I’ve observed three characteristics about Bible Studies over the years.
Every night my son and daughter would snuggle beside me on the couch and listen as I read a story to them from a children’s Bible. On one page was colorful artwork depicting the Israelites walking between the high wet walls of the Red Sea or Daniel in a den of sleeping lions. On the facing page was a digest version of the account.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is perhaps one of the most unlikely—and unorthodox—places to learn about the Bible. But God often chooses out-of-the-box people and places as his favorite classrooms.
The devil’s copy of the Bible is not gathering dust on a nightstand. It’s the most dog-eared, underlined, highlighted book in his library. Satan is steeped in the Scriptures.
When a preacher steps into the pulpit, he may carry a few things with him. A Bible. A sermon manuscript. A bottle of water. Perhaps a little something that’ll serve as an object lesson as he preaches. But whatever he brings, I hope he includes two birds.
Ever since it’s appearance in the late 1700’s, Sunday School has played a key role in teaching boys and girls how to read the Bible like they’re not Christians.
Of the 364 other days of the year upon which Christ could have poured out His Holy Spirit, why did He do so on exactly the fiftieth day after Easter? What was so important about this day? It was, indeed, already a holy day, the OT Feast of Weeks. But why choose this feast day? What makes Weeks so fitting a time for Jesus to give His Holy Spirit to the church?
My first Sunday School teacher was a pale, squat, balding man who retold dusty old Bible stories with a nasally voice and a moralistic heart. The more he taught me to be good, the more I wanted to be bad. So I’d hide from him. Under tables, behind curtains, inside closets. Sometimes he’d find me, sometimes not.
Let me tell you about a man who never met a challenge he didn’t fail. At least in the stories about him, he has a bad habit of making the wrong decision. Warn him about a cliff, and he’ll fall off it. Show him a snake, and he’ll get bit. His life is a painful series of unfortunate events. And because of that, I can’t help but feel a kinship with him. Those of you who’ve always chosen wisely, who’ve kept to the straight and narrow, probably won’t appreciate his story, so you can go on about your business. Everyone else, meet our friend, and fellow failure, Lot. Lot’s first mistake was his zip code. His home was on the corner of Wicked and Sinful in the city of Sodom. No one forced him to move there. He made the decision quite willfully. When he and Abraham needed to split up because there was strife between their herdsmen, Uncle Abraham gave him first dibs. Lot surveyed the land, saw that the acreage around Sodom was “like the garden of the Lord,” so he chose to sink roots there. The grass was greener on the other side of the fence. The only problem was the other side of that fence was Sodom, where his neighbors were “wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord,” (Gen 13:13). Mistake #1.
Things went to pot quickly. After Lot settled there, the rulers of the city decided they weren’t going to pay their overlords any more. So these overlords took the city behind the woodshed and gave them a thrashing. They took all the goods of Sodom, all their food supply, and—wouldn’t you know it—they took Lot and his family, too. Abraham came to the rescue. He defeated the attackers, brought back all the spoils of war, along with the citizens of Sodom who’d been kidnapped, including Lot. After all this happened, you would think Lot might consider relocating. But, no, he stayed in Sodom. And things got still worse.
While our friend was sitting at the city gate one evening, two travelers showed up. He insisted they join him and his family for dinner and spend the evening in his home. In the middle of the night, the men of the city surrounded Lot’s house and demanded he bring out the two visitors so they could have sex with them. Lot begins well enough. He says, “Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly,” (19:7). But he’s not finished. Lot has an alternative in mind. “Look,” he says, “I have two daughters who’ve never had sex with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof,” (19:8). Yes, you read that right. Lot is offering his two virgin daughters to a rape-hungry mob. Thankfully, the two visitors (who were actually angels) save the day. They blind the would-be rapists. They warn Lot that God is about to reduce the city to ashes. And in the morning, they lead the family out of the city to safety. So to Lot’s growing resume we can now add: utter failure as a father.
But we’re not done yet. Let’s put the icing on the cake. Lot’s wife didn’t make it far out of Sodom. Against the express warning of the angels, she paused and stared back at the city as it was being destroyed. The fire and brimstone overtook her and she became the well-known “pillar of salt.” All that remained were Lot and his two girls. But these daughters, whom Lot had offered up for rape, turn the tables on their father. They pull out the wineskin, get dad drunk as a skunk and have sex with him, one girl one night and the other the next. And both end up pregnant. Lot becomes both father and grandfather to two baby boys.
Knowing all this about Lot, it probably comes as quite a shock when, of all adjectives, Peter chooses to put “righteous” in front of Lot’s name—not once, not twice, but three times. He says that God “rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard),” (2 Peter 2:7-8). You might be wondering if Peter was reading the same stories from Genesis that we are. Lot, righteous? Really? You mean the foolish Lot who chose to live in Sodom? The heartless Lot who almost got his two daughters gang-raped? The drunk Lot who had incestuous relations with these same two daughters? That’s the Lot you’re calling “righteous,” Peter?
There’s more to Lot than meets the eye. There’s always more to a believer than meets the eye. And that’s why, as I said earlier, I feel a certain kinship with him. No, I’ve never done what Lot has done, but those who know a little about my life know that my bio is full of foolish choices, moral failures, and shameful conduct. And perhaps yours is, too. Most of us have wandered from the straight and narrow at one time or another; some of us have fallen off the map altogether. Some of Lot’s decisions disgust me, but I’d bet that if Lot knew our stories, he’d find plenty worthy of condemnation as well. As it turns out, all finger-pointing amongst sinners is in vain. Every transgressor just happens to screw up a little differently than you do.
Yet along comes Peter and calls us righteous. Lot, me, you—all of us who, by faith, have a borrowed righteousness. It belongs to Jesus but he lets us have it. We wear his clothes. We are covered in his goodness. It’s a righteousness with no gaps. In it the heavenly Father easily mistakes you for Jesus. Actually, he sees you as nothing but his son. That’s how completely covered you are. Like Jacob received the blessing of his father by dressing in the clothes of his older brother, so we are robed in the garments of our elder brother, Christ, and thus receive the inheritance of the Father.
There’s more to Lot than meets the eye, as there’s more to us than meets the eye. But what ultimately matters is what meets the eye of God. When he sees us, he sees the child whom he loves. He sees one who is deeply troubled by the evil in the world. He sees one whose life is not one long string of failures but an unbroken chain of obedience. For when God sees Lot, and when he sees us, what meets his eye is the one who meets us at the cross, folds us into himself, and cloaks us with a compassion that envelops all of who we are.
On Easter, Jesus finally finished writing Genesis 1-2. He stepped out of the tomb, took pen in hand, and wrote on the Torah scroll, “And there was evening, and there was morning, the seventh day.” He began the eighth day, after which there is no other.
A quick scan of any map will reveal towns all around the US with biblical place names. There’s Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Bethany, Oklahoma and Goshen, Indiana—just to name a few. But you’ll find no Sodom, Arizona or Gomorrah, Tennessee. Towns totally annihilated by God don’t make for popular namesakes. No community wants that kind of backstory. But what exactly is the backstory—the full backstory—of Sodom and Gomorrah? What prompted such judgment against them? Contrary to what you’ll hear in most sermons, the issue in Sodom was much more than homosexuality. It is deeper and more pervasive. The root cause of their razing was rejection of the God who is mercy.
We often forget that before God destroyed these cities, he had saved them. They were the recipients of divine mercy. When foreign armies sacked their cities, God sent Abraham to rescue them (Genesis 14). He pursued these armies with a small force of men, defeated them, and brought back all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, along with his nephew Lot and the other citizens who had been taken captive. The patriarch gave everything back to the king of Sodom and demanded nothing in return for himself. In Abraham’s own words, he wouldn’t keep “a thread or a sandal thong or anything else” that belong to Sodom’s king, lest that ruler say he had made Abraham rich (Gen 14:23). Though “the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners against the Lord,” (13:13), nevertheless he acted graciously toward them in the person and work of his chosen servant.
So what went wrong? What happened in the intervening years between their deliverance by Abraham and the announcement of their impending destruction? The same thing that has happened over and over throughout the history of humanity. The merciful actions of God towards undeserving sinners were forgotten. Like Nineveh, which repented when it heard the preaching of Jonah, but later slipped right back into evil and was eventually destroyed; like Jerusalem, which seesawed between repenting and rebelling until it too was finally ravaged by the Romans; so Sodom and Gomorrah, one-time beneficiaries of divine deliverance, treated that gift as trash until finally their cities were reduces to smoldering ashes.
In the rest of the Scriptures, Sodom and Gomorrah became emblematic of cities, nations, and indeed a world that steadfastly refuses to believe in the God of mercy and truth and justice, and instead follow their own hearts. Isaiah calls the hearers of his day the “rulers of Sodom” and the “people of Gomorrah” (1:10). Why? Because, while going hog wild in outward religiosity, their hands were soaked in blood. He told them, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” (1:17). Through Jeremiah too, God says that his people have become to him “like Sodom, and her inhabitants like Gomorrah,” (23:14). Why? Because the prophets of Jerusalem were committing adultery and walking in falsehood. Not only did they do nothing to stop evil; they actively encouraged it. Ezekiel too chastises the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel for acting like Sodom. Through this prophet, God says, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister, Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before me. Therefore, I removed them when I saw it,” (16:49-50).
