This is my search section here


← back to Sermons

    Aug 03, 2014

    Class 1: Introduction to the Old Testament

    Series: Old Testament Overview

    Category: Core Seminars, Scripture, Bible Prophecy, Biblical Theology, The Holiness of God, Atonement, Indwelling Sin, The Fall


    Introduction to the Course


    Welcome to the Old Testament core seminar!  The beginning of 52 weeks through the whole Bible.  The class is designed for you to profit even if you get just a few weeks here and there.  But it’s also designed so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because just as the whole Bible hangs together as a single narrative, these classes all fit together.  So I’d encourage us to commit now to taking the time to study through the entire Bible over the next year.  This is an opportunity to slow down, take our time, and dive deeper into God’s word.  May we be convicted, instructed, and refreshed.


    [Start by going around the room and seeing why people are interested in taking this class.  If there’s more than 20 people in the class, just ask a sampling of people who raise their hands.]


    Why study the Old Testament?


    Now, before we begin, I’d like to focus in on the Old Testament and set up some specific goals for our 26 weeks in these 39 books.  Why study the Old Testament?  Is it merely to have literary context for the New Testament?  Let me lay out two purposes for studying the Old Testament.


    1. First, the Old Testament reveals the character of God in a way that the New Testament does not.  In the New Testament, we have the benefit of great clarity, and the benefit of considering God this side of Christ.  But whereas the New Testament was written in a generation, the Old Testament spans thousands of years.  And as we see God’s character manifest through history in the Old Testament, there is a certain depth and richness that we take away.  The difference is between a crystal-clear snapshot on the one hand (the snapshot of the New Testament), and a slightly grainy but hour-long movie (the Old Testament) on the other.  It’s one thing to read about God’s patience in 2 Peter, for example (“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promises . . . but is patient with you . . .) (3:9).  Yet it is quite another to see God’s patience with his rebellious people in the dessert of Sinai.  And again in the Promised Land, through the judges, and the monarchy, through exile, and even beyond.  Same God.  Same promises.  Same rebellion.  Same patience. The Old Testament offers a different lens with which to view the character of God.  And as we see his character displayed across so much history, there is a depth and richness that we just can’t experience in the New Testament.  That’s our first purpose for this study.
    2. Second: the Old Testament tell us about Jesus.  And it does that in three ways.
      1. It is the context for the events of the New Testament.  Historically, to be sure.  But also thematically.  From Abraham’s sacrifice on, for example, God spent 2000 years getting us ready for the idea of a substitute sacrifice on our behalf.  That’s how we understand what Jesus did on the cross.
      2. The Old Testament is the source of, by one count, 295 references and 600 allusions in the New Testament that help us understand who Jesus is. The New Testament writers clearly expect a working knowledge of the Old Testament.[1]
      3. And, more than just an aid for knowing the New Testament better, Jesus Himself says that the Old Testament teaches about Him. (Luke 24:44)  This was the Jesus who made the astonishing claim that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (5:17).  The Bible, in its entirety, is a book about Jesus.


    If I could summarize the entire Old Testament in a simple phrase, it would be “promises made.”  We learn of our need for God’s promises—we are sinners, unable to save ourselves and condemned to hell by a just God.  But we learn of our promise-making God, who in his mercy promises us what we could never achieve ourselves.  Similarly, as we’ll see later in the course, the message of the New Testament is “promises kept.”  Particularly in Jesus Christ.


    So what does “promises made” look like?  For the rest of the class, I’m going to run through the Old Testament from beginning to end.  Not once but three different times.  The first time will be just to set your bearings—introducing you to each book of the Old Testament.  And then we’ll step back and run through again, this time looking at our need for God’s promises, the story of his holiness and our sin.  And finally, we’ll look at the story of his promise, which ultimately carries us into the ministry of Jesus Christ.


    Historical Overview


    The Bible begins, on page 1, in Genesis 1:1, with God’s creation of the universe—from nothing.  And the crown of his creation, mankind, made in his image, to reflect his character.  This is chapters 1 and 2 of the Bible.  Then in chapter 3, God’s first humans disobey him and the whole cosmos falls into ruin as a consequence.


