From our Purpose Statement: Baptist 21 is grateful for a Southern Baptist heritage where the Gospel has been faithfully passed down and effective Great Commission ministry has been undertaken. Many believe there is a crisis ahead for Baptists, particularly Southern Baptists, in the 21st century. Our commitment is to work diligently in the present by honoring the Gospel faithfulness of the past, contending for the Gospel, engaging current cultures with the Gospel, and cooperating toward future Kingdom effectiveness among Southern Baptists in the 21st century and beyond.
Baptist21 was honored to sit down with Dr. James Merritt. He is one of the most powerful preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention. He weds strong expositional preaching and a zeal for personal evangelism that is seldom matched in SBC life. He is a former president of the SBC and is a denominational statesman. In addition, he has broken from some of the more traditional modes of many in his generation, while still embracing the truths for which they fight. He addresses some of the main ideas that spurred us toward beginning this blog. This is why it is a great blessing that he allowed me time to ask him some questions. Dr. Merritt is the pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga. He has some wonderful insights for older and younger Southern Baptists. He also is a long time family friend and there are few people in this world I look forward to seeing more than Dr. Merritt. It is my hope that you will listen to these insights as we all seek to understand what the church and the convention should look like moving into the 21st century. (I apologize that my voice is so much louder than his is, just be aware of that.)
Some Questions and Quotes from Dr. Merritt’s Interview:
“I don’t read a lot blogs but this will be one that I will keep up with religiously because I think you guys bring a real wonderful insight into what is going on both from a religious side and cultural side”
“Mark Driscoll, I listen to Andy Stanley… so many fresh voices out there… I love Tim Keller”
“Our stance on the authority and inspiration of scripture coupled with at least a verbal commitment to the great commission… a true Baptist church is probably as close to the New Testament church as any I know of… any church that truly desires to become a New Testament church, I say this humbly I hope this will not come across the wrong way will probably look like a Baptist church”
“if we are going to take great commission seriously… common sense will tell you alone we have to focus on reaching the next generation… and not just say or pay lip service to it but to do it… (Also we ought) not to be so tradition laden… thirdly, a return to expository preaching”
“We become known sometimes more for what we are against than what we’re for… (but having said that) we are the vanguard of the most conservative evangelical bible-believing group of believers on this planet, so you know you are going to get good housekeeping seal of approval theologically… we are the denomination that sends more missionaries around the world than any other two or three or four or five denominations in the world… I think the future for us if we make some changes as I said early is brighter than it has ever been, and I will tell you the flip side of that is not only do I believe we can be good for young people… we need young people, we need your fresh thinking, we need your new blood, we need your creativity”
“Preach the word… Major on the majors and minor on the minors… there is a lot of debate going on that is meaningless”
Some of the issues that convinced us to start this blog this interview addresses. Though we think there needs to be some sense of renewal in SBC life and we think Merritt has provided insight into some of those issues, we also believe there is much to celebrate and fight for in SBC life. Merritt has embodied in this interview some of our thoughts toward what we ought to celebrate and what we ought to address in our convention. In the short time we had to talk he is only addressing principles and the surface of what this will look like, but he lays down some helpful insight that will help continue this conversation as we seek to be the most effective gospel-faithful men and hopefully denomination we can be.
If you have questions, you would like ask or people you would like to hear interviewed in the SBC please email us at email@example.com
[This post is part two in a two-part series. Part one was posted on Wednesday, October 22nd at Baptist21. Please check it out before reading on as this post will probably not make much sense to those who haven’t read the first one!].
The great need of our time, as I suggested in part one of this series, is for praying pastors. If many pastors, as I suspect, are falling prey to prayerlessness (or very little praying in comparison with the great pastors and missionaries of previous eras), what will be the negative consequences for 21st century SBC churches? What will happen to us if we do not rediscover the importance of prayer? Let me suggest just three negative results of prayerlessness, although many more could be elaborated. Along the way, just as in the previous post, I will incorporate insights from E. M. Bounds’ masterpiece, Power Through Prayer. Bounds’ words will help us to avoid these three negative consequences if we would only heed them.
