Strategy 2 The Word of God Session 1 What’s the Story?

We are living in challenging times. The Bible has been under assault for the best part of 200 years, not just from outside the Christian community, but, most seriously, from within! From Higher Criticism (19th Germany), to David Jenkins at the end of the 20th, the path has been only downwards. Today, we are being assaulted with alternative understandings as the Church tries to accommodate the World’s changing narratives within God’s unchanging moral requirements – and that doesn’t work! Saying things that were commonly held by most people only 10 years ago, will now result in you being ‘cancelled’ and ‘no platformed’ or ‘flamed’ and socially ostracized.

So is the Bible true or not? What we aim to do in these sessions is to build up our confidence in God’s Word! There is a huge distrust of history today and suspicion of ’big stories’, meta-narratives, that give a world view for a society. Each person now has their ‘own truth’ when what they need is God’s Truth! Which, of course, is a person – Jesus – Word – Truth – Word – Jesus (John 14:6; 17:17) – God’s last word to man (Heb. 1:1-2).

The Bible’s own testimony is that “Every word of God is true” (flawless) Prov. 30:5. In case anyone objects that that is just what the Bible says about itself, the ESV translates it as “Every Word of God proves true”. Those who put it to the test find it to be true! (Chesterton quote) The Bible doesn’t just contain the word of God, but  it is  the Word of God. And God’s will is in His Words – He speaks and things happen!

But it also challenges us! God’s Word does comfort the afflicted, but it also afflicts the comfortable! As John Stott said – “We must allow the Word of God to confront us, to disturb our security, to undermine our complacency and to overthrow our patterns of thought and behavior.” We encounter God primarily through His Word, and If we encounter Him, we must be changed – no-one in the Bible ever came away unchanged from encountering God! It’s not just helpful hints for harmful habits!

So what we propose to do in these sessions is threefold:

  1. Firstly, we ask “What is the Bible all about?”; “Why and how was it written?” We look at the ‘Big Picture’ of what the Bible says God is doing in this world, His plans – or at least, as much as He has revealed to us about them! Not a blow-by-blow account of them, but a framework within which we can place Scriptures as we read them
  2. Then we’ll look at how we should read the Word: principles for ‘accurately handling’ the Scriptures as Paul instructs Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:15; ‘minding the gaps’ between our day and age, and the day and age in which the Bible was written; use of different translations and commentaries
  3. Finally, we’ll ask “How does it apply to us?” We’ll take a look at how we apply the Scriptures, hearing “God’s Word to us” in “God’s Word to them”, identifying any biases or blockages in our understanding

Why was it written and why important?

John 17:3 Eternal life is that we might know God (only possible by revelation!); not know about, but know Him. Abraham believed God – not believed in God – “believing in” has the connotation of make-believe (Santa Claus, tooth fairy), something that you believe knowing that it isn’t true, or despite the evidence. “Believe God” means to trust Him and His Word, His character, to take His side (as when we believe someone’s account of an event, or when we say ‘Believe me’).

Bible is Hebraic! What do I mean?

  • Greek thinking – “know about”; Biblical/Hebraic “know God”
  • Greek “inform the mind” Hebraic “inflame the heart”
  • Greek “accumulate information” – facts; Hebraic “bring transformation” – actions

These sessions may get somewhat analytical and factual, but the goal is that we might know our God better as we understand the Bible better, and not some mirage of our own making,

The first thing you would notice on opening a Bible at the front is that it is divided into two ‘Testaments’ – Old and New. NB these are Christian jargon reflecting a particular view that we will explore in these sessions. Someone who is not familiar with Christian jargon might ask:

What is a testament? Why is one called Old? What was New? Testament – covenant, but what’s that? Old – worn out, obsolete? New – but 2000 years old! (handout – Covenants and the Big Picture)

What is a Testament?

Testament = Covenant, not contract.  Contract is between equals with obligations and rights on both sides.  Covenant has the idea of one party, generally the stronger, or the one who has something to give (as in Last Will and Testament), making promises to another party, sometimes conditional, but mostly unconditional.

The Bible describes God as a covenant-making God (unique!). It describes the covenants He has made with mankind, their terms and promises, and the history of mankind in relation to them. Most of them are unconditional – God always acts in grace in response to man’s faith (even under the Law, the one conditional covenant). Look at this later in a bit more detail under exegesis and hermeneutics.

