Loving The Old Testament Without Dying of Embarrassment

hebrewscrollEvery church has them: “Spare” Bibles. You know the Bibles your church keeps around for the absent minded, the lackadaisical and the stray atheist. Most of these “spares” are just copies that church members left at church and forgot to pick up again.

I vividly remember the “spare” Bibles from my youth Sunday School room. These “spares” were “reader versions” of the Bible, meaning that they only contained the New Testament and (occasionally) Psalms. Maybe Proverbs if you’re lucky. I used those “spare” Bibles a lot. So when the youth leader told you to take out your Bible and turn to the book of Exodus, you’d have to awkwardly read over the shoulder of your unsuspecting buddy in the folding chair next to you instead.

Now I fully understand the purpose of publishers printing copies of the Bible containing New Testament and Psalms / Proverbs only. Many outreach organizations (which I dearly love), such as Gideons International and the Navigators, hand out introductory (and free) “reader” copies of the Bible designed to point non-believers to the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. If you’ve got five minutes to make someone an evangelistic presentation, you want to point them to the solution to their problems without having to exposit Lamentations.

However, most Christians often treat the Old Testament like these “spare” copies of the Bible: We believe that the Old Testament is non-essential to the Gospel story. Or it’s filler that keeps you from the “good parts” of the Bible … It’s incomprehensible with its bloody sacrifices and levitical ceremonies … It’s boring with all of the strange names and tribes … It’s unnecessary so we take our mental scissors like Uncle Joey and cut … it … out.*

Moreover, my concern is also that most Christians simply don’t know what to do with 37 out of 39 books of the Old Testament. We treat the Old Testament like that odd uncle with a record that no one wants to talk about. Or like an unwashed child that must be immediately thrown into the bath to get cleaned up and presentable. We’re embarrassed by the levitical laws about mold and menstruation. We’re horrified of and perplexed by the violence perpetrated by God and His people, such as random judges killing Philistines with ox goads. We’re uncomfortable with the tawdry and morally ambiguous stories about the sex lives of the patriarchs. And we’re bored to tears by Chronicles, because … well … nobody likes Chronicles except my Seminary Hebrew professor. When atheists ask Christians fairly straightforward questions about Levitical food laws or the genocide found in the book of Joshua, we’re completely stumped to the point of stammering. We love our babies’ nurseries decked out in cute Noah ark themes but have no comprehension of the sheer carnage of the Flood narrative. Honestly, we’d rather just change the subject to the love of God instead of confront the messiness of the Old Testament.

Shame on us.

As a result, Christians often read the Old Testament in a variety of crazy (and incorrect) ways. Case in point: One of the retired pastors of my current church told me the mind boggling tale of how a former congregation member vehemently argued during an Old Testament Bible study that Jesus was – in fact – not Jewish. And – by osmosis – didn’t obey the Jewish festivals and food laws. I kid you not. Oy vey.

However, there are other quite popular methodologies that Christians commonly use to poorly interpret (or even attempt to make sense) of the Old Testament:

