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Have you not read?

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22 Mar 2019
Have you not read?

In his eulogy to Billy Graham last year, Franklin Graham made one statement about his father which really touched me. He spoke about the deep love and respect his father had for the Word of God. “The Bible was his sole authority”, Franklin said, adding he remembers so many times his father would hold up the Bible while preaching and proclaim: “The Bible says…”

Over Christmas, I was troubled as I read Irresistible, a new book by Andy Stanley who is a cutting-edge preacher with significant influence in the Evangelical world today. In his book, Stanley advises preachers to drop such phrases as ‘the Bible says’ and ‘the Bible teaches’, claiming there is nothing to be gained by it and much to be lost. In addition, Stanley suggests reading the Old Testament with great caution, as it contains no doctrinal relevance to the Church today and represents a God that “appears uncivilized” to the modern reader.

This approach represents a growing phenomenon in the Church today. Though some may be less extreme than Andy Stanley’s views, there is a deliberate, growing move away from the Word of God and from the Old Testament.

When speaking in congregations around the world, I often ask: “How many have read at least once through the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation?” The answer is sobering. In most cases only a few hands go up; sometimes not even a single hand. I find the highest percent of Bible illiteracy among churches in Western countries. While the results are a little better when I ask who has read the entire New Testament, the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular seems to be ignored, a black box for many believers. In one church, I was told by the pastor that I was quoting too many Scriptures. One, maximum two per sermon will do; otherwise, I would overly challenge the audience. A close friend told me that for years now he cannot remember hearing a single sermon in his church on any Old Testament passage.

This phenomenon is nothing new and can be traced back to the early Church. Marcion, an influential teacher in the church of Rome around 140 AD, rejected the Old Testament writings and even some New Testament books as being too Jewish and misrepresenting the loving God revealed by Jesus. While he was removed as a heretic, his ‘Marcionism’ would leave a wide imprint on the Church for centuries to come.

This all leads us to ask: What does the Bible say about its own relevance and authority? And how did the early Church approach Scripture? Indeed, the question often posed by Jesus to the scribes and teachers – “Have you not read?” – is more relevant than ever today (see Matthew 12:3; 19:4, etc.).

Tanach – the Old Testament
First of all, the early Church did not have a New Testament yet, as it was only written and canonized decades later. Thus, when New Testament writers refer to ‘Scripture’, they are clearly referencing the Old Testament.

Also, the early Church never used the term ‘Old Testament’. They referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as the Tanach. This is a three-letter acronym [T-N-K] containing the first letters of each section of the Old Testament. The ‘T’ is for Torah, or the Law contained in the five books of Moses, also referred to as the Pentateuch. The middle ‘N’ refers to the Prophets (Nevi’im in Hebrew) which includes all the prophets of the Old Testament, from Isaiah to Malachi (except for Daniel, which is counted among the Writings). The final ‘K’ is for Kotvim, or the Writings. The Writings contain all the other books from Joshua through Samuel, Job, Psalms and ‘Song of Songs’.

Thus, New Testament authors often refer to the Old Testament as “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g., Matthew 5:17; 11:13; 22:14; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; etc.); or “the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). Only once in the Bible is the Old Testament referred to as ‘old testament’ – in 2 Corinthians 3:14. Here, the Greek text literally speaks of the “old covenant”, but Jerome’s Latin translation in the fifth century used the expression ‘old testament’ in this passage and the term stuck.

‘The Bible says’
The Bible never refers to itself as the ‘Bible’, but rather as the ‘Scriptures’. In more than 20 instances, Jesus affirmed his teachings by declaring, “It is written”, or “the Scripture says”, or “Have you not read?”

Think about it: Jesus was God incarnate. As Creator of heaven and earth, he could have established an entirely new framework and set of rules to define his role and mission. Yet he continuously accredited the Scriptures as the fixed point through which he identified himself.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refocused our approach to the Torah from mere external obedience of the letter to a transformative expression of the heart and mind. Yet he never discounted the Law or advocated for replacing it, choosing instead to expound upon and sharpen its meaning. “‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets’, Jesus told his disciples. ‘I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 5:17–19)

“It is written” was his chosen weapon to overcome Satan. And what was true for Jesus is true for the New Testament writers, who repeatedly refer to the then-existing Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament. The New Testament directly quotes or cites the Hebrew Scriptures more than 300 times and alludes to them over 1,600 times.