From Abraham onwards, all God’s covenants were made with the Israelite people, the ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – even the New Covenant! The people are the apple of His eye, the country the navel of the earth. God’s purposes for creation are inextricably linked with that nation, by His sovereign choice, and ignoring that has led the Church into many errors.

God completes what He starts – and He has committed Himself to fulfil all the covenant promises He has made – fulfilled to the very people to whom He made the promises! (If not, what assurance can we have that He will fulfil His promise of eternal life to us?) And our destiny as the church, and the destiny of creation are all bound up in these covenants and the destiny of the much-despised nation of Israel, which continues to exist despite satan’s best efforts to destroy it!

In Derek Prince’s book, ‘The Last Word on the Middle East’, he talks about the day when Jesus comes back in glory in the clouds to take His place and reign:

“In this closing scene, all the drama of establishing God’s kingdom on earth are brought together on stage.  It is the same stage on which every previous crisis of the same drama has been enacted, Jerusalem and its surroundings.  Angelic hosts, glorified saints and the preserved remnant of Israel take their respective places. But the central figure outshining all the rest, drawing them together round Himself is that of Messiah the King.”

This ushers in the restoration of Creation (Rom. 11:12, 15; 8:19-21) and leads ultimately to the New Jerusalem (note, not the New London, or even New York! certainly not the New Brussels, or New Moscow, or New Beijing)!

Bible Overview

So what’s in it? Compare size of old and new – OT incomplete without NT, and NT incomplete without any part, including Revelation. 66 books (39, 27, 3×9=27), 40 authors, written over a period of 1400 years, yet it has a consistent and coherent message – summed up in John 20:31 – written that we “might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, [we] might have life in His Name”.

Few of them knew each other nor that they were writing Scripture, but were addressing local situations, with specific intentions for different audiences. While it is the work of many writers, and reflects their diverse personalities and perspectives, it has the divine stamped all over it – especially in its power to speak to our hearts, minds and consciences. It is likened to a mirror – a mirror reflects back what you are, for better or for worse! You can’t read it, or judge it like any other book – it judges you! (Heb 4:12)

Other reasons you can’t read it like any other book about religion,

  • It’s not a series of doctrinal statements or theses (systematic theology) or collection of ‘proof texts’, but a library of literature – poetry, history, letters and wisdom (e.g. proverbs and advice)
  • it claims to be ‘God-breathed’ by the Holy Spirit, but He did not treat the authors as ‘word- processors’ (except in rare instances), by-passing their minds and hearts (same as this course – not university lecture!).

Unity in diversity

But in spite of that diversity, or perhaps because of it, there is a remarkable unity. Unity does not mean uniformity, but can include diversity. ”There is a deep unity in the [Bible], which dominates and transcends all the diversities” (Hunter The Unity of the NT 1943). Complementary rather than contradictory – see Continuity handout.

Most Christians are comfortable with the New Testament, but what do we do with the Old? Is it just a collection of stories for Sunday School lessons or to be mined for sermon illustrations? Or is there a bigger story going on?

We could picture the standard understanding of the message of the Bible in this way:

So how does the OT fit in to this? Somewhere in the lower red arrow, with the result that everything between Gen 3 (the Fall) and Matt. 1 (the coming of Messiah) can safely be omitted without damage to the message? The NT answers “NO”! It begins by rooting the Gospel in the promises to David and Abraham and ends in the New Jerusalem, reaffirming on the way that God’s promises to, and purposes for, Israel are irrevocable! The ‘church is created by the incorporation of Gentiles into those promises and this ultimately results in the restoration of the whole creation (Rom. 8)

Paul spells this out in Romans 9 – 11. “Paul’s gospel is the good news of Israel’s heritage and Israel’s covenanted blessings. To break the link between the Old and the New Covenant is not to liberate the gospel, but to destroy it.  For his {i.e. Paul’s] gospel is nothing if it is not the continuation and fulfilment of all that God intended for and through His chosen people.” (“The Word Biblical Commentary”, James Dunn) See Acts 13:32-33