  1. Legalism: Legalism dumbs down the Bible into a laundry list of rules and regulations that mankind must comply with to keep oneself right with God. In this vein, every Old Testament command is taken extremely seriously, because one cannot be righteous in God’s sight without obeying every command. Like modern day Pharisees, the Old Testament commands are subsequently transformed in monstrous behemoths of legal hurdles for believers to navigate. Passages like Deuteronomy 22:5 are transformed into rules about women wearing dresses in worship. Essentially, the Bible is “life’s instruction manual,” and God will be pleased if you can just follow the rules. Of course, the Gospel informs us that people simply can’t “follow the rules,” so legalism winds up being complete non-sense (see Galatians in its entirety).
  2. Moralism: As a close second cousin to legalism, moralism communicates that the grand message of the Bible is one of self-improvement and good moral behavior. Moralism is rampant in Christian children literature, where the Old Testament narratives are routinely mashed up and remixed into Grimms’ fairy tales: Ruth is about family sticking together … Ester is about a proto-Disney princess … David vs. Goliath is about overcoming “giants” in your life. The grand Biblical narrative of God’s saving activity through Christ is ignored altogether. Of course, moralism faces the same fatal flaw of legalism: No one is moral or righteous apart from Christ (see Romans 3).
  3. Prooftexting: An agenda-driven interpretation where a snippet of obscure text is hijacked to make what you want it to say. Any shred of context must be ignored at all costs. Think Jeremiah 29:11 printed on all those coffee mugs and doormats at Family Christian bookstore.
  4. Bad Devotional Reading: Because randomly flipping to any given page of the Old Testament is a surefire recipe for confusion.
  5. Oddball Prophecy: Similar to Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth, many Christians string together out-of-context Old Testament passages to justify their paranoia that (insert name of current president) is the anti-Christ and we should all build Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt bunkers. From Joseph Smith to Ellen G. White to Harold Camping, the history of Christianity is littered with charismatic leaders predicting the exact date of the end times based on obscure Old Testament passages, which – ironically – Jesus said is a pretty terrible idea.
  6. Patriotically: Many Christians cannot remove their cultural blinders, and apply the promises of the Abrahamic covenant to America. Tell me you haven’t seen 2 Chronicles 7:14 slapped on a bumper sticker surrounded by an American flag and a bald eagle in flight. Many believe that if only America could be more like ancient Israel, God would bring his covenant blessings upon America. Never mind that God never made a covenant with America. Or that God sent ancient Israel into exile. Certainly American exceptionalism can prevail where the Israelites failed, right?!?
  7. Complete Ignorance: When you don’t understand it … Just ignore it. Unfortunately, this ignorance can come from a very honest place. I have met many new Christians burning with desire to understand the Bible, so they start at Genesis 1 … Get confused by Leviticus … And give up by Deuteronomy. Like the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8, the church needs more mature believers to come alongside those yearning to learn.

Christians would do well to remember that Jesus revered the Old Testament. And – accordingly – so did Peter, Paul and the rest of the early Christian church. To reiterate the title of Philip Yancey’s popular book, the Old Testament was the Bible that Jesus (and the apostles) read. Christ never minimizes or apologizes for the Old Testament like that odd uncle that you have to invite over for Christmas. Christ never shies away from authoritatively quoting the Old Testament to disciples, Pharisees, rulers and even the Devil. Jesus publicly preaches that He came to fulfill every aspect of the Law – down to the smallest character – and not to abolish the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). And when Paul states that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” he’s referring to the Old Testament and not making a self-referential comment (2 Timothy 3:16). Similarly, both Jesus and Paul defended the message and the integrity of the Old Testament against Pharisees, Judaizers and anyone else who would defame its methods or message.

Moreover, there IS a proper methodology for Christians to read and interpret the Old Testament: Christ. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, Jesus is principally unveiled as the same Word of God that spoke creation and command into existence … now taken human flesh and tabernacling amongst mankind (John 1:1-14). In the beginning of Luke, Jesus reads a scroll containing Isaiah 61:1-2 and then tells a shellshocked crowd: “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:17-21). In the midst of John’s Gospel, Jesus brings the smack down to a bunch of legalistic Pharisees: “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.” Similarly, Jesus taught the Emmaus Road disciples and the apostles that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms were about Him and found fulfillment in Him (Luke 24:27, 44-49). Every sermon given by the apostles in Acts is a masterful exposition of how Christ fulfilled the Old Testament.

To get theologically nerdy for a moment, the proper hermeneutic (or interpretation) of the Old Testament is the lens of Christ and apostles. Of course, this Christocentric approach does not mean that expositors must wax allegorically about Song of Solomon or traverse a scavenger hunt for Christ in every minute detail of the Old Testament. But there is an overall Gospel narrative that frames the entirety of the Bible, and that grand story of man’s depravity and God’s gracious salvation cannot be ignored or minimized. Christ is the apex of God’s rescue. From start to finish, the New Testament is awash with the beauty and color of the Old Testament.

It’s time for Christians to stop treating the Old Testament like an awkward first date. Or a distant relative that we never go visit. We cannot understand what we don’t engage. And much of our failure to properly comprehend or interpret the Old Testament is simply an abject failure of engagement. The Psalmists’ passion for the Old Testament is described as a “deer panting for water” (Psalm 42:1) and as honey on the lips (Psalm 119:103). It’s essential for life as well as addictively sweet. In sharp contrast, our lack of passion for the Old Testament is like a child turning up his nose at broccoli … We know it’s good for us but we can’t bear digesting it. We’d rather stare at it sit on the plate, nibble around the edges and surreptitiously throw the majority out to the dogs under the table.

Is it any wonder why we treat the Old Testament as an embarrassment?