So Billy Graham’s practice of often referring to what “the Bible says” was not a quirky habit of an old-fashioned preacher, but was the same time-honoured custom followed by Jesus and the Apostles. And we do well to keep this practice alive today.

The Noble Church
The book of Acts honours one particular church as being ‘noble’ – the church of Berea, in Greece. Luke testifies of them: “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) Paul must have loved this church. First, they readily received the preaching of the word of God. Yet they also went home and made sure the message matched with Scripture.

Please understand, they did not check Paul’s sermons against Peter’s epistles or the Gospels. All they had at the time was the Tanach – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. In other words, if they could not find what Paul was preaching in the Old Testament, they likely would not have accepted his Gospel. This also means the original Apostles only preached the Gospel from the Old Testament (Acts 17:2-3; 18:28). Many Christians today would be lost if they had to share the Good News of Jesus solely from the Old Testament. And again – Paul did not consider the Bereans to be a particularly critical or backwards-minded audience; on the contrary, he called them more fair-minded and noble than the others.

Jesus in the Old Testament
Jesus did not come to start something completely new, but to affirm and fulfil what was written. For three-and-a-half years, John the Apostle watched Jesus teaching, engaging with men and women, and caring for children, the sick and the rejected. And then John described his experience with Jesus as “the word became flesh”. While hearing his words and watching his deeds, suddenly the passages of the Old Testament became a ‘red-letter edition’ for his disciples. In Jesus, they saw their Scriptures coming alive and understood the true meaning of God’s word. Jesus elevated the outward ritual of the Law in the Tanach to the level of transformed hearts. While his bold new approach to Scripture at times frustrated even the disciples (Matthew 19:10), he also promised the Holy Spirit would soon purify their hearts, just as the prophets foretold (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

Jesus also declared it was the “Scriptures who testify about me” (John 5:39). This is a concept Jews hold to this day. A rabbi once told me: “Jürgen, you can find Messiah on every page of the Bible (the Tanach). For example, the very first verses of the Bible say: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, … and the Spirit was hovering over the waters.’ This was the spirit of Messiah! He already was there.” And this is exactly what we find in John chapter 1. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God…” The places where Jesus can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures are countless. Whether in the story of Joseph who was rejected and sold by his brothers and became the redeemer of Israel, or through the lives of Moses, David and many other figures and stories which foreshadow the future Redeemer.

Thus, when Jesus met two disciples on the way to Emmaus after his resurrection, Luke tells us: “…beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). We also find Paul in Rome speaking thusly to the Jewish leaders: “So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening.” (Acts 28:23)

The main source of doctrine
For the early Church, the Tanach was considered the main source of doctrine and teaching. Regarding the Hebrew Bible, Paul counsels his spiritual son Timothy: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16). In fact, all the major doctrinal positions of the Church emerged from the Old Testament. The divinity of Jesus (Isaiah 9:6; Micah 5:2), his atonement through suffering and death (Isaiah 53) and his resurrection (Psalm 16:10), the high priesthood of Jesus according to the order of Melchizedek (Genesis 14; Psalm 110), salvation by faith (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4), the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28; Ezekiel 36 & 37), Gentile inclusion in the redeemed (Genesis 12:2; Isaiah 11:10), and so forth – all can be found in the Tanach. From start to finish, Hebrew Scriptures informed and inspired the theology of the early Church.

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God… and it starts, not with the book of Matthew, but in Genesis. In so many ways, the New Testament can only be understood through the pages of the Old Testament. For example, it would be difficult to fully grasp the atoning power of the blood of Jesus without understanding the sacrificial system of the Tabernacle and Temple. The heroes of faith, from Noah and Abraham to Nehemiah and Ezra, serve as our examples to this day of how to trust in God. In the same way, the books of the New Testament and working of the Holy Spirit can shed light on the writings of the Old (2 Corinthians 3:14ff).

All this, of course, should not cause us in any way to abandon or devalue the New Testament. On the contrary, knowing and studying the Hebrew Scriptures helps us better understand Jesus and the New Testament. It should encourage us to take the entire word of God for what it is – the word of God! Indeed, the whole canon of Holy Scriptures deserves our fullest respect as God our Creator speaking to humanity.

So ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten your hearts and minds as you read your Bible. Ask Jesus to show you the wonders of his word. I encourage you to embrace and study all the books of the Bible. Decide even today to read through the entire Bible. I assure you, it will change your life. God promises us: “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)

I pray this will be your experience as you study and absorb the whole counsel of God.


To learn more, watch our ICEJ video series called "Have you not read?"


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