Many Christians just don’t know what to do with the Old Testament. If it is preached from, pastors and teachers generally focus on the well-known figures and stories that are easy to relate to. We all know about David and Goliath, Daniel and the lion’s den, and the beauty of the psalms. Less known or read are the book of Leviticus with its weird laws, the fiery books of prophecy, or the racy book of Song of Solomon. Why is the OT so consistently inscrutable?
Perhaps a bigger picture will help to bring some themes into focus. There are many ideas we could focus on because God’s big picture is way bigger than ours, but there is one huge, consistent theme that runs throughout the Old Testament (and well in to the New Testament).
A couple of weeks ago my husband preached a sermon focusing on God’s purpose for Israel. His main passage was Exodus 19:5-6: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
These words were spoken right outside Mt Sinai. The people were camped outside of this mountain awaiting a message from God. Moses is called upon the mountain and receives these initial words from God where God’s overall purpose was communicated. When the people responded with a resounding yes, Moses then prepared them for another encounter with God—one that began with a sacred purification and thunder and lightning and culminated with the 10 Commandments.
What’s fascinating about this passage of Scripture is God’s grand purpose for this ragtag group. With little to vouch for them, God declares that they will be a kingdom of priests. My husband Tracy explained in his sermon that the term priest literally means bridge builder. Their purpose as a nation was clear. They were to build bridges between man and God. How? By being different.
In other books of the Old Testament (namely Leviticus) God outlined a strict lifestyle that was completely different to that of their neighbors. This included their government (a theocracy), their diet (clean vs unclean), and their holidays. It was their difference that made the world notice them. Just like a bright light shining in the darkness cannot be ignored.
The most important aspect of their difference was how they worshipped because as bridge builders to God what they communicated about who God is was the meat of their message. This is why their idolatry was so absolutely offensive. It stood in stark contrast to the message they were designed to communicate. By imitating their neighbors, they were diluting the most important message the world needed to hear. They needed to see who the real God was—that He was holy, that He was faithful, that He loves mankind.
Looking through history, we can see how Israel was and wasn’t effective. However, the baton has switched hands.
1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (italics mine)
It looks like God’s vision for the people of Israel has passed on to us. So if we are to be different, if we are to communicate to the world the truth of who God is—what does that look like?
Is it (like the Israelites) communicated in our government? Our diet? Our holidays?
I don’t think so.
I think Jesus made it clear what our differentiating feature should be. Love.
Relentless love. Love that gives of itself. Love that doesn’t give up. Love that forgives the unforgivable.
And, so if we are to fulfill our role as a kingdom of priests, a kingdom of bridge builders, our new m.o. has to be centered in this.
When I first became a teacher, I was overwhelmed by how difficult it was to love my students. I had watched all the movies and had starry-eyed visions of how my students would think I was the best thing since Mr. Holland’s Opus. The reality of the matter is that my students (and myself) are often difficult to love. The temptation is enormous to get fed up with a certain kid who just pushes my buttons and essentially write him or her off.
But God wouldn’t allow me to continue with this attitude. He started with communicating His grace towards me. He doesn’t give up on me. As soon as I understood His unending grace towards me, I realized that this is the message the world needs to hear. Because at the bottom of this concept is one simple, powerful truth: every person is valuable.
The philosophy of this world cannot make this claim. An evolutionary perspective that defines a person by his or her physical reality whether it is gender, race, sexual orientation or appearance cannot capture the true essence or value of a person. We see this reflected in the abortion industry and the forging of identities based solely on physical characteristics. This is on top of the pressure to meet the expectations of our media-driven society that focuses on thin waistlines and airbrushed faces.
In contrast, the message of the church should be so ridiculously different. We need to shout from the roof tops that every person is important. And we need to demonstrate this in our unwavering commitment to people. Every kind of people: babies, and prisoners, and drug addicts, and fallen pastors, and, yes, even those most hostile to the Christian faith.
And, in our personal lives, we too must commit to this idea. This means that family member who makes you crazy, that person in the store who is obnoxious, that person who says hateful things on your Facebook page must be treated with love and patience.
We must be careful to not let our cultural preferences be confused with the essential message of the Gospel—the reconciliation of God and man. Christianity isn’t defined by our Christmas celebration, our rights as U.S. citizens, or our success in not committing those external sins that are hard to hide. Our purpose is wrapped up simply in the building of bridges and the eternal message of God’s placement of value on us.
I love how the Jesus Storybook Bible communicates this:
“’God loves us!’ [Paul] wrote from prison. ‘Nothing can ever—no, not ever!—separate us from the Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love of God he showed us in Jesus!’”