The John 3:16 of the Old Testament

I’ve talked to many Christians who were taught and believed that God’s people Israel in the Old Testament were saved by works, rather than grace.

Of course, looking at the prologue to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 will show that’s simply not true. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2).

God acts. God does the work. God does the saving.

Then he gives them his law. The order goes like this: God rescues his people. Then he tells them what their lives should look like under his kingly rule.

Add to that Hebrews 11 where we see that those saints who have come before were saved, not by their commitment to the law, but for their faith. That’s the whole point of that chapter.

That should be enough.

But another passage stuck out to me this morning I hadn’t noticed before. Deuteronomy 4:37: “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength.”

That sounds a lot like John 3:16, doesn’t it? That verse says, “God loved the world this way: he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” 

  • “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them” → God loved the world
  • “He brought you out of Egypt” → will not perish but have eternal life 
  • “By his Presence and his great strength” → he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him

When you lay the two passage side-by-side, we see that God’s love is the initiating motivation for salvation. His very real presence and grace is the power of salvation. And finally, freedom and life with God–the rescue from bondage and death–is the result of God’s salvation.

Whether Old Testament or New, the salvation of God does not come because of the obedience or conformity to God’s law, in part or in whole.

It comes freely and only to his people by his grace, his power, and his very Presence.


Why Is the Story of Herod’s Slaughter in the Bible?

This comes from a segment of a paper I wrote for a New Testament class in seminary. 

Perhaps Matthew includes the story of Herod because it paves the way for how Jews will respond to Jesus throughout his Gospel. The reason seems more significant, however. In this lesson, we will discern why Matthew included Herod in his Gospel and ultimately why God included him in Scripture. In other words, we will determine Herod’s role within the larger story of God’s redemptive plan.[1] Our focus will be two primary prophecies that were fulfilled after Jesus’ birth that directly involved Herod.  The first comes from Matthew 2:14-15 and the second from Matthew 2:17-18.[2]

“Out of Egypt I Called My Son”
After Jesus was born, an angel of the Lord warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. He said, “Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (v. 13). Joseph obeyed, and they stayed in Egypt until Herod died. Matthew gives us a theological and prophetic insight in 2:14-15 when he writes that this was to fulfill what was written about in Hosea 11:1, which says, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

The context of Hosea 11 is important for us to know. The Lord had just given Hosea the word to speak to Israel that they would be punished because of their spiritual adultery against God (Hos. 9-10). In Hosea 11, God recounts his love for Israel, despite their rampant unfaithfulness to him as their true Husband. To begin the chapter, Hosea spoke these words of God, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (v. 1). The most important feature of this verse is that it shows how God relates to Israel as a father relates to a son. This would direct a Jew’s attention back to Exodus 4, when Moses spoke the words of God to Pharaoh in Egypt, saying, “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me’” (Ex. 4:22b-23). Israel, God’s chosen and beloved child, spent years of bondage in Egypt. Despite this bondage, God promised deliverance because of the undying and unbreakable relationship he created with Israel. Thus, Hosea reminds Israel of God’s precious love for them as he commemorates God’s faithfulness in bringing Israel out of Egypt through the exodus.

What then is Matthew’s purpose in citing this Hebrew scripture? It is to demonstrate Jesus’ unique status as God’s Son. Even more, as God protected Israel from Pharaoh’s wrath, Matthew demonstrates God’s protection of Jesus from Herod’s wrath in sending him to Egypt. Turner writes, “What was true of Israel on a metaphorical level is more profoundly true of Jesus the Messiah…Matthew looks at biblical history with the conviction that it is organically related to Jesus the Messiah as the seed is to the harvest.”[3] This is true, for Jesus stated that all Scripture testifies about himself (Luke 24:27; John 5:39).

Because of Herod’s lust for power, control, and security, his initial reaction was fear and curiosity when a new king was allegedly born. He then acted foolishly and violently and called for a slaughter in Bethlehem. Had he not done this, Jesus would not have had to go with Joseph and Mary to Egypt, and thus would not have been shown to be God’s true Son who was called out of Egypt and identified with Israel at large. Unwittingly, Herod fulfilled his role in God’s redemptive plan.

“Rachel Is Weeping for Her Children”
The second prophecy in Matthew 2:17-18 says that Jeremiah 31:15 is fulfilled when the babies in Bethlehem were killed. Jeremiah 31 is a very joy-filled chapter, but verse 15 is a brief lament of the destruction that war brings to Israel during their exile in Babylon. Captivity is unavoidable, but the promise of deliverance will come through the Davidic line by a king who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 33:14-16). As Turner notes, “Jeremiah 31:15 is not a prediction but a present lament in the context of hope for future blessing.”[4]

This hope of a future blessing for the weeping mothers in Jeremiah is the new covenant (Jer. 32:40-41). The hope for the mothers in Bethlehem is also the new covenant, which will be inaugurated by Jesus, the one whom God protected from the slaughter, with his body and blood (see Matt. 26:27-28). Their hope, as Turner says, “is now about to be actualized through the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Messiah.”[5] Herod, in slaughtering innocent children, fulfilled the Scripture that pointed to the hope of the Davidic Messiah, the one who would usher in the new covenant and rule Israel as their true King.

Jesus: True and Better
What is God’s purpose for including this story in Scripture? It is two-fold. First, Jesus is shown as the true and better Israel. He is everything Israel failed to be. He is the perfect Son that Israel never could have been. He fulfilled the law’s demands, perfectly keeping the covenant that God made with Israel through Moses. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17b). Immediately after this, Jesus passed his test in the wilderness in forty days, unlike rebellious Israel who wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Matt. 4:1-11, cf. Ex. 4:22-23).

