Element Church Blog

For Now or Just Then?

Today I had someone involved in our Women’s Bible Study ask a question that I hope more people would consider: “How do we know which promises are for us or the Israelites in the Old Testament?”
 
In our world today, we tend to like soundbites that we can apply to our lives, rather than look at the whole message a person is saying. Soundbites are one of the ways we can keep people from looking as bad as they actually were at times. We do this for Christian thinkers like A.W. Tozer, often remembered for the great things he wrote, but he also had a horrible marriage because of how he personally neglected his wife. We quote people like David Livingstone, the often heralded missionary giant, yet conveniently don’t talk about how he sent his family to live in near poverty in Britain and never even really knew his children. Our culture loves soundbites because we like to focus on what makes us feel (personally) good.
 
This focus on ourselves relates to how we view the Bible, as well; we take bits and pieces we like out of context because they “speak to us” or “give us what we need”…not realizing those things may not mean what we think they mean. This is a long way of saying that I appreciate a question about what promises are actually for us and which one aren’t, because as a culture, we typically think everything is for us. In one sense, it is true—it is for us…we believe the Bible wasn’t written to us per se, but it was written for us. The Scriptures were written to a particular people in a particular place in time, but the words transcend time and are useful and didactic to us today.
 
In one sense, if read correctly, the promises from the Old Testament not directly referring to specific events (Israel’s battles during the Exodus, for example), can have broad meaning. It can be read different ways because many promises spoken in the Old Testament are reiterated in various ways in the New Testament. Take as an example the promise to Joshua as he prepares to finally enter the Promised Land. God says to him in Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” This is most certainly a definite promise given to Joshua AND the whole people of Israel…but look in the New Testament:
  • 2 Corinthians 13:11: “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.”
  • Philippians 4:9: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
We may not be going to conquer a land given to us by God, but God still promises to be with us. Even when telling His disciples to go out and make more disciples, Jesus says in Matthew 28 that He will be with them (which I also take to mean us when we follow the great commission).
 
It is important to remember the character of God has not changed from the Old to the New Testaments, God is the same. In Malachi 3:6 God says “I, the Lord, do not change.” In Hebrews 13:11 we are told “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” In this way, Biblical promises that don’t even directly apply to us can still reveal truths about God’s character. But…here is my issue. Many people from Western culture (like ours) don’t know how to read the promises of God in the context in which they were written. We instead read them as soundbites for us, not as words spoken to a whole people.
 
As an example, a big one people love to take out of context is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…” Our culture tends to read those words as written to “me” as an individual and not how God intended it, to a whole people; this has caused many issues today, especially within the Church. We think God wants to prosper me, God has a future for me…which is true, but not how this verse means those words. Jeremiah 29:11 is written to a whole people (the nation of Israel), who were in Babylonian captivity, essentially slaves to a world super power. He is promising these people a future and a hope (which is something they would have understood because that’s how their culture saw things, as a people, not an individual). Not everyone survived, not everyone’s children made it back, some people were tortured and killed…but as a whole, they understood that God would bring them (their whole people) back into a future and a hope…(by the way, it took seventy years).
 
I think our larger problem is trying to read specific things into the text that are not there. Think of Roman’s 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” As Western people we naturally read the word “me” into this verse, as in: “God works for the good of me.” Ancient readers would not have seen it as God obligating Himself to bring about our own perceived personal good in a situation. They would have seen this as a collective promise to “those” (plural) who love Him, who are called to His purpose.
 
Yes, God loves us (personally), yes, God wants His good in our lives (personally), but God has always intended for his followers to be a connected people who see His promises as a collective, within the overarching story of what He is doing in the world. We do much damage to our faith and to non-believers by trying to read into the Bible what is not there. We must become a people who see His promises as intended, trust them, and walk corporately together to be His priests to this world.