During my time in Southeastern's doctoral program, I have come to know a few fine Old Testament scholars-in-the-making. Occasionally I gently rib them about the OT being a "prologue" for Scripture, to which they respond with a suitably snarky comment (often calling into question my sanctification!)
Yet kidding aside, all Christian's must realize the unmeasurable importance of the Old Testament as a major portion of God's word, profitable for reproof, instruction, etc. Yet this begs the question: how exactly do we apply the OT to everyday life? Do we give up our BLTs and ham sandwiches? Do we adhere to all the purity laws that the Jews did? What about the festivals?
Of course, Christians live practically as if we were not under the same obligations the Jews were regarding such Old Testament commands, and I'm not about to suggest otherwise (seriously, my life's complicated enough as it is!) Yet in what way then can the Old Testament be instructional to the New? Likewise, whole books such as Lamentations or (dare I say it?) Song of Solomon get frequently ignored in our preaching or forced into a role they were never meant to fill (yeah, Song of Solomon 1:2 is pretty hard to explain when the whole book is treated as an allegory for the church).
Of course, as evangelicals we argue that the Old Testament points to Christ, and that is certainly true (and Jesus himself argued this, as my friend Matt Emerson wisely pointed out in a recent blog post entitled "The Bible is about Jesus"). Nevertheless, it sometimes becomes difficult to actually apply specific texts in this manner while simultaneously doing justice to the historical-sociological background (although, as Emerson points out, we must not take OT texts in isolation from the grander meta narrative). Preaching and teaching from the Old Testament can be tough! (at least for some of us)
What I'm offering here is not a comprehensive answer to how Leviticus 11, for example, should be preached in the church. Instead, this post will focus on two treatments of the Old Testament that, in my opinion, do an excellent job of making difficult sections of the Old Testament relevant to the modern Christian. The first is Dr. Heath Thomas' article "'My God! My God!' Lament and the Christian Life" in Miqra 7 (Summer 2008): 11-15. Dr. Thomas is the newly appointed director of Ph.D. studies at Southeastern; he taught a 1-credit class on Lament a few years ago that opened my mind to a whole new paradigm of thinking regarding this particular genre (not that I had done much thinking on it in the past!) The second article is Christopher R. Bruno's "Jesus Is Our Jubilee" . . But How? The OT Background and Lukan Fulfillment of the Ethics of Jubilee" in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53 (March 2010): 81-101.
1. Lament and the Christian
(note: while I am careful to credit Dr. Thomas whenever citing directly from his article, I should also point out that the way I discuss the topic or use certain terminology may also have been unconsciously carried over from his class lectures in the Integrative Seminar "Lament" at SEBTS, Fall 2008). Naturally, any mistakes, heresies, or even misinterpretations of anything somebody else wrote is completely my fault.
I can't remember the last time I heard Lamentations preached anywhere. Furthermore, while such phrases as "great is thy faithfulness" (Lam. 3:23) are well-known among Christians, the rest of the book and much of OT Lament as a whole are neglected by Christians. Yet should they be? Is there really room for "lament" in the Christian life when we are commanded to be joyful? (and to say that Lament always ends in joy in the Scriptures is not entirely accurate, as seen in Psalm 88).
First of all, a definition. Lament, biblically speaking, is "an expression of distress directed to God" (Thomas, "My God! My God!", 12). Naturally we find Lament all throughout the OT, including but not limited to much of Job, almost all of Lamentations, and various Psalms (e.g., Psalm 22). Significantly, however, we find a Lament on the very lips of Jesus himself, Mark 15:34 where he quotes Psalm 22:1. Elsewhere we see Lament in such New Testament texts as Revelation 6:10.
As we survey Lament throughout Scripture, we see that Lament is ". . . not petty complaints, but serious issues of justice about which the lamenter cannot keep silent" (Thomas, 12). Indeed, true Biblical Lament itself "recognizes that [the] world is upside down" (Thomas, 11), both in the sense that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer (e.g., Job) and that God's mercy seems far away from his beloved (e.g., Lamentations).
We cannot minimize the real, raw emotion apparent in the cries of Lament, especially that of Christ himself. Whatever else Jesus was feeling on the cross, this was a desperate cry of pain and sorrow. As such, it is obviously not a sin for a Christian to cry out in the same manner. Well does Thomas note that ". . . the belief that lament lacks virtue because it is impious and unbefitting Christian ethics inevitably distorts (at best) or censors (at worst) a good deal of the biblical witness" (Thomas, 13).