    The narrative continues with things going from bad to worse.  And then in Genesis 12, God begins his plan of redemption, calling Abraham to be the first of his new people.  God leads him—and ultimately his family—to his place, the promised land of Canaan.  After a series of providential twists, these people end up as slaves in Egypt, yet they also quickly reproduce to become a great nation.


    Moses then brings the nation out of Egypt.  God gives Israel the law, making them off as his special people.  And he gives them the land he has promised where this special people is to live and display God’s character to the nations.  But instead of displaying God’s character, moral and political confusion follows during the rule of leaders called judges.


    After some centuries, the people ask for and receive a king in the person of Saul, and then David follows Saul.  David’s reign best represents the archetype of a kingdom in which God’s chosen man and God’s Word rule over his people in his chosen place.  The kingdom arguably reaches its peak in the time of prosperity and the building of the temple by David’s son, Solomon.  But David is sinful and his descendents are worse; clearly this is not the fullness of God’s plan.  The kingdom divides into two.  Both parts of the now-divided nation fall into idolatry, until God finally destroys the northern half through the Assyrian empire.  A little over a century later, he exiles the southern half to Babylon.  Several generations pass in exile, and then the people return and rebuild the temple and Jerusalem’s wall.  And here Old Testament history ends, with the people reduced to a position of utter desperation and dependence on God.


    This is the narrative taken up by the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament.  You can divide them out by putting the first seventeen books in one category, the narrative from Creation to the return of the exiles from Babylon.  The next section of Scripture are called the Writings: Job to Song of Songs.  And the last seventeen books are the Prophets: Isaiah to Malachi.  I’ll take each in turn.


    Narrative Books

    • Genesis describes how the world and the first humans were made—the perfection of that unspoiled creation, how sin entered the world, and how God initiated his plan of salvation through Abraham.  But despite God’s instructions to Abraham to live in the promised land, Genesis closes with this people in Egypt.
    • Exodus finds Abraham’s descendents as slaves in Egypt, and constitutes God’s grand entry onto the stage of world history as he routes the most powerful nation on earth to bring his people back to their land as his own.
    • Leviticus presents a digest of God’s laws given to his people in the wilderness.  Holiness is the theme of Leviticus.
    • Numbers mostly tells the story of the people journeying toward the Promised Land, their rebellion, and God’s persevering faithfulness.
    • Deuteronomy presents the second giving of the law (deutero=second, nomos=law).
    • Joshua describes the conquest of the Promised Land some 400 years after God’s people left.
    • Judges is the depressing account of life in the Promised Land: the people continually revert to lawlessness, and the times were well summed up by the phrase, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” (Judges 21:25)
    • Ruth is a little story set during the days of the judges, preparing the way for King David.
    • 1 and 2 Samuel are about the last judge, Samuel; a “false-start” king, Saul; and the first real king, David.
    • 1 and 2 Kings follow David’s royal descendents as they lead the people into idolatry, and eventually into annihilation for the Northern ten tribes and exile for the Southern two.
    • 1 and 2 Chronicles tell that same story.  But instead of explaining why the exile happened—the message of Kings—they point ahead to God’s final salvation.

    The last three books of history are about the exile and the return from exile:

    • Ezra describes the return of the Jews from their captivity and the rebuilding of the temple
    • Nehemiah continues the story by describing the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, a partial fulfillment of God’s promises of restoration to his people.
    • Esther is the last book of history: a story of God’s providential deliverance of the Jewish community during the exile.


    The Writings

    The middle books of the Old Testament are largely collections of wisdom literature, devotional poems, and ceremonial literature from the temple.

    • Job is a story about a righteous man who is tried by God.
    • Psalms are poetic prayers of praise, confession, and lament to God.
    • Proverbs presents the wisdom of Solomon and others concerning practical life issues.
    • Ecclesiastes, again probably by Solomon, recounts one man’s search for the path to happiness and meaning in this world.
    • Song of Songs is the collection of love songs between a bridegroom and his bride.


