“The Whole Thing”
May 20, 2007 - Ascension Sunday
The Grand Narrative
In the Covenant Church, we express our trust in the Bible by saying, “the Holy Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct.” We affirm that these Testaments are the sixty-six books recognized in the Protestant Reformation (yet we also read and benefit from those books called the Apocrypha, which are found in Catholic Bibles—see our hymnal #978).
From the perspective of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, we see that the coming of Jesus is the overarching narrative of both Testaments. So we affirm the unity and consistency of all the books of the Bible as they speak forth Jesus and His Kingdom.
Early Covenant people constantly asked the question, “Where is it written?” when dealing with matters of doctrine or practice. But a single verse or “proof text” read out of context can mislead or even cause harm. So today we might nuance that question to ask “What does the Bible say?” Wholly devoted to the authority of Scripture, we recognize that it is the complete message of the Bible which offers us new life in Christ. So when we read a Bible text we discover its meaning within the whole of Scripture. We do not speak or draw conclusions only from isolated texts or verses, no matter how significant.
The whole of Scripture is God’s message to us about His Son Jesus Christ. This bigger perspective on the Bible keeps our understanding of faith from being excessively private and individual. Alongside the familiar understanding of individual forgiveness of sin through personal faith in Christ, we find Jesus’ own proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God, which was the grand theme and substance of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament story is the narrative of God confronting evil by choosing a people for Himself and establishing His Kingdom among them both by forgiving their sins and calling them to new life in accordance with His Law. Jesus then is the fulfillment and completion of God’s Old Testament program. As we have said before, in God’s Son all that had been spoken by the Law and the Prophets became incarnate, living reality. Jesus is the Word of God, because God’s spoken Word lives in Him.
We cannot read and really grasp the message of the New Testament separately from the Old. We especially cannot base Christian life and doctrine upon Paul’s wonderful explication of grace and forgiveness considered separately from the message of Jesus in the Gospels that we are to be transformed by His Word and live in a new way, becoming agents ourselves of the Kingdom of God.
From the beginning of the Bible, God was working to establish His Kingdom on earth, redeeming both His creation and human beings. As we read His Word, His whole Word, we are necessarily drawn out of ourselves and into the mission of God’s Kingdom.
“There are moon-letters here!” So says Elrond in one of the early chapters of The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Sitting safely for the moment in Rivendell, Gandalf and the dwarves have shown their host a treasure map they are following. But as the lord of that house holds their map up to the moonlight, he finds writing there that no one had seen before. It’s written with a clever kind of rune skillfully devised to only appear in moonlight, in this case only the light of a moon in the same season and phase as when it was written.
As The Hobbit’s story unfolds we discover that the message of this writing is crucial to the success of the dwarves and Bilbo’s adventure. Without it they would not have found the secret door into the caverns of the Lonely Mountain where Smaug the dragon guarded their long lost treasure. Gandalf and Thorin the dwarf king had read over that map many times, but even they were surprised when those moon letters appeared.
Something like the appearance of that magical writing in moonlight happened to Jesus’ disciples in the verses we just read. These were Jewish men, steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. They had heard and read what we call the Old Testament all their lives. Yet now as Jesus spoke to them in the forty days after He rose from the dead they suddenly, in His resurrection light, saw things there which they had never seen before.
It’s hard for you and I to grasp how surprising those new Bible insights were to the first Christians. If you’ve spent any time at all reading Scripture, it seems perfectly natural to read a verse from the Psalms and identify it as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus. We read from Psalm 22:16 that “they have pierced my hands and my feet,” and we just immediately get it. That’s Jesus, on the Cross.
Or we turn to Psalm 16:10 and find, “you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.” And almost as quick we realize that’s Jesus too, the promise of His resurrection, that God would not let Him rot in the grave.
But we have the benefit of the New Testament and 2,000 years of Christian tradition teaching us how to read the Old Testament. The disciples had none of that. They had no other way to see the words of those psalms but as verses written by king David. They might have metaphorically applied David’s personal experience to the nation of Israel. But that it had anything to do with a man in their own lifetime would have never crossed their minds.
So when we read Luke 24:45, “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures,” something was happening which was more miraculous than magic letters appearing in the moonlight. Jesus was teaching those men to see a message in their Scriptures which opened far greater doors than mere passages into caves full of gold. He showed them truth which would open the world to God’s love. The message Jesus revealed in the Hebrew Bible moved from the story of His death and resurrection toward a great mission to take that story out to “all nations,” as it says in verse 47.
