Friday, November 30, 2012

Christ in the Psalms - A Preview

The text below is the introduction to a study on Christ in the Psalms that I'm writing for the small groups at our church for next Lent. I thought I'd post it here as a preview and to give others a chance to give feedback about the idea as I continue to write the lessons. 

This study is an attempt to read Scripture in a different way - or more precisely, an attempt to return to reading Scripture in a very old way. Finding Christ in the Old Testament is nothing new. Even the most cursory reading of the New Testament demonstrates quite obviously that its authors were concerned with articulating their beliefs about Jesus in the language of the Old Testament. What is surprising, at least to me, is the way that they went about that task.

 For a good portion of my life, I had always assumed that Jesus’ identity as Israel’s Messiah was plainly laid out in the Old Testament, easy to find for anyone who was willing to do the work of searching. The relationship between the Old Testament and Jesus, I often thought, was as simple as prediction and fulfillment; that is, the Old Testament outlined clearly what the coming Messiah would look like and Jesus fit the bill perfectly. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah was so plainly obvious that only the Pharisees and other religious leaders in all their hard-hearted tradition and legalism could miss what was obvious to everyone else. If only they had traded in their man-made laws and traditions for a plain reading of God’s word in Scripture then they too would have known that Jesus was the Christ.

 More recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that these assumptions don’t seem to match-up with the way the New Testament authors themselves made use of the Old Testament to talk about Jesus. Far from treating the Old Testament as a book of predictions, I noticed that the New Testament authors seemed to be reading the Old Testament much less literally than I did, applying passages of Scripture to Jesus in very creative ways; so creative, in fact, that the first authors of those passages probably never imagined that what they had written would be used to describe Israel’s Messiah. So, for example, the author of Hebrews can make use of a Psalm that sings the praises of the God who rescues the faithful (Ps 40) to say that Jesus’ own faithfulness makes animal sacrifice an unnecessary part of the new covenant he inaugurates. Likewise, Psalm 110:1, the single verse of the Old Testament quoted in the New Testament more often that any other, is used repeatedly to speak of Jesus’ exaltation to the Father’s right hand and ascension into heaven even though the Psalm’s author almost certainly did not have ascension into heaven in mind when he wrote the Psalm.

 Upon closer inspection, it seems the prediction-fulfillment formula is actually just the opposite of how the earliest Christians understood the relationship between Jesus and their Scriptures. If anything, it appears they viewed the relationship the other way around. It was not so much Scripture which was determinative for their understanding of Christ as much as it was Christ who was determinative for their understanding of Scripture. To be sure, all of Jesus’ first followers believed that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures. However, he did so in such radical and unexpected ways that it was by no means an obvious truth to everyone who encountered him. In other words, the Pharisees actually had a pretty good point in their arguments with Jesus. The Pharisees were the ones who were looking at what Scripture said about the Messiah and looking at Jesus and seeing that he clearly didn’t fit the mold. Claiming that he was the Messiah and that he was himself authoritative over Scripture and the temple and Israel was enough to get him killed, itself the surest of signs that he was not the Messiah he claimed to be.

 If all of this is true, then why did those first Christians become disciples of Jesus? If Jesus so obviously did not fit everyone’s Messianic expectations as shaped by Scripture, then why did his first followers so boldly proclaim him as the Christ and even the Son of God, even to the point of giving their own lives? It seems to me that it was because they knew they had encountered in the flesh and blood of Jesus the full, definitive Word of God personified and that Word trumped every other word that had ever been spoken or written. They may not have fully realized this as he healed the sick and proclaimed the kingdom of God and they surely doubted whatever they had previously believed as Jesus hung dying and defeated on the cross. But the resurrection and the consequent pouring out of the Holy Spirit planted firmly in the minds and hearts of his followers that God had done something unique in Jesus. So much so that they began to re-read their own Scriptures in completely new ways through the lens of what they knew to be true in Jesus. For the first Christians, Jesus was the light by which the Scriptures were to be read.

This should come as no surprise to us. It is, after all, what the New Testament authors themselves tell us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”[1] and “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”[2] Jesus as the Word of God, the Son by whom the Father has spoken, is one of the most fundamental affirmations in all the Christian faith.

 In spite of that, it seems to me that we often fail to read our Scriptures in accordance with that basic confession. Instead, we approach the pages of Scriptures as if the ink on those thin little pages of paper were the full and definitive Word of God for us, forgetting that title belongs first and foremost to Jesus and only derivatively to Scripture as it witnesses to Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we often speak of “Scripture alone” being enough to answer all of our questions. So we assume that if we can simply “prove” something from Scripture then it can serve as a universal truth for our doctrine and ethics. But what if Jesus’ disciples had stuck to Scripture alone over and above their experience of Jesus? Can you imagine them meeting with Jesus shortly after his resurrection and saying “Well, there’s no verse that says the Messiah was supposed to be raised from the dead so we’re not convinced.”? In my opinion, when we read Scripture as a document with one fixed and inerrant meaning given to us by God to serve as a source for an unassailable system of doctrine and ethics, we become more like the Pharisees who rejected Jesus and less like the early Christians who proclaimed him as Lord. 