On the night before Sodom was destroyed, the men of the city, young and old, attempted to gang-rape the angels (disguised as men) who were guests in Lot's home (Gen 19:4-5). But this attempted violence, as horrific as it was, was an outgrowth of a more pervasive evil within. The ultimate source of sin in Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh, Jerusalem, and every other city, is the ultimate source of sin in our hearts: we do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We reject the God who is love itself, and instead set up idols of pleasure or power or falsehood in the shrines of our hearts. And from there, as from a poisoned spring, flow forth all the tributaries of evil in our lives and in the world.
Our more serious problem is not sins but sin itself. The problem is not what we do but who we are. We are not sinners because we sin; we are sinners and therefore we sin. This was as true for the Sodomites as for the San Antonians or the New Yorkers.
That’s why God does not merely fix us, as if we’re an old junker that just needs an overhaul. We don’t need to be fixed; we need to be recreated. What we need is to come to an end, to fall headfirst into a grave flooded with water, drown in that dark pool, and rise again to newness of life in Christ. The Father remakes us in the waters of baptism to bear the image and likeness of Jesus, who makes all things new. He removes our hearts of Sodom to give us a heart of Zion—a heart pumped full of the atoning blood of Jesus. Far from condemning us, he declares us innocent, for his Son has already become the guilty one in our place. In the eyes of God, you are pure, beautiful, loved, welcomed, perfect, for he sees every inch of you through the prism of Christ. In Christ, you are not a failure, a felon, or a freak, but a friend of God. In Christ, you are not dirty or depraved for you have been washed, you have been sanctified, you have been made new. Your past does not define you; your sins do not define you; Christ does.
The story of Sodom is about much more than homosexuality. It is ultimately about the God of mercy—the God who is your Father in Jesus Christ. The Father who rescues you as he rescued Lot. The Father who makes you saints. The Father who is patient, forgiving, and loving to all, for all have been reconciled to him in the cross of Jesus Christ.
There are parts the Bible that should have “Rumpelstiltskin Required” written at the top. As that little man spun straw into gold for the miller’s daughter, we could use his assistance to spin biblical straw into spiritual gold. Take your pick. Maybe it’s one of those Leviticus chapters that sounds like it’s written more for veterinarians or butchers than Christians. Maybe it’s a chapter from Exodus or Ezekiel that’s as exhilarating as staring at a blueprint. Yes, “all Scripture is breathed out by God,” but in all honesty some of it leaves us snoring (2 Tim 3:16). And perhaps nowhere is that more true than with genealogies. They’re planted throughout the OT and NT, these family trees. So-and-so begat so-and-so who begat so-and-so. Exhausting lists of tongue-twisting names. They’re evidently important, for otherwise they wouldn’t have been included. In fact, the NT itself kicks off with the genealogy of Jesus. If all Scripture “is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), then how are genealogies profitable?
Let’s take one example, from Genesis 5. It’s a list of the ten generations from Adam to Noah. It covers 1686 years. You may be surprised that you don’t need Rumpelstiltskin at all when reading Genesis 5. This chapter doesn’t need to be spun into anything; it’s already gold.
This family tree branches toward Bethlehem. When God first gave the promise of the Gospel, he rooted that promise in the flesh and blood of humanity. He didn’t say, “One day I’ll have my Son just show up on earth.” Rather, he said, “One day a virgin will be pregnant with my Son; he will be the woman’s seed” (Gen 3:15). The family trees in the Bible send their branches in the direction of Bethlehem, where this seed of the woman—the seed of Abraham, the seed of Judah, the seed of David—will be born. Every baby’s birth in the OT puts us one baby closer to the swaddled infant at Mary’s breast. That’s why Matthew begins his Gospel with a family tree; it’s why Luke includes one as well. The roots and trunk and branches of these genealogical trees join the angelic choir to sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth,” (Luke 2:14).
This genealogy preaches the need for death’s conquest. Over and over in Genesis 5 the bell tolls upon the death of a sinner. “And he died…and he died…and he died”: eight times that announcement is made. Each time a check is cut for a man who was employed by evil, for “the wages of sin is death,” (Rom 6:23). “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned,” (Rom 5:12). From the demise of Adam to that of Lamech, each death declared the need for God to un-funeral the world, to put his foot on the neck of the grave and press down till death was death and life lived once more. This chapter, therefore, cries out for Good Friday, begs for Easter. It preaches the need for death’s conquest in the death and rising of the woman’s Seed.
This genealogy testifies that these earliest of men were Christians. The first Christians were not Mary and Peter and Paul; they were Adam and Eve. Christianity began in Eden. When God promised to send the woman’s seed to crush the head of the serpent, Adam and Eve believed that promise. They had faith in the Christ who was to come. They were just as Christian as we are today who believe that promise has been fulfilled. Indeed, when Cain was born, Eve was so confident in God’s promise that she supposed her firstborn was already the Seed. She said, literally, “I have gotten a man—Yahweh,” (Gen 4:1). Seven generations later, the father of Noah made the same mistake. When Noah was born, Lamech said, “This one shall give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed,” (5:29). Because Noah was the first birth after the death of Adam, Lamech must have thought that now that the first man—the one whose sin had brought a curse upon the ground—was dead, God would renew the earth through his son. Both Eve and Lamech were wrong, of course, but their mistakes only underscore the liveliness of their Christian faith in the coming Messiah.
Genesis 5 gives us a foretaste of Easter in Enoch. There’s one hiccup in the litany of death in Genesis 5. His name is Enoch. And he never had a funeral. We’re told that “he walked with God; and he was not, for God took him,” (5:24). By faith Enoch was pleasing to God (Heb 11:5-6). He too was a Christian; he had faith in the promised Seed. Indeed, Enoch believed not only that Christ would come; as a prophet, he saw past the first coming of Jesus all the way to his final coming, for he prophesied that the Lord will come “with many thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment upon all,” (Jude 14-15). As a testimony to early humanity that this life is but the first chapter of an ongoing life with God, the Lord took Enoch to heaven before he died, just as he would later take Elijah up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Thus, in each stage of world history, God has testified that life does not end at death. In the pre-flood world, he gave us the example of Enoch. In the post-flood world, he gave us Elijah. And finally, in the New Testament, he gave us Christ, by whose resurrection we are assured of our own resurrection on the last day. In Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, we are given a foretaste of our Sabbath rest in Easter.
Of these ten generations, Luther says that “next to Christ and John the Baptist, they were the most outstanding heroes this world has ever produced,” (AE 1:334). “That age was truly a golden one,” he writes, “in comparison with it our age hardly deserves to be called an age of mud,” (1:342). This golden age, recorded in this genealogy, is anything but straw. It is a treasure trove of grace, faith, hope, and love. Already in this family tree, we see foreshadowed the tree of the cross. In Enoch, we see prefigured the resurrection of Easter. We observe the life of faith in these earliest of Christians. We have no need of Rumpelstiltskin to spin any straw into gold. When we read Genesis 5—and countless other genealogies—in the light of Christ, we readily grasp how these family trees preach both law and Gospel to us.
Perhaps you can help me. I’ve visited every church website I can think of in search of a felt board for Sunday School that includes the story of Noah from start to finish. There’s plenty of them, but they all are missing a piece of the story. They have the little figures of Noah and his sons; cows and camels and goats and other animals; the water and the ark and, of course, the rainbow. And they’re all very cute. Children can reenact the story by putting the figures on the felt board. What I’m missing, however, are the pieces from the last part of the Flood account. All I need to complete the story is the little felt tent, and the little felt figure of a drunk, naked Noah that the kids can place inside the tent.
Where is the drunk, naked Noah for the Sunday School felt board? He’s probably in the same place as the little felt figures of Lot’s two daughters getting their dad drunk and having sex with him while they were hiding out in the mountains after Sodom was destroyed (Gen 19:30-38). Or maybe it’s in the same place as the felt figure of the Levite who chopped his dead concubine into a dozen pieces after the men of the city had gang-raped her all night (Judges 19). Or it could be where the felt figure of Elisha is when he sicced the two momma bears on the forty two boys who mocked him as a baldhead (2 Kings 2:23-25). Come to think of it, there are lots of missing felt figures. Where could they be?
They are all in the same place: they are boxed away in a secret place lest children, and adults, get the impression that the Good Book is stuffed with stories of bad people doing bad things. And this is truly a shame. For the less we tell these stories of sin, the more it seems we are ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of bad people.
Yes, Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; he walked with God (Gen 6:9). And through God, Noah did some great, holy things. Most notably, he was a “herald of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5) and “by faith…he constructed an ark for the salvation of his household,” (Heb 11:7). But after the waters of the flood had dried up, Noah planted a vineyard, drank of the wine, became drunk, and lay naked in his tent (Gen 9:20-21). So was Noah an ark-builder or a wine-bibber? Was he a righteous man or a drunk man? Was he a saint or a sinner?