Jesus made an amazing connection for the disciples. He revealed how the prophecy of His crucifixion and His resurrection was hidden in plain sight. Abraham and then Moses going to the promised land; the kingdom of David and Solomon; Elijah’s duel with the prophets of Baal; the captivity in Babylon and the return home. It all fit. It all came together in Jesus. He fulfilled and completed it all. More than pop-theories about degrees of separation, Jesus showed how Israel’s history was all connected, to Him and by Him.
As important as that connection is, we sometimes lose sight of it. The very fact that you can walk into a bookstore and buy half the Bible shows how we can lose the connection. We pick up and carry out in our hands just the New Testament, printed separately, as though it’s the only important half, the only part of the story that really matters. But it is the Old and New Testaments together, as we affirm in the Covenant, which are “the Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct.”
Yes, the New Testament contains the Good News about Jesus which ties all the rest together. It’s there in Paul that we read so much about the grace of God, which is so central to our Christian faith. It’s in the Gospels that we find the clear and beautiful promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ. And the New Testament is good place for a new Christian to start reading. It does seem as if everything that really matters is in that third of the Bible.
And we are hard-pressed to explain how what we read about Jesus and His love, His mercy, His gentleness, His humility, how all that fits with what we see of God in the Old Testament. His jealousy, His wrath, His judgment, His punishment. I heard someone just recently read an Old Testament text about punishment for the wicked. He said “That’s so different from Jesus. It doesn’t sound like Him at all.”
The of disconnect between the Testaments isn’t new. Christians felt it from the beginning. A hundred years after Jesus, a young bishop named Marcion came to Rome and started teaching that the only Bible to read was Luke’s Gospel and the letters of Paul. He taught that the Old Testament God, who created the world, really is a different God from the Father of Jesus Christ. Jews worshipped a different deity, said Marcion. Christians should end the connection with Jewish Scriptures. We should focus only on Jesus’ message of love and grace, and ignore the old God of wrath and judgment.
The Church declared Marcion a heretic. The Church was largely Gentile. The majority were not Jewish any longer. But they realized it was a huge error to chop out parts of Scripture in order to create a kinder, gentler God. And even limiting what they read to Luke and Paul wouldn’t do it. Marcion rewrote even those books to eliminate every reference to the Old Testament, eliminate the connections with prophecy that are so plain throughout the New Testament.
In particular, Marcion took out his pocket knife and trimmed from his scroll of Luke what we read tody, verse 44 where Jesus told His disciples, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Jesus was not just rattling off some small representative sample of the Hebrew Scriptures. He meant the whole Bible, the 39 books of what we call the Old Testament.
The Jewish Bible then was divided into three parts: the Law, the first five books which come from Moses; the Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the rest; and the “Writings.” The Writings were everything else, the poetry, the history, the books of wisdom. And the Psalms were the first book of the Writings. By naming Psalms, Jesus meant that third part was included as well. Law, Prophets, Writings, it all spoke about Him.
You and I can’t even understand Jesus’ name without the Old Testament. “Christ” is not a name, it’s a title. It’s a translation of the Hebrew word, Messiah. You can’t talk about Christ without connection to the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is the Messiah promised and expected there. Our friend Arezoo, speaking Persian, calls Jesus Isa Masih, Jesus the Messiah. The connection is much clearer in her language than it is in ours.
So we don’t even have Christ if we don’t read the Old Testament. The whole Bible brings us the Good News. The whole Bible teaches us that the God who created us is also the God who saves us. The whole Bible shows us just how amazing Jesus is as He fulfills promises made hundreds of years before He was born. We just can’t get it unless we read the whole Book, Old and New, Law and Gospel, Israel and the Church. It’s all about Jesus.
“O.K.,” you might be thinking, “that’s all well and good. Maybe I should wade through all those genealogies, all that nasty stuff in Leviticus, all those kings with the weird names in Chronicles. It would be good for me. I’ll give the Old Testament a go one of these days when I have more time. But right now it just doesn’t seem that urgent.”
Paying attention to the whole Bible is more urgent than you might imagine. As I mentioned earlier, Jesus saw a huge practical implication in what He taught His disciples about the Old Testament. In verses 46 and 47, He went right from the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures predicted His life, death and resurrection, to the mission He gave them, “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…”
In The Hobbit, it was awfully tempting to stay comfortable and safe in Rivendell, with soft beds, plenty of food, and all the wonderful stories of the elves to hear. But when Bilbo and Gandalf and the dwarves heard that hidden message on their map, heard about the open door waiting for them, they knew they had to go. They had to get up, cross the mountains, fight the goblins, and seek the treasure waiting for them. They had a mission. Hearing the whole message sent them back out on it.
