August 16, 2018

Mondays with Michael Spencer: John 3:16 and the Importance of the Old Testament

Abraham is going to sacrifice his son. Chagall

Note from CM: Andy Stanley raised a bit of a theological ruckus last week when he suggested to seekers of the Christian faith that they should “unhitch” it from the Old Testament. We’ll probably talk a bit more about this in the days to come, but today I thought I’d re-run this older post by Michael from 2007 where he argues that you can’t even understand the most familiar verse in the New Testament without a basic grasp of its background in the story of Israel.

• • •

Monday with Michael Spencer
John 3:16 and the Importance of the OT

Why should we study the Old Testament? You know all the usual reasons. Let me illustrate the importance of the Old Testament with a well known New Testament text that can’t be understood or interpreted correctly without the Old Testament:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)

We can’t understand John 3:16 without the Old Testament. That may strike you as odd, but it’s very true. Think of the crucial concepts at the heart of this verse, and each one of them depends on the Old Testament for meaning.

1) What GOD are we talking about in John 3:16?
Any God that the reader or hearer wants to imagine? The idea of God we all carry around in our head that basically approves us as we are? The distorted ideas of God in the culture or other religions?

The God of John 3:16 is the God of the Old Testament. A particular God, with a particular character and attributes. A God with a particular way of relating to this world. The God revealed in Jesus is the God of the Old Testament.

God is persistent in the Old Testament that he is not any God or like all ideas of God. He is the one, true, only God. No other God’s compete with him in any way. Many Old Testament passages warn those who worship other gods that they are fools playing with the ultimate fire.

2) What is the WORLD that God loves? The Old Testament tells us that it is the world that God created in Genesis 1-2; the world that rebelled against God in Adam and Eve’s fall; the world that rejected God’s mercy in Cain; the world God judged through the flood in Genesis 11. It’s the world from which he calls a people, a world of peoples who will be blessed in Abraham and his descendants.

This world isn’t planet earth, but it is the world that occupies planet earth. Only in the Old Testament do we see this world clearly enough to understand God’s great love and how it unfolds in Jesus.

3) What is God’s LOVE?
In fact, the Old Testament word for God’s love, hesed, introduces us to God’s covenant love for his people, the way he has chosen to relate to and rescue this world.

Love is one of the most mis-defined and misunderstood words in all of human language. In the Old Testament, God’s love for the world he has created is set alongside God’s just and holy character. We see that God’s love goes back to creation, but that this love must deal with the sin that separates God and his world.

Over and over the Old Testament illustrates God’s faith, covenant-making love. We see it in story after story and example after example. The love of God is all over the Old Testament. To say that God’s love is a New Testament reality is a great myth. It’s in the Old Testament that we see God’s merciful, promise-keeping, patient, suffering, sacrificial love introduced and illustrated.

4) What does it mean to BELIEVE? Here is another word that is so mis-defined that we can’t leave it up to the hearer to interpret. “Believing” is the response of Abraham to God’s promise in Abraham 15:6. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Adam and Eve refused to believe, trust and value God as worth believing and obeying. As God saves people in the Old Testament, it is always because they have believed. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. To believe is to trust enough, to consider God worth enough, to depend on him in life and obedience.

In fact, in John 3, Jesus himself uses the Old Testament story of the bronze serpent to illustrate what happens when we believe in the one lifted up to bear the curse for his people.

5) What does PERISH mean? God is a holy God. His character cannot overlook sin forever. Perish is the separation from God that comes to sinners whose sin is not removed. Over and over we see this happening in the Old Testament, as sinners perish because of their sin. The Bible tells us that God was patient with sinners in the Old Testament, and he is merciful with amazing grace in the New Testament. The frightening descriptions of gehenna and the lake of fire in the New Testament are taking the Old Testament stories of judgement in Genesis 11 and 14 and showing them in manifestations that would shake the world in times to come.

The Old Testament law reminds us that those who are not forgiven perish. The severity of God’s justice can’t be compromised, but in Jesus Christ justice, love and mercy meet perfectly.

6) Who is the SON? According the Genesis 22, Abraham obeyed God by taking his son, his “only” son to the mountain of sacrifice. This is an awful scene if it is not preparation for John 3:16. In the light of the Gospel, it is preparation for God’s incarnational gift of himself in his son, Jesus.