Yes, he was. He was all of the above. And so is every believer.
But you wouldn’t know that from Sunday School felt boards. Nor from the sections of Scripture that many churches choose to read during worship. Nor from the content of many adult Bible studies. And you certainly wouldn’t know it from listening to the majority of songs and hymns based on biblical stories.
And in so far as that is true, we have deprived the children of God of much comfort. The comfort is not in knowing that bad people do bad things, but that our Father is not a deity that trashes people when they do. Rather, he is patient with them, seeks them out, calls them to repentance, and embraces them with his forgiving love in Jesus.
Speaking of Noah’s drunkenness, Martin Luther notes this story is recorded because God wanted those who “know their weakness and for this reason are disheartened, to take comfort in the offense that comes from the account of the lapses among the holiest and more perfect patriarchs.” In the stories of men like drunk Noah we “find sure proof of our own weakness and therefore bow down in humble confession, not only to ask for forgiveness but also to hope for it.” To hope for forgiveness, and to be certain that in Christ all is forgiven, all is well.
If we’re going to focus on any stories in the Scriptures, let us highlight those in which the weakness of people and the forgiveness of God in Christ are made manifest. Given the choice, I’d rather my children learn in Sunday School that drunk, naked Noah was forgiven than that the animals came into the ark two by two. I’d rather them, from the earliest age, learn that the Scriptures are not a long story of good people doing good things for a good God, but that the Scriptures are the story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.
If we are not ashamed of the Gospel, then let us not be ashamed of teaching that God forgives the shameful acts of all those who are in Christ, including me and you and our friend—drunk, naked Noah.
If the CSI crowd delves into Bible stories, I bet there’s a knowing gleam in their eyes when they cross the yellow crime scene tape that hangs in the middle of Genesis 4. The murder case is pretty much a no-brainer. The victim is one of a total human population of four. That certainly narrows down the suspect list. He was last seen heading out into the field with his older brother. And we know there’s been bad blood between them. It’s an open-and-shut case. What I think would pique the interest of the CSI folks is the interrogation of the perp.
God: “Where is Abel, your brother?” Cain: “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” God: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”
If there’s a verse in all of Scripture that could be chiseled in stone above the offices and labs of Crime Scene Investigation units, this is it: “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” Our blood has loose lips. It’s no good at keeping secrets. By analyzing the pattern of blood stains at a crime scene, investigators can recreate the events that led up to the murder. And the blood itself tells our inner story, everything from our DNA to our diseases. Our veins conceal secrets of which we ourselves are not even consciously aware. If Abel’s blood is spilled all over the ground or if a mere speck had been lodged in the fabric of Cain’s shirt, that blood cries out. It has a voice and it will speak to whomever is willing to listen.
The Lord certainly listens. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. And the spilled blood of his saints is a language to which God is all ears. The martyrs of ISIS may be led to the slaughter as silent as lambs, but the lips of their severed veins utter words that pierce heaven’s veil. He hears them as he hears babies slaughtered in utero, teens with slit wrists, and soldiers whose homecomings are never to be.
But not only does the Lord hear bleeding bodies; he hears the bleeding hearts of children who feel rejected and unloved, lonely women whose hearts have been fissured by the infidelity of men, men whom the world has wadded up and thrown into the garbage heap. The voice of the blood from their broken hearts cries out from alleys and empty beds and dead-end lives. And that voice travels upward, to the Lord who is all ears, all heart, all the time.
The author of Hebrews says that the blood of Jesus speaks a “better word than the blood of Abel,” (12:22). The well-known Lenten hymn would have us sing,
Abel’s blood for vengeance, Pleaded to the skies, But the blood of Jesus, For our pardon cries.
But I think the poet may be mistaken. What if Abel’s blood not for vengeance but for pardon pleaded to the skies? Cain’s little brother is a model of fidelity, whose faith was manifest on earth and witnessed from heaven at the altar. Like the crucified messiah, Abel the martyr pleaded for heaven to forgive Cain, for he knew not what he did. And since the life is in the blood, that blood continued to cry out to God, even as Abel’s body lay lifeless in the dust. It sought not vindication but mercy, forgiveness for the crime of which he was the victim. The blood of Jesus speaks a “better word than the blood of Abel,” for it speaks in a superior way. It grants in full that which Abel’s blood only gave in part. For the blood of Jesus finished the prayer for mercy that the blood of Abel began.
The blood of Jesus refuses to be silent. It speaks on your behalf. It is your voice, your advocate before the Father’s throne. The blood of Christ says that you are his brother. He has adopted you into the family so that you are a child of our Father in heaven. So do not think, even for a moment, that your wounds are unknown to the Lord. If even the hairs on your head are numbered, then certainly so are your scars. The voice of your blood, your hurts, your losses, cries out to God, for your voice merges with the voice that once cried out, “Father, may these children be with me wherever I am…sanctify them in the truth…forgive them…it is finished….” Your blood mixes with Christ’s blood, your hurts with his pains, your losses with his death, your all with his all, so that in one mass crimson choir the voice of Jesus and all who are his rises unified to the Father and reverberates in his throne room. He hears; how could he not hear those who are his very heart? He acts; how could he who is love not act in love for his saints?
The Lord who is near to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. He is near you, he will save you, for you are in Christ, whose blood cries out for mercy, at all times, for you.
I’m certainly not the first person who wanted to abbreviate the Bible. In the early church, a heretic named Marcion gutted the entire Old Testament as well as any verse in the New Testament that had a whiff of the old covenant about it.
One of the perks of growing up in the Texas Panhandle was that I could see most of the United States from my front porch. It was that flat. Sunsets transform the whole horizon into a vast canvas of color. And if you’ve ever wanted to actually find the end of a rainbow, then that’s the place to be. You can spot where both ends of the arch kiss the earth.
Speaking of rainbows, they were the stuff of my Sunday School years, along with candy and campfire songs. Noah, the animals two-by-two, and finally the multicolored memento that God wouldn’t liquidate the earth again. The rainbow made for a pretty ending to an ugly story, but, honestly, I’d lost as much sleep fretting about worldwide flooding as I had about being mauled by a Texas polar bear. The rainbow was just one more biblical footnote in that jumbled mess of story after disconnected story in the Old Testament.
Or so I thought it was. Now, when the rain has ceased, and I happen to spy that bright bridge shining in the sky, I see God at work, finger-painting in the heavens a picture of salvation. Here’s why.
The Old Testament, which was written in Hebrew, has no word for rainbow. Yes, I realize that in your translation of Genesis, it might read something like, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (NIV, 9:13). But the word often translated as rainbow, keshet, simply means a bow.
What we see in the heavens is none other than a weapon of war.
But this weapon of war, two peculiarities set it apart. First, the bow is not drawn back. It’s suspended there, hanging in the heavens. Second, even as it hangs there, it’s pointed upward, not earthward. The bow of the divine warrior, the almighty judge, by which he shot oceans of arrows into the rebellious human race, has been retired. The instrument of execution has been changed into an emblem of peace--a hawk become a dove, a sword hammered into a plowshare. Now every time God sees His bow, He who never forgets will nevertheless remember His oath never to draw it again to punish the earth by a cosmopolitan flood.
But hold on, because the story gets even better. In two prophetic visions, Jesus appears wrapped in the radiance of this beautiful bow of peace. Ezekiel saw Him first, a man-like God, whose radiance was like “the bow in the clouds on a rainy day,” (1:26). John also saw Him, this God-become-man, enveloped by a rainbow that surrounded the throne of God (Revelation 4:2-3). Thus, as the story in Scripture unfolds, not only does the bow remain a token of God’s promise, iconic in the heavens; it also becomes associated with the manifestation of Jesus Christ, enthroned in glory.
And there’s yet one more wrinkle to this story. That ancient flood, which drowned the unbelieving world, but through which Noah and his household were saved, was a foreshadowing of the flood of regeneration and renewal which God works in the font. Peter says that “baptism, which corresponds to this [flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” (1 Peter 3). The flood, which both killed and kept alive, was a predecessor to baptism, which drowns the old Adam within us and makes us alive by uniting us to Jesus Christ.
Now when we assemble all these parts of the biblical narrative, we see that, unlike I supposed in my Sunday School days, the rainbow is not just one more biblical footnote, disconnected from a seemingly disconnected story. In many ways, the two ends of the rainbow join together the two ends of the Bible, uniting Genesis to Revelation, and everything in between. When you are baptized, the Lord drowns you in that flood, but then raises you alive out of those waters to enter a new and better ark, the door of which was hewn open by a Roman spear in the side of Jesus the crucified. A rainbow envelops with its radiance our saving Lord. This colored arc betokens that He is the one who has put an end to the wrath of the Father, made peace between God and man, and ushered you into a new creation.
I’ve never walked into a church in which the baptismal font is adorned with a bow, pointing heavenward, hanging above it. But if I ever do, if you ever do, then we’ll know why.
