Lent 2: Jesus and the Old Testament

March 30, 2003



Lent 2: Jesus and the Old Testament (3/30/03)

Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Last week we began our four-week journey through the season of Lent—that time of the church year when Christians are asked to look deep within themselves, acknowledge their faults, and recognize their need of God’s mercy and love. The Lenten walk is a powerful moment in our lives. We go through the weeks preceding Easter placing a bit more emphasis on the cross than is usual for those of us in the mainline, non-fundamental church.

Last week we made an overview of the walk through Lent. Next week we’ll look at the last two chances Jesus had to run the other way—away from the cross. Those opportunities came, first, when he prepared to enter Jerusalem the week before his death, and second, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for God to take the cup from him—to change the fate that he knew awaited him. Then, the following week, we will examine the wonderful Farewell Discourse of Jesus, that great passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus explains the meaning of his life and death.

This morning we are going to look at the way the early church—and perhaps Jesus himself—interpreted some key passages in the Old Testament. The Old Testament has another name that is actually more appropriate. It is called the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is a collection of writings about the ancient Jews. It is the story of the Jewish people, beginning with the Hebrew myths about the creation of the world, and proceeding through the actual history of the Jewish people, until just before the time of Jesus.

Interestingly, it was sometime around the time of Jesus that all these scriptures were compiled as a single unit, and called the Hebrew Bible. Jesus was quite familiar with these writings, and the early church continued to read the Hebrew Bible, even as new writings appeared concerning the life of Jesus and his followers. Some 300 years after Jesus’ death, 27 of these writings became the official canon on the church. Because the church grew out of Judaism, the Christians incorporated the Hebrew Bible into their own set of religious writings, calling it the Old Testament. They called their new writings the New Testament, and as a group they comprise the Christian Bible.

This new religion—Christianity—almost immediately started reading the scriptures from the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—differently than the Jews read their own sacred texts. To this day there is great debate about the way Christianity has re-interpreted large parts of the Old Testament in light of the life of Jesus.

There is a wide spectrum of ideas regarding how Christians should view the Old Testament, and those ideas fall between two extreme views. One view says the Old Testament should be read strictly from the historical perspective in which it was written. The other view says that the only purpose of the Old Testament was to set the foundation for the New Testament, and that it should be read from a Christian perspective.
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It is easy to imagine how people of the Jewish faith feel about this. What would we think if somebody took our New Testament and told us we were reading it all wrong. What if some new religion came along and said, “You’ve completely misinterpreted what Jesus was saying. Jesus is really a minor figure in God’s plan, and people must reinterpret everything he said and did in light of the true messenger from God, who was born in 1937.”

We would likely take exception to such claims, and Judaism sees no reason to reinterpret Jewish history in light of the one wrongly proclaimed, in their eyes, to be the long awaited Jewish Messiah.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who say the Old Testament can be understood only after one accepts Jesus into his or her heart. Then the Holy Spirit allows them to understand the true meaning of the Old Testament. In fact, God was using the writers of the Old Testament to set the stage for the arrival of Christ in the world.

Over the past few centuries, the theologically liberal wing of Christianity—that’s us—has tended to side with the Jews on this issue. As we have learned to read the Bible critically, we have used all the academic tools at our disposal to discover the original meanings of the texts. And we have dismissed those who re-interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures for the sake of the Christian message.

Things are changing. Many top-notch scholars point out two flaws in reading the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, strictly in the manner in which it was originally intended. First, for a couple of thousand years, Christians have read it differently. We have a long history of reading the Old Testament from a Christian perspective, and we should not dismiss the way our Christian forebears interpreted it. Second, Jesus himself read those Hebrew Scriptures. It is very important for us to ask how he interpreted those writings.

One of Jesus’ favorite teaching tools was to quote the Hebrew Scriptures. Time and again he said, “It is written,” or, “Have you not read,” or, “You have heard it said,” after which he would quote from the Old Testament.

When asked to reveal the most important commandment, Jesus quotes the Old Testament book Deuteronomy, saying, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” To that he adds what he considers the second greatest commandment, found in Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus knew the Hebrew Bible well. One of the most intriguing questions for modern scholars is, did he view himself as the Messiah? Did Jesus read those Old Testament passages, and think they were pointing toward him, and his purpose in life?

I admit that with this particular issue, I personally disagree with many of the scholars I most respect. Most modern, liberal scholars tend to think that Jesus did not view himself as the Messiah. Most modern, liberal scholars believe that the early church placed the titles of Messiah, Christ, Son of God, and Savior on Jesus after he was crucified—that Jesus himself did not view himself that way.

In my personal theology, Jesus viewed himself as the Christ. We’ll talk about that a bit more next week when we consider the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he was killed. And I am certainly not alone. Many great scholars believe that it is not only historically accurate to say Jesus viewed himself as the Christ, but it is also an essential element of the Christian faith.