But there is more. In Psalm 2, the word “son” is used of the anointed King. The Old Testament tells us that God’s anointed king is his beloved, his “son.” That son will rule in Zion, and will rule all nations. In the story of David and his descendants, the Old Testament tells us the story of Israel and Judah’s many kings, all teaching us that the true anointed King is still on the way. When he comes, he will be the king over every king, the sovereign over all sovereigns.

The word “son” is a royal word, not an incarnational word, in the Old Testament, but in Jesus we meet the son who is King, Lord, God with us.

You see, without the Old Testament, the most familiar verse in the New Testament loses its rich meaning, and becomes whatever we want it to be. Our study of the Old Testament is crucial for understanding the glory of the New Testament gospel.

Comments

  1. john barry says:

    Very concise and well written view of the OT, that foreshadowed the NT. The OT is the old olive tree that does produce the new growth. I do really like the final 2 sentences that sum it up well.

  2. Stephen says:

    “You see, without the Old Testament, the most familiar verse in the New Testament loses its rich meaning, and becomes whatever we want it to be.”

    Yeah but I think these folks who want to “unhitch” have made the calculation that any “rich meaning” you give up is more than compensated for by the ability to make the NT what they want it to mean. That will sound like a good deal to many folks.

    A lot of Stanley’s critics have name checked Marcion in their responses It’s useful to go back and reacquaint ourselves with good old Marcion. An interesting guy. Who was perfectly honest about his apologetic.

    What is it we’re being called to “unhitch” from? Isaiah 53? Psalm 22? Or just the stuff about slavery and genocide? Let’s at least be honest – like Marcion – and admit we’re taking the parts we like and junking the rest. Let’s leave the all-or-nothing to the fundamentalists.

    • StuartB says:

      Marcion seems to have picked up on something in the text that took another 1800 years to fully explore and understand. He wasn’t wrong, at least in regard to the Father, maybe not that incarnation stuff.

      • Marion was wrong to attempt to “de-canonize” the OT. But as I am the first to admit, much of modern Christianity has not fully understand the way Jesus and the NT reread and appropriate the OT, and thus make all the errors decried here and elsewhere.

    • Christiane says:

      “Yeah but I think these folks who want to “unhitch” have made the calculation that any “rich meaning” you give up is more than compensated for by the ability to make the NT what they want it to mean. That will sound like a good deal to many folks.”

      The Southern Baptist Convention tried to ‘unhitch’ the testaments when the minions of Patterson threw Our Lord to the curb and dismissed Him as the ‘lens through which we are to read and understand the Bible’ . . . .

      taking Our Lord out of the equation would, in effect, change the meaning of much of the OT, especially if you wanted to interpret it ‘literally’. You really have to read the OT with Our Lord in mind or you can end up having a ‘God of Wrath’ that is not God as He has been revealed to us by Christ.

      The ESS scandal was also an attempt at diminishing the stature of Our Lord in the most Holy Trinity and all in order to uphold a heretical teaching.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        The Southern Baptist Convention tried to ‘unhitch’ the testaments when the minions of Patterson threw Our Lord to the curb and dismissed Him as the ‘lens through which we are to read and understand the Bible’ . . . .

        And now the minions of Calvin are ready to kick Patterson to the curb and under the bus now that he’s becoming a liability. Stained Glass Windows notwithstanding.

        Who’s standing next to whom atop Lenin’s Tomb at the Southern Baptist Convention?

        You really have to read the OT with Our Lord in mind or you can end up having a ‘God of Wrath’ that is not God as He has been revealed to us by Christ.

        FEATURE, NOT BUG.
        Because a God of Wrath justifies MY Wrath on all who wrong ME.

  3. StuartB says:

    Pssst because the OT was written just a few hundred years before Jesus and thus informs so much because it was so close and are almost from the same time period…plus all that intertestamental stuff.

    1) What GOD are we talking about in John 3:16?

    I wish Michael was around to interact with all we’ve learned since he wrote this. Him and Peter Enns would have interesting conversations.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “I wish Michael was around to interact with all we’ve learned since he wrote this.”