If you've ever attempted to read the Bible from cover to cover, chances are you made it through Genesis and maybe Exodus. Somewhere in Leviticus, however, your head began to spin. All this stuff about sacrifices, priests, blood, fat, entrails makes it sound like a ritualistic butcher's guide. But it's not. Believe it or not, Leviticus is packed with the Good News of a God who loves His people, and who provides them with the means of grace whereby they can receive Him and His gifts. Leviticus, far from being an esoteric relic from Israel's past, is a Gospel book of the church. It teaches of God's holiness, His love, His sacraments, His worship. It is a book we desperately need to recover. But, yes, it is hard to understand, especially why there is all this focus on sacrifice. Why all these sacrifices? Why all these details about flesh and blood and fat? What's the difference between all these offerings? And, finally, what do they teach us about Christ's sacrifice and the sacraments of the church? To answer these questions, I wrote this Catechism on Sacrifice several years ago. It consists of questions and answers to aid you in your study of Leviticus, as well an any part of the OT that discusses the divine service in Israel.
Read it through. Save it for your next Bible Study. Forward it to your pastor. Use it as you see fit. I offer it as a brief resource for the church.
A CATECHISM ON SACRIFICE
What is sacrifice?
In the liturgy of Israel, sacrifice was the divinely ordained means of grace by which God gave blessings to His people through the things of creation. The sacrifice belonged to God. He graciously gave it to His people so that they, by faith, might receive the divine gifts communicated therein. Some sacrifices were also the means whereby Israel gave thanks to God for His gifts to them.
When did sacrifice begin?
Sacrifice began after mankind’s fall into sin (Genesis 3). “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them,” (Genesis 3:21). Although the killing of these animals to provide coverings for Adam and Eve is not specifically called a sacrifice, it did require the death of animals. Sinners were covered only by the death of another who was killed in their place. The first explicit reference to sacrifice is in Genesis 4, where Cain “brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground” and Abel “on his part brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions,” (4:3-4).
What kinds of things were sacrificed?
One can divide the various kinds of sacrifices into two main categories: bloody and unbloody. Bloody sacrifices were the offerings of animals that were ritually slaughtered. This ritual slaughter ordinarily took place near an altar, upon which a portion of the animal’s blood would be sprinkled or poured out or smeared. Not any and every animal could be sacrificed, but only those ordained for slaughter by the Word of God (see question #3). These animals – which were always domesticated animals – included the following:
Bovine: bulls, cows, heifers, calves, and oxen.
Sheep/Goats: he-goats, she-goats, ewes, rams, lambs
Birds: turtledoves and pigeons
Unbloody sacrifices were offerings from the agricultural produce of the people of God. These offering included the following: wheat, barley, olive oil, and wine. The unbloody sacrifices were ordinarily offered in conjunction with the bloody sacrifices.
Why could only certain animals be sacrificed?
There were three groupings of animals in the OT: unclean, clean, and clean plus “sacrificeable”.
- Unclean animals were to be avoided totally. They were not to be sacrificed, eaten, domesticated, or their carcasses touched. These animals are listed in Leviticus 11.
- Clean animals could be domesticated and eaten.
- Clean plus “sacrificeable” animals could not only be domesticated and eaten; they were also ordained by God as sacrificial victims.
Various reasons have been put forward to explain these three classifications. Some of the more common theories are:
- ARBITRARY: The lists, though given by God, are arbitrary. The classes of animals, and the individual species placed therein, are listed as such by God, but there is no definite and ascertainable reason(s) for why some animals are clean and others unclean.
- PAGAN CONNECTION: The animals deemed unclean represented deities in pagan cultures or were used in pagan sacrifice. To avoid confusion and possible syncretism, these animals were to be avoided by the Israelites.
- ANTI-LIFE: The animals classified as unclean inhabited locations that were inimical to life, or they were predators or carcass eaters. Because of the symbolism of death attached to them, they were to be avoided.
- HYGIENIC: The animals were unclean which were common carriers of disease.
- ALLEGORICAL: Positive and negative traits of animals were allegorically applied to people. Animals whose ways do not exemplify proper conduct were unclean, whereas animals whose ways corresponded to the proper conduct of man were clean. For example, a cud-chewing animal was clean because the clean and holy man should ruminate on the word of God.
- SEPARATION OF ISRAEL: Just as God chose Israel from all the nations to be a holy people to Him, so He chose certain animals from all the beasts of the earth to be clean animals. The unclean animals thus represented the Gentiles whose ways, if adopted, would have defiled the people of God.
The last of these theories has OT and NT support to recommend it. We may first take note of Leviticus 20:24-24, which closely connects Israel’s separation from her pagan neighbors with Israel’s separation of unclean from clean animals:
22 'You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. 23 'Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. 24 'Hence I have said to you, "You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey." I am the LORD your God, who has separated [verb b-d-l in Hebrew] you from the peoples. 25 'You are therefore to make a distinction [verb b-d-l in Hebrew] between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. 26 'Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.
Secondly, when the Lord gives St. Peter the vision of unclean animals and commands him to kill and eat them, the primary message is that Peter is to receive Cornelius and the Gentiles into the church (Acts 10:1-48). The Gentiles (formerly regarded as unclean) are not to be regarded as unclean or common for “what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy,” (Acts 10:15).
Only domesticated animals which were both clean and “sacrificeable” were to be offered up on the altar. They alone were ordained by God to be in the holy space and to be placed upon the holy altar. Like the priests, they were separated from all other animals by God for this holy purpose and this holy place. Thus the three categories of animals closely correspond to the three groups of people in the world: Gentiles, Israelites, and Israelite priests.
- Gentiles = Unclean animals
- Israelites = Clean animals not used for sacrifice
- Priests = Smaller group of clean animals used for sacrifice
What were the primary sacrifices in Israel’s liturgy?
The primary sacrifices in Israel’s liturgy were the whole burnt offering (olah), the sin offering (chattath), the guilt offering (asham), the peace offering (shellamim), and the meal offering (minchah).
What was the whole burnt offering (olah)?
The whole burnt offering was the foundational sacrifice of Israel (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13). Every morning and every evening, a whole burnt offering of a one-year-old lamb was sacrificed at the tabernacle and temple (Exodus 29:38-42). This was the continual burnt offering. Similar whole burnt offerings were also sacrificed at other times. What distinguished this sacrifice is indicated by the name: the whole burnt offering. All the parts of the animal which were ritually acceptable for sacrifice were wholly burnt upon the altar. Its smoke “went up” (olah) to God from the altar.
What was the sin offering (chattath)?
The sin offering was sacrificed by individuals or the whole congregation when they broke the law of God (Leviticus 4-5:13; 6:24-30). The type of animal offered (bull, he-goat, she-goat, lamb, dove or pigeon) depended upon the social rank of the individual. The blood of the victim was smeared on the horns of the main altar and poured out at its base. If it was offered for a priest or for the whole congregation, some blood was also taken into the Holy Place to be sprinkled on the veil and smeared on the horns of the altar of incense. The flesh of the animal was cooked and eaten by the priests (if offered for a layman’s sin) or burned outside the camp (if offered for a priest or for the whole congregation).
What was the guilt offering (asham)?
The guilt offering was similar to the sin offering, though this sacrifice was offered for those sins in which reparation could be made to the offended party (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7:1-10). A ram was the designated victim for the guilt offering. In addition, if applicable, property was to be restored, plus 20% of its value, to the offended party. The blood was poured out on the main altar and the cooked flesh of the victim was eaten by the priests in the court of the tabernacle or temple.
What was the peace offering (shellamim)?
The peace offering was the sacrifice in which the worshiper received back a portion of the sacrificial meat to be cooked and eaten in a ritual meal (Leviticus 3; 7:11-36). A male or female animal from the flock or herd was sacrificed, its blood was poured onto the main altar, its breast and right leg were given to the priest and his family (as part of his income), and the rest of the animal was consumed in a communal meal. The Israelite(s) thus consumed the very animal who died for his atonement. It was a preview of the Lord’s Supper, in which we eat the very body of the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed for us on the altar of the cross. Peace offerings were sacrificed to give thanks to God (praise), to fulfill a vow (votive), or as free-will offerings.
What was the meal offering (minchah)?
The meal offering was a bloodless sacrifice. It consisted of wheat or barley and was ordinarily accompanied by olive oil, incense, and wine. It was part of every morning and evening whole burnt offering (Exodus 29:40-41).
Why was blood so significant?
In the sacrificial liturgy, blood was of vast more importance than any other part of the animal. For example, no part of the animal was ever taken into the Holy Place, much less into the Holy of Holies. Indeed, no part of the animal – with the sole exception of the blood – was ever taken any closer to the inner sanctum than the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple. In certain sacrifices, however, the blood was taken into the Holy Place and even into the Holy of Holies.
Leviticus 17:10-11 explains the importance of blood in the sacrificial liturgy:
10 'And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people.11 'For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.'
This passage has several noteworthy features.
- The life [literally “the soul”] of the flesh is in the blood. The very life of the animal is located precisely in its blood. To have the blood is to have the life. To be touched by the blood is to be touched by the life. Life is not an abstraction; it is a visible, tangible fluid. Life is blood and blood is life. Where there is no blood, there is no life.