Second, Jesus is Israel’s true and better King. Unlike Herod, who was violent and aggressive, Jesus is gentle and lowly in heart (Matt. 11:29). Unlike Herod, who was paranoid and fought to keep his throne in Judah, Jesus willingly surrendered his rights to an earthly kingdom (see Matt. 27:11; cf. Phil. 2:4-6) and gave up his flesh and blood to usher in God’s spiritual, covenant kingdom (Matt. 26:27-28; cf. Heb. 12:28).

Herod’s Response and Ours
Above influencing the younger generation, Herod teaches us that we must ask ourselves, “Will we respond to Jesus as Herod did?” Most likely, we will not respond by slaughtering innocent children in a small village. In fact, our response might not be noticeable to anyone else. Herod’s core problem was idolatry, but not the external idolatry that consisted of worshiping stone and wood images. He idolized power, security, and control. Herod shortchanged himself of eternal glory with God for the temporal glory of a puny, earthly kingdom.

We attempt to build our own kingdoms, too. Apart from God’s grace, we will seek to build our own reputation and increase our glory so that our dominion will spread, to the detriment of those around us. Our kingdoms are not advanced through slaughtering children, but we slaughter in other ways. We coerce others to bow at our throne through envy, bitterness, rage, anger, slander, gossip, impatience, manipulation, blame-shifting, self-indulgence, self-pity, and a thousand other sins. In the worst way, we march on through self-righteousness and religion: follow the rules, say the right things, prayer the right prayers, and keep a clean image. Christians are not exempt from this, but for us the victory is won. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ-likeness will come over time. The proper response then for both the Christian and the unbeliever is, unlike Herod, to believe in Jesus as the one who “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

[1] “Redemptive plan” may also be referred to as redemptive history, story of redemption, salvation history, history of salvation, etc.  God’s redemptive plan is his universal plan of salvation to redeem a people for himself and restore all of creation.
[2] Carson and Moo write that Matthew “adopts a fundamentally christological reading of the Old Testament.” See D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), p. 164.
[3] David L. Turner, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 90-91.
[4] Turner, p. 94.
[5] Turner, p. 95.


Happy May Day!

Happy May Day! Do I say that with any particular celebratory delight?  Not at all. But it’s still fun because spring is here and that means people are much happier than they were three months ago.

According to the most reliable source online, Wikipedia, the earliest May Day celebrations “appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman Goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries.”  The day also has roots in celebrating fertility (ancient Egypt), remembering political/social victories (U.S. and U.K.), engaging in sexual activity (Germany), warding against witchcraft (Germany), and commemorating the beginning of spring (England).  If people in the U.S. celebrate today, they normally give a May Basket to a loved one.

Back in medieval times, during the festival in England, at the break of dawn on May 1, villagers would go out into the forest and gather flowers and wood for the day’s celebration.  The largest piece of wood brought back would be used as the Maypole.  This gathering of flowers and wood is calling “bringing in the may.”

The poem The Court of Love (c. 1346), written by Geoffrey Chaucer (died c. 1400), was probably an inspiration to the poem which contains this excerpt, dated around 1541. It gives us a glance into the practice of “bringing in the may”:

And furth goth all the Court, both most and lest,
To feche the floures fressh, and braunche and blome;
And namly, hawthorn brought both page and grome.
With fressh garlandes, partie blewe and whyte,
And thaim rejoysen in their greet delyt.

Villagers & Morris-men dancing beside the Maypole on Ickwell Green, Bedfordshire; Dawn on 1st May 2005.

The Maypole, in England, in all its glory.


God is Always Behind the Scenes.

As I read Isaiah 45:1-13, there is one, single, consistent, mind-numbing, eternity-changing, thought:

God equips, empowers, and energizes even those who do not know him as Lord and Savior in order to accomplish his majestic purposes.

I ask, “Why does he do this?” The answer comes in verses 5-6:

So that everyone, from east to west, may know that Yahweh is God, and that there is no other.

Truly our God’s mind and will is unsearchable and inscrutable.  How awesome are his ways!


Where do you run for safety?

This morning I was reminded of the things I go to for salvation other than God. The list was quite depressing. In the prophet Isaiah’s day, the people of Israel went to a literal savior, whose name was Egypt. Assyria was going to attack and Israel made a political alliance with Egypt — the same Egypt who held them as slaves for decades.

Isaiah 30:7 says, “Egypt’s help is worthless and empty; therefore I have called her ‘Rahab who sits still.'” Don’t get caught up on the “Rahab.”  God’s simply saying, “Egypt sits still — they don’t do anything for you.” Egypt couldn’t provide eternal comfort and salvation for Israel.  So, I asked myself, “What is my Egypt, today, in the 21st century?”  I thought of knowledge, spiritual disciplines, security, “normalcy”, passionate prayers, vibrant worship, my lifestyle and worldview, self-pity, and isolation.

I don’t have a physical place to run to, but these functional saviors are what comfort me when I am surrounded by troubles. Instead of running to God, I run to things that “sit still.”  Some of those things are good things. But if I make them ultimate things, they go from good to god, and I become an idolater.

The great news is that God is excited to rescue me. Later on, in verse 18, after all rebellion that is ascribed to Israel (and me), Isaiah writes, “Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.”

The logic of God’s amazing grace is illogical to us. I am rebellious, therefore he waits — longs, yearns — to show me grace and mercy and faithfulness.  This salvation is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, the one who died for us sinners, who were his enemies, to reconcile us to God (Rom. 5:6-8).

My Egypts will not, and cannot, ever do that.