      Agreed. Like I said on Saturday, I don’t really have a problem with Stanley on this one and if he’d used these words as a counter to Stanley, I would’ve offered some counterpoints in return. Like:

      1) What God are we talking about?
      Well, there are some glimpses of God in the OT that aren’t too endearing. He comes across as a easily-offended bully at times, and pretty willing to wipe out nations out of spite. Sometimes the OT God isn’t any sort of God that I want to have a relationship with.

      2) What is the world that he loves?
      It’s a world he created, sure, but it’s a world he decided to nearly obliterate with a flood, too.

      3) What is God’s love?
      Pretty easy to see in the NT. Don’t need much from the OT to solidify the love we see through Jesus and his parables.

      4) What does it mean to believe?
      “As God saves people in the Old Testament, it is always because they have believed.”
      Hmm… Didn’t he choose Abraham just because? Does belief save, or does God’s saving power through Christ save? I could go on for days about this one. Not sure the OT offers any insight that’s not in the NT.

      5) What does it mean to perish?
      Pretty sure the NT covers that pretty well, too.

      6) Who is the Son?
      Take away all the prophetic stuff in the OT. Does that negate who Jesus was? Not really. Maybe it offers supporting evidence, but I’m not sure it’s necessary to understand who the Son is.

      Now, I’m overstating this for the sake of argument, but if Michael had used these points as points against Andy Stanley, I probably would’ve offered these counterpoints to see what he thought.

      • Stbndct says:

        I wish Michael was around to interact with all we’ve learned since he wrote this.

        My question was what have we learned since Michael wrote this ?

        • Rick Ro. says:

          –> “My question was what have we learned since Michael wrote this ?”

          I can only answer for myself: a lot.

          I can give my OPINION on what the collective “we” have learned (human beings in general). Using the OT as sort of historical document and seeing that everything there seems to happen over and over again: Not much.

        • StuartB says:

          A lot.

        • Robert F says:

          Stbndct — In terms of scholarship, I don’t think there has been much fundamental change since Michael’s death. There have been some few developments in the New Perspectives on Paul, but the NPP was already well-developed during Michael’s lifetime, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t somewhat familiar with it. I just don’t think there’s much new there, nothing revolutionary; most of the revolutionary, landscape-changing scholarship was done in the last half of the twentieth century. I’m assuming that StuartB’s comment at the head of this thread is about scholarship, since that is what it suggests, and it references Peter Enns.

          Of course, it would be nice if he were still around, quite apart from any interactions with scholarship.

          • Christiane says:

            Michael had ‘insights’ and was extremely well-spoken. He called BS on a lot of phony hypocrisy. There was a direct simplicity about Michael’s writing that grabbed your attention and made you think. He was a positive force. And he understood bringing people together who had different viewpoints so that they could share what they saw and understood . . . . . few blog owners at the time had this gift.

            He is much missed. Chaplain Mike deserves a lot of credit for keeping this blog up in Michael’s memory.

    • Pssst- it is not that simple, unless you mean that the final editions were written at that time. So even if one agrees with all of Enns’s conclusions, he wrote: “The Old Testament “evolved” over time until it came to its final expression. The Old Testament, technically speaking, is a product of the Judahites in the centuries following their return from Babylonian captivity (539 BCE). That does not mean the Old Testament was written out of whole cloth at the time. Much older writings and traditions were brought together and also combined with new literary creations. All of it was then edited together to form what would eventually become the Old Testament we know.”

      • Robert F says:

        Agree. That, and (notwithstanding StuartB’s comment) several hundred years between the completion of documents was quite a long period in ancient times, especially since they in many cases had far less accurate historical knowledge about what went on even a century before their own time than we do at the remove of almost two millennia.

  4. Stbndct says:

    Stuart, what exactly have we learned since he wrote this ? I am not being critical but would really like to know what new truth we have learned. Perhaps Michael would not have agreed with Enns. What new info has suddenly come to light that makes us so much more in the know.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “Stuart, what exactly have we learned since he wrote this ? I am not being critical but would really like to know what new truth we have learned”

      I’ll answer this different than the question you asked above since the second part of this is the crux of your question.

      What new truth have we learned?

      No new truth, really, but a different application of the truth. Many here at iMonk and wandering the post-evangelical wilderness have been damage in the name of “truth.” “The Bible says…” and stuff like that. It’s the wielding of truth as a weapon of shame.

      So maybe no new light has suddenly come, other than “I don’t want to use truth like that.” A lot of Enns’ stuff is an attempt to look at truth differently in that context, in the context of “I’ve seen the Bible used THIS way, and I need to let people know that it’s okay to use it differently.” His book “The Sin of Certainty” is more philosophical, then, than theological. It’s a book that questions the motives behind “Biblical Certainty” and tells us, “It’s okay to have doubt.”

      Now if you’re someone who hasn’t been damaged by people wielding the truth, nor have any sympathy for those who have… maybe this kind of stuff isn’t intended for you.

      • “if you’re someone who hasn’t been damaged by people wielding the truth, nor have any sympathy for those who have… maybe this kind of stuff isn’t intended for you.”

        …”I have not come for the healthy, but for the sick.”

      • Robert F says:

        Rick Ro. – I don’t think it’s fair to write off Sbdnct’s question on the basis of whether or not he has been hurt by bad religion. It’s a legitimate question: what new scholarly developments in biblical studies would Michael have to grapple with now that he couldn’t have or didn’t grapple with in his lifetime? I don’t see that Enns’ explorations fit the bill here; nothing earth-shattering or paradigm-shifting has come down the pike in decades, and Enns is not a landscape changer either.

        What the work of Enns and others does indicate is that some evangelical scholars (perhaps more than a few) have started to accept and assimilate the revolutionary twentieth century biblical scholarship that they had previously been loathe and frightened to touch. The result has been an epistemological chastening in their theology that is parallel with the theological explorations of Michael, and which he would certainly have welcomed. It is good to have friendly explorers searching the same waters you are, and to cross paths and find fellowship and intellectual cross-pollination with them. But I don’t think there is anything revolutionary that Michael would’ve found in those fellow explorers, any new scholarly knowledge.

        • Rick Ro. says:

          I didn’t think I was being dismissive of Stbndct, and if I came across that way, I apologize Stbndct.

          Robert, I think I kind of said the same thing you did, maybe less intelligently, though. Truth hasn’t changed, but the way some people approach it has. And the way some people use it has, too.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Question, Massmind:

    How may Christians KNOW John 3:16?
    Other than a set of buzzwords and/or a Zip Code?
    Or a sign you hold up at events when the camera comes your way?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollen_Stewart

    • There’s certainly a base assumption that everybody already knows that verse and what it means…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Problem is, Christians have been in their Evangelical Bubble World for so long you can’t trust their “base assumption that everybody already knows that”.

        Like in bad Christianese fiction, where even Utter Heathens automatically think and speak in fluent Christianese (yet are utterly ignorant of such matters which HAVE made the jump out of the bubble into general knowledge — like The Rapture & Armageddon or even the name “Jesus”).

        • Christiane says:

          Headless,
          I frequently got hit with ‘you should know this’ when asking questions on an SB blog. Just trying to get a solid definition of ‘gospel’ that was worded consistently in the blogs was nigh to impossible . . . . so when I read someone referring to ‘the gospel’, I didn’t have a good grasp on what that particular person’s ‘gospel’ included. It was a pretty bizarre experience. The red light was the anger with which my question would be met . . . .

          so I came to think that words and phrases were thrown around in the ‘in-group’ but not clearly defined. And I wondered if I were to ask the children of such people some basic catechism questions, would they know how to reply? Questions about ‘Who Christ is’ and about ‘the doctrine of the Holy Trinity’? The one thing that resounded the strongest was the CONDEMNATION of those not like themselves . . . wow. That seemed to be the one binding thing: ‘thank God we are not like those other sinners’

          not all people were like that, thank God, so I came away with a healthy respect for the goodness of many Southern Baptist evangelical people and maybe, looking at this fact, I wasn’t so upset that they weren’t all lock-step on the hate wagon . . . . but the ones that were, of course, were the loudest, most strident voices, and I was fortunate to look past them and find the ones who followed the Good Way in humility before the Lord . . . . I am very thankful for learning from them

    • john barrry says:

      Headless U Guy, Thanks for the update , I remember this guy , he was a fixture . Shows that you never know until you investigate and take nothing for granted. I use to tell my TV buddies that he was directing the stadium fans to the John located in Sector 3 Section 16. To show you now crazy people think my totally secular friends got on to me for making fun of religion. I did tell them not to follow anyone wearing a rainbow colored wig or trust TV signs for salvation and I was the fundamentalist. Very interesting update.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Regarding the John 3:16 guy…

        * During his heyday he did appear as a background character in The Simpsons (and probably others). For a while, whenever there was a big crowd scene, there would always be someone in back holding up a big “JOHN 3:16” sign.
        * He was also the inspiration for the Steve Taylor song “Bannerman”:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLZX-6PeJNk

        Now as of when he lost it and got in the news in the wrong way:

        I know the hotel where he made his last stand — it was a popular venue for SF conventions at the time. (What at the time was the LAX Hyatt, on the NE corner of Century & Sepulveda at the gates of LAX.)