- I have given it to you. Blood is a divine gift from the Lord and Giver of life. This is His institution. He has given it to His Church that they might have the life that is located in the blood. Thus the blood not only has life; it conveys life for the Lord has given it for that very purpose.
- On the altar. God gives His Church the life of the blood on the altar. The altar is not just a place of death but of life for here the life-giving blood is placed. The life-blood is drained from the victim and placed on the altar. Because the altar is most holy (Exodus 29:37), the blood, when it touches the altar, becomes most holy. Therefore, by the Word of God, the blood of the sacrifice is living and holy and bestows life and holiness. It is life in the animal; it becomes holy on the altar; and it is life-giving and holy-giving to the Church.
- To make atonement for your souls. The life-blood of the victim atones for sinner. This is its purpose: it removes sin, it removes death, it removes unholiness. This happens not just in the killing of the victim, but in the placing of the victim’s blood upon the altar. No blood is atoning blood unless it touches the holy things of God. It is sprinkled, poured out, or smeared on God’s altar, God’s priest, or God’s tabernacle. It is then atoning blood for it has become holy blood by contact with God’s holy thing. Atoning blood is therefore holy blood, life-giving blood. It is given for the removal of sin and the bestowal of holiness.
Why was fat so significant?
In addition to the blood of the sacrificial victim, the fat also belonged exclusively to God. “All fat is the Lord’s. It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwellings: you shall not eat any fat or any blood,” (Leviticus 3:16-17). The fat to be removed were the layers of fat beneath the surface of the animal’s skin and around its organs – which can be removed – as opposed to the fat which is inextricably part of the muscle. No explicit reason is given for the God’s exclusive use of the fat. Presumably, however, the fat was considered to be the best part of the animal and was therefore reserved for God. The Hebrew word for fat (cheleb) is often used metaphorically to denote “the best”. For example, “the cheleb of the land” (Genesis 45:18) and the “cheleb of the wheat” (Deuteronomy 32:14) refers to the best of the land and the best of the wheat. In the Messianic banquet, the Lord promises to make a feast of fats on His holy mountain (Isaiah 25:6ff).
Who performed the sacrifices?
Leviticus 1:3-5 describes “who does what” in the liturgy of sacrifice:
3 'If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. 4 And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. 5 And he shall slay the young bull before the LORD; and Aaron's sons, the priests, shall offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar that is at the doorway of the tent of meeting.
Thus, the Israelite who brought the animal for sacrifice would kill it near the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple. The sinner for whom this animal’s blood would be shed – he was the slayer. The killing, however, was God’s institution and gift for by it the sinner was accepted before the Lord (Leviticus 1:3). After the victim was killed, the priests assumed responsibility for the liturgical actions involving the blood (i.e., sprinkling the blood on the altar).
The body of the victim (e.g., in the whole burnt offering) was then skinned and cut into its various pieces by the Israelite who brought the sacrifice. After the skinning and quartering were completed, the priests would place the sacrificial flesh and fat on the altar to be wholly consumed by the fire of Yahweh in His altar.
6 'He shall then skin the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces. 7 And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 Then Aaron's sons, the priests, shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the suet over the wood which is on the fire that is on the altar. 9 Its entrails, however, and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall offer up in smoke all of it on the altar for a burnt offering, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD. (Leviticus 1:6-9)
There were thus specific responsibilities assigned both to the layman and the priest. Any contact with the altar, however, was reserved exclusively for the priest.
Where were they performed?
Sacrifices were performed near an altar. The victim was killed near the altar (not on it or over it [except in the case of birds]) and its blood was placed on the altar or smeared on the horns of the altar. After the institution of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 20), almost every sacrifice was performed at the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple (for an exception, see Numbers 19:1-22). When an Israelite brought a bovine for sacrifice, it would be killed on the east side of the altar, in the forecourt (Leviticus 1:5; 4:4,15). The slaughter of a sheep or goat took place on the north side of the altar (Leviticus 1:11; 4:24,29,33). Doves and pigeons were killed over the altar (as exceptional cases) by the removal of the bird’s head, after which its blood was drained on the side of the altar (Leviticus 1:15).
How were the animals sacrificed?
The OT sacrificial liturgy does not explicitly state how the animal was to be killed (except birds, Leviticus 1:15). The verb used for the slaughter (shachat), however, does connote the slitting of the throat (cf. 2 Kings 10:7). This particular manner of slaughter would help in the collection of blood from the animal for placement upon the altar. The slitting of the throat is also supported by rabbinic tradition.
Why did the Israelite place his hand upon the head of the animal?
The man who brought a sacrificial animal placed his hand upon the head of the animal before he killed it.
And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. (Leviticus 1:4)
A similar action was performed by the high priest on the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. (Leviticus 16:21; cf. 3:2,8,13; 4:4,15,24,29,33)
Various explanations for this rite have been given: (1) sin is transferred to the animal; (2) the man is identified with the sacrifice; (3) the man declares his purpose to sacrifice this animal; (4) and that the man owns this animal.
To understand the meaning of the laying on of hand(s), it is necessary to consider the following:
- The verbs used for the “laying on” (samak) of the hand implies pressure. The hand is not merely placed on the head; the Israelite leans on the head of the victim, applying the pressure of his body onto the animal. The implication is that he is placing himself onto and into this animal.
- The laying on of hands is done so that the sacrifice “may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4). The sacrifice is “for him”; it will die in his place as the ram did for Isaac: “Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son,” (Genesis 22:13). There is an identification between the man and the animal for the animal is killed in the stead of the sinner.
- This killing takes places so that the animal might make “atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4). His sin is covered by the blood of the one who dies in his place.
- The laying of hands (at times) took place in conjunction with the confession of sins. These two actions took place together on the Day of Atonement: “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness,” (Leviticus 16:21; cf. 5:5). By means of the laying on of hands and verbal confession, the sins were transferred onto the animal. He thus became not only the bearer of the sins, but also the substitute for the sinner.
The four explanations (listed above) for the laying on of hands are thus not mutually exclusive. The owner of the animal (4) lays his hand on the head of the appointed sacrifice (3), leans on the animal to place himself onto and into this substitutionary victim (2), and confesses his sins to transfer them onto the sacrifice (1).
Did the Israelite confess his sin(s) over the animal?
As noted above, the Israelite did confess his sins in conjunction with some sacrifices. Confession was done, for example, in connection with the guilt offering:
So it shall be when he becomes guilty in one of these, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned. He shall also bring his guilt offering to the LORD for his sin which he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin. (Leviticus 5:5-6)
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest confessed over the scapegoat “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins,” (Leviticus 16:21). The likelihood is great that confession of sins was also a vital part of the ritual of other sacrifices.
Were the sacrifices for God or for man?
Various pagan cults in the ancient world offered sacrifices as food to their gods and goddesses. This reason for sacrifice is explicitly rejected by God:
[The Lord says,] "I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, And your burnt offerings are continually before Me. I shall take no young bull out of your house, Nor male goats out of your folds. For every beast of the forest is Mine, The cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all it contains. Shall I eat the flesh of bulls, Or drink the blood of male goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High; And call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me," (Psalm 50:8-15).
God had no need of the sacrifices of Israel. Rather, Israel needed these sacrifices. God gave the sacrificial liturgy to Israel after giving them the Law so that they might have a divinely ordained means by which they could be cleansed of their transgressions of the Law. The sacrifices were thus not for God but for man. The Lord gave His Church the tabernacle, the altar, and the sacrificial animals so that through these means He might dwell among His people, hear their prayers, grant them forgiveness, and be their good and gracious Father.
What benefits were received from the sacrifices?
Through the sacrifices, as through means, God gave the Israelites gifts such as the following:
(1) Forgiveness of sins
Leviticus 4:20, “So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.”
(2) Blessing and Righteousness
Psalm 24:5, “He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
Leviticus 12:7, “Then [the priest] shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her; and shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood.”
Leviticus 1:3, “He shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord.”
Above all else, however, the Lord gave the sacrifices as the chief means by which He directed His people to look for the coming sacrifice of the Messiah. Every bull, every goat, every lamb, every dove and pigeon was a preview of the Sacrifice to end all sacrifices (Hebrews 8-11).
Is it correct to think of the OT sacrifices as sacraments?
Yes. The OT sacrifices – especially the bloody sacrifices – were not just plain flesh and plain blood, but flesh and blood included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word. To these physical things, the Lord joined His Word of forgiveness and cleansing. The Lutheran Confessions speak of “covenant-signs and signs of grace or sacraments, such as circumcision, the many kinds of sacrifice in the Old Testament, and holy Baptism,” (Formula of Concord, SD VII 50). The flesh and blood of these animal sacrifices were prefigurements of the flesh and blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As such, they conveyed to the believers the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation which would be acquired by Christ in His life, death, and resurrection.