The Mystery of History

The picture the Bible paints, understood as a whole, is much larger! The whole of history is moving towards the climax of the ages described in Eph.1:9-10, and if we fail to comprehend this, much of the OT, and what has gone on in history (and is going on in our world now!), will be a mystery – “the mystery of history” as Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones puts it in his commentary on Habakkuk “From Fear to Faith”. Writing against the background of WW2, he goes on to say:

“Why are people troubled about it? The main reason, it would seem, is that [we] use the Bible in a narrow sense, as being exclusively a text book of personal salvation. Many seem to think that the sole theme of the Bible is that of man’s personal relationship to God. Of course that is one of the central themes, and we thank God for the salvation provided without which we should be left in hopeless despair. But that is not the only theme of the Bible. Indeed, we can go so far as to say that the Bible puts the question of salvation into a larger context. Ultimately the main message of the Bible concerns the condition of the entire world and its destiny; and you and I, as individuals, are part of a larger whole … The great and noble teaching of the Bible is concerned with the whole question of the world and its destiny.”

And note from the Scriptures we read that all this is the activity of God – we only contribute our weakness – a hard lesson for us humans to learn, but over and over again emphasised in Scripture! Uniquely among the religions of the world, the Bible describes a God of love, who offers grace and forgiveness, and relationship with Himself, not on the basis of what we can do for Him, but as a free gift which He purchased, ultimately with His own death on our behalf. It’s such good news that most people don’t believe it’s true (including many Christians at a practical level!).

Yet, this is what is in the Bible – foreshadowed in the Old Testament, and fulfilled in the New. As Augustine said, the New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed. The context of the story of whole Bible – not battle of good and evil (dualism), but story of mankind’s rebellion against God, and His rescue mission so that His original purpose can be fulfilled.

The Hinge of History

Many other events and epochs have been described as the hinge of history – in recent times, the fall of communism and the ‘noughties’, but the NT really does mark that. We divide time into BC and AD. The world will never be the same again – God has invaded this enemy territory (C S Lewis) and laid the foundation for the final overthrow of the leader of the rebellion and the recreation of all things in the New Creation through the victory of the Cross of Christ (although there is a tension or paradox in that statement – more of that shortly).

Overlapping Kingdoms!

The NT then begins with the record of God becoming Man in Christ and starting the process which will culminate with the current creation passing away and in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

However, there is a tension in what we believe, The Kingdom of God is very much “already, but not yet”. The NT describes the world system as under the dominion of Satan now, and many aspects of the Kingdom of God as still future. But Jesus said that the Kingdom is ‘near’ and ‘among you’ 2000 years ago. So there is a paradox and we are living in it. Unlocking pp.817-820

We might picture it as two overlapping circles and we are now living in place (time) where the two circles overlap.

But I find it helpful to see the two kingdoms mapped as a set of overlapping S-shaped curves, (known as Sigmoid curves. Hopefully the picture will explain it all)

The Sigmoid Curve is an S-shaped curve, which can be used to describe the cycle of life itself, or the life-cycle of products, organisations, empires, careers, etc. – almost any field of human endeavour. As the curve symbolises, nearly all of life’s endeavours start slowly. They dip and falter through an experimental stage before rising to a pinnacle of success, after which there is inevitable decline.

A management consultant, Charles Handy (son of a Church of Ireland archdeacon) described this in “The Empty Raincoat” (London:Random House, 1994) As Handy puts it, “The sigmoid curve sums up the story of life itself. We start slowly, experimentally, and falteringly; we wax and then we wane. It is the story of the British Empire and the Soviet Union and of all empires, always.” (with the exception of Israel!)

On its own, the S-shaped curve is a bit depressing, and not particularly helpful. Its power comes when we add a second curve to it. In business, or in a career, the secret of continuing success, is to start a new venture before the old one starts to wane. There is always a period of confusion, where the first curve is being abandoned and the second one embraced. This is a time of overlap, or ambiguity and of confusion – human nature, go with what’s working. The old is better (for a while)

For us, I hope it will help us to understand the times we are living in, where there is a tension between how the Bible describes the Kingdom of God and what we see around us in the world.

The story of the Bible can be shown in this picture – the growth of the kingdom of satan is recorded in the OT – despite God acting in grace and covenant love, to all mankind at first, but then to the nation of Israel (who were to be His agents of change in the world). Human nature is increasingly revealed for what it is – a rebel – until God breaks into human history in the Person of Jesus to establish His own Kingdom – the ‘Age to Come’ that all Jews had been expecting (and still are). However, what Jesus offered was not what people were expecting (not a conquering King, not of this world, but personal), and so was rejected by the people to whom it was offered.

But the Bible does speak of it as universal at some point in the future, and in the meantime, describes what God is doing in the period of the overlap – the age we are living in. This is a time of conflict, when the old order (satan’s domain) is fighting a rearguard action to thwart God’s plans for His Kingdom. The day is coming when the kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our God and of His Messiah and He will reign for ever (Rev.11:15).

We also need to understand that the primary location of that battle is in what the Bible calls ‘the flesh’ – our bodies, hearts and minds. We are “in training for reigning” according to Romans 8 and God has a purpose in the present age – to change us into the image of His Son, and all that happens – good and bad – is for that purpose (e.g. Heb. 12; Rom 8:28 context)

But in the meantime, the people of Messiah’s Kingdom are in a battle of cosmic proportions, which will only get worse as the Coming of Messiah gets nearer (Rev. 12:12). However, they are on the winning side. The war was fought and won at Calvary and there is no doubt about the final outcome!

But how do we (non-Jews) get to be part of God’s Plan?

The Bible is clear – Jesus own words “Salvation is of the Jews”. The New Covenant is with the House of Judah and the House of Israel. The kingdom is clearly ruled from Jerusalem and Israel, with Messiah reigning from the throne of His father, David. Israel is clearly the head of the nations in the Kingdom when it comes in all its fullness. So how does the rest of the world come in?

The Apostolic church struggled with this

  • Acts 1:6 “Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?
  • Acts 3:19 Peter again offers the kingdom to the Jews ‘times of refreshing’ and ‘send you the Messiah’ if they would repent and turn to God
  • Acts 8 The Apostles send Peter and John to Samaria to authenticate the work of God amongst the despised (non-Jewish) Samaritans
  • Acts 10/11 God has to give Peter a vision to get him to the house of a gentile, Cornelius, to preach the good news. The Jerusalem church reluctantly acknowledges that ‘God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18)
  • Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas start preaching to the Gentiles as the Jews were rejecting their message, and when the Gentiles heard that the gospel was for them too, “they were glad, and honoured the Word of the Lord” (v.48)

Then we get to Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem – a turning point in the history of the Church. Up to this time, the Church had been almost entirely Jewish – Jewish Bible (OT only!), Jewish leadership, Jewish missionaries, almost certainly Jewish worship and customs, Jewish food regulations. And here are both Peter and Paul with amazing testimonies of Gentiles embracing the Jewish Messiah, AND being given the gift of the Holy Spirit. – Joel 2 for Israel!

This was the big question in Acts 15. Some were insisting that all new believers had to become Jews in order to participate fully in the blessings of the Gospel and become full members of the New Covenant Community (which, up to that time, had been Jewish) as promised in Jeremiah.

So how do non-Jews get in? Through embracing the Jewish Messiah, and being embraced by Him! This was the surprise. The OT foretells that non-Jews will be blessed when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, but they had no idea that Gentiles were to be full members of that Kingdom, on the same basis as Israel was, is and will be – the One New Man of Eph.2, described as the Commonwealth of Israel, “heirs together with Israel, members together of one body and sharers together in the promise in Messiah Jesus”.

They discuss this and send out the first ever encyclical letter to give guidance. The men can be forever grateful that they listened to Peter and the Holy Spirit and just settled on some dietary and moral requirements!

In Romans 8, the apostle Paul relates the redemption of Creation to revelation of the sons of God and the resurrection/redemption of our bodies, and in ch. 11 relates that to the restoration of Israel to the purposes of God and the salvation of ‘all Israel’, all of which takes place at the Second Coming and is described as ’greater riches’ than salvation coming to the Gentiles, no less than ‘life from the dead’ – not just for Israel but for all Creation! This was always God’s “Plan A” – devised before time began, foreshadowed in the Old Testament, purchased at Calvary and announced to the world in the Gospel.

But as the Church became increasing dominated by Gentiles, and the Jewish community ostracized what had been previously seen as a sect of Judaism, they lost sight of this bigger plan. The destruction of the Temple in AD70 and the dispersion that followed that, and later after the Bar Kochkba uprising in c. 135AD seemed to indicate that God had finished with Israel.

