How do you find the Old Testament half of the Bible?
I went to Israel on my sabbatical, and one member of the group was especially thankful for the trip. He’d not been a Christian long, and he’d only ever read the New Testament. He’d never read anything of the Old Testament. Visiting ancient sites connected with characters like Abraham, David and Joshua helped him to start to piece together the storyline of the Old Testament.
He’d never read it. And maybe you haven’t. For many Christians, the Old Testament is long, complicated and they don’t really know where to begin.
It doesn’t help that the culture is different. The New Testament is largely set in a Greek culture. That’s Western and we know what to do with it. The Old Testament is set in a Semitic culture. That’s Eastern, and it feels strange.
For others, the Old Testament is pre-Christian. Jews read the Old Testament; we read the New Testament. I’ve heard of discussions in some places where Jews, Muslims and Christians get together and discuss an issue from the perspective of their religions. They have one passage open from each religion’s Scriptures: Something from the Koran for Muslims, something from the New Testament for Christians, something from the Old Testament for Jews. You see the assumption? The Old Testament is not our book. We’ve moved on. Pre-Christian.
For others, the Old Testament isn’t just pre-Christian; it’s sub-Christian. Here’s how the caricature goes. Christianity is a religion of peace; the Old Testament is full of violence. Christianity is a religion of grace; the Old Testament is all about laws. That’s the caricature. It doesn’t stand up when you look more closely, of course.
What’s your relationship with the Old Testament? Too complicated to know where to start? A strange text from another culture? Pre-Christian? Sub-Christian, even?
For Peter, one of Jesus’ first followers, the Old Testament is none of those things. We need the Old Testament if we are to maintain our stability.
We’re working our way through the short letter of 2 Peter.
Let me briefly recap for you. We’ve seen that God has given every Christian two amazing gifts: We have all we need for a godly life, and we have the amazing promise that one day we’ll be like God – incorruptible, free from suffering.
Then we saw that Christians need to grow, not presume on these things.
We’ve also seen that these Christians are in danger of losing those two amazing gifts. False teachers are in town, peddling a fake imitation Jesus. It would be a tragedy to lose something as precious as the gift of a godly life and the promise we’ll be like God in the future. So Peter writes, to urge them to stay the course. Not to be destabilised.
Last time, he had two pleas for them, things we must do if we’re to stay on track: Remember the teaching of the apostles, Jesus’ first followers. Be certain Jesus will return – don’t doubt the second coming.
Today he has a third plea if we’re to remain stable Christians, on course for heaven. And it’s this: Pay careful attention to the Old Testament. Pay careful attention to the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is not something to be frightened of, confused by or to move on from. It’s something we urgently need to pay constant attention to, otherwise we’re easy prey for those who’d derail our Christian faith.
Peter underpins his plea with two key facts about the Old Testament. So, to help us pay careful attention to the Old Testament, let me unpack his two arguments.
Number 1, the Old Testament is illuminating. Illuminating.
This comes in verse 20: “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place”.
The world is a dark place. Your mind is a dark place. And when you’re in the dark, you need light.
The picture is so clear it hardly needs explaining. Here in Kemsing we have no street lights. There may be moon and stars, but if it’s a cloudy night, you’ll definitely want a torch after dark. It can be black, very black, and you never know what you’d bump into or step on.
Perhaps you keep a torch by your bedside, for the same reason. To help you find the loo in the night.
I’ve heard it said that the most painful object known to man is an upturned three-pin plug if you have bare feet. Lego bricks come a close second place.
Well, the world is frequently a dark place. Everyone longs to see where they’re going. It’s why people have a fascination with horoscopes and other fortune telling. We don’t know what the future holds, and sometimes that makes it frustratingly hard to know how to live in the future.
Not only is the world a dark place, but so is the human mind. No matter how tightly you shut your eyes, you can’t work out for yourself what God is like. The best you can do is guess what he might be like or decide what you wish him to be like.
So we need light. We need to see clearly where to tread, which way to go.
