Last week I wrote about the apostolic conviction that everything written in the Old Testament was written about Christ and for the church. I believe this conviction can serve as a powerful corrective to a watered-down moralistic hermeneutic which we’ve all heard or used at some point.
We have all heard (or preached) that moralistic sermon, right? The one where the preacher (who is still a good man, by the way; it’s not easy to present God’s Word to God’s people every week) asks us to turn to Joshua 1:9 and spends twenty-five minutes exhorting us all to “be strong and courageous” because Joshua was so. Or the one where we are exhorted to show generosity in hardship like Elisha’s widowed supporter. These are the kind of expository maneuvers which can be performed on any story where the flow of the narrative ends with the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished. We may profit just as much from a homily which takes as its text “Old Mother Hubbard,” and which admonishes us to be diligent and hardworking, to lay up for lean times.
The point is, these moralistic sermons and teachings, rather than applying the sacred text in the way it was intended, obscure the true message of the text and in the end are powerless to bring about the true ethical change which is their aim. Try as you might to exhort me to courage in the face of fear and challenge, I am no Joshua, and when the obstacle before me seems too large for what I thought I could handle, your sermon last Sunday loses its ability to strengthen and hold me up. There is no true link between the modern hearer and the ancient hero.
This is where the apostolic conviction comes in. It claims that all of Scripture, rather than being a cipher from which I may glean moral directive if I can, is a story. The apostles held that Scripture, with all its facets and in all its genres, is a single story about a single offspring who is the object of saving faith. Every faithful son and daughter looks like that Son. Every enemy is his enemy, and every victory is a prelude to his final victory.
A method for reading Scripture emerges from this conviction. It holds that events in the Old Testament really did happen, and do need to be understood fully in their context before being used as starting blocks. Having understood the story or passage in question, the next step is to see Christ where he may be seen as fulfilling what is promised. By the way, this isn’t like that game you played as a child where you lay down on the grass and stared up at the sky, willing elephants and battleships to emerge from the shapeless clouds. Rather, it is much more like an Easter egg hunt–no matter how difficult it is to find the egg, you can be assured that it is there because hey, it’s Easter.
It is only after we see Christ for who he is as he has revealed himself in the Word that we see ourselves in him as his redeemed people. When we see that Joshua, the strong and fearless commander of the Lord’s army, is a shadow, a picture, a type of the greater Joshua who defeats the enemies of God and provides his people with an eternal inheritance, then whom have we to fear? What might can stand against the divine and risen Christ who works on our behalf? Courage is a foregone conclusion at that point. There is a moral imperative here, but it can only exist in its connection to the redemptive fiat standing over our lives as those who are in Christ.
The moralistic method of interpreting Scripture is a crab-walk, a graceless two-step from the figures of the Old Testament to you and I. The apostolic method is a beautiful dance, a three-step waltz between the Old and New in which Christ is glorified and his people redeemed.