Reading the whole message does for us what it did for those thirteen dwarves, even more for those eleven disciples. It sends us out on a mission. It shows us God is at work in this world. Throughout the Bible He confronts evil, He heals and helps people, he brings together a community to worship Him. As we read that, as we grasp and understand and feel what God is doing, we get the message that we should be doing it too. We’re part of the story. We are part of God’s mission to the world.
That’s why we’re going to move the chairs out here today and tomorrow morning set up a bedroom for three or four families who have no other place to sleep. We’ve read the whole story and heard the prophets speak for God about not neglecting the poor. We’ve read Luke 4:18 where Jesus says He came to fulfill such prophecy, “to preach good news to the poor.” It all connects. We have a part in the story, a mission, a job to do for Jesus.
That’s why we’re praying for our friends who are telling people about Jesus in Asia and supporting them with money. We’ve read the whole story. Genesis 12:3 where God told Abraham “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” And then Jesus telling us how forgiveness in His name is going to be preached to all nations. And it fits. It connects. We’ve been blessed and now we’re blessing the world with the love and forgiveness of Jesus. Our mission begins in our own community and ends on the far side of our planet.
We are not Marcionites, not heretics who think it’s all about us, or about a friendly, kind, buddy Jesus who loves and forgives us and let’s us keep on our merry way being comfortable and entertained. Reading the complete Bible calls us out of a comfortable, private faith that offers merely personal salvation. It shows us the connection to God’s whole mission of redeeming the whole world. And it saves us from another mistake.
We may focus too much our own personal salvation. But we also get so absorbed in reaching out to others around us that we forget the connection Jesus always made with His mission. Jesus always said He came from God, that the work He did was God’s work.
And Jesus told His disciples they weren’t to launch out into the world on their own initiative. In verse 49, He said to them, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” We know how Luke continued the story in Acts. The “power from on high” is the Holy Spirit, who came ten days later on Pentecost. The mission couldn’t happen without the Spirit.
The message of Scripture is not just ethics. When we talk about our mission, it’s different from the mission of a business or a hospital or a service organization like Food for Lane County. As good as those missions are, they’re just ethical. Do good. Help people. Serve the community. But God’s mission is not just ethical, it’s spiritual. We do good and we help and we serve, but it all looks beyond the immediate benefits of such service. We do it to bring the world into God’s Kingdom, to bring all people together in the name of Jesus.
That’s why we also worship in this room where we’re going to house homeless people this week. It’s not just about how we can help people. It’s about how we can help people find and love Jesus Christ. From the whole of God’s Word we grasp the whole of our spiritual mission, which is to serve people and welcome them into the joy and blessing of the Kingdom. To do that we have to be experiencing that joy ourselves, to be often in the presence of God, worshipping Him, praising Him.
So Luke’s Gospel doesn’t quite end with mission, but with worship. It ends right where we are this morning. In verse 51 Jesus is taken up into heaven, where He is today. And the disciples it says in verse 52, worshipped Him, going back to Jerusalem “with great joy.” And the very last verse says, “And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”
Luke continued the story. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit found them worshipping and sent them out on the mission, scattered them all over the world. But everywhere they went, helping, serving, healing, loving, they formed churches. They formed communities of believers who in turn worshipped together and then went out again to their mission. But they kept coming back together to praise God, to praise and honor Jesus Christ. That’s how it all fit together, in Jesus. It’s still how it all fits together.
When Bilbo came back from his great adventure in The Hobbit, after the dragon had been slain, the goblin army destroyed, the treasure found, when he came back he went again to the peaceful house of Rivendell. He rested there and sang songs. And he listened again to old stories of ancient times. But now his story fit in with the rest. His own little life had become part of all those great, heroic stories of old. He had heard those stories there in Rivendell and went out on his own adventure, his own mission. When he came back he had become part of those stories.
That’s what we do in worship. We hear the grand, great story of God in Jesus Christ and then we go out to our own calling, our own mission to the world around us. But then we come back, to rest and sing and hear again the story that sent us out. We hear the old, old story of Jesus and His mission. And we realize that by joining His mission we have joined His story. We are part of it now.
I invite you then into the whole story, the whole thing, from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to Redemption to the great culmination of history in the City of God. It’s God’s story. It’s Jesus story. It’s your story.
I invite you into the story by worship today. I invite you into the story by service this week. You join the story of Jesus by serving those who shelter here. You live the story of Jesus by helping a friend at work or by saying a few words to her about God. You are part of His story when you give money to God’s mission here in this church and in Asia and in Africa and in Europe and all over the world. You are in the story, in the big story, the story of the whole thing. It’s the only wholly true story there is. It’s Jesus’ story, but it’s your story.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj