Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
1Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
As a writer I get quite a few letters from readers, sometimes nice, sometimes not so nice. There’s one in particular who writes to me every few months and sends me copies of letters he’s sent to the Bible Society and other organizations. I call him the Marcionite. Long ago in the second century, there was a heretic called Marcion who rejected the Old Testament completely. He believed that the God of Israel, Yahweh, was a lesser God, full of anger and prone to punish people, and that God had been replaced by the all-forgiving Father of Jesus. And my letter writer believes something similar: he thinks that because of all the violence and wrath in the Old Testament , which has been used to justify war and genocide, we should only read and publish the New Testament.
Like all Mennonites I believe Jesus taught us that all violence, including war, is against the will of God. So I can understand Marcion’s problems with the Old Testament. But there are a number of problems with this approach:
First of all, the Old Testament is the Bible that Jesus and his disciples read or listened to - the events of theGospels and Epistles had not even happened yet, let alone been written down. And both Jesus and later Paul quoted frequently and creatively from the the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the OT. Can we really reject the Bible Jesus used and from which he drew his message?
Secondly, the New Testament relies heavily on the Old in explaining what it means to belong to Jesus. Without the Old Testament, we would be totally at sea in the New Testament . We wouldn’t know the stories Jesus and Paul were quoting, we wouldn’t know the Ten Commandments or the rest of the Law which Jesus reinterprets and which Paul talks about a great deal. We wouldn’t understand the meaning of sacrifice in the Old Testament which gives the background to how we understand the cross of Jesus. We really couldn’t make head or tail of the New Testament at all.
Thirdly, the Old Testament doesn’t just show us a God who is angry and who punishes sinners. It is also full of a compassionate, loving God who forgives freely and who longs for his people to walk with him and receive his blessings. Consider this prophecy from Hosea:
‘How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.’
If there weren’t passagas like this in the OT, how Jesus could draw from it the loving, self- giving Father God that he proclaimed? He said himself quite clearly that his teaching was not in contradiction to the Jewish scriptures, but fulfilled them.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with the passages we heard read. Well, I’ll try to explain. First, the story of the walk to Emmaus. We heard the whole story, but the last verse is the one I want to focus on:
‘Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.’
Books hadn’t been invented and Jesus couldn’t have carried all the scrolls of the Old Testament with him, so he’s working here from all the Scripture he has learned in the past. Yet the risen Jesus can explain to these two disciples exactly how all the Old Testament scripture points to him and his death and resurrection.
Wouldn’t you love to have been there on that seven kilometre walk? I’d give a lot to know how Jesus interpreted that very difficult book of Joshua, which is full of wholesale slaughter carried out in God’s name, and showed them how it pointed to him. I had to write Bible reading notes on Joshua a few years back and it was a big struggle for someone who believes that the Prince of Peace calls us to be peacemakers too. It would have been very handy to have Jesus there explaining it to me.
But of course in a sense I did have Jesus there. He promised that his Holy Spirit would be, not just beside us, but within us, leading us into all truth. And that verse from Luke about Jesus interpreting the Scriptures in relation to himself, was my other guide. I never read any part of Scripture without testing it against what Jesus said and did. So in thinking about Joshua, I had to say something like: this is a part of the Scriptures, we have to take it seriously. However we can’t accept its picture of God the warmonger as our final word on the character of God, because Jesus reveals God as the God of peace. As followers of Jesus, we can no longer read the Old Testament separately from the New, and take it as our standard for life. We have been called to something new.
Mennonites and other Anabaptists tend to express this principle as ‘Jesus is the hermeneutical key to the whole of the Scriptures’. Sorry for the academic language, but hermeneutics simply means interpretation. It means that whatever part of Scripture we’re studying, we have to read it in the light of Jesus, of his life and death and resurrection. Sometimes this will be easier, say if we’re reading Isaiah’s Servant prophecies like Isaiah 53, which so puzzled the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, and which Philip explained to him in the light of Jesus. Sometimes it will be a lot harder, as with the book of Joshua. But we have each other, and a lot of good Bible scholarship, to help us come to the truth. And of course, we have the Holy Spirit in us. If we are listening well, the Spirit will not lead us into anything which contradicts the teaching and life of Jesus.
Inevitably this mean may we see some parts of Scripture as more important than other parts, because they are more Jesus-like. And Jesus’ own teaching is going to be at the top of the pyramid. But I think we can justify this from the second reading we heard, which I’m now turning to, especially the first half of the first verse:
‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.’
This suggests two things to me. First of all, God speaks in many and various ways through the Scriptures. The Old Testament does not have a single point of view. One part thinks that kings are mostly a good thing, another thinks that kings are mostly a bad thing. The writer of Ecclesiastes is pretty cynical about life, the writer of Proverbs is quite positive about it. Some prophets tell us that suffering is a result of disobeying God, the book of Job tells us that it isn’t. Yet they all speak to us from God, at different times and in different ways. We have to take them all together as a witness to who God is. And this frees us from trying to make every little verse mean the same thing.
Secondly, God’s final word to us is in Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says ‘in these last days’ because he or she believed they wer in the last days. Well we’re still here two thousand years later. But in a sense we’re all in the last days - we’re in the Jesus era, the era of the Spirit, where anyone can have a relationship with God through Christ. And it is through Christ that we have to read what went before.
It’s not spelled out here, but I believe Hebrews 1 affirms the modern idea of ‘progressive revelation’. This means that in ancient history, God revealed to people as much of the truth as they could understand at the time, in terms that they could understand. So if Joshua won a battle and gained some of the Promised Land, the people interpreted it as God giving them the victory. And this is part of the truth, because God does give victory to God’s people - but not through killing other ethnic groups. God’s victory cannot come about through war, because war is one of the evils that Jesus came to destroy. We know this because we know the teaching and life of Jesus. So we are not free to follow Joshua into military conquest.
Hebrews 1 goes on to outline how much greater Jesus is than angels, and by implication, how much greater his revelation of God is than those that went before. So I think we can fairly say that the Bible is the story of God gradually revealing God’s nature, over thousands of years, till God could be revealed fully in Jesus, ‘when the time was fulfilled’.
Of course the idea of Jesus as God’s final word doesn’t mean God has stopped speaking to us. God continues to speak through the Spirit within and among us. But we have to make sure that what we think we hear is genuinely in the spirit of Jesus.
So here are two principles for understanding the Bible, which the Bible itself gives us:
First, it all points to Jesus. If when we interpret Scripture, it seems to tell us something that contradicts what Jesus said and did, then we are probably reading it wrong.
Secondly, God’s word is given gradually, in various ways, over a long period of time, and it is only in Jesus that we can understand the full nature of God. So we can’t just take, say, the Ten Commandments and think they tell us everything we need to know. But because they are a revelation from God, we can’t dismiss them either. Which is why, to return to the beginning, I am not a Marcionite.