Avoiding Fashionable Theology
At first, Vickie was convinced he was preaching heresy. How could her pastor do this to her sweet little church? As she stared at the stain glass window above the pulpit, she hastily picked up her bulletin and began fanning away, trying desperately to capture her thoughts. If she was perfectly honest with herself, Vickie had to admit the man of God was backing everything he said with scripture. How was this possible?
In that fateful summer moment of being shocked and confused, Vickie encountered a topic conspicuously absent from her years of Bible study, spiritual warfare. For her, this wasn’t a small theological oversight she had carefully avoided. No, as a pastor’s daughter, Vickie was a lifer, and yet her ignorance on this subject was truly amazing.
Thankfully, Vickie had the good sense to not mention her concerns to anyone but God, and he answered her prayer quickly. First, God reminded her of all the warfare hymns she learned as a child, hymns like: Onward Christian Soldiers, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and her favorite hymn The Banner of the Cross. Soon, the first verse and chorus was ringing in her ear.
“There’s a royal banner given for display to the soldiers of the king; As an ensign fair we lift it up today, while as ransomed ones we sing. Marching on, Marching on. For Christ count everything but lost. And to crown Him King, joy and sing, beneath the banner of the cross.”
Those words alone helped Vickie imagine soldiers marching under the colors of a sovereign majesty. “Ok,” Vickie thought, “so, maybe this wasn’t a new theology.” As she continued to ponder, she pulled out an old hymnal to examine those same battle hymns more closely. Vickie noticed they were all written by or before 1920. What had changed in Christian circles since 1920? Why could a church sing about spiritual warfare, but not teach on it? Could a theology fall out of fashion if it was really biblically based? So, full of curiosity, Vickie called her dad for more information and his response frankly shocked her. “Well,” he said, “after World War II nobody wanted to hear talk of war, so gradually, maybe not on purpose, most pastors quit teaching on those passages.” Really! Pastors and Bible teachers would avoid verses which made people feel uncomfortable. Vickie was flabbergasted. Like Vickie discovered, many of us are vulnerable to the whims of fashionable theology.
Unfortunately, which theological views are currently in vogue often depends on what is happening within a society. Most pastors and church members are victims of the age they live in. Examine how the majority of the churches in Germany capitulated under the Nazis’ regime or how thousands of God fearing Christians in the American South did nothing to confront the cruelty and injustices of racism. We say we are people of the book; and yet when we study Christian history, we see the age we live in plays a key role in what passages we are willing to study. Remember how Martin Luther had to rediscover that “the righteous shall live by faith”? Are there neglected lessons from the Word of God in our day? Yes, and one of those long overlooked topics is the study of the portraits of Christ in the Old Testament.
With the rise of the scientific age, popular theology increasingly chose a more scientific approach to Bible study. We wanted to know the historical background and customs revealed in a passage. We wanted to learn the meaning of the Greek or Hebrew words when we looked at a verse. We wanted to dissect a passage like it was a frog in Biology class. These attitudes were not wrong; in fact, they were very helpful to the modern student who was so far removed from the first century, but they were very different from the way the early church examined the scriptures.
Early Christians felt that the Old and New Testament was the story of God’s Son. They did not need someone to explain the language since they all spoke Greek, and could easily understand the New Testament in its original languages. In addition, after the Babylonian captivity, the Old Testament scriptures had been translated into Greek for a large Jewish population who now lived outside the borders of Israel. Cultural and historical significance was a moot point to the first century believers. Keep in mind these early believers were the eyewitnesses of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6).
Instead, they searched the scriptures believing the Bible in its entirety was the story of God’s Son, Jesus. In their view point, there was no conflict in believing the Old Testament was a true record of Israel’s history; as well as recognizing within the Old Testament stories, pictures which foretold the coming of Christ. An early teacher, Saint Augustine, taught, “The new is in the old contained, the old is in the new explained.” In 1 Cor. 10:6, the Apostle Paul exhorts us with the Greek word “tupos” which is usually translated “example” in our English Bible, to warn us about the importance of Old Testament imagery. An English literation of the Greek word “tupos” would be “typos” and our English word “type” is rooted in this ancient Greek word. The way Paul uses the word, “tupos” means: a pictorial symbol foreshadowing the future. If this feels like a unique way to analyze the scriptures, understand this is not a new teaching, but it might be a neglected one in our generation.