 This is, by no means, an attempt to diminish the importance of Scripture. It is, however, an attempt to recapture its rightful place in the life of the Church and the believer: as a witness to Christ. When we remember that this is its purpose, I think it can actually raise our respect for Scripture by reminding us that God’s Word is not something written long ago, lifelessly locked into words on a page. Rather, “the Word of God is living and active,”[3] a Word that speaks to us presently. It goes to work on us like a sharp scalpel cutting us open and laying bare our weak and broken nature before the Great Physician in whose hand it serves as a powerful tool.

 Of course, the New Testament authors quote from a vast array of passages and books in the Old Testament. The Psalms, however, were a favorite of these first Christian theologians, especially as they reflected on the identity of Christ. A few Psalms in particular are quoted repeatedly in the New Testament with reference to Jesus. It is those Psalms which form the basis of this study.

 Each week will focus on a different Psalm, beginning with Psalm 2 on Ash Wednesday and ending with Psalm 16 on Easter.  Most weeks will consist of four lessons; one about the Psalm and three about its various uses in the New Testament. As a part of each lesson you will also be encouraged to interact with the Psalms as prayers. The readings for each Sunday’s worship are also included along with space for sermon notes.  Each week will also include a small group meeting in which you will discuss the passages you have read in the previous week as well as some quotes from the earliest Christian theologians about those passages. You can move through the lessons at your own pace within the week and, depending on when your small group meets, you may not complete all the lessons by the Sunday they are read in worship. (Even though the Sundays in the outline below appear after days 1-4, if your group meets on Wednesdays you might do days 1-2 on Thurs - Fri and days 3-4 on Mon - Tues.) However, you should attempt to complete all the lessons before your small group discusses them later in the week so that you can contribute to the discussion. Here is an outline of what lies ahead.

Psalm 2
Ash Wednesday - Ps. 2; Mark 1:9-11; 9:2-8; 15:39
Thursday - Meditate on Psalm 2, Lesson on Hebrews 1:1-5
Friday - Pray Psalm 2, Lesson on Acts 4:23-31

First Sunday in Lent - Psalm 2:1-9; 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Hebrews 1:1-5; Luke 4:1-13

Small Group Discussion: What stood out to you from this week’s Scripture readings? This week’s sermon? Quotes from Church Fathers with questions for reflection. 

Psalm 8
Week 1 of Lent
Day 1 - Read Psalm 8, Lesson on Psalm 8
Day 2 - Meditate on Psalm 8 (let God speak to you), Lesson on Matt 21:12-17
Day 3 - Pray Psalm 8 (let it speak for you to God), Lesson on Hebrews 2:5-9
Day 4 - Hear Christ in Psalm 8 (Christ speaks with you), Lesson on 1 Cor 15:20-28

Second Sunday in Lent - Psalm 8; Isaiah 8:11-18; Hebrews 2:5-9; Luke 9:28-36

Small Group Discussion

Psalm 40
Week 2 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 40, Lesson on Psalm 40
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 40, Lesson on Hebrews 10:1-10
Day 3: Pray Psalm 40, Lesson on Ephesians 5:1-2
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 40, Lesson on Luke 7:18-23

Third Sunday in Lent: Psalm 40:1-8; Hosea 6:1-6; Hebrews 10:1-10; Luke 13:1-9

Small Group Discussion

Psalm 110
Week 3 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 110, Lesson on Psalm 110
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 110, Lesson on Mark 12:35-37
Day 3: Pray Psalm 110, Lesson on Mark 14:53-64
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 110, Lesson on Hebrews 1:13; 7:11-22

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Psalm 110; Exodus 29:1-9, Hebrews 5:1-10, Luke 20:41-47

 Small Group Discussion   

Psalm 69
Week 4 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 69, Lesson on Psalm 69
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 69, Lesson on John 2:13-22
Day 3: Pray Psalm 69, Lesson on John 15:18-27
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 69, Lesson on Romans 15:1-7

Fifth Sunday in Lent Psalm 69:4-9; Isaiah 53:3-9; Romans 15:1-7; John 12:1-8

Small Group Discussion

Psalm 118
Week 5 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 118, Lesson on Psalm 118
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 118, Lesson on Matt 21:1-44
Day 3: Pray Psalm 118, Lesson on Acts 4:1-12
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 118, Lesson on 1 Peter 2:4-10

Palm Sunday: Psalm 118:19-29, Isaiah 28:14-22, 1 Peter 2:4-10, Luke 19:28-40

Small Group Discussion  

Holy Week
Maundy Thursday: Read Psalm 22, Lesson on Psalm 22 and Hebrews 2:10-18
Good Friday: Meditate on Psalm 22, Lesson on John 19:23-27
Holy Saturday: Hear Christ in Psalm 22, Lesson on Matt 27:45-50

Easter Sunday: Psalm 16:5-11, Acts 2:22-36, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, John 20:1-18

[1] John 1:1, 14, ESV.
[2] Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV
[3] Hebrews 4:11

No comments: