Are we agreed so far? Good. Now, here’s where it can get tricky. (And I’m sorry about your toes in advance.) Author Andrew Wilson explains that, for some people, reading through the Jesus lens means approaching hard-to-swallow Old Testament passages like this:
[F]iguring that Jesus could never have condoned [them], and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements. . .
Trading in the Jesus lens for a Jesus tea strainer is inherently dangerous. Among other things, it encourages us to turn Jesus against the Old Testament—something He never did Himself. Here are a few reasons why we shouldn’t try to create a false dichotomy between our Savior and the Bible He read.
Jesus participated in the Old Testament
Did you know that the stable in Bethlehem was not the first time God came to earth in the flesh? A pre-incarnate Christ made several appearances in the Old Testament—occurrences theologians refer to as theophanies. For example, we see God the Son meeting and talking with Hagar in the wilderness in Genesis 16, wrestling with Jacob in Genesis 32, and conversing with Samson’s parents in Judges 13.
Another example is found in Genesis 18. God the Son appears to Abraham in the flesh, accompanied by two angels (vv. 1-2). After a while, Jesus says it is time to visit Sodom and Gomorrah to determine if its wickedness is deserving of judgment. At that point, the two angels head toward the city, while Jesus remains with Abraham (v. 22). (We see the two angels enter the city, minus Jesus, in Genesis 19:1). At Abraham’s request, Jesus agrees to show mercy to the city if ten righteous people are left in it. (Tragically, not even ten can be found.)
Now, I suppose it could be argued that these theophanies are not really Christ, but rather a different physical appearance. (God should be able to take on any form He wants, right?) But how does that accord with the doctrine of the Trinity? Christianity teaches that there is only one God, and that God has chosen to reveal Himself to us in three distinct personalities: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We’re playing loosely with this core belief if we say that God has revealed Himself to humankind using four (or more) personalities.
It is angels who can take on numerous forms, including the forms of regular human beings (Heb. 13:2). God, however, has revealed Himself to us in the form of only one human being: Jesus Christ. While there may be disagreements about how many appearances of God the Son there are in the OT, it is dangerous conjecture to say He never appeared at all. And that being the case, it’s not so easy to discount some of the difficult OT passages as outdated versions of God’s methodologies when Christ Himself was involved in them.
Jesus is the fulfillment—not the antithesis—of OT Scripture
Christ once condemned the Jewish leaders of His day, not because they were too set on the Old Testament, but because they weren’t set on it enough. They prided themselves on being intimately familiar with the OT teachings of Moses. However, Jesus said they weren’t familiar enough with Moses in order to recognize who He was: “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me” (Jn. 5:46). Not knowing the Old Testament was equal to not knowing Jesus.
Furthermore, Christ pointed out in a parable that hearing Moses and the prophets was essential for understanding salvation (Luke 16:31). And after gently rebuking Cleopas and his friend for their ignorance regarding His true mission on earth, Jesus “[began with] Moses and all the Prophets, [and] expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). A few verses later, He reiterated the importance of the law, the prophets, and the Psalms in having a proper understanding of Christ (v. 44).
Attempting to nullify large chunks of the Old Testament in an effort to have a Christ-centered hermeneutic is the equivalent of working to destroy the very thing Christ came to fulfill (Matt. 5:17). Knowingly or unknowingly, those who discard the OT as an outdated expression of God put themselves in the same camp with the ignorant Jews whom Christ rebuked. It’s not a good place to set up your tent.
Jesus cannot be contrasted with Himself
Speaking of the Trinity, it’s problematic to contrast the mercy and grace of God the Son with the supposed harsh tyranny of God the Father since they are, in a very real sense, the same God. This God doesn’t change with time (Ma. 3:6; Jas. 1: 17); in fact, He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). The God we see during the conquests of Canaan is the same God we see in the gospels.
It’s true that redemptive history has evolved (so to speak), but this evolution doesn’t reflect a changing God so much as a change in His dealings with humankind. Just think about how a wise father treats his growing daughter: the restrictions and freedoms evolve as she changes from a toddler to a teenager. The changes are real, and they are quite pronounced, but they are based on the development of the child, not the changing character of the parent. Likewise, redemptive history has moved from a “theocratic national kingdom to a spiritual kingdom.”
Granted, there are a plethora of difficulties and paradoxes related to this topic that we haven’t even touched on. In the future, I will attempt to deal with more of them. In the meantime, may God give us the grace to use Jesus properly—as a lens and not as a tea strainer.