The Bible's variety is mind-boggling. It contains sixty-six documents, composed over one and a half millennia in three languages. Some biblical books are addressed to an oppressed Ancient Near Eastern clan, recently rescued from slavery; others, to agrarian communities of farmers and craftsmen; still others, to multiethnic urban cells around the Mediterranean Sea, groups that reflected the whole economic spectrum from rich to poor. The Bible is historical narratives, fictional parables, legal regulations, architectural designs, simple and ornate poems, tightly argued epistles, stirring sermons, bizarre visions, pragmatic maxims, thunderous warnings of coming disaster, and sweet previews of future paradise.
Is it a fool's errand to seek a unifying theme in such a dizzying display of diversity? Many today think so, but the Bible itself claims otherwise. It speaks as the voice of the majestic, all-wise, all-powerful, all-merciful Creator of the universe and Redeemer of his people. It reveals his "purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:9-10). It records the post-Easter Bible studies in which Jesus the risen Lord led astonished disciples to discover himself as the theme that unifies all the Scripture: "Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled," including his suffering, resurrection, and gift of repentance and forgiveness to all nations through the Spirit-empowered witness of the apostles (Luke 24:44-49).
But how can we discover Christ in all the Scriptures? The New Testament's witness to Jesus is obvious. All four Gospels obviously concern his person and work in his earthly ministry, suffering and death, and glorious resurrection. Acts abounds with sermons that focus on Jesus the Messiah, rejected by his own people but raised from the dead by God and vindicated as the Lord of life. The epistles of Paul, Peter, and others expound Christ's good news and explore its implications for believers' identity and life together as Christ's body, and in society at large. The Book of Revelation itself is "the revelation of Jesus Christ" (Rev. 1:1), given not to predict military movements in today's Middle East, but to display his already accomplished triumph as the slain Lamb.
The Old Testament seems, at first glance, to be another matter. For one thing, its latest books were written four centuries before Jesus' birth. It does speak of a Joshua (the Hebrew way to say "Jesus"), but his military career seems quite different from Jesus of Nazareth's ministry of teaching and healing and suffering. Of course, the Old Testament contains prophecies that would be fulfilled in Jesus: his birth in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), his humble entry into Jerusalem (Zech. 9:9), his repudiation by his own people and execution (Isa. 53), his resurrection (Ps. 16), and his gift of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-32). Moreover, the New Testament discloses that events and institutions in ancient Israel's history provided divinely designed previews of the Messiah and his mission as the last Adam, the sacrificial Passover lamb, the trailblazer in a new exodus out of slavery, the living temple. But where is Jesus in the sordid history of Israel's judges, or in the pragmatic principles of Proverbs?
The key that unlocks the whole Bible as the treasury of God's witness to Jesus, his beloved Son and our brother-redeemer, is Scripture's covenantal character. Every time we speak of Old Testament or New Testament we implicitly acknowledge that covenant structures Scripture, for these terms (derived from Latin) reflect the subdivision of redemptive history in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which contrasts the broken covenant of Sinai to a "new covenant" to come, bringing unprecedented blessings of forgiveness, heartfelt obedience, and unimpeded access to God. It is this new covenant that Jesus inaugurated by his sacrifice (Luke 22:20; 2 Cor. 3:4-18; Heb. 8:6-13).
Covenants in the Bible bind the Lord as king to his subject (but often rebellious) people, the Lord as husband to his beloved (but often unfaithful) bride, the Lord as Father to his cherished (but often wayward) children. In covenant commitment the Lord promises his people rescue and protection, and he demands from them whole-souled allegiance and affection. When both parties fulfill their commitments, the result is blessedness for the servant and delight and glory for the Lord.
But here is the rub: whereas the Lord "remains faithful-for he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim. 2:13), sin-stained humans invariably prove faithless, resulting in guilt, curse, and death. So every historical narrative in Israel's ancient Scriptures attests to the need not only for the Lord's gracious intervention on behalf of the undeserving but also for the arrival in history of a flawless human Servant to fulfill our part of the bargain. Jesus is the gracious Lord who is also the well-pleasing obedient Servant. This discovery opens to us the connection of every event recounted in the Bible to Jesus the mediator of the new and better covenant (Heb. 7:22; 12:24).
To live in covenant with God is to seek his wisdom to interpret our experience and guide our decisions. This discovery opens to us the connection of the Wisdom Literature's every proverb and puzzle to Christ, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3).
Jesus is both the Law-giving Lord and the Law-keeping Servant, uniquely authorized to inherit every covenant blessing as the one-the only one-who has loved the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind, and his neighbor as himself (Matt. 22:37-39). This discovery opens to us the connection of every command in Scripture to the Christ who kept it for us and who now conforms our hearts to it by his quiet, relentless life-giving Holy Spirit.
Seeing every text in the Bible in its covenant context will compel us to read, teach, and preach its witness to Jesus, the God-man who binds God and humanity together in his own person and his covenant-keeping achievement for us.
Dennis E. Johnson is professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, and author of The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption (P&R 1997).
Issue: "Christless Christianity" May/June 2007 Vol. 16 No. 3 Page number(s): 20
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