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Of the 364 other days of the year upon which Christ could have poured out His Holy Spirit, why did He do so on exactly the fiftieth day after Easter? What was so important about this day? It was, indeed, already a holy day, the OT Feast of Weeks. But why choose this feast day? What makes Weeks so fitting a time for Jesus to give His Holy Spirit to the church? In this post, I'll try to answer that question. We'll look at the OT roots of Pentecost, what the rabbis and other Jewish writers had to say about it, and connect all the dots between the old festival and its new counterpart. What you'll see is that, of the 364 other days of the year, none was more perfectly fitted for the day of the giving of the Spirit than Pentecost.
The OT Feast of Weeks
The second major festival of the Israelite liturgical calendar was Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot [Hebrew]). Such nomenclature is indicative of the temporal connection between this feast and Passover—a connection that expanded over the course of Israelite history. The designation “feast of Weeks” is more exactly the feast of seven weeks, for beginning on the day after Passover (the 16th of Nisan), the Israelites counted forty-nine days, then commenced the celebration of the feast of Weeks on the following day (Lev 23:15-16; Deut 16:9-10). Because it fell on the fiftieth day after Passover, Weeks was also called “Pentecost”, that is, “fiftieth” (e.g., Acts 2:1; 20:16; 1 Cor 16:8).
Unlike Passover, which is explicitly connected with the salvific activity of YHWH in history, Pentecost is described in the Scriptures almost exclusively as an agricultural festival. During this feast, believers rendered thanks to the Creator for the blessings he had bestowed upon their fields, especially those in which wheat was grown. On the fiftieth day after the seven weeks, believers presented to YHWH two loaves of bread, made from fine flour, and baked with leaven, as the first-fruits of the wheat harvest. In addition to the grain offering, they offered one bull, two rams, seven lambs, along with a sin offering of a male goat, and two male lambs for a peace offering (Lev 23:15-19; Num 28:26-31). Since the first sheaf of the barley harvest was presented to YHWH on the day after Passover (Lev 23:11), and the first sheaf of the wheat harvest was offered fifty days later (23:15), Passover and Pentecost marked the beginning and end of the grain harvest.
Pentecost and the Giving of the Law at Sinai
In the rabbinic period, and probably earlier, Pentecost came to be celebrated as more, much more, than an agricultural festival; it was the anniversary feast of the giving of the Law or the establishment of the covenant at Sinai. The tractate Shabbat (86b) in the Babylonian Talmud records the opinions of teachers from the 2nd and 3rd c. AD (e.g., R. Jose) to this effect. Drawing upon biblical and extra-bibical writings, one can say with some certainty that this tradition linking Pentecost with Sinai predates the NT. Let us examine the evidence.
The chronological association of Passover and the giving of the law is based on the Exodus travel narrative. In Exod 19:1, Moses writes that the Israelites arrived in the wilderness of Sinai “in the third month” (i.e., Sivan) after they had left Egypt. Since they left on the day after Passover, in the middle of the first month (Exod 12:2, 6), the fiftieth day after Passover would have fallen within this third month. Although the biblical account does not specify on what day the law as given, when Jews later celebrated Pentecost on the sixth day of Sivan, they understood it as the day on which God spoke the “ten words” to Israel from Sinai.
The rabbinic focus upon Pentecost and the giving of the Sinai covenant is attested both in Jubilees (c. 1st c. BC) and possibly the Scriptures themselves. In the former, the author seems to understand the “feast of Weeks” to be the “feast of oaths,” (6:21). According to Jubilees, Pentecost was celebrated from creation onward in connection with the various covenants made with Adam and the patriarchs. Though forgotten for a time, it was celebrated once more when Moses “renewed it for [the children of Israel] on this mountain [i.e., Sinai],” (6:19). This connection between Pentecost and the covenant in Jubilees finds a possible echo in the historical books. In 2 Chr 15:10-15, the Chronicler describes a celebratory gathering that took place during the reign of Asa: “ They assembled in Jerusalem in the third month of the fifteenth year of the reign of Asa.  On that day, they sacrificed to YHWH seven hundred oxen and seven thousand sheep from the spoil which they had brought.  They entered into the covenant to seek YHWH, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul.  But all who would not seek YHWH, the God of Israel, would be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman.  They swore an oath to YHWH with a loud voice, with shouting, with trumpets, and with horns.  All Judah rejoiced concerning the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart and sought him their whole desire, and he let them find him. So YHWH gave them rest on every side.” This covenant celebration or renewal falls within the month during which Pentecost was celebrated. Indeed, the Targum to Chronicles says expressly that the Israelites gathered in Jerusalem during the festival of Weeks. So both in Chronicles as well Jubilees, the feast of Weeks is linked to covenant remembrance. Therefore, although we cannot say with certainty that by the time of the first Christian Pentecost, the Jews had already begun to celebrate the giving of the Sinai covenant during this festival, it seems very probable that they had. At the very least, we know that there were groups with Judaism that understood Pentecost in this light. The importance of this will be explained below.
Pentecost and the Jubilee Year
Before comparing the OT Pentecost with its antitype, one more feature of the festival needs to be noted: the relationship between Pentecost and the Jubilee Year. To understand the theological message of Weeks, it is imperative that one not miss the close connection it has to the year of the Jubilee. The Israelites celebrated the latter during the fiftieth year following every “seven sabbaths of years” or forty-nine years (Lev 25:8-55; 27:16-25; Num 36:4). The Hebrew name for the festival is literally “the year of the ram’s horn,” for an instrument made from a ram’s horn was blown on Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year to announce the beginning of the year of release (Lev 25:9). During this year, any ancestral land that Israelites families had sold was given back to them. Also, any Israelite who, induced by poverty, had sold himself (or been sold) into slavery to a fellow Israelite regained his liberty. Not only the people, but the land itself was “freed” from being worked, for no planting or sowing, harvesting or reaping took place during the fiftieth year. Like unto the sabbatical year (every seventh year), the jubilee year was a great sabbath or rest for the people of YHWH and the land that belonged to him. Therefore, because of the Jubilee Year, the number fifty is closely associated with the remission of debts, emancipation of slaves, and rest within God’s protective care.
What connections are there between the OT Pentecost or Weeks and the Jubilee Year? Every Feast of Weeks was a kind of annual preparation for the Feast of Jubilees, just as every Sabbatical Year was a sort of mini-Jubilee. The temporal connection between the two is manifest in the way they are described: Pentecost is celebrated on the fiftieth day after “seven sabbaths” of weeks (Lev 23:15) and Jubilee is celebrated on the fiftieth year after “seven sabbaths of years,” (Lev 25:8). Also, every year, at the festival of Weeks, the Israelites gave their first-fruits of the grain harvest to YHWH. This action testified that God was the true owner of the land, as is expressly noted in the laws governing the Jubilee year: “for the land is mine,” God says (Lev 25:23). Pentecost was also a day of rest, for on it people were “to do no laborious work,” (Lev 23:21; Num 28:26). Again, this echoes a major theme of the Jubilee year, in which the Israelites rested from agricultural labors and the land enjoyed a sabbath as well. In Deuteronomy, Moses proclaims that Pentecost was to be a day of rejoicing before God for all the household, including children, servants, Levites, strangers, orphans, and widows (Deut 16:11). Why? He explains in the next verse: “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; you shall be careful to observe these statutes,” (16:12). In this admonition we see that a chief function of Pentecost was to recall the fact that God had freed the Israelites from servitude in Egypt, a message that forms the heart of the Jubilee year as well (Lev 25:42-43, 55). Therefore, both calendrically and theologically, Pentecost and Jubilee were kindred festivals. Like the festival held every fifty years, so the festival held every year on the fiftieth day proclaimed the following: (1) God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; (2) he had fulfilled his promise to give them the Holy Land; (3) he provided rest for them from their labors. As we shall see momentarily, this has profound implications for the Christian understanding of Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit.
The First Christian Pentecost
Every generation of Israelites, beginning with those who stood alongside Moses at Mt. Sinai, had counted those fifty days that led from Passover to Pentecost. As we see in Acts 2, even those who lived in the Diaspora gathered in Jerusalem for this second major feast of the year. Present were “devout men from every nation under heaven,” for there were “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs,” (2:5, 9-10). This throng of pilgrims was unaware, however, that what awaited them that year was not a mere repetition of the ancient liturgies of Pentecost. For as Luke describes, “ When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly, there came a sound from heaven like the rushing of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.  There appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, which rested upon each one of them.  They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, just as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” The crowds were understandably “bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (2:6) of the magnalia dei, “the mighty acts of God,” (2:10). As inquisitive murmurs arose from the multitude, some asking, “What does this mean?” and others accusing the preachers of being full of different spirits (the intoxicating kind!), the apostle Peter raised his voice to address the assembly (2:12-14). Drawing upon the prophecy of Joel (2:18-32 [H 3:1-5]) and a psalm of David (16:8-11), he declared that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, who, having been crucified and resurrected, had now poured out the Holy Spirit, as he has promised (Acts 2:14-40). Extraordinary was the result of this Pentecost sermon, for on that day “three thousand souls” believed and were baptized “upon the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of [their] sins,” (2:38, 41).
