Readings: Genesis 17:1-8; 2 Samuel 7:8-16; Hebrews 1:1-9
Your’re sitting in an evangelistic meeting, and a bloke at the front keeps banging on about the Bible, saying, “The Bible teaches this, the Bible teaches that…” And you’re thinking, “I’m not sure there is such a thing a ‘the Bible’ that teaches anything consistently at all. Moses says this, Isaiah says that, Paul says something else, and Peter something different again, but I can’t see that it adds up to any coherent message.”
You’re a new Christian, and you’ve decided that you would like to read the Bible. “Let’s start at the very beginning,” you say to yourself – a very good place to start. Genesis OK, Exodus fine. But by the time to reach Leviticus, you’re starting to flag. Seven chapters on various sacrifices. Three chapters on the tabernacle. Six chapters on laws concerning purity and impurity. Nine on miscellaneous laws. Right in the middle is all the stuff about the Day of Atonement, with a ceremony involving two goats, one of which is sent off packing into the desert. “What is this all about?” And you’re wondering, “Is it possible to see the wood for the trees when reading the Bible, is there a ‘big picture’ here, or is this book a more or less random collection of stories and sayings, full of sound and fury but adding up to not very much at all?”
You’re having a coffee with some friends, and the discussion turns to religion. “Isn’t it absurd that there are still people around who think that the Bible is the inspired word of God? It can’t be, of course – it’s full of contradictions, isn’t it?” In a moment of madness, you say, “Give us an example.” “Proverbs 26:5 – ‘Answer a fool according to his folly,’ Proverbs 26:4 ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly.'” After a moment’s thought, you say, “Did anyone see Strictly Come Dancing last night?” And you can’t help pondering, “Is the Bible self-consistent, or is it hopelessly self-contradictory?”
In other words: Is it possible, in this supposedly enlightened age, to believe in the unity of Scripture, to believe that the Bible is a coherent whole? A dictionary has unity by virtue of its alphabetical arrangement; a collection of poems by reason of type of genre; a novel on account of its overarching plot line. But what unity, if any, has the Bible?
The diversity of Scripture
At first sight, the most obvious characteristic of the Bible is not its unity at all, but its diversity. After all, the Bible consists of two testaments, and 66 individual books. It was written on two different continents using three languages over a period of sixteen centuries by about 40 different people. Among its writers were judges, kings, priests, prophets, patriarchs, prime ministers, herdsmen, scholars, soldiers, physicians and fishermen. Various parts were written in tents, deserts, cities, palaces and prisons; sometimes in situations of grave danger and at other times in circumstances of ecstatic joy. The Bible contains many different types of writing, including poetry, history, prophecy, laws, official records, gospels, epistles and apocalypse. And all those stories – beginning with the tale of a garden and ending with the city of gold. How diverse can it get?
A unifying theme?
What are that chances of finding any unity in all this diversity?
A big part of the answer lies in the Christian view of the authority of Scripture. Our final authority in all matters of faith and conduct is the Bible, because it is God’s word written, it is God-breathed. There is a ‘Thus says the Lord’ to the Bible that commands our attention, determines our belief, provokes our confidence, and prompts our obedience. Behind all the human authors is the one divine author. Because God is one, his message to us is one.
Therefore, we can approach the Bible expecting to find in all its diversity an underlying unity of message and purpose. We can express it like this:
The unifying theme of Scripture is that of promise and its fulfilment in Jesus Christ
The New Testament spells this out in a variety of ways:-
1. The prophetic word is completed in Jesus Christ
According to the majestic opening verses of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Bible is not a collection of human musings about God, nor of sages’ finest thoughts about the meaning of life. God has spoken through the prophets, in many and various ways, and now as the completion and culmination of all this he has spoken to us by his Son. All of human history is comprehended here under these two headings: ‘in the past’, and ‘in these last days’. All that came before Christ is ‘in the past’; all that comes after him is ‘in these last days.’ Still today we recognise the centrality of Christ in history in the common dating systems, BC/AD or BCE/CE. The prophetic word is completed in Jesus Christ..
2. The promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ
Acts 13:32f refers specifically to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how this was promised long before in the 2nd Psalm. Indeed, the entire OT can be thought of as a promise, and the NT as the record of fulfilment of that promise. Consider the oft-repeated promise to Abraham – absolutely pivotal to the message of the OT. “You will be the father of many nations…I will establish an everlasting covenant to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” The apostle Peter picks this up in Acts 3:25: “You are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.'” The promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
3. David’s line has ended with Christ
We have heard the promise given to king David in 2 Samuel 7:12ff, that God would raise up David’s offspring to succeed him, and God would establish the throne of his kingdom forever. The Epistle to the Romans, which is perhaps the Bible’s most systematic presentation of the Christian message, begins by recording the fulfillment of that promise:
‘God’s son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David.’
Jesus is ‘great David’s greater Son.’ David’s line has ended in Jesus Christ.
4. Old Testament tells of salvation in Christ, 2 Timothy 3:15
We are sometimes tempted to think that God has devised two ways of bringing people to himself: the way of law and the way of grace. The OT (it is supposed) sets out the way of law, but that didn’t work, so God came up with Plan B, and sent Jesus to bring grace and forgiveness. But the way of salvation presented in the two testaments is not contradictory, law versus grace, but complementary, promise and fulfilment. There is more grace in the OT than we often suppose, and also more law in the NT than we sometimes imagine.
According to 2 Timothy 3:15, the holy Scriptures ‘are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’
The salvation that was foretold in the Old Testament is accomplished in Jesus Christ.
5. The whole Old Testament concerns Christ
Two disciples who had witnessed Jesus’ are met by a stranger as they trudge home. His unforgettable words to them are recorded in Luke 24:25ff:
‘He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’
It was the risen Lord, of course. Perhaps he started at Genesis 3:15, the first promise of the Redeemer, and traced that promise through the Scriptures. He may have lingered at Genesis 22, which tells of Abraham placing his only beloved son on the altar. Probably he touched on Passover, the levitical sacrifices, the tabernacle ceremonies, the Day of Atonement, the serpent in the wilderness, the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, and the prophetic messages of various psalms. The key to understanding the Bible is to see Jesus Christ on every page. The whole of the Old Testament concerns Jesus Christ.
It is because of this united witness of Scripture to Jesus that we can say with confidence, “The Bible says…”, “The Bible teaches…” “The Bible speaks…” – speaking as it does of one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
It is because of this united witness of Scripture to Jesus that we are not unduly disturbed even if, after our best efforts, we cannot answer all the doubts of critics and sceptics. We will make every honest attempt to reconcile apparent discrepancies and contradictions. But when we cannot resolve a difficulty, our confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture is unshaken; we simply do what Martin Luther said he always did in regard to the mystery of the Holy Trinity: he doffed his cap and went on his way.
It is because of this united witness of Scripture to Jesus that we have a map and compass to navigate through even the trickier parts of the OT. The book of Leviticus, for example, with its elaborate system of sacrifices, anticipates the one final and complete sacrifice of Jesus on the cross of Calvary, and the sending of the scapegoat into the wilderness provides a visual reminder that ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’
It is because of this united witness of Scripture to Jesus that we can discern amongst all the stories one overarching story, the story of redemption freely offered through faith in him.