2 Oct 2020

Hearing the New Testament for All its Worth: An Agenda of Discipleship

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Discipleship, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Journey, Patternism, Prayer, Reading, Spiritual Disciplines, Worship
Hearing and Seeing often takes Effort

I’ve been having a discussion on becoming better readers of the New Testament and understanding it better from a first century standpoint. I stress first century because I grew up in tradition that believes that some how the first century contains what is normative for it means to be a “Christian” or disciple of Jesus.

This is a question I have been wrestling with for a long time. The answers I now offer have points of similarity to how I would have answered the question in 1992 when I took my first ministry position. Yet there is a different orientation and I believe I “hear” the New Testament better now than I did in 1992.

I pointed out last night there is no magical formula for becoming better readers of the NT. We are all padawan learners. In biblical studies we never obtain the level of Master rather we are always disciples. Discipleship is a way of life, an orientation or disposition to learning and growing. One aspect of being a disciple is becoming a better reader. We are better readers when our ears understand.

It will take work and if we are not willing to invest that then it is for naught. But I want to offer EIGHT suggestions that if we cultivate these we will read the NT and Jesus especially far better. Because we love Jesus we want to know and understand him.

First: Worship

First, we need to recognize that Scripture is fundamentally a product of and for worship. Scripture is not a tool for religious argument and debate, scripture is given to the people of God to nourish their lives with God and one another. Scripture proclaims the God who created and redeemed us. Scripture from the Torah to the Psalms to the Gospels to the Epistles to the Revelation were universally heard and encountered in and part of corporate worship. Do not approach Scripture merely as a source of information but rather as a vehicle to worship God. Scripture is a means to encounter God through the Holy Spirit. Literally pray Scripture. Let Scripture set your prayer agenda. When we read any passage ask the Holy Spirit to pray through to change us so we live the values of the text. If we are not Gathering with God’s people, communing in the Story of God with them, Scripture will remain just letters.

Join Jesus and recite the Shema or what has been called the Jesus Creed daily. Cultivate the hours of prayer that Jesus observed (they are the hours of sacrifice at 9, 12, and 3). Pray the Lord’s Prayer (memorize it along with the Jesus Creed) daily.

Second: Become a Serious Student of the Hebrew Bible

Second, if we want to approach NT texts like a disciple in AD 40 or 55 or 66, then we must first become serious readers of the Hebrew Bible. Not one, no not one, disciple of Christ had a copy of the New Testament in the first century. What they did have was the Hebrew Bible, principally through the Greek translation known as the Septuagint (LXX). The Hebrew Bible was what Paul told Timothy to “devote himself to the public reading of the Scriptures.” (Here again we see point #1). Most today also encounter the Hebrew Bible through a translation. I simply cannot stress enough the importance of the First Testament in reading the NT. The point of reference for everything was the Hebrew Bible/LXX. Deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible was the preunderstanding, the presupposition, the assumed common denominator in the Gospels and the Epistles. When the Bereans checked the Scriptures it was not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or Acts or Romans. Rather they searched Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah, etc. Read it daily. Yes every day.

When we are reading the “New Testament,” we need to think in terms of the unified Story. The New Testament is the same story as the Hebrew Bible, with the same God, same Promise, with the same People. The people and teachings in the “New Testament” mean what they mean because of the so called “Old Testament.” There is continuity than discontinuity between the so called “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” I recommend a book like “The Drama of Scripture” (Bartholomew & Goheen) in helping to grasp the single story or the “plot line” that ties Genesis to Revelation. Intimate acquaintance with the Hebrew Bible, its values, its “theology” and its worship will go a long way toward helping us hear, and see, as a disciple in AD 66 did. Recall that no one in AD 66 ever heard of something called “the Old Testament.” It would be another hundred plus years before Melito of Sardis gave that designation to Jesus’s Bible. They just knew “the Scriptures” which are Genesis to Malachi. Now this will take time but it is worth it. I also recommend, with no reservations, Christopher J. H. Wright’s Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. It is epic.

Third: Read the Psalms Passionately

Third. My suggestion here draws from both numbers 1 and 2. Cultivate the habit of reading the Psalms routinely and regularly. It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of the Psalms on Jesus and the Way. I read the Psalms from beginning to end every month. If you read an average of 4 to 5 Psalms a day (except for Ps 119) you will go through the book every month and it takes 15 or so minutes every day. You can use the Psalms during one of the Three Hours of Prayer mentioned below.

The Psalms do several things when regularly integrated into our lives. First the Psalms help train us in a biblical (or Hebraic) worldview. The Psalms keep our prayers from becoming trite and narcissistic. The Psalms constantly help us understand the big picture of story of God in the rest of Scripture. The Psalms do much more but these are to be noted here.

Fourth: Learn about Time and Space

Fourth. Become familiar with the biblical calendar (sacred time) and the temple (sacred space). Most of us just assume that everyone lives by the same calendar. It never dawned on me that not everyone has a seven day week, has the same names for days, has the same months, has the same years. For years, I literally was in the dark on how deeply embedded the calendar is in Scripture – in both Testaments. What is the Sabbath, Passover/Unleavened Bread, Tabernacles, Weeks/Pentecost, Purim, Dedication, Day of Atonement. Biblical writers simply assume we know this stuff just like we know “St. Patrick’s Day” comes with four leaf clovers, the Irish and green in our culture. I confess that I simply never paid any attention to this, precisely because I did not read the NT as a person would in AD 40, 55 or 66. Both the structure and the meaning of the calendar in the “Bible” was different than I use on a daily basis.

Fifth: Read the Middle Testament

Fifth. Read the books of the Apocrypha (I playfully call this the Middle Testament). Yes read them. The Apocrypha is primarily a Protestant term but it refers to a body of literature that was part of the LXX. This literature is amazingly valuable for cultivating eyes to see and ears to hear as disciples did in AD 40. We suddenly see their prayers, their hymns used in worship, the struggles of faith, examples of great faith. Contrary to much popular opinion the early disciples did in fact know this literature and the NT writers even allude to various stories in Tobit, Maccabees, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon and the like. But our point is this, to read the NT as a person did in AD 40 we have to, as best we can, try to see and think like they did in AD 40. The Apocrypha is, after the Hebrew Bible itself, one of the most helpful sources for becoming a better student of the NT writings themselves.

Sixth: Accept the Jewish Nature of the New Testament

Sixth. Accept the fact that the NT was written by Jews and out of a Jewish worldview. Just accept it because it is a fact. While Paul certainly knew Greek some philosophy, the primary point of reference for every page of the NT is the Jewish world. Take seriously the truth that Jesus is (not was) Jewish. All the NT writers are Jewish. The only possible exception to this is Luke. And, frankly, there are a number of scholars that believe the author of Luke-Acts if not actually Jewish was likely a proselyte. Contrary to much popular mythology Luke is every bit as “Jewish” in its orientation as Matthew ever dreamed. We miss it because we do not “hear” and “see” as did a disciple in AD 60. To get into this Jewish world view we need the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, the calendar and the Apocrypha.

Seventh: Reflect on Helpful Studies

Seventh. One of the most helpful books I have ever read was Oskar Skarsaune’s “In the Shadow of the Temple.” I just believe that every student, who wants to be a teacher with the correct glasses for reading the New Testament will devour Skarsaune. Jacob Jervell’s Luke and the People of God is another book that, if meditated upon carefully, will make one a far better reader of the New Testament.

Eight: Live it

Eighth. Biblical theology is not merely about thinking but about living. Therefore if we are to be better students of the New Testament and its Hebraic doctrine then we must practice it. Visit widows. Serve in a soup kitchen for the homeless. Care for the alien. Find ways to serve as Jesus’s hands and his feet. It is amazing how the prophets, the Sermon on the Mount, James and many other portions of Scripture burst with meaning when the words on the page are guiding our hands, feet, mouths, wallets, to the least of these.

As I stated before this will take time and it will take a disciple’s mindset. But approaching the text prayerfully and “worshipfully” and within the context of the community of faith is simply essential. Cultivating the hours of prayer and becoming intimate with not only the basic story of the Hebrew Bible but its values and worldview will help us hear as a disciple in AD 55. Psalms, the Temple and Apocrypha are important. Live what you read. And reading the few books I’ve mentioned will indeed bear much fruit.

This might sound like a lot of work. It’s not really. But it will take time and “just doing it.” Most of it is simply dealing with the volume you already have in your hands. The books I’ve mentioned can help with the big picture and even some details.

Now in my opinion, and that is what it is so take it for what it is worth, if we want to hear the New Testament for all its worth then cultivating this agenda will bear much fruit.

Let’s get started.

Shalom.

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