In John’s gospel, Jesus is called the light. John chapter 1, “the light shines in the darkness”. John chapter 8, “I am the light of the world”. If you follow Jesus, you’ll see where you’re going. But that raises another question: How do you see Jesus? He’s not here. He went back to heaven 2000 years ago.
That’s where the picture of the Bible, the word of God, as a light to help you see in the dark comes in. It’s a well-trodden picture. Most famous is Psalm 119, verse 105: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”
And now here: The “prophetic message” was a way of referring to the whole Old Testament. “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place”.
The Old Testament is illuminating.
Interestingly, we won’t need its light forever. Look at how the verse goes on. “you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
We’re waiting for dawn. The world may be dark now, but it won’t be so forever. The sun will come up. Daylight will arrive.
When Peter talks about “the day”, he’s talking about the second coming of Jesus.
The second coming of Jesus is a big theme in this letter. Last time, we saw him urging us to be certain Jesus really will return. We’ll see that it’s one of the key truths being denied by the false teachers. Chapter 3, verse 4: “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” But Peter is sure, chapter 3, verse 10: “The day of the Lord will come.” It’s a day to look forward to.
The day will dawn.
This is an Old Testament picture of the second coming. Malachi chapter 4, verse 2 speaks of the future coming of Jesus in language picked up in a much loved Christmas carol: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness [spelt s-u-n] will rise with healing in its wings.” Jesus will return. Sunrise.
“until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
The morning star, that’s Venus, the planet that you’ll often see shining brightly just before dawn. Another Old Testament picture of the Messiah; if you’re taking notes, it’s Numbers 24:17 and also Revelation 22:16.
But don’t miss the surprise here. When sunrise happens out there, and the whole world becomes bright, something happens in here too. “and the morning star rises in your hearts.”
God doesn’t just turn the lights on in the world. He turns the lights on in your heart. You are transformed, so that you can see God clearly.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that now we see God like the reflection in a bad quality mirror. But then we will see clearly. We will know God as fully as he knows us now.
It’s a bit like when you go to a famous landmark for the first time. You’ve only ever seen the Golden Gate Bridge in photographs, but then you get to go and see it in person. Suddenly you’re there. You’re seeing it clearly with your own eyes.
It’s like that with God. He’s spoken to us, and we know a lot of what he’s like, indeed we know him, but when Jesus returns you’ll actually see him in person. The lights come on.
Just imagine what it will be like to find yourself actually looking at the holes in Jesus’ hands where the nails were. Profoundly moving.
Or suddenly you understand God’s deepest purposes for your life, for world history, why he let you go through that terrible time of suffering 3 years ago. You see it all, clearly.
The day will dawn.
And when it does, we’ll no longer need the Old Testament. Just like you no longer need your torch once the sun is up.
But that day is future. For now, there’s still much darkness, and we still need light to see where we’re going. We still need the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is illuminating.
That’s the first reason why we Christians need to pay regular and careful attention to the Old Testament. It’s illuminating.
Second, Peter wants us to know: The Old Testament is inspired. Inspired.
This is one key part of mainstream Christian belief. We say the Bible is “inspired”. Let me explain what that means, and then I’ll show us what Peter has to say about it.
The word “inspired” means lots of different things. We might say that a good joke was inspired, or that Shakespeare was inspired when he wrote his plays. We’re saying it’s a work of genius, a flash of “inspiration”.
When we say the Bible is inspired by God, we’re saying much more than that. Spiration is another word for breathing. When we say that the Bible is inspired by God, we’re saying it’s carried on his breath. Just as I’m breathing now and my breath carries my words to you, so God breathes and out come the words of the Bible. We’re saying that every word in the Bible is exactly what God wants it to be.
Before we look at what Peter says about this, let me clear up a couple of really common misunderstandings.
Misunderstanding number 1, this is not dictation. When we say that every word of the Bible is what God wants, we’re not forgetting that the Bible is written by many different human authors. They each have their own style, vocabulary, sense of humour even. They researched, they drafted, they edited, they wept, and yet through all of that God made sure that what they wrote was what he wanted.