Probably the best way to make all of this theory come alive is to look at a few of the Old Testament passages that people are interpreting in different ways. One passage we’ll examine is from Jeremiah, and the other from Isaiah.

I want to interpret this passage from Jeremiah before I read it to you. According to the Jews, and traditional scholars, this passage was written when the people of Israel—also called Judah—were being held in the Babylonian Captivity. In the year 587 B.C., the Jewish people had been conquered by King Nebechenezzar of Babylon. The Babylonians destroyed the Jewish Temple, and leveled most of the city of Jerusalem. They then took the Jews into captivity, forcing them off their land, and exiling them to Babylon.

This passage, written by Jeremiah at the time the Jews lived in exile, looked forward to the day when the Jewish people would return to Judah, or Israel, and would live under the rule of the Messiah—a great leader in the tradition of King David. Jeremiah, sitting in exile and longing for his homeland, writes:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

That seems fairly straightforward. Jeremiah is dreaming of the day when Israel is living in the land God promised to Abraham, ruling itself, with a great Jewish King reigning over a land filled with justice and righteousness.

The early church made a proclamation that was most upsetting to the religious authorities of that time. They said that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. Now, the Messiah was supposed to be a great king who would restore the glory of ancient Israel, and it was quite upsetting to the priests when they were told the Messiah had arrived in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, and had been put to a criminal’s death by the very people who had been waiting for him!

These early Christians looked at this passage from Jeremiah and said that God had indeed fulfilled his promise to the house of Israel. He raised up a righteous branch who brought justice and “saved” the people. And it was a part of God’s plan that the religious authorities would not recognize him, so they would kill him, and in doing so fulfill God’s plan for salvation.

What modern scholars are now realizing is that both interpretations are valid. When Jeremiah wrote those words, he certainly was not predicting the coming of Jesus. He was talking about the restoration of Jerusalem. But the text can be read as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ. People have read the passage that way, and we have to take that fact seriously. And we can take that fact seriously without denigrating the Jews, who read it for its original historic meaning.

One important question is, “How did Jesus read the passage?” Did Jesus read that passage and at some point say to himself, “This is about me!” I don’t know. But there is another passage from the Old Testament that I find even more intriguing in this regard, and it is found in Isaiah.

Like the passage from Jeremiah about the righteous branch, the 52nd and 53rd chapters of Isaiah were written during the Babylonian Captivity. This passage is famously known as the “suffering servant” passage. This is the definitive Old Testament text for Lent. This passage sounds like it could have been written the day after the crucifixion of Christ, instead of almost 600 years before Jesus was born.

There are three very different ways of thinking about this text, and I want to discuss them before I read the text, because I want to end this morning’s sermon by reading part of Isaiah 52 and 53. However you interpret it, it is one of the most powerful and moving passages to be found in the Bible, and anything I say after reading the passage would be anticlimactic.

The first way of reading this passage is to interpret it in much the same way scholars have interpreted that passage from Jeremiah. Everything Isaiah talks about can be paralleled to something happening in the Babylonian Captivity. The suffering servant is the nation of Israel, held in bondage in a foreign land, paying the price for the sins of all the Jews who went before and who were not obedient to God. This was the theology that developed during the Babylonian Captivity. The question that kept haunting the Jews was this: If God promised us the land of Israel, and if God is all powerful, how is it that the Babylonians destroyed our great city, Jerusalem, and in doing so leveled the Temple—God’s house?

For the people of that time, the Jewish Temple was the true home of Yahweh, the God of the Jews. How could this have happened: Israel conquered, Jerusalem destroyed, the Temple leveled, the people of Israel forcibly taken away from the land God had promised them and made captive in a foreign land? There was only one explanation. God was punishing the Hebrew people for their sin, for their disobedience. The exiled people of Israel were suffering for the sins of their nation. And Isaiah wrote this great passage to convey the depth of their suffering, and the ultimate righteousness of God.

That is the historically correct way to interpret the original intent of the passage. The second way to read this passage is to say that Isaiah was prophetically foretelling the coming of Jesus Christ, and as you will see when we read the passage, it sounds a lot like Jesus. God was using Isaiah to foretell what would happen 600 years in the future. For two-thousand years, this has been the claim of many Christians.

The third way of reading this passage is to say that Isaiah himself was talking about the condition of the Jewish people as they suffered through the Babylonian Captivity, but Jesus read this passage and saw himself. Jesus read this passage and came to the conclusion that he was a part of God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. And there are those of us—even in the liberal church—who believe that is the case, and not only

that, but that he was right to interpret the text that way. History proved him right.

Enough! I will let the text speak for itself, and in the tradition of Congregationalism, you may make your own judgments about its true meaning. I close with the words of Isaiah, written over six centuries before the crucifixion of Jesus:

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him-so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look upon him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.

They made his grave with the wicked, and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.

Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured himself out to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.