If 21st century SBC churches do not rediscover the importance of prayer:
I. We will have programs without power.
Listen to the words of E. M. Bounds on this subject, remembering that they were written a hundred years ago!
We are continually striving to create new methods, plans, and organizations to advance the church. We are ever working to provide and stimulate growth and efficiency for the gospel. The trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man. Or else he is lost in the workings of the plan or organization…The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. (8)
What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more or novel methods. She needs men whom the Holy Spirit can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer! (9)
Oftentimes at the staff meetings of our churches, comments will be made like, “If we could just get AWANAs up and running, then we would reach families with young children,” or, “If we just had some more contemporary music, then we could draw in the lost.” Of course, music and ministry programs must be discussed but let us never forget that such things are not our greatest need! The church does not ultimately need “more or novel methods” but “men mighty in prayer”! We can have all the programs in the world, but if we are not a people of prayer we are trusting in man-made devices. Our growth, if any, will be hollow, and our successes, if any, will be short-lived. The church needs ministers who believe more in the Holy Spirit than in the latest children’s program, the latest youth camp, or the next great speaker for the churchwide revival. Programs without prayer are powerless to effect eternal change in the lives of our people. SBC churches in the 21st century will not bring revival in America or reach the nations for Christ with powerless programming. Only a work of God can accomplish such feats, and we know from Scripture that God moves in response to the prayers of His people!
II. We will have sermons without the Spirit.
Bounds writes that for many preachers, prayer can become a “performance” only done in public.
The pulpit of the day is weak in praying. The pride of learning is in opposition to the dependent humility of prayer. In the pulpit, prayer is all too often only official—a performance for the routine of service (13).
What is needed for Spirit-enabled preaching, Bounds suggests, is prayer conducted in the prayer-closet before the preacher ever stands to preach. Without preaching and sermon-making bathed in prayer, the sermon is actually deadening to the spiritual vitality of those who hear it.
Preaching which kills is prayerless preaching. Without prayer, the preacher creates death and not life. The preacher who is feeble in prayer is feeble in life-giving forces…There is and will be professional praying, but professional praying helps the preaching to do its deadly work. Professional praying chills and kills both preaching and praying (24).
Even sermon-making—incessant and taxing as an art, as a duty, as a work, or as a pleasure—will engross, harden, and estrange the heart from God by neglect of prayer. The scientist loses God in nature. The preacher may lose God in his sermon (29).
Bounds also warns that many things masquerade as effective preaching, but without prayer, even orthodox, earnest sermons will have a deadening effect on their hearers.
There may be tears, but tears cannot run God’s machinery. Tears may be nothing but superficial expression. There may be feelings and earnestness, but it is the emotion of the actor and the earnestness of the attorney. The preacher may be moved by the kindling of his own sparks, be eloquent over his own exegesis, and earnest in delivering the product of his own brain, but the message of his words may be dead and fruitless (18)
The preaching which kills may be, and often is, orthodox, dogmatically, inviolably orthodox…But orthodoxy, clear and hard as a crystal, suspicious and militant, may be nothing but the letter, well-shaped, well-named, and well-learned—the letter which kills. Nothing is so dead as a dead orthodoxy…Letter-preaching may be eloquent, embellished with poetry and rhetoric, sprinkled with prayer, spiced with sensation, illuminated by genius, and yet these may merely be the chaste, costly mountings—the rare and beautiful flowers—which coffin the corpse (22).
Bounds states that what is needed for powerful, life-giving preaching is prayer.
The character of our praying will determine the character of our preaching. Light praying will make light preaching. Prayer makes preaching strong, gives it an anointing, and makes it stick (31).
Talking to men for God is a great thing, but talking to God for men is still greater. He who has not learned well how to talk to God for men will never talk well—with real success—to men for God (31).
The preachers who gain mighty results for God are the men who have prevailed in their pleadings with God before venturing to plead with men. The preachers who are the mightiest in their closets with God are the mightiest in their pulpits with men (36).
In one of the quotations above, Bounds mentions how praying gives to preaching its “anointing.” Later in the volume, in a chapter entitled “Under the Dew of Heaven,” Bounds includes the following quotation from Charles Spurgeon on anointing.
