When we read Scripture and particularly the Old Testament, it is so easy to automatically view those heroes of the faith, those glowing golden embossed characters we have all read about as kids as if they did no wrong. Sadly, a lot of times, we carry those portrayals with us into adulthood. Sure they made “mistakes,” the thinking goes, but they are people who kept their act together 99% of the time and are worthy of imitation as a result. And unfortunately, this is where we think the teaching stops.
The natural result of this thinking and its resultant teaching is that the historical characters of the Scriptures merely become our models for how to live, people we should imitate in faith and good works. Now of course, to a certain extent that is true. Yet, is that all there is to these narratives? I thought the Bible was a book about God and His works? Does this not apply to every square inch of Scripture including every single narrative?
As I’ve been reading through the OT, it is messy. And it’s messy not just for those who turned away from the Lord, but for those who sought Him and were kept by His power from turning away. Now what do I mean by messy? That God made it messy for them? Not really, though of course He was meticulously sovereign in every aspect. What I mean here is they made it messy for themselves by their sinning. They caused ruin and calamity for themselves many times, in exactly the same ways we do ourselves.
Let’s consider Abraham, that man of faith in the Old Testament. We tend to naturally picture him as the holiest of men, the one through whom the Lord would bless all the nations of the Earth through the birth of His Son, Jesus, because he was a just a good ole’ guy. The faulty premise here is that Abram (pre-Abraham) was a “good guy” before God called Him (“good” meaning glorifying God with His life, belief, mind, heart; not good in the “good works toward humanity” sense we take it nowadays … “good” as God defines it through Paul in Romans 3). Abram was called out from the land of Ur (notice Abram wasn’t seeking the Lord at all), a place where they worshiped the moon. He was a pagan in essence. Abram was an idolater, turned away from God, unable to see Him spiritually as all men naturally are because of their natural blindness and hardness. The Lord came to him and called him away from there and established him, behind and before, by His grace with promises and power.
But even after Abraham is called in God’s power and thus obeys Him, Abraham is full of doubts and turns at many points, not trusting God. At one point, he tells those he is fearful of that Sarah, his wife, is his sister because he doesn’t trust that God will protect both of them. Yes, at the root, Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, he was justified in the presence of God through faith alone, yet there was still sin that remained that caused collateral damage and drama throughout his life. There is drama (sinful actions, unjust anger and bitterness) between Sarah and the servant girl who bears Ishmael to Abraham. On and on it goes.
So what’s the point? The story is about God and His acts to redeem a people for Himself, ultimately from every tribe, language, people, and nation, using Abraham as the tool or instrument to carry out His plans. When you go to the story with that perspective, you see it in a much different light, because then the story is no longer about Abraham, but God.
Then you have Jacob. We tend to automatically assume that God chose Jacob because he was a better boy than Esau. This is totally unfounded upon the text itself. Jacob was a deceiver and a liar, even a con artist, in no way a better person. Was there anything in Jacob that caused the Lord to choose him instead of Esau? No! That is Paul’s whole point in using this very story in Romans 9, which illustrates God’s unconditional election as the explanation for why so many of Israel’s people had turned away from the Christ of God, Jesus Himself. Paul’s point there is that it’s God who chooses who will undeservingly be saved and whom He shall passover.
And what is the point of the stories of Jacob and Esau? It is God, not us, who saves and determines our lot, both temporally and eternally, even accomplishing such ends through such evil at Jacob’s hands. This is a hard truth, but at it’s core, this is the essence of who God is: He is free, unfettered, unconstrained by man, all for His own glory, that He rightfully deserves. He does as He pleases in the host of heaven and none can stay His hand or say to Him, what are You doing? And what a wonder that this very God came to us as a person in Jesus Christ!
Then you have the whole history of Israel. What a mess! Train wreck after train wreck. Unbelief, hardness, murder, adultery, incest, deceit, malice. The list goes on and on. And so what is the broad point? God saves sinners, God calls sinners, not the “righteous”. He saves the lost, the downtrodden, those pursuing licentiousness with their lives (like I was), by regenerating their hearts in power, turning them from their wickedness to see Jesus Christ. In fact, as if this is new information, he even uses us sinners to accomplish His perfect purposes. As Tommy Nelson from Denton Bible Church has said, it’s like God “hits a straight lick with a crooked stick.” Exactly. God: that’s what all of these stories are about.
Sure, many of the characters in the Old and New Testaments should be imitated in their faith, love and works. The apostles even tell us to imitate those of faith. Hebrews 11 is a perfect example. This is a point that should surely not be overlooked. But if that’s all you get from these narratives, that we are to merely imitate the people of old, that’s quite a burden, because once again, that is law, not the Gospel, the good news of God’s grace to men, that enables us to do any of the things He demands of us. The hope of those of old as well as us is the exact same: the grace of God, made fully manifest in Jesus Christ.