From Justin Martyr (c.150AD) onwards, the church increasingly saw itself as replacing Israel – being the New Israel or True Israel. By Augustine (4th Century), the doctrinal transition was complete and for the next 1000 years, the Kingdom of God was seen as being solely fulfilled in the church, with no future millennial or Messianic Kingdom as prophesied in the OT – all transferred to the Church (except for the curses – they left them there for the Jews!). The Bible became a closed book to almost every Christian and the church became increasingly proud – and pagan (and repeating all the sins of the Israel it claimed to replace!)

But with the translation of the Scriptures into the language of the people, came the Reformation and, on the back of that, the realization that there might be something wrong with the Church’s understanding of the place of Israel and her relationship with the Kingdom. And during the 14th – 17th centuries, various different ways of reconciling the OT prophecies with the NT church were developed.

Catholicism has remained largely unchanged but on the Protestant side, three main streams evolved:

  • Reformed, or Covenant, Theology arose out of the Reformation, as its name suggests. It basically retains A-Millennial Augustinian doctrine – the Church has replaced Israel, taken over the Covenant promises (all Yes and Amen in Christ 2 Cor. 1). There is a single covenant of grace spanning all the covenants and a single people of God comprising the saints of all time. The promises of a land to the descendants of Israel has either lapsed or been transferred to the church spiritually. The Church of England, the Presbyterians, Baptist church in the UK, and New Wine would hold this position.
    Basic issue with this is – it’s not found in Scripture! It also has no place for a restored nation of Israel – the modern restoration of Israel is, at best, an irrelevance or an embarrassment to this position.
    Reveal A-Millennial
  • The Puritans began to look again and Scripture but became increasingly convinced that the Millennial Kingdom was about to occur in their age and when it didn’t (the restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II was definitely NOT the Kingdom of God!), they were forced back into the Scripture! When and how was the Kingdom to come?
  • In the 17th century, a new teaching began to emerge, that the kingdoms of this world becoming the Kingdom of our God and of His Messiah would be effected by the Church, not by the return of Christ, and that Christ would return AFTER the church had converted the world. Now known as Post-Millennialism, it was very popular during the 19th century when science and technology were solving all men’s problems, but two world wars saw it fall out of favour by the middle of the 20th century.
    Reveal Post-millennial
    However, it has made a comeback through movements like the “Latter Day Rain” and “Manifest Sons of God” and Restorationism. It is the driving theology of the “Kingdom Now” movement and underlies the Dominion Theology of movements like New Apostolic Reformation (to which churches like Bethel and Hillsongs subscribe) which aims for Christians to take over the seven kingdoms of this world (e.g. politics, finance, government, education). Movements in the UK like Pioneer, Ichthus and New Frontiers would also subscribe to this view and it is becoming increasingly popular in Charismatic circles.`
    Basic issue of this is that it requires a manifest Kingdom without a manifest King! And history teaches us that, when the church takes secular authority, it doesn’t end well! (think the Inquisition, Calvin’s Geneva and the persecution of the Anabaptists). It also has no place for a restored nation of Israel.
  • In parallel, some went back to the position of the Apostolic Fathers (i.e. the earliest church) and seeing that the restoration of Israel was foretold in prophecy and it was in that way that the Kingdom of God would come in its manifest form (James I of KJV fame put someone in the Tower of London, where he died, for teaching that!). The establishment of the Kingdom would be triggered by Jesus’ Return and involves the regathering of Israel and re-establishment of the state of Israel. This is known as Pre-Millennialism and it was held by almost all evangelicals during the 19th century until the middle of the 20th Century, including C H Spurgeon and J C Ryle and more modern teachers like Derek Prince and David Pawson. There are several variations in the details of the timing.

All these viewpoints are the church’s attempts to reconcile the salvation of the Gentiles with what the Bible teaches about the Kingdom of God. Remind ourselves of the bigger picture I presented earlier.

Speaking of the salvation of all Israel in Romans 11, Paul exclaims:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Speaking about the incorporation of Gentiles into the Body of Messiah (the church) in Eph. 3, Paul goes on to pray:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

The video of this session can be viewed here

A brief discussion of Covenants is available here but a fuller discussion of this topic will be considered in the next session (Strategy 2 Session 2)