    The Prophets

    The final collection of books in the Old Testament is the Prophets.  These seventeen books present God’s commentary on Israel’s history, particularly Israel’s disobedience.

    • Isaiah was a prophet in the Southern kingdom, called “Judah.”  The first thrity-nine chapters are prophecies leading up to the captivity.  The last chapters point to a future restoration and redemption.
    • Jeremiah prophesied in Jerusalem during the years the city was besieged.  He continued to prophesy for seven years after the city fell in 586 B.C.
    • Lamentations is Jeremiah’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem
    • Ezekiel prophesied in Babylon during this time about the coming fall of Jerusalem and God’s ultimate restoration of his people.
    • Daniel, part prophecy and part history, chronicles how God showed himself to be the ruler of the world even as his people were in captivity in Babylon.
    • Hosea prophesied to the northern kingdom (called Israel) at the same time as Isaiah.  God used Hosea’s adulterous wife as a living example of Israel’s unfaithfulness.
    • Joel preached about the coming judgment of God on the southern kingdom—and God’s blessing that would follow their repentance.  That’s really the outline for most of these prophets.
    • Amos, another contemporary of Isaiah, predicted the judgment and restoration of the northern kingdom.
    • Obadiah uttered his very short prophecy of judgment against one of Judah’s neighbors, Edom.
    • Jonah, when called to prophesy to the Assyrian city of Nineveh, fled and was swallowed by a great fish.  In the belly of the fish, he prayed, repented, was delivered, and obeyed.
    • Micah prophesied at the same time as Isaiah and Hosea.  He spoke to both Israel and Judah.
    • Nahum, who lived a century after Jonah, proclaimed the coming judgment of God on Nineveh—and a future deliverance for Judah.
    • Habakkuk asked God why bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad people.  God’s response is a call to faith and trust in his promise of restoration.
    • Zephaniah promised that judgment would come on Judah as he called them to repent.


    The last three prophets prophesied after the exile, as Jerusalem was being rebuilt.

    • Haggai prodded the people to get on with rebuilding the temple.
    • Zechariah prophesied two months after Haggai and presented a series of wild dreams that attacked the religious lethargy of the people and foresaw the messianic age.
    • Malachi also attacked religious apathy and promised a coming Messiah.   He was the last Old Testament prophet.


    Well, that’s the Old Testament from end to end.  But what does that grand sweep of history teach us?  The first theme that we see is God’s passion for holiness, and ours for sin.


    The Old Testament teaches that all people are sinners[2] and the story line as a whole quickly leads to the conclusion that people are not able to deal with sin themselves.  Adam and Eve sin.  So God wipes the slate clean and starts over with Noah.  But he and his descendents sin.  God picks one family to bless—but they sin too.  And God’s miraculous rescue of Israel from Egypt is followed only by grumbling and rebellion.  Arrival in the promised land finds things getting only worse; the book of Judges suggests that the problem is that they have no king.  But even a king as good as David sins, and subsequent kings lead the charge to idolatry.  God warns his people and then disciplines them through exile.  But when they return from that crucible of chastisement, they go back to their wicked ways.  What is needed, we find, is not a second chance but a new heart.  We are sinful, and no solution for that problem is achieved in the Old Testament. God must do something new.


    That’s a huge problem, because God’s purpose for his people was for them to live lives together that proclaimed the perfection of his holy character to the nations around them.  As Ezekiel puts it, the people intended to proclaim God’s name instead profaned it.  What is to be done?