Now, granted, there is a point in which Lament may cross the line into whining or, even worse, attacking the character of God. This is what Job came dangerously close to doing and why God rebuked him somewhat at the end (but this does not invalidate his Lament; my point is only that he began to go from Lament into something else; this is an immensely complicated issue--we cannot deny that Job is just, and that God himself holds him up as a paradigm for the others [Job 42-7; note that Job actually spoke rightly concerning God]; yet in his last speech it's possible that Job went from true Lament into a demand that God answer him together with an assumption that God was punishing him unjustly; see, for example Job 31:33-37)
Nevertheless Lament as seen in Scripture is not whining, nor is it undesirable, nor is it something that belongs strictly to Old Testament times. It is a genuine outpouring of grief, even a genuine questioning, expressed by believers of all eras and circumstances. When we are struck down with sorrow or despair, it is not only accepted but expected that we cry out to God, even if it means asking (as Christ did), "Why?!"
Yet here is what makes such Lament Biblical. Lament, first and foremost, is characterized by faith!! Thus Biblical Lament is "not tepid or weak in faith, but robust in the belief that God will hear and respond" (Thomas, 14). Indeed, "Lament remains a prayer to God, first and foremost" (Thomas, 14). In other words, the Christian may cry out to God, so long as he or she remembers just who it is they are calling out to! Thus, the Christian cries out to God, asking for an answer, precisely because he or she knows that God is capable of giving one!
Furthermore, Lament ultimately expresses a desire to see God's "Kingdom come." Lament does this because "[it] knows of a time of God's goodness and intimacy with he faithful, but plays upon the 'gap' between that former reality and a present reality in which injustice, sin, oppression, and God-forsakenness reign. The desire for God to overcome that 'gap' and establish his justice in the world comprises the motivation for lament prayer in the Bible" (Thomas, 11).
So for the Christian living today, a in true Lament one recognizes that something is not write with the world, whether it be sickness, sin, persecution, or loss of fellowship; but Lament prayer also recognizes that the one he or she is crying out to possesses the capability of making it right (and will someday do so). All this is seen par excellence in the death and resurrection of Christ. Going back to Mark 15:34, we see that "It is in the Christ-event that the present suffering of the world is embodied as well as (finally) overcome by God's reign" (Thomas, 12). Indeed, God did not allow Christ's body to suffer corruption but ultimately raised him up and glorified him. Consequently, the church may take comfort in that fact and provide a partial answer to the world regarding suffering: "By embracing suffering in the present, identifying with Christ, and allowing God to comfort, the Church becomes the minister of peace in the world (2 Cor 1:5-7)" (Thomas, 14).
So, what does this mean practically for the Christian living today? First off, there is no shame or sin in crying out to God in the midst of sorrow, even when accompanied by questions, so long as we remember who it is we are crying out to. This does not mean that God will or has to give us an immediate answer as to the "why," (e.g., Job never actually gets an answer), but we do get an Answer in the form of Christ, who has suffered beyond what we have. Thus we allow Lament to give proper expression to our grief and confusion, while at the same time looking forward to the time when God will answer everything and restore peace to his creation.
2. Jubilee and the Christian
In his article "Jesus is Our Jubilee . . . But How?", Christopher Bruno analyzes three modern calls for a Jubilee (Jubilee 2000, Christopher Wright's Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, and John Yoder's The Politics of Jesus) while examining Luke 4:18-19 in light of its Jubilee background in Leviticus 25:10 and Isaiah 61:1-3.
Bruno's discussion of the Jubilee begins with Leviticus 25. Here we see 3 key components of the Jubilee: 1. rest for the land, 2. the re-establishment of "proper distribution of land among tribes, clans, and families," and the 3. "resetting" of the Israelite economy via freedom for indentured servants (Bruno, "Jesus is Our Jubilee," 88). For this passage, Bruno especially emphasizes that Leviticus 25 focuses on "the centrality of the covenant," and that "The reason that Israel was to treat the poor among them with compassion was not simply out of magnanimous spirit, but as a demonstration of their loyalty to YHWH, their understanding of their own places as his redeemed people, and their trust in his care for them" (Bruno, 88-89).