The Christian Pentecost as the Fulfillment of the OT Feast of Weeks
The question is this: Of the 364 other days when Christ could have sent the Spirit, why did he choose to do so on the 50th day after Passover, namely, during the Feast of Weeks? What was it about this Israelite feast day that it made it peculiarly fitting for this outpouring from above? In our discussion above, we have already adumbrated some answers to these questions. Now, let us proceed to explain more fully how the Christian Pentecost is an antitype of the OT Feast of Weeks.
There is, first of all, a thematic connection between the two, namely, that this fifty-day period is one of waiting or anticipation. For the believers under the old covenant, the days between Passover and Pentecost were symbolic of the forty (plus) years of waiting between their departure from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land. Only then could they finally offer to God the first-fruits that sprang from the sacred soil of Canaan. For although Passover could be, and was, celebrated in the wilderness (Num 9:5), the Festival of Weeks, properly speaking, could not be, for to be able to sow, reap, and offer the first-fruits of wheat to YHWH, the Israelites had to be settled in the land. Thus, until their wandering years were wrapped up, Canaan conquered, and seed sown into that sacred soil, Pentecost was anticipated but not realized. Similarly, the days between the Passover of Jesus (i.e., his crucifixion and resurrection) and his sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost were days of waiting. As Luke records at the beginning of Acts: “[1:1] The first account I wrote, O Theophilus, concerned all that Jesus began to do and to teach,  until the day he was taken up, after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  To them he presented himself alive, after his suffering, by many proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the matters concerning the kingdom of God.  And gathering them together, he commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, “which,” [he said], “you heard from me,  for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Similarly, at the end of his gospel, Luke records Jesus instructing his disciples to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,” (24:49). Everything was to take place in its proper time. Following the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, he would send forth the promise of his Father, the Holy Spirit, on Pentecost. That day would bring to fulfillment the salvific plan of YHWH, in a way analogous to how the entry into the Promised Land brought to fulfillment God’s saving plan for the Israelites. Until the promised Spirit came on that promised day, however, the disciples had to tarry in the city, awaiting the celebration of Pentecost. Then, and only then, would they receive “the first-fruits of the Spirit,” (Rom 8:23).
Speaking of first-fruits, this brings us to another link between the OT and NT Pentecost. This link, however, is one in which the contrast between the two highlights the superior nature of the antitype. Like under the old festival, during which believers presented to YHWH the first-fruits of their wheat, at the new Pentecost first-fruits were presented as well, though these first-fruits were the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, these “fruits” were not man’s offering to God, but Christ’s promised gift to his church. Rather than the fruits of earth being lifted up to heaven, the fruits of heaven are rained down upon the people of earth. The Apostle Paul likens the gift of the Spirit to first-fruits in his epistle to the church in Rome: “Not only this, but also we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, we ourselves groan inwardly, eagerly awaiting our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body,” (8:23). Not only does Paul describe the Spirit as first-fruits, this gift is connected with the resurrection, as a sort of guarantee of the “redemption of our body.” In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks similarly of the Spirit: “[1:13] In [Christ] you also, having heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation, in which you also have believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,  who is the pledge of our inheritance, until the redemption of [God's] possession, to the praise of his glory,” (cf. 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5). In viewing the first-fruits of the Spirit as a pledge or guarantee of the resurrection, Paul is reflecting the OT understanding of the first-fruits of the field. By offering to YHWH the first-fruits of grain, the believer bore witness that whole field and crop belonged to God, whose continued blessing was importuned through the sacrifice itself. Similarly, Christ places the Spirit within the believer as a pledge that the whole person, body and soul, belongs to him. He will continue to care for that person in whom the first-fruits of the Spirit are present until the “full harvest,” as it were, of the resurrection of the flesh.
As was demonstrated above, one can say with relative certainty that by the time of the fulfillment of Weeks in the pouring out of the Spirit, at least some (if not most) of the Jews had begun to celebrate Weeks as the liturgical commemoration of the institution of the Sinai covenant and the giving of the law. If so, what happened in Acts 2 should be viewed both phenomenologically and theologically in relation to the Sinai theophany.
Let us begin with the phenomenological. When YHWH descended upon Sinai, his presence was visibly and audibly manifested in manifold ways. He appeared in a “thick cloud” (Exod 19:9); at the sound of a “ram’s horn” (19:13); with “thunder and lightning flashes” (19:16); and in “smoke...like the smoke of a furnace,” (19:18). In Deuteronomy, recounting what happened forty years earlier, Moses says that “the mountain was burning with fire unto the heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud, and thick darkness,” (4:11). Then the Lord spoke to the Israelites “from the midst of the fire," (4:12, 15, 33; cf. 5:22-26). He “showed [them] his great fire and [they] heard his words from the midst of the fire,” (4:36). At Jerusalem, on the other hand, there was the “rushing of a violent wind” from heaven (Acts 2:2); “divided tongues, as of fire, which rested upon each one of them,” (2:3); and the apostolic proclamation(s) of the Gospel in unlearned languages.
Though the theophanic elements at the Jerusalem Pentecost were not as diverse as those at Sinai, there is one prominent commonality between the two: divine speech out of divine fire. As just noted, a prominent refrain in Moses’ description of the Sinai theophany is that YHWH spoke “from the midst of the fire.” Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, when commenting upon this revelation, takes it a step further and explains that God created an invisible sound that gave “shape and tension to the air and changing it to flaming fire, sounded forth like the breath through a trumpet an articulate voice so loud that it appeared to be equally audible to the farthest as well as the nearest,” (Decalogue, 33). Similarly, he comments, “Then from the midst of the fire that streamed from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience, and so clearly and distinctly were the words formed by it that they seemed to see rather than hear them,” (46). Two points of Philo are noteworthy. First, the celestial fire at Sinai was transformed into divine speech. Secondly, this speech was given “in the language familiar to the audience.” This second point was expanded in the early biblical interpretations of the rabbis. Whereas Philo urges that the Sinaitic revelation was uttered in speech recognizable by the Israelites (which, of course, it was), rabbinic tradition held that the revelation was heard by all peoples. In an effort to demonstrate that the law had been offered to the whole world, but only accepted by Israel, the rabbis taught that when YHWH spoke from Sinai, his voice was divided into seventy languages, so that all the nations heard the law spoken in their own tongue, (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 88a).
It is possible, indeed probable, that many of the Jews who present in Jerusalem at Pentecost were aware of these traditions recorded by Philo and the rabbis. If so, those who viewed the Sinai theophany as the historic event upon which Pentecost was based, how would they have interpreted the sign of the fiery tongues upon the heads of the preaching apostles? Moreover, what would it have meant for them to hear the proclamation miraculously voiced by the apostles to “every nation under heaven,” (Acts 2:5)? Were not these the theophanic signals that once more God was speaking “from the midst of the fire,” this time truly to all nations, though at this Pentecost uttering a far different message than at Sinai? These questions take us from a phenomenological comparison of the two theophanies to a theological contrast.
At Sinai, YHWH identified himself as the one who had led them out of the land of Egypt, then laid upon them the “ten words” of the covenant. The rest of OT history, however, is, as it were, Israel’s “rap sheet”, divine documentation of how the people repeatedly and oftentimes flagrantly broke this covenant. Indeed, even before they departed from Sinai, they rebelled against the First Commandment by attempting to worship YHWH under a bovine icon, thereby inciting Moses to smash the two tablets of the law (Exodus 32). The Father, however, in his grace, did not reject Israel but promised to establish a new covenant with them, “not like the covenant [he] made with their fathers, when [he] took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, [the] covenant with they broke,” (Jer 31:32). This new covenant Jesus established with his church as he gave them his body to eat and his blood to drink (Luke 22:20). It is the covenant built upon his life, passion, and resurrection; Jesus himself is, in fact, the embodiment of it, as Isaiah prophesied: “I will give you [i.e., the messianic Servant] as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” (42:6; cf. 49:8). What the apostles announced in their preaching at Pentecost was this new covenant. Once more, Christ spoke to Israel from the midst of the fire, namely, the fiery tongues resting upon the heads of his apostles. But he laid upon the listeners not the “ten words” for them to fulfill; rather, he proclaimed the fulfillment of the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms in himself (cf. Luke 24:44). Betokening the fact that this Good News was for all people, the Spirit enabled the apostles to preach in languages unlearned by them. Whereas rabbinic tradition held that the law was spoken in every language under heaven at the first Pentecost at Sinai, at the first Christian Pentecost in Jerusalem the fulfillment of the law was truly preached to all those “devout men from every nation under heaven,” (Acts 2:5). Therefore, if for many Jews, Pentecost was the anniversary of the giving of the law and the Sinai covenant, for Christians, Pentecost is the anniversary of the perfect keeping of the law by Jesus and the new covenant established by him with his church.