* Yes, that was a Full House joke. #sorrynotsorry

Praying For Blessing Without Jabez Prayers, Circle Making and Suns Standing Still

prayerBack in 2010, I was asked to preach at a small, traditional church in Virginia that was considering to call me as their pastor. I had a well-rehearsed and “tried-and-true” sermon all planned out to preach, and was decked out in my best “preaching suit” (yes, that’s a thing). My wife even made sure that my socks matched that day. I was ready to knock it out of the park, and wow the audience with my adept preaching. I was meditating on my sermon when interim pastor stood up to conduct the “prayer time” of the worship service. He asked the audience for requests. After each request, the interim pastor took down a written note in his bulletin. I was so focused on rehearsing the sermon that I tuned out the 20 or so requests that seemed to drone on forever.

So to my surprise, the interim pastor turned to me and politely asked me: “Pastor Higgins, would you be willing to specifically pray for each of these requests?” And the emphasis was on the word “specifically.” As in pray for each one of these requests that I hadn’t been paying attention to whosoever. What followed was probably the most awkward (and shortest) prayer in the history of pastoral prayers:

“Oh Lord … um … You’ve heard everything these people have said … um … Please answer their requests … um … Yeah … Amen.”

Lots of awkward looks at the end of that prayer. So much for my well-rehearsed sermon.

That worship service was really my first initiation with a sacred cow entrenched in many traditional churches: The mid-week “prayer meeting.” Why so many Christians have such an inexplicable warm sensation about these crazy leviathans I’ll never know, because most of these meetings seem to have a rather loose connection to Biblical prayer. Many meetings seem to devolve into “organ recitals,” where the emphasis of prayer is healing so-and-so’s hearts, belly buttons, appendixes and other remarkably vital organs. At other times, prayer meetings can devolve into glorified opportunities for gossip: “I know you haven’t seen sister Suzie around church in years, and I know you’re all really, really concerned and need to know what happened … So I really need to tell the church to really pray hard because she’s run off to Paris with a Swedish romance novel model … At least, that’s what I heard at the hair salon.” And then when the act of prayer actually begins, there’s always one or two people keen to pray long-winded Shakespearean prayers laced with 1611 KJV “thees” and “thous” that seem more attuned to impressing the congregation than moving the heart of God. Now, I’m all in favor in bodies of believers gathering to corporately pray, but much of the perfunctory of the traditional “prayer meeting” is a theological headache.

So let me get to another related admission (and the point of this blog): I don’t really pray for myself much. That might like a strange admission for a pastor, but go with me here. I think that response has been a knee-jerk reaction to what prayer has become in many churches: Unadulterated selfishness.

The biggest proof of the church’s obsession with the selfishness of prayer is found on the shelves of our Christian bookstores. Over the past twenty years, some of the biggest sellers in the Christian book genre have been books that (supposedly) inform believers how to get stuff out of God in three simple steps. The easiest target is Bruce Wilkinson’s 2000 book The Prayer of Jabez, which transformed an obscure prayer for 1 Chronicles 4:10 into a best-selling formula for getting consumer goods out of God. For other popular books on prayer, the teaching is often clumsily grounded in obscure Bible passages (i.e. and Stephen Furtick’s Sun Stand Still) or extra-Biblical stories (i.e. Mark Patterson’s The Circle Maker), but these books continue to be gobbled up by Christians. Similarly, prosperity Gospel books claiming you can have $60 million dollar jets or have “every day a Friday” (whatever that means) if you simply have faith or “claim God’s promises” sell outrageously. But don’t blame the writer … Blame the readers buying these $20 hardcovers. Such works only tap into and legitimize our sinful desire to infuse selfishness and consumerism into our prayer lives.

Back in 2006, Derek Webb wrote a scathing song, entitled “Wedding Dress,” about the church’s warm embrace of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez. The song is based on Ezekiel 16, which describes the people of God as engaging in prostitution against her honorable husband, God. It’s a common theme of Scripture (see Hosea 1-3). The accusation was that the church tends to pursue material possessions through prayer instead of simply seeking the treasure of Christ alone. Honestly, the controversy over the song had more to do with Derek’s use of the provocative (but Biblical) words “whore” and “bastard” to describe the church. Frankly, I love the honesty and sound discernment of the song. The interview below featuring Derek about the writing of this song (and the actual song) is compelling:

Convicted by the Gospel and own human depravity, I identify with the faithless bride of Ezekiel 16 and “The Wedding Dress” song. I often desire earthly treasures and personal comfort in prayer over the simplicity of having the love of Christ. So I must repent of my faithlessness to God.

