Monday, June 17, 2013

Authorial Intent in Christ Centered Preaching

“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (Jn. 17:7)
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (Jn. 14:6)

One common criticism of Christ centered preaching is that it fails to pay enough attention to the authorial intent of Old Testament passages. What many critics of Christ centered preaching fail to appreciate; however, is that the exegetical conclusions of Christ centered preachers are based upon a hermeneutical principal that is deeper than simply inserting Jesus into their sermons. The argument of Christ centered preachers is that the Old Testament authors’ original intent was for their writings to be understood and applied christologically. They argue that we do not need to read Christ back into the Old Testament because He is already there. The debate should not be about the contrast between an emphasis on authorial intent and Christ centeredness, but rather on the degree to which the authors intended their writing to be about Jesus Christ.

 Before we begin, I would like to make a couple important points. First, authorial intent and context are essential to a proper understanding of the Bible. Allegorical or mystical interpretation is improper and undermines the authority of scripture. It is simply not appropriate to ignore the words, structure, and context of the Old Testament passage in order to have Jesus pop out of every story. Second, there are many examples of irresponsible exegesis in Christ centered tradition just as there are in other traditions. I am not defending irresponsible applications of a Christ centered reading of the Old Testament.

The Bible itself teaches that the Old Testament is to be understood christologically. As a result, interpreting an Old Testament passage without regard to its function in the broader redemptive narrative that culminates in Christ and His kingdom is to ignore the larger context of those passages and the intent of the human authors. Jesus taught that the writers of the Old Testament were speaking about Him. He criticizes the Jewish leaders for their misunderstanding of the scriptures in that they did not recognize that they spoke about Him (Jn. 5:39). He tells them that Moses is the one who accuses them before the Father because had they believed Moses, they would believe in Him because Moses wrote of Him (Jn. 5:46). The implication is that the authorial intent of Moses was to speak of Christ and that those who read his words without a christological focus misunderstand him.

Jesus does not only make this claim about Moses, He says similar things about all of the Old Testament writers. He said that Abraham saw his day and rejoiced (Jn. 8:56).  After His resurrection when He appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus he calls them fools because they did not recognize the Old Testament teaching regarding the messiah (Lk. 24:25-26). Luke then records that He then gave them a Christ centered interpretation of the entire Old Testament (Lk. 24:27). We should not assume that he simply pointed out a few messianic passages because we are told in verse 32 that He “opened” the scriptures to them and again in verse 45 that “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Lk. 24:32,45).  Jesus is teaching them that He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

This teaching is central to the ministry of the apostles. Indeed, it would not be an overstatement to say that to a large degree the New Testament is a commentary on the Old Testament. Peter explains to the crowd at Pentecost that David spoke about the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:25,31). Like Jesus, he does not limit this claim to one prophet but also claims that all the prophets spoke of Jesus (Acts 3:18). Later, when he writes 1 Peter he makes a claim that has astounding hermeneutical consequences regarding authorial intent. He says,

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Peter is writing to those who have believed the Gospel and says the prophets wrote about the salvation that was to come to them, that the prophets inquired about this, that the prophesy came through the Spirit of Christ working in them, and that they predicted the sufferings and glory of Jesus. He also says explicitly that it was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but “you” (believers in Christ)! This is astounding because it reveals that not only is Jesus the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies but that the prophets knew that. Of course, they did not have a complete picture and they inquired about the timing etc., but they intended their words to refer to something beyond their immediate circumstances.

In a similarly amazing statement, the author to the Hebrews tells us that the great heroes of faith in the Old Testament did not receive what was promised. In fact, apart from those who have trusted in the Gospel of Christ they would not be made perfect (Heb. 11:39-40). The coming of the kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ is the culmination of all the promises and faith of the Old Testament.

Paul likewise assumes that the Old Testament writers intended to speak about Christ. His references to this are so numerous and so intertwined with his writing that it would be nearly impossible to list them. It is clear that he understands his ministry as building upon what the Old Testament taught (Acts 24:14, 26:22-23). Paul describes his ministry and that of the other apostles as preaching Christ crucified, or preaching the riches of Christ (1 Cor. 1:23, Eph. 3:8). It is interesting to see how he actually did this.

One of the best examples is Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:13-43. He was in Pisidian Antioch and after the reading of the Law and Prophets; he was invited by the leaders to address the congregation. He begins with the Old Testament and works through the narrative of redemptive history right into the New Testament. While connecting all of this material he presents Christ as the central theme. I just quickly looked over that sermon and I counted between 18 and 20 distinct references to the Old Testament. This sermon is saturated with the Old Testament and is designed to present Jesus Christ and the Gospel explicitly. There is no allegory; Christ is presented as the intended focus of those texts. This is apparently not a unique sermon for Paul because he delivers it extemporaneously and we are told that it is Paul’s normal approach to go to the Jews first and reason with them from the scriptures (Acts 17:2). Remember, that “the scriptures” means the Old Testament.

All of the apostles used preaching opportunities to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ and they usually do this by showing that Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. It is the assumption of the New Testament writers that Jesus is very much present in the Old Testament and is in view when the prophets are writing. The authors are so confident of this that on occasion they attribute the very words of the prophets to Jesus Himself. Just one example is found in Hebrews where the author quotes Psalm 22 as being the words of Jesus (Heb. 2:10-12, Ps. 22:22).

