“…remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt.” (Deut.7:18)
A recurring theme in the Old Testament scriptures is God’s people being asked to remember their history. The prophets repeatedly reminded them of where they had come from and how God had rescued them from slavery. The plagues inflicted on Egypt, the Passover, and the crossing of the Red Sea were events not to be forgotten. The prophets also pointed forward towards the day when God would judge all the nations and vindicate his faithful people, leading them into their full inheritance. The remembrance of God’s past faithfulness and the patient hope in his future judgment were an essential part of being God’s chosen people. Their history and their hope made them who they were. To forget these things was to become just like any other nation. Through the years, from the patriarchs to the return from exile, God’s determination to bring Israel into its promised land is both a comfort and a challenge to his people. Even when Jerusalem has fallen, Judah has been taken into exile and the temple is in ruins, faithful Jews still had a hope of restoration. Israel’s history is not a sequence of random events, but a relationship played out over centuries. This ongoing covenant between Israel and their God was a source of hope, identity and purpose.
For the Church, the New Testament people of God, the same source of hope, identity and purpose is available, but only if, like Israel, we remember where we have come from and the story of God’s rescue plan for us. We are right to be Jesus focused. His death and resurrection are events that changed everything. But they are also events that have a particular background and context and which are leading to something. To begin to understand their full significance we need to see how the coming of Jesus the Messiah fits into the big story of God ransoming a people and bringing them into their inheritance. Jesus himself was conscious of this and several times referred to the need for scripture to be fulfilled (e.g. Mark 14:49, Luke 22:37). As we read through the Gospels we find that many details of the life and ministry of Jesus were prophesied long before, from where he would be born to the words he would speak on the cross. This is important. God, in sending Jesus, was not wiping away the history of his previous dealings with mankind. He was not starting afresh, as if everything that had gone before had somehow failed and should now be forgotten. Rather, Jesus fits perfectly into this big story. His coming echoes back to Genesis and the promise of the woman’s seed that will crush the serpent. His suffering and rejection are graphically described by Isaiah, and David, in Psalm 16, grasps that God will not let his anointed one stay in the grave. Revelation, which focuses on the end times and the return of Jesus, is rooted in Old Testament prophecy and imagery. Jesus could not have come at just any time, to just any nation and brought about deliverance in any way he wanted. His coming proved, in detail, God’s never-failing faithfulness to his people.
There is a continuity between the Old Testament and the church age that was important to Jesus and his disciples, so we ought to think twice before ignoring it. In Romans 11, Paul describes gentile Christians as having been grafted on to the same root as the Jews, sharing the same nourishing sap, and there is indeed much nourishment for us in the history and writings of the people of God before the birth of the saviour. So it saddens me when I encounter Christians who rarely read beyond the New Testament. They are missing, to borrow Tom Wright’s illustration, act 1 of the drama. The following acts will not make as much sense, and we will miss much that has profound significance. Let me give an example. When Paul describes Jesus as our Passover lamb in 1 Corinthians and challenges us to clean out the old leaven, how can we know what he means unless we know about the first Passover? And unless we know this, the significance of the timing of Jesus’ death will also be lost on us, as will John’s Revelation 5 description of him as a lamb looking as though it had been slain. Another example is the word Christ, which is often just used as if it were Jesus’ surname. It refers to Jesus’ role as Messiah. But what did Messiah come to do? And what were the Jews expecting, and how does this relate to the kingdom of God? These questions can’t be answered without the Old Testament and the developing story of the people of God.
A popular view of humanity is that we are the result of some cosmic accident. We are, many seem to believe, nothing more than a random collision of materials in favourable conditions that eventually led to life as we would recognise it. There is, in this view, no particular meaning to the existence of our race as it will all end in another random cosmic event. In the light of this rather bleak outlook, nothing has much significance, as in a million years we would all be forgotten. Against this, God’s big story tells us that he created us in love, and that even though we repeatedly rejected and disobeyed him, he worked to reconcile us to him and to bring us into a land, a Kingdom where, free from the bondage of sin and death, we will live with him eternally. He has already put his rescue plan into action and we live in the age where the good news of God’s rescue is spreading all over the world. We look forward to and pray for the physical return of Jesus and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. This is the (much abbreviated!) big story. You might tell it slightly differently but the main elements will be the same; a loving God, a people in bondage, a great deliverance and a journey to a Kingdom where God dwells with his people. Its climax is in the Messiah, but it draws on the Exodus, the return from exile, and many other Old Testament events.
We are part of this big story. To accept this is to connect to the central theme of creation and of life itself. Our hope, our identity and our purpose spring from this reality. When we forget it, the church has lost that which makes it unique. To understand the big story we need to immerse ourselves in the words and actions of God throughout the whole of the Bible. So let’s get reading!