Each Old Testament word picture of Christ emphasizes his work, his character, or his power. Some portraits highlight more than one aspect. For example, think about the Old Testament picture of Christ as “the Lamb of God”. To what does the portrait of the Lamb point? The Lamb picture focuses on Christ’s work and character, but does not address his power. To be a true Old Testament “type” of Christ a picture must be validated in the New Testament. In John 1:29, John the Baptist says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” With this pronouncement, a picture of Christ is identified which can be found throughout the Old Testament narrative.
One key to understanding the Old Testament portraits of Christ is to see time in the Bible is best illustrated as a spiral. Not every cultural describes time the same way. In the beautiful song the Circle of Life from The Lion King, time is portrayed as a circle where life is constantly being reincarnated. In the Western mindset, we often think of the chronological passing of time as a straight line with events beginning and ending along this line. But, the biblical concept of time is more like a spiral. It has a curve like a circle because these beautiful metaphors of Christ tend to repeat themselves, but time also moves progressively forward.
Analyze how this spiral view of time is evidenced in the “Lamb of God” portrait. Time begins and on the first cusp of the curve, we have the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-10). This is the first time we see the picture of a lamb sacrificed in history. Time spirals on and at the top of the next curve we see God providing a ram caught in a thicket for Abraham to sacrifice sparing Isaac’s life (Genesis 22). This is our second lamb portrait. Time advances and at the cusp of the third curve we see the Passover lamb protecting the Israelites from the death angel (Exodus 12). The imagery of the lamb continues on throughout the Old Testament. With every Old Testament sacrifice, the people are reminded that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission for sin. Finally, in John 1:29, John the Baptist identifies this lamb picture as a portrait of the Messiah. The lamb picture does not stop with Christ’s first coming though. Twenty – five times the phrase “the Lamb” or “the Lamb of God” appears in the book of Revelation. So, these portraits or types reveal cohesiveness to scripture that we might miss without their study.
In the typology of the Old Testament, we see God as the author of time who has the ability to prophesy through actual history. Much of the Old Testament is written by prophets foretelling the future, but that is not the only way God prophesied in these ancient scriptures. Events like the Exodus, while historically accurate, also point to a coming Messiah who would make a way for us to live in a right relationship with him. As the creator of time, God is not bound by his creation, but rather time serves God’s purposes. The Old Testament portraits of Christ; therefore, highlight a divine conspiracy of the Holy Spirit and showcase the glory of his long range plans (Psalm 33:11).
The portraits of Christ also uncover the manifold wisdom of God. No one picture fully illustrates all of Christ’s work, character, or power. Think of the complete portrait of Christ as a multifaceted diamond, impossible to paint with one metaphor. There is high value though in focusing on one plane of that jewel at a time. As a daughter might spend hours leafing through her family photos searching for clues about father’s years in the military, these portraits allow us to meditate on Jesus’ majesty in fresh ways. When we struggle to believe God could ever forgive us, or when we doubt he could rescue us from the mess we have made, these biblical portraits advance hope. God is in control and able.
In the next lesson, we will analyze our first portrait, the Lamb of God. Each subsequent study will unwrap more of Jesus’ love for humanity and the relentless power of his eternal purposes. As we move forward, don’t forget today’s lesson though. If you want to understand the Old Testament types of Christ, you must see Jesus’ portraits in history, the spiraling nature of time, and the inherent risks of fashionable theology. To keep going deeper, spend some moments and process through these questions.
1) Begin in prayer asking God to speak to you through his word. Then read 1 Corinthians 10:1-3. How do the lives and stories from the Old Testament reveal how common temptation is?
2) Next read John 1:29-37. A lamb is an unexpected picture to describe a King. Nations do not usually use lambs as their national symbols, they pick lions and eagles, animals which are chosen to intimidate an enemy. Why did God choose a lamb as a picture of Christ? What was he emphasizing with this portrait?
3) What passages might Christians avoid today? Why? What verses or chapters in the Bible have you been sidestepping? Why?