Hundreds of other examples could be given but I hope this is sufficient to show that a commitment to preaching Christ from the Old Testament is not simply the result of disregarding authorial intent. Rather, redemptive historical preaching assumes as a hermeneutical principal that the Old Testament authors intended their words to be applied to Christ. The question is therefore not if it is OK to ignore authorial intent in order to present the gospel (it is not), but how we can understand and apply the Old Testament to Christ and the church properly. I plan to examine this exegetical question in the next post.  

Read Part 2

Sunday, June 2, 2013

For No Word of God is Impossible

The Bible teaches that God is omnipotent, meaning that He is all-powerful. This truth is a great comfort to believers not because power itself provides comfort but because it means that God is capable of doing what He promises. Our only hope in salvation is trusting in the promises of God, that He is willing and capable of keeping His word. The idea that there is nothing in the universe powerful enough to thwart the purposes of God is the reason for the hope that sustains the Christian life.  

The Bible emphasizes the connection between the power of God and the performance of His word in various ways. One of my favorite examples I first heard in a lecture by Dr. Edmund Clowney as he was commenting on the Christmas story.

In the first chapter of Luke, after the angel explains to Mary that she will have a son who will be the fulfillment of the messianic promises, Mary asks how this is possible since she is a virgin. The angel explains that the child will be the child of God and then he says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:34-38)

We might read this as a simple statement about the power of God but the statement is not merely an assertion of the omnipotence of God. It also highlights a connection between what God promises and His ability to bring it to pass. What the angel actually says is ὄτι [For] οὐκ [not/nothing] ἀδυνατήσει [shall be impossible] παρὰ [with] τοῦ [the] θεοῦ [God] πᾶν [every] ρῆμα [thing spoken or uttered]. The word ρῆμα (rhema) literally means that which is spoken or uttered.

The usual translation that no-thing is impossible draws upon a Hebrew pattern where a reference to a spoken work can either mean the word itself or the thing the word refers to. The typical translation communicates the main point that God has the power to bring this to pass and so is not a bad translation. The phrase, however, can also be translated “for no word of God is impossible” or “for no word of God will fail”. Translating the statement more literally highlights a number of important connections both in the immediate text and in the overall Biblical story.

The angel has just explained that Mary’s child is the fulfillment of the prophesies of the Old Testament. He is declaring to her that all of those seemingly impossible promises in which Israel had placed its hope were to be fulfilled in her child. These prophesies and promises were the words that God had uttered. To trust in the promises is the same as trusting in His word. Notice the way that Mary responds. She says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She is essentially saying that the words she just heard sound impossible but she believes them because she is a servant of God (Lk. 1:38). The emphasis of this dialogue is not God’s power as an abstract concept. What is emphasized is the connection between the power of His word and His faithfulness in acting to bring those promises into reality.

The phrase the angel uses also highlights a particular connection between the ultimate fulfillment of the promises in Mary’s child with a previous promise that pointed toward it. Remember that God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations and that the world would be blessed through his seed. When he was 99 years old, still without the promised child, The Angel of the Lord visited him and told him that Sarah would have a child the next year. Sarah, who was listening to the conversation, laughed because it seemed absurd that she would have a child at her age (Gen. 18:12-13).  The Angel knew she laughed, and asks Abraham “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14). This is the same statement made to Mary but in question form. The Hebrew word dabar, translated as “anything” literally means a word that is spoken. As mentioned above, it often refers to the thing spoken about rather than the statement itself but in this case, the question could be translated “Is any utterance (word) of Jehovah too marvelous?”

The statement of the angel to Mary is not just information, but is also intended to remind us of God’s previous faithfulness to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah thought that an old barren woman having a child was impossible but God showed His power in keeping the promise when Isaac was born. The name Isaac means laughter so the very name of her child was a reminder of the answer to the question that the angel had asked, “Is any word of Jehovah too marvelous/difficult?” The promise to Mary is even more unlikely than the one given to Sarah so it is understandable that Mary asks how it is possible. The angel’s answer, while sufficient in itself, would almost certainly have reminded Mary of the story of Sarah and the birth of Isaac. Her attention is therefore called not only to the power of God but also to His history of keeping His promises.

While Isaac was a partial fulfillment of the promise, final fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham would not happen until Jesus Christ came. Christ is the ultimate answer to the question about God’s ability to bring His word into reality. The answer to Mary’s question is also the answer to the question that The Angel of the Lord asked Abraham. The answer is that no word of God is impossible and the proof is God keeping His promises in Jesus Christ. Jesus and His work secures the fulfillment of all the promises to the patriarchs and prophets (1 Pet. 1:12, Heb. 11:39). The power, grace, mercy, and love of God are made apparent through His sure word “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

What an encouragement this is to us! The angels who visited Sarah and Mary did not encourage them by pointing to their unique experiences or circumstances. They were encouraged by a reminder of the trustworthiness of God’s word. We have hope because the marvelous promises of God’s word are 100% certain because they are secured by His sovereign power (1 Pet. 1:3-5, 1:23-25).