fully at the sin of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samson, Jephthah, David, Solomon, and all the others because the point of the stories involving them is not their faithfulness, but God’s; not their goodness but God’s grace is highlighted and magnified.
The second thing to keep in mind when you read the First Testament is that it is a story. It is not a collection of different stories. It is one story, told by One Author through a series of human authors spanning a thousand years. There are many, many plots and subplots that can be followed from Genesis through to Revelation, but the overarching story looks something like this:
God created man upright and holy and very good (Gen. 1:26, 27, 31). But in the course of time man rebelled against God and fell through the temptation of Satan (in the form of? disguised?) as a serpent. God, however, was not willing to accede to the destruction of his creation, and of man the pinnacle of it, so he promised a fight that would take place throughout all of history, and which would have cosmic implications. The promise went like this:
So the LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."
Now having one’s head crushed doesn’t sound like much fun, and the Serpent knew this meant his death. His only chance of winning would be to crush the head of the Seed of the woman before he could fulfill the prophecy.
In the birth of Cain and Able he had his chance. Cain’s offering showed he had little regard for the Lord. He brought whatever he had at hand. Able, by contrast, brought as an offering to the Lord the very best of what he had. It seemed obvious that righteous Able was the promised Seed of the woman, or at least the one from whom the Seed would come. But not if evil Cain could be induced to kill him first. But the mark was missed, for although Able would be counted among the people belonging to that Seed, he himself was not the promised Seed.
As history went on the peoples of the earth spread out. The lineage from which the Seed would come could have easily hidden, but almost as if to taunt the Serpent, God chose Abraham. Through him the promised Seed would come. And God even went so far as to make known that of Abraham’s grandsons, Jacob and Esau, Jacob would be the channel. And so Esau was incited to kill his brother, but Jacob escaped.
When Abraham’s descendants were later living in Egypt, Pharaoh hatched a satanic plot which would serve not only his own evil ends, but would serve the ultimate end of the Serpent. In ordering all the male children of the Israelites to be killed, the line from which the Seed would come would be wiped out. But God raised up a deliverer and brought them out of danger.
And in the course of time, God eventually narrowed the line even further. Sticking his finger in Satan’s eye, he proclaimed that the promised Champion would come not through any tribe of Israel, but through the tribe of Judah, and particularly the house of David.
The Assyrians, and later the Persian king Xerxes, threatened the very existence of the Israelites and thus the possibility of the arrival of the Promised Seed, but God delivered them. These are just the highlights of the one, single unified story told by the First Testament. And yet, the Seed never arrives through all its pages. The story cries out for a sequel.
The start of that sequel begins with the Gospel of Matthew. It’s simply a continuation of the same story. As the story continues, the Serpent employs the same strategy. He tries to destroy the Seed before the prophecy can come true. Through paranoid King Herod he tries to destroy the child (see Matthew 2:13-23), but he fails. The Seed has finally arrived, and so the Serpent tries to dissuade him from his mission (see Mt. 4:1-11). Failing, he leaves him until a more opportune time (Lk. 4:13).
The Serpent will again employ his own seed, “the brood of vipers” that John spoke of (Mt. 3:7). Many of these were from the religious leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and Sadducees, but they were “the children of their father, the Devil” as evidenced by the fact that they wanted to kill the Promised Seed (Jn. 8:38-44).
When Jesus went to the cross, the Serpent thought he had succeeded, but he had only bruised the heel of the Promised Seed. That Seed would arise to crush the Serpent’s head, an event that still awaits final fulfillment.
This story begins in the First Testament, and if we miss that fact we miss what it is really all about. If we do not read the First Testament, we really do not know who Jesus is, or who we are. Reading only the New Testament would be like reading Tolkien’s Return of the King without reading The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.
In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation, John says:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven, and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne.
What John refers to here is not merely the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. It is the whole story that begins in the First Testament and continues into the New. That history is our history, for we have been grafted into the people of God through faith in Christ (Rom. 11; Eph. 2).
As Christians, we must read the First Testament, and read it rightly. It is not a collection of moralizing stories, but One Great Story of what God is doing. We must know the whole story, not just the last third of it, if we are to know who Jesus is and who we are, and if we are to know what Paul is talking about when we are promised in Romans 16:20 that “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”