One final observation is in order regarding the antitypical nature of Weeks. As explained above, there is a very close association between Weeks and the year of Jubilee. Both of them were celebrations of YHWH’s emancipatory deeds, his gift of the holy land, and his provision of rest from the people’s labors. All three of these benefactions were anticipatory of the greater blessings Christ bestowed upon his church through the Spirit at Pentecost. In his Nazareth sermon (Luke 4), Jesus read these words from the prophet Isaiah as descriptive of his ministry: [Luke 4:18] “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the Gospel to the poor; he has sent me to preach release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,  to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” The Spirit who anointed Jesus to work these deeds is the same Spirit who came upon the apostles at Pentecost. Through their ministry, Christ continued to act and speak. As he had once brought Israel out of Egyptian bondage, so he preaches release to captives who are bound either physically or spiritually or both. As he gave Israel the Promised Land, so the Son of God proclaims the good news of a non-terrestrial kingdom, where the poor are enriched, captives emancipated, blind see, and the oppressed are liberated. This kingdom is both the church and the heavenly fatherland, the antitypes of Canaan. Likewise, as in Jubilee Year (of which Weeks was an annual mini-celebration), debts were forgiven, ancestral property restored, and Israelites in servitude freed, so too in the messianic Jubilee and messianic Pentecost—only better and on a grander scale! For, as Peter admonished the crowds at Pentecost, “[2:38] Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.” Baptism into Jesus Christ is a washing into the ongoing Jubilee of grace. The debt of sin is forgiven. Man is restored to the image of God. Those in bondage to death are emancipated. All this the Spirit gives to “you and your children and [to] all who are far away,” all who are united with Jesus via the washing of water with the word of God.
As with Passover, so also with Pentecost, the Lord ordained this festival to be celebrated as a foreshadowing of what he was yet to accomplish for his people. The final “Amen” in the liturgy of the Feast of Weeks would not be sounded until that momentous day in Jerusalem when the Spirit came in wind and fire to announce the new covenant of grace to every nation under heaven. The church saw fit to continue the celebration of this OT festival, only now in its perfected, messianic form. So yet today, in Christian churches around the world, fifty days after Easter, the faithful gather not to offer first-fruits to God, but to receive the first-fruits of the Spirit—and with that gift, all the blessings of him who perfected the law for us, emancipated us, and made us citizens of the kingdom of God.
When we refer to the Scriptures, we are accustomed to think of two divisions: the Old and the New Testament. These two parts of the Bible have their own distinctive features, but together they provide a unified witness to who God is and who we are as His creatures. Both are confessed to be inspired and inerrant – truly God’s own words to us. We receive them as the very oracles of God. For Jesus and the early Christians, however, the term “Scriptures” did not refer to the Old Testament and New Testament. What we call the OT they simply called “the Scriptures”. In reality, these holy writings were neither “old” nor a “testament”. On the contrary, in them one heard the ever-new, living, life-giving word of YHWH. They certainly bore witness to the “testament” that God had made with His people, but they themselves were not that testament. Furthermore, they recorded what God had done of “old”, but they themselves were the words of the ageless Lord. These writings were simply the Scriptures, the Bible of the Church.
Thus, when Jesus preached in the synagogue, He read and preached from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. When He quoted the Scriptures in His teaching, He quoted from the Torah, the Prophets, or the Psalms. When He explained all things concerning Himself that had been written in the Scriptures, He interpreted what we – for better or worse – call the OT.
It was no different for Saints Peter and Paul. When Peter preached at Pentecost that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the only biblical texts from which he quoted were OT texts. Similarly, when Paul preached in the synagogues or wrote letters to various churches, he quoted time and time again from the Scriptures of Israel.
The Bible of Jesus and the apostles was therefore the Old Testament. On the basis of these writings, they confessed the totality of who the Messiah is and what He does. To be sure, they interpreted and applied these sacred books, but the writings themselves were the OT Scriptures. Nothing else had to be added. Nothing else had to be written for these Scriptures to be complete. They were the definitive word of God concerning His Anointed One. In this Bible Jesus was confessed fully, truthfully, definitively.
Although the New Testament is also Holy Scripture, it might more precisely be called an “inspired commentary” on the OT Scriptures. Luther makes the same point in his Preface to the OT, where he states that the New Testament is “but a public preaching and proclamation of Christ, set forth through the sayings of the OT and fulfilled through Christ,” (AE 35:236). Luther goes on to say that the writings of Moses are “a well of all wisdom and understanding, out of which has sprung all that the prophets knew and said. Moreover even the NT flows out of it and is grounded in it . . . ,” (247). The Gospels are a narrative Christology, a commentary on the life of Jesus set within the context of biblical fulfillment and interpretation. The Gospels demonstrate that who Jesus is and what Jesus did flowed from and fulfilled the Scriptures. The Acts of the Apostles recount how Jesus continued to act in His church through His apostles. He continued to fulfill the promises of the Scriptures, pouring down His Holy Spirit, spreading His Gospel, granting salvation to Jew and Gentile alike. In Acts you see the promises made in the Old Testament coming to their divinely given end. Thus it also continues in the rest of the New Testament. Paul, the author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and John all write to churches that have in their possession the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament. Every Sunday they heard these Scriptures read and interpreted by their pastors. As the apostles addressed contemporary problems or concerns in the churches, they did so on the basis of the OT – the Bible of the early church.
Therefore, when we read the OT, we are reading the text from which the Jesus preached about Himself and His Father. Interpretation that somehow “brings Jesus into” the text or superimposes Him on an OT account is not only wrong-headed but unnecessary. If Moses wrote about Christ – as Jesus Himself testifies (John 5:46) – then Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are all about Jesus. It is that simple. This is the ABC’s of Christian interpretation. Jesus does not need to be “read into” these texts anymore than He needs to be “read into” the Gospels. He is already part of them. These words testify about Him, to Him, of Him. They tell us who He is and what He will do.
When we read these texts, therefore, we must ask ourselves: How in these words is Christ speaking of Himself to His Church? That is the question that must reign supreme in Lutheran exegesis. For instance, how is the account of creation about Jesus? How is the story of the Flood about Jesus? How is the affliction in Egypt, Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna, the tabernacle, the sacrifices, and everything else in the Exodus about our Lord? These types of questions must be asked of every verse of the Pentateuch, for Moses wrote about Jesus.
The same interpretive question applies to the rest of the OT. No part is excluded. No part is somehow “less messianic”. Of course, not all parts are so easily understood as being about Christ. The disciples certainly needed to be instructed on how all the Scriptures – Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:25) – spoke of the Christ. But what does that mean? It means only that God had to give eyes to sinful men to see what is already there, but to which they were blind. It is certainly no different with us. We are often tone-deaf to the beautiful messianic music that is played by the prophets. Our eyes need to be opened to understand the Scriptures, just as much as the eyes of the disciples needed to be. “O Lord, open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things in Thy Torah,” prays the Psalmist, and we do well to join him (119:18). This must be our prayer as well. “O Lord, open my eyes to see Jesus in the Psalms. O Lord, open my eyes to see Jesus in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. O Lord, open my eyes to see Jesus everywhere in the Scriptures for these are they which testify of Him.” And He does. He “opens our eyes to behold wonderful things in [His] Torah,” (Psalm 119:18), for He is the Wonderful One of whom Isaiah spoke (9:6). He removes the “veil of Moses” (2 Corinthians 3:12-18) that obscures our vision. As He interprets the “scroll of the book” which is written about Him (Psalm 40:7) , He “shows us the proper method of interpreting Moses and all the prophets. . . He shows that all the stories and illustrations of Moses point to [Himself],” (Luther, AE 22:339).
As we seek to read the Scriptures Christologically, there are several questions which we might ask of a text to help us to see Jesus therein. These questions are not hermeneutical principles. One might reshape them into prayers that accompany exegesis. That is their intent. They beseech the Spirit to lead us to read the Scriptures rightly, that is, as words of Christ and about Christ. They are questions that lead us to ask the right questions of Holy Writ for they all direct us to the One subject of all that the prophets and apostles have written – the Messiah.
Questions the Interpreter Asks:
1) QUOTATION: Is the OT narrative referenced or alluded to in the NT (or later OT texts) in connection with Christ? If so, what is the purpose of the reference or allusion?
2) THEME: How do the theological themes that are present in an OT narrative unfold in the life and ministry of Jesus?
3) ACTIONS: How do the actions of people in the OT narrative parallel the actions performed by Christ or done to Him?
4) OFFICE: What are the connections between the offices and/or vocations held by people in the OT narrative and the offices and/or vocations of Christ (e.g., prophet, priest, king, son, brother, husband, redeemer, judge, servant)?
5) METAPHORS: Is there a connection between the metaphors employed in the narrative and the same (or related) metaphors used in the ministry of Jesus?
6) LXX: Does a LXX narrative use specific language that is also employed in the NT?
7) GEOGRAPHY: Is there a connection between the geography associated with a specific event and geography in the life and ministry of Jesus?
8) NUMBERS: Is there a connection between the numbers in an OT narrative and the numbers connected with the ministry of Jesus?
9) CHRISTOPHANY: Does Christ reveal Himself in the OT narrative in visible form?
10) SACRAMENTS: How are various OT sacraments related to Christ and the NT sacraments?