        Though I never did see the bedsheets spray-painted with Bible verses and Prophecy that he hung out the windows while barricaded, I did hear about it on the radio as things unfolded.

        The part I like to point out is the guy didn’t lose it overnight. One day “perfectly normal” (or at least as normal as he got), then next day he’s planting bombs and taking hostages in the Hyatt? You don’t go off the screaming deep end that fast!

        And yet nobody associated or in contact with him noticed anything out of the ordinary until he hits the news barricaded in the Hyatt with hostages. Either he lost it so slowly nobody noticed what had become the “new normal” or he was speaking all the proper Christianese lingo and behavior so it looked like he was just On Fire for The LORD and Witnessing. (You can get away with a lot of Crazy as long as your behavior meets “normal”
        expectations for the bubble culture. I vaguely remember somebody on Christianese media playing the Persecution card when he got sentenced.)

        • Rick Ro. says:

          Yesterday I asked what was worse: Crazy surrealist, crazy idealist or crazy realist. Maybe the RIGHT answer is Crazy Zealot or Crazy Religious Person.

        • Christiane says:

          ” (You can get away with a lot of Crazy as long as your behavior meets “normal”
          expectations for the bubble culture.”

          Sometimes, though, a person WILL openly talk about their depression and anxiety, and perhaps one of their coping mechanisms IS the ‘outlet’ of throwing stones at those they disagree with. Then, if they get support in the stone-throwing by quote normal people unquote, they will increase the negativity . . . .

          at some point the whole thing may implode is my thought and come down on the head of the sick person, so I question how any ‘normal’ person can egg-on a sick individual to be verbally abusive to others . . . . in doing that, you have to wonder who has the greater sickness:
          the one is is truly ill and who has tried to get help,
          or the one who ‘uses’ the sick person in a terrible game of ‘let’s you and him go fight’ ???

          I am concerned whenever I see those persons who are terribly outraged at those they disagree with and who attack their targets with name-calling and insinuation, AND who publish comments under different ‘names’ . . . . you have to wonder what has happened to these people to push them over the edge of civility to lash out so aggressively at others . . . . but it’s those ‘normal’ folks who ‘use’ the sick ones who really need to be held accountable for a horrible act of the abuse of someone who is sick mentally or emotionally.
          Do we see this stuff on certain ‘Christian’ blogs? Yep. We see the anger and the name-calling and the put-downs and the hyper-upset over disagreements that indicate a stressed out individual having trouble coping with their own reactions to that which goes against their own viewpoints. And we see those who take advantage of these sick folks and ‘use’ them to target others . . . . which is a far-worse sin against another soul in my book.

  6. I get the impression from the OP that Michael wrote that whilst yet in his Calvinista stage. Could be wrong, however…

  7. Dianeski says:

    Hi, y’all! I am totally new here, but I know HUG, Christiane, and Burro from other venues.

    Is there a newcomer thread? Or is it OK to just jump into this one?

    I am unsure how comfortable I will feel here, as I am not a Trump-Basher. Not a Trump-Bot, either. I voted for the guy as the lesser of two evils, period. I live in a swing state. And so, in the immortal words of Nathan Detroit, sue me!

    I am also an ardent pro-lifer, and I think the accusation that pro-lifers are only pro-birth is frankly a calumny. It does not fit one single pro-lifer I know. Not even close. So, if I have to spout stuff like that in order to “fit in” here, please let me know, and I will quietly bow out.

    But anyway, I am here partly to reconnect with HUG and Christiane. I knew them at another forum, which I left to escape one rather merciless person who’d adopted the moniker Mercy. ?

    So…waving to HUG, Christiane, and Burro. And the rest of the y’all… greetings. Most of these discussions are way over my head, but I do find them very interesting.