But there’s also a danger in unwittingly believing the oddly equal inverse of The Prayer of Jabez: As an unrighteous sinner, I should not ask anything from God in prayer. It’s one thing to believe that our own faith and righteousness merits a response from God in prayer … But the inadvertent polar opposite is believing that our lack of faith and unrighteousness merits no response from God in prayer. In both circumstances, the false belief is that the heart of God is moved simply by our belief, doubt, righteousness, sinfulness or works. Both circumstances are wrong … But the inverse deceptively seems Gospel-centered, because it emphasizes the remnant of our sinful nature. Either way, God simply becomes a glorified vending machine: If we have the right change (or behavior), out pops whatever we desire.

I think I often fall into this second category of false belief whether I admit it or not. Sure God is my Father in Heaven … But why bother to ask the Father for anything if His child has messed up in so many ways?!? As an abject failure of a pastor, husband and father, I have no right to stand before God until I get my act together. I’m not worthy.

Essentially, I do not ask because I don’t deserve to ask for anything.

That belief is wrong too. Because it represents only “bad news” portion of the Gospel. The Gospel is incomplete in this view of prayer.

Here’s why it’s wrong: Yes, we are unrighteous and unworthy sinners apart from Christ (Romans 3). But our standing before God is based on Christ, who is our meditator and advocate in Heaven (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 9:15). Because of the work of Christ, we have been also adopted as the children of God (Galatians 3:26-4:7). So our adopted Father in Heaven longs to hear from His children, because He cares for them like a perfect Father (Matthew 6:5-6, 7:7-11). Our Father listens to His prodigal kids, and never gives them snakes, stones or destructive presents. Therefore, God does not act like a crabby neighbor at midnight who won’t get out of bed to answer the door when his children knock on the door of Heaven (Luke 11:1-13). All because of Christ, we now have a new relationship with God.

And so the effectiveness of our prayer is based on what Christ has already done and not what we do. In his fantastic book about prayer It Happens After Prayer, H.B. Charles Jr. declares:

I believe in the exhaustive sovereignty of God, which is just a fancy way of saying that God is God. That is, God is God alone. This means that our prayers do not God under obligation to do whatever we ask. It does not matter how long you pray. It does not matter how loud you cry. It does not matter how many verses you quote or promises you claim. It does not matter how many so-called positive confessions you make. As you pray, you must remember who God is.

So much of modern Christian teaching about prayer is wrong because Christ is not the foundation. Instead, the foundation is whether we behave … Whether we get the words right … Whether we have enough faith … Whether we claim promises … Whether we hold onto our special double-blessed “prayer shawl” … Whether we financially give … Whether we spend 3+ hours in a “prayer closet” … Whether we say “thee” and “thou” … Whether we can “pray well” (whatever that means) … Whether we’re fervent and get our “prayer sweats” on … Whether the kids would just shut up enough for us to think … Whether we jump up and down and dance the Watusi … Whether I stubbornly and petulantly draw a circle around what I desire … Whether we’re our “prayer posture” is correct. As a result, our church members tend to be more focused on the gory sausage-making mechanics of prayer instead of the person of Christ. If the process of prayer is more dependent on our persona than Christ’s performance, we make a mockery of prayer. As with all of the Christ-life, prayer is truly dependent on Christ alone.

Sure, some might argue from James 5:16 (“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”) that our righteousness leads to the efficacy of prayer. However, the Gospel argues that our righteousness is wholly founded the work of Christ on the cross. If prayer were answered apart from Christ and solely based on my filthy rags of unrighteousness, I’d be doomed … And so would you. But Christ brings hope to our prayer.

Getting the whole Gospel message correct is the solid foundation of prayer. Yes, we don’t merit asking anything from God due to our own unrighteousness … But we can freely ask from God because of Christ’s imputed righteousness. The efficacy of prayer is based on Christ. Therein lies the checks and balances of prayer. Knowing that you are unworthy to approach the throne of grace but being still bid to come is thoroughly humbling (Hebrews 4:16). And so we humbly genuflect to God’s kingdom and His perfect will in prayer while still being bold enough to ask in prayer. And there’s nothing wrong with asking for blessing as a prodigal child so beautifully loved and forgiven by His faithful Father in Heaven.

So come let us approach the throne. Our Father is waiting there to listen to us and love us.

All because of what Christ has already accomplished.