    This is where references to atonement are significant.  The English word means, quite literally, at-one-ment.  A number of images are used to describe atonement in the Old Testament, but the most prominent is sacrifice.  Sinners could seek to restore their relationship with God through sacrifice.  Abel’s sacrifice is the first described explicitly in Scripture.  And then Noah’s shows that sacrifice pleases God.  Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram instead of Isaac introduced the idea of sacrifice of a substitute—and at the first Passover, a substitute by which God’s wrath was turned aside.  And the sacrificial laws on Leviticus introduced the idea not just of a substitute, but of a penal substitute—a substitute who bore the punishment we deserved.  A penal substitute who made atonement, as on the Day of Atonement, where punishment was not merely served, but relationship with God was restored.


    Do you see how the Old Testament gradually builds up this idea of sacrifice?  Do you see what God was teaching his people?  First, he was teaching about his holiness and his passion for holiness.  Second, he was teaching that sin is serious—deathly serious!—because it’s such an aberration from his holiness.  And third, he was teaching that atonement could be accomplished when an innocent one dies in pace of the guilty.  In and of themselves, Levitical sacrifices were never the point.  Ironically, sacrifices were most appropriate when the person offering the sacrifice realized that the offering was not sufficient to atone for sins.  So you have the psalmist saying, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned.” (Ps. 51:4).  Sacrifices were not efficacious except by God’s grace.


    The ineffective nature of sacrifices can be seen most clearly through the Jewish Day of Atonement.  That’s a day on which a special sin offering was made for the whole nation.  What’s striking is that this ritual had to be repeated annually.  Calendar-driven, not event-driven.  Why?  Because the people were in a state of sin, and no animal sacrifice could ultimately remove their guilt.  There was no perfect sacrifice.  If there had been, the people could have stopped offering them.  (Heb 10:1-3)  Instead, these imperfect sacrifices emphasized the fact that God is holy, that sin separates us from God, and that he provides a way of forgiveness.  So the Old Testament explores so many different potential solutions to the problem of sin, but ultimately comes up empty-handed.  That’s one reason why it is bookended with God’s curse.  Think of Genesis 3: because of sin, God curses the serpent, the man, and the woman.  And does anyone know the last word of the Old Testament?  Turn to the last page of Malachi.  Referring to the second Elijah, who would be John the Baptist: “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (4:6)  “Curse” at the beginning.  Still under the curse at the end.  In the same place as where we began in Genesis 3.


    This brings up a question that I would call the “riddle of the Old Testament.”  In Exodus 34, the Lord describes himself to Moses, saying “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.  Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex 34:6-7a).  Forgiving . . . yet not leaving the guilty unpunished?  How can that be?  Perhaps there is still hope?


    The Story of the Promise

    There is hope, and it is in another story we see in the Old Testament: the story of promise.  Yes, the Old Testament ends where we started in Genesis 3.  But it also gives us a promise of hope.


    How will God forgive, and yet not leave the guilty unpunished?  It all comes down to his promise.  And the story of promise begins in the most unlikely of places.  It begins in the words of God’s curse after the fall.  Adam and Eve had chosen to disobey God, and so he brought upon them the just punishment for their sin.  But in the very sentence of condemnation, God makes a promise: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15).  God promises to create division and opposition between his people, the seed of the woman, and Satan’s people, the seed of the serpent.  And he promises that one day a son will be born who will defeat Satan and deliver his people from their sin.  The promise comes out of the blue.  Adam and Eve have done nothing to merit it, yet he makes it.


    Notice the promise has two sides: the seed of the serpent will strike at the seed of the woman; yet the seed of the woman will triumph.  The story of the Old Testament is the story of that promise being placed in jeopardy again and again—but against impossible odds, God ensures that his promise prevails.


    Cain murders Abel—the line of the woman—but God preserves that line through Seth.


    Humanity is captured by sin and deserving of God’s judgment, but God’s promise endures and he preserves Noah and his family.  Then, to ensure his promise of deliverance is kept, God makes another promise—never again to destroy all humanity by flood.