In Isaiah 61:1-2, which Jesus quotes, Bruno argues that most likely Leviticus 25 is the background for some of the terminology here, especially as seen in the third and fourth items the Messiah is supposed to accomplish: the proclamation of liberty (Heb. drvr, a key word from Leviticus 25) and the proclamation of both the Lord's favor and vengeance. Ultimately, in the context of Isaiah 61, the "liberty" that is to be proclaimed to the captives "is, like Leviticus 25 and subsequent references to it, a proclamation of release or liberty for the oppressed members of the covenant community," and this is "part of a more general proclamation of Israel's restoration" (Bruno, 93).
Jesus, then, in Luke 4 takes this task upon himself. The Messiah is to "bring good news of aphesis [Gr. "liberty/release"] to the poor, blind, captives, and oppressed" (Bruno, 97). Ultimately, "Jesus' claim to 'fulfill' Isaiah 61 must be seen as a claim to inaugurate the eschatological Jubilee of God's people the time when their freedom from captivity and oppression would be permanent. . . . Therefore, it seems that the fulfillment of Jubilee through Jesus' ministry was an inauguration, but not completion, of the eschatological Jubilee" (Bruno, 98).
Nevertheless, there is something more going on here. Jesus' proclamation of liberty is inextricably linked first and foremost to his forgiveness of sins (Bruno, 98-99; this becomes the basis for Bruno's even-handed critique of other treatments of the Jubilee on pp. 99-100). Thus Bruno declares, "In the NT, the economic aspects of the Jubilee, although not altogether absent, are of a piece with the forgiveness of sin" (99) and "we cannot disconnect the forgiveness of debt from the forgiveness of sin and call it 'Jubilee'" [as some do] (100). Furthermore, Jesus' proclamation in Luke 4 constitutes an inauguration of the Jubilee for the church age; no new "proclamations" of a Jubilee are needed (Bruno, 100-101).
So, what does this have to do with us today? What follows is a couple things that I take away from Bruno's article (if I've interpreted him correctly). First of all, even if the Jubilee is not observed in a technical sense like it was in the Old Testament, it is still a paradigm of living for the Christian today in the sense that we are still to show mercy, including economic mercy, to others as we are able (because this is what God has done to us through Christ). Too often a large portion of evangelicals has allowed liberal churches and theologians to be the ones focusing on helping the poor, etc., when in fact this should go hand-in-hand with the living out of the Gospel. This is not Walter Rauschenbusch's "Social Gospel," for we are not replacing Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, or the need for personal salvation, with economic "salvation"; rather, we are simply saying that true Gospel living manifests itself in helping those in need, as Christ did.
Secondly, as Bruno aptly emphasizes, the Jubilee concept of "proclaiming liberty" cannot be taken apart from the forgiveness of sins. One can and should help the poor (and done regardless of whether or not they are believers or whether or not we think they will come to Christ), but this should not be done apart from a concern for their spiritual well-being or for the proclamation of Christ's saving power. In light of this, I believe Bruno does a good job of summing up his overall point on p. 101--we are "to proclaim the Jubilee in the way that the NT teaches: striving for an economic and social justice that points to the reality of forgiven sin and the reconciliation of God, his people, and the world" (emphasis added).
Though I have had the privilege of preaching from OT texts to my church family, I am woefully unqualified to write on either OT theology or OT homiletics. Nevertheless, both Thomas' and Bruno's articles impressed me because I believe they show clearly how specific Old Testament texts do indeed apply today to the Christian church, and I believe Thomas and Bruno's observations hold true regardless of whether one is a dispensationalist, covenant theologian, or something in-between (e.g., "progressive inter-mil Reformed kingdom covenantalist"). As for Christological significance, we see both that (1.) true Lament is exemplified by Jesus himself on the cross, and it is to his relationship with the Father that we can look to for comfort, and that (2.) the Jubilee is taken up in Christ himself and his mission; consequently no true "Jubilee" can exist without forgiveness and faith in Christ.
Bruno, Christopher R. "'Jesus Is Our Jubilee' . . . But How? The OT Background and
Lukan Fulfillment of the Ethics of Jubilee." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53 (March 2010): 81-101.
Thomas, Heath A. "'My God! My God! Lament and the Christian Life." Miqra 7 (Summer 2008): 11-15.
For a more technical discussion on the genre of Lament and misuse of its terminology, see my friend D. Keith Campbell's article "NT Scholars’ Use of OT Lament Terminology and Its Theological and Interdisciplinary Implications" in Bulletin for Biblical Research 21.2 (2011). Now that I think of it, I hope I haven't committed any of the mistakes in terminology Campbell discusses in his article! :) (it's been awhile since I read it)