The Bible Jesus knew: In the Beginning
Genesis 12:1-3, 13:4a, 5-17 & 15:1-6, Matthew 28:16-20
The ‘Old Testament’ was the only bible that Jesus knew. He quotes it extensively. He knew much of it off by heart. And it was, of course, the only bible that the Early Church knew.
The Old Testament is as important as the New Testament because it is the very foundation of everything Jesus did and everything the Early Church came to believe.
And because it’s so important, for 5 weeks, Sunday by Sunday, we’re going to walk together through the Old Testament, and as we do so - with different speakers each week - we want to do three things:
First to give you a sense of the overall flow of the story - how do Abraham, Joshua and Isaiah connect up? When did the Israelites enter the Promised Land and what happened when they did? What happened when Israel was ruled over by David and Solomon and the other Kings? What was the exile and why is it so important. How does it all fit together?
Secondly, to understand Jesus’ Jewishness and how his life and ministry was rooted in the big themes of the Old Testament, many of which he reinterpreted and fulfilled.
And finally, to encourage you all to open up the Old Testament and to read it - to see it as a wonderful gift of God, a source of wisdom and truth and an equal expression of the will and word of God alongside the New Testament.
So, at the beginning of this series, a few introductory words about the Old Testament.
It’s made up of 39 books, starting with Genesis - which means ‘beginning’ and ending with the prophet Malachi - who we usually hear from around Christmas time - ‘See, I am sending a messenger to prepare the way before me and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.’
It is a coherent story, with clear themes that emerge and are emphasised over and over again, but told by many different voices over a period of 1,500 years, starting from the days when human civilisation and society was first emerging and ending with the rising of the first great multinational Empires. To put that in context, just imagine that in the year 476 AD - when the Imperial city of Rome fell to the Barbarian invaders, someone wrote a book. And that over the next 1500 years, others wrote more words, and that now, 1500 years later, these books are put together into a whole - that’s the breadth covered by the Old Testament.
And so it’s not surprising that its 39 books, written over such a long period and in such different contexts, speak in very different ways - what scholars call different ‘genres’; so there is poetry; there’s history; there’s lots of Law; there’s lots of prophecy; there are songs and letters and stories. And these different genres have different voices and different moods and different concerns; sometimes they even contradict one another - but the amazing thing is their consistency. Over 1500 years, the same big story is told, with the same key themes emerging and re-emerging.
Claude Monet, the French artist, is famous for painting the same scenes over and over again; he did it with the famous waterlilly pictures; in different light, sometimes from a different perspective, and often with a different ‘feel’, he painted the same picture 30 times. The Old Testament is like that with the same themes being explored over and over again, but from different perspectives and with a different ‘feel’ - and we’ll look at a couple of those in a moment.
Today then, we’re at the beginning, in what is probably the best known part of the Old Testament - the book of Genesis. It is a great read - full of powerful stories - and I recommend you sit down and have a go at it some time. You will probably find that there’s lots that you know, as well as bits you don’t. Remember as you do so that this is very, very old. The stories it tells take us back to the first days of civilisation, and the world then was very different to ours. Of course humans were humans, and the great human themes that we know so well - love, jealousy, anxiety, family life, authority - are all there in ways that seem remarkably familiar; but the culture is profoundly different - so don’t judge it by 21st century standards. And if you do find yourself doing that just ask - in 1500 years time, when people look at the way we live, will they think we are the pinnacle of civilisation?
And as you read it, look out for two key themes; creation and covenant.
Creation is perhaps so well known and obvious that we might miss it - but it is crucial. Genesis tells us that there is a creator, that He is good, and that what He makes is good. There are plenty of other stories of creation being told and written at the same time as the book of Genesis. Tribes other than Israel (or what will become Israel) are also figuring out where they came from. So the Babylonians tell a story about Marduk, their creator god, who, like Yahweh, creates from nothing, but who does so through violent battles with other gods and with monsters, and who ends up creating the world out of bits of a sea monster that he has killed. This is not a good world that is being created - it is a world of violence and war, designed to be so by the creator.