    Centuries pass; people go from bad to worse.  But with Abraham, God picks up that eternal promise and begins to flesh it out.  “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3)


    A generation later, rivalry between Isaac’s two sons almost destroys Jacob.  But Jacob is the chosen seed, and the Lord preserves him.  But once again, God’s promise is challenged by a famine that threatens to destroy the whole family.  How can God’s promise prevail if this family of the promise perishes?  Amazingly, God uses Joseph’s enslavement, imprisonment, and suffering to save his family.  He takes what his brothers meant for evil and turns it into salvation and deliverance not just for the chosen family, but for the surrounding nations as well.


    Again, the seed of the serpent rears its head as the descendents of Jacob are enslaved in Egypt, and a whole generation of boys is slaughtered at Pharaoh’s command.  Again, God is faithful and remembers his covenant with Abraham.  He preserves the life of Moses, and then uses him to deliver his people from their slavery.


    At Mount Sinai, God makes a covenant with Israel, in much the same way he did with Adam and Eve before the fall.  If the people obey, they will stay in the Promised Land.  But if they rebel, God will cast them out.  Of course, their rebellion begins almost immediately.  God judges his people, but he remains faithful to his promise to Abraham and to Adam.


    A new generation, led by Joshua, is raised up, and God gives them the land he had promised their forefathers.  Against all odds, they conquer the Canaanites.  Though the people continue to rebel, and God continues to punish them, he also raises up judges.  These are successors to Moses and Joshua who rescue the people and defeat their enemies.


    Finally, in an ultimate act of rebellion, the nation of Israel rejects God as their King, and asks for a king like all the other nations (1 Samuel 8).  In mercy, God anoints a king after his own heart, David, who will be like a son to him.  But the serpent even tries to chase down and destroy David from within Israel itself—first through Saul and later through David’s son Absalom.


    Yet God, who is gracious and faithful, makes yet another promise to David.  This is a promise that’s really just an extension of his promise to Abraham and that gives further shape to the promise of Genesis 3.  God promises David that he will always have a son to rule on his throne, and that son will rule in righteousness (2 Sam. 7:11-16).  The promised seed of Genesis 3 and 15 is in fact to be a king who will deliver his people.


    At first it appears that son is Solomon.  But it’s not.  Solomon proves unfaithful, and judgment follows.  Division comes first.  The kings in the north are progressively more wicked, until God sends the northern kingdom into an exile from which they will never return.  In the south there are periodic renewals, but the renewals are never complete, and they never last.  Finally, God sends Judah into exile, and it seems that his promise has failed.


    But even in the context of judgment and exile, God reveals that he has not forgotten and he has not failed.  The prophets are given a message of hope, that God will make a new covenant with his people (Jer. 31:31-34).  After seventy years in exile, Judah returns to the Promised Land.  The walls are restored and the temple is rebuilt—but God never comes back to dwell in that temple.  The new covenant has not yet arrived.  When will God finally keep his promise?


    Well, this is the expectation we are living in when, after four hundred years of silence, God speaks and the New Testament begins.



    So do you see how these pieces all fit together?  On the one hand, the Old Testament is a story that moves sideways, never progressing.  Solution after solution to our sin is suggested and tried, only to result in failure.  So by the end of Malachi we are no better off than we were in Genesis 3, except that we know for a fact that we cannot save ourselves.  But on another level, the Old Testament is a story of forward motion because it’s the story of promise.  God gradually reveals more and more of his perfect plan to redeem a people for himself. And as that promises takes shape, hope is born out of the despair of sin and the stage is set for Jesus Christ.  He would live as the perfect Israel, and die as our substitute, the perfect Passover lamb.  Through his death on our behalf and his resurrection from the dead, he would reconcile us to God.  As Paul puts it in Romans 3, “[demonstrating God’s justice] at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26).  Just and the one who justifies sinners?  Forgiving and the one who does not leave the guilty unpunished?  The promises God made through all those centuries find their answer in Jesus—the answer to the riddle of the Old Testament.  That is the message of the Hebrew Scriptures.


    [1] These statistics come from Roger Nicole, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 135-51, reprinted in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Text?, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 13-14.

    [2] 1 Kings 8:46, Psalm 14:3, Proverbs 20:9, Eccles. 7:20