One bright blessing which private prayer brings down upon the ministry is an indescribable and inimitable something—an anointing from the Holy One….If the anointing which we bear comes not from the Lord of hosts, we are deceivers, since only in prayer can we obtain it. Let us continue instant, constant, fervent in supplication. Let your fleece lie on the threshing floor of supplication till it is wet with the dew of heaven (73).
In contemporary SBC life, preachers are incessantly debating about preaching. We ask questions like: “Should we preach with or without notes?”, “Should we preach topically or expositionally?”, “Should we stand behind a pulpit or sit down on a stool?”, “Should we incorporate video?”, “Should we wear a suit or a Hawaiian shirt?”, and “Should we provide an outline with blanks?” Some of these questions are important; some are probably not that important. But more important than all of these questions is this question, “Are you preparing yourself to preach by spending time alone with God in prayer?” Let us remember Bounds’ warning that we cannot speak “to men for God” until we have spoken “to God for men.”
III. We will have pastors without purity.
The statistics on moral failure among SBC pastors is alarming. I have been told often during my days at seminary that most who leave seminary will not finish their working years in ministry. Many of those who leave ministry at some point do so because of impurity or unfaithfulness of some kind. Do we not realize that one of the primary contributing factors to the moral slide among ministers is our neglect of personal prayer? Bounds writes:
Our great lack is not in the head culture, but in heart culture. Not lack of knowledge, but lack of holiness is our sad and telling defect—not that we know too much but that we do not meditate on God and His Word, and watch and fast and pray enough…Can ambition that lusts after praise and position preach the Gospel of Him who made Himself of no reputation and took on the form of a servant (67-8)?
A holy life would not be so rare or so difficult a thing if our devotions were not so short and hurried. A Christian temper, in its sweet and passionless fragrance, would not be so alien and hopeless a heritage if our closet stay were lengthened and intensified. We live shabbily because we pray meagerly (99-100).
“OK,” you say, “we do not want ‘programs without power,’ ‘sermons without the Spirit,’ and ‘pastors without purity.’ What will it take to overcome our tendency towards prayerlessness in order to avoid these negative results?” Let me mention two quick encouragements as a partial answer to this question.
First, we will need to fight against laziness because prayer is hard spiritual work. You probably noticed in part one of this two-part series of posts that many of the great prayer warriors of the past used their morning hours (among other times) for prayer. Bounds writes against wasting the morning hours in sleep:
Morning listlessness indicates a listless heart. The heart which is lax in seeking God in the morning has lost its relish for God…A desire for God which cannot break the chains of sleep is a weak thing and will do little good for God. The desire for God that stays far behind the devil and the world at the beginning of the day will never catch up (52)
Also related to this theme of “laziness,” Bounds writes elsewhere on the cost that is required for earnest prayer.
Spiritual work is taxing work, and men are loath to do it. Praying—true praying—costs an outlay of serious attention and time, which flesh and blood do not relish. Few people are made of such strong fiber that they will make a costly outlay when inferior work will pass just as well in the market…To be little with God is to be little for God (98).
I wish I had more time to write on the above quotation. I think this is one of the primary things that keep us from prayer. It is hard work, and, as Bounds writes, “Inferior work will pass just as well in the market.” Many ministers fail to pray because they believe their people will never know about that area of their lives. “My people will notice,” they think, “whether all the points of my sermon are alliterated and whether the revival meetings go smoothly, but will they know if I fail to pray for them?” What the pastor must bear in mind is that the hard work of prayer is worth it! In fact, none of the remainder of his toil will amount to anything without this expenditure of effort in the prayer closet! What good will a well-crafted sermon or a “smooth” revival service do without the power of the Spirit? The people in the prayerless pastor’s church may never know of his prayerlessness, but they will be the worse spiritually because of his neglect.
Second, (and somewhat obviously), in order to overcome prayerlessness we must reprioritize prayer. We must realize that prayer, more than programs, talent, and personality, is what is most needed in the church today. Bounds’ comments on this subject will serve as a fitting conclusion to this discussion.
We do not need men who arouse sensational stirs by novel devices, nor those who attract by a pleasing entertainment. But, we need men who can stir things, work revolutions