Misunderstanding number 2, this is about what they originally wrote. If you found the piece of papyrus where Peter first wrote this letter, every word is exactly what God wanted. We have to read it in English; it’s translated. We’re really blessed to have really good English translations available for us, but no translation will be 100% perfect. The books of the Bible got copied many times. So many times in fact that we have many copies that go nearly back to when they were first written. That means we can spot any copying errors, but yes there will be some copying errors.
But if you could find the original document for each book of the Bible, in the original language, then every single word on there is exactly the one God wanted. There’s not one mistake.
That’s what we mean when we say the Bible is “inspired”.
And this is Peter’s second fact about the Old Testament to help us pay attention to it
The Old Testament is inspired.
Verses 20 and 21: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
When the Old Testament writers wrote things down, they weren’t just giving their opinion. As Peter puts it, it’s not “the prophet’s own interpretation”. Their teachings didn’t start with their bright ideas. As one writer put it, “Isaiah did not get out of bed one morning and say, ‘I have decided to write some prophecies today.’”
No, God was in the driving seat. The word for “carried along” is the same word used for a shipwreck in Acts chapter 27. The boat Paul was sailing in was caught in a storm and carried along by the wind for days. The sailors couldn’t steer. They just had to let the wind take the ship where it wanted to – in this case straight onto a sandbank where the ship broke up.
As the Old Testament writers wrote, God’s Spirit was the wind in their sails, driving them along, taking them where he wanted to take them.
The Old Testament is inspired; it’s the word of God.
Which means we can’t dismiss the Old Testament as from a different culture and so not relevant to us. Yes, the authors may have been Jews from the Bronze and Iron ages, but God was behind what they wrote. The God who made us is revealing himself through them.
And we can’t dismiss the Old Testament as pre-Christian and so primitive. Some people hold to an evolutionary idea of the Old Testament. It goes like this: People began to discover some ethics. Murdering people was a bad idea. Stable families help build stable society. People began to realise that we didn’t come about by chance, so suggested there were gods responsible. Gradually, with time, the ideas developed and improved. More details on the laws. Not many gods, but one God. And so on.
The next step is to say that Jesus is later still, so his ideas are even more refined. So we don’t need the earlier things you find in the Old Testament. They were crude and primitive. Jesus has completely replaced the Old Testament. Some people then go even further, and say that even Jesus was a prisoner of his time, and humanity’s ideas have moved on since Jesus.
Well, without a doubt, we’ve learnt a lot since the time of Jesus. In science and the arts we’ve made enormous progress.
But the Bible is not a record of the human race gradually learning more. Not according to Peter. Each bit of the Bible was written by someone in a particular time and culture, and what they write will reflect that perfectly. But it’s also God himself, speaking through them, to make himself known.
There’s much more to say than we have time for this morning. When Jesus came he did fulfilled the Old Testament, and we have to read it accordingly.
Let me give you an example, we don’t kill animals for sacrifice because Jesus’ death paid for sin for all time. But that’s not because the Old Testament sacrificial laws were primitive and we now know better. They were God’s laws, spoken by God himself. They teach us about how serious sin is, and that blood sacrifice is needed. So when we read those laws, we’re reading the very words of God. It’s just that the coming of Jesus has changed how we put them into practice.
Here’s Peter’s point. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is the God who spoke every word of the Old Testament. He’s said more since, but that just makes his earlier words more certain, completely reliable. God doesn’t contradict himself.
The Old Testament is inspired.
What we have here is the most wonderful news. God is not silent. We have a speaking God. He’s spoken in the person of his Son. He’s spoken on the pages of the Bible.
Which means we’re not left in the dark.
We have something that so many people long for. We have a light to see by as we make our way through life. And one day, God will turn on the lights. More accurately, one day, daylight will come and the world will be flooded with light. And if you’re a Christian, your whole life will be flooded with light as well.
But we’re not there yet.
In the meantime, as we seek to follow Jesus through life, we have the Old Testament, “as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”