Yahweh on the other hand creates beauty and relationship, and looks at it and sees that it is good. And the end purpose of this creation a wholeness, a peace between creation and creator. The world described in the Garden of Eden. A world in which God’s presence is freely available. And isn’t that our deepest longing? To be known by one who loves us and who is always with us? To be in the presence of pure good, of a love that sees us and knows us, and walks with us. This is our beginning, and this is our destiny. And I hope you can see how that theme might be picked up and, in a staggeringly new way, find it’s fulfilment in Jesus.
And the second theme is just as important. It is the theme of covenant. Because of course, that wonderful beginning went wrong, and by trusting in our own human decision making more than God, Adam and Eve - and all humanity - have gone far off track. And the book of Genesis explores the consequences of that disaster, which ends up with Adam and Eve expelled from the wholeness of Eden, and with the good earth that God has created now cursed. In the story of the creation the earth is fruitful and blessed, but by chapter 3 God says ‘cursed is the ground because of you’. Fruitfulness has become barren; blessing has become curse.
And isn’t that what it is to be human? We know that we are so blessed; we have the capacity for so much good; we are given everything and more; blessing upon blessing upon blessing….and yet so often, it doesn’t work out like that. And we live as if we are cursed, and we treat others as if they are a curse on us, and where we should be fruitful, we are barren.
And God’s answer is a covenant. And it starts with Abraham. In the three short readings we heard a moment ago - and there are others we could have listened to as well, God begins his great work of restoration by picking a man who was a wandering in what is now northern Syria, and telling him that through him blessing will return. ‘I will bless you’, says the Lord, ‘so that you will be a blessing. In you all the families of the earth will be blessed’
One scholar has written of Genesis Chapter 12, verses 1-3 ‘It may truly be said without exaggeration that not only the rest of the Old Testament but the whole of the New Testament are an outworking of these promises of God’.
And covenant is a theme that returns over and over again through the Old Testament. In fact the word is used 285 times. In fact the word ‘Testament’ - as in Old Testament, New Testament - is the same word as Covenant. So we might as just as correctly call the bible the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
A covenant is a promise that is everlasting. We still use the word today in a church wedding - when the couple are invited to make a ‘covenant’ as they exchange their wedding vows. This covenant is a promise to stick with each other ‘for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health’ until death. There are no clauses. No ‘so long as you…’. There’s no way out. This is an exchange of the very deepest and most solemn promises.
And God makes a covenant with Abraham - and it is also the very deepest and most solemn of promises. It is the promise that He will raise up a new people who will restore creation to its original state; as good, as blessed, as the ground on which the very presence of God will be known. The covenant says, I will be with you, I will guide you, I will gather you into a people - as many as the stars in the sky - and through you, the earth will be blessed once again. The covenant with Abraham is the beginning of God’s great restoration project.
Over the next few weeks we’re going to hear how that project unfolds, through God establishing Israel as a People, through times of success and times of terrible failure - and ultimately in a man called Jesus. And of course, although the bible ends after that, there is a very real sense in which we, and the church in every place and over every age, are the next book of the bible.
As well as the promises made to Abraham, we also heard Jesus’ promise to his disciples - and therefore to us - which echo the covenant language made to Abraham all those years earlier. ‘Go and make disciples of all nations. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
The covenant made with Abraham is still in play. God remains faithful. God is with us still so that we can be a blessing - so that we can be the people who long for the return of the wholeness for which creation was called into being, and who turn that longing into action.
I will bless you, to that you will be a blessing.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.
How do you feel about the Old Testament? Which bits do you know well? Which parts do you not know?
What are your big questions about the Old Testament?
What kind of creation story does the world tell at the moment? What are the undermining assumptions that people make about where the world has come from and what it's purpose is? How does that compare to the story of Genesis?
Read Genesis 15. What does it tell you about God's covenant with Abraham?
What do you think about God using Abraham to turn curses to blessings? What does that have to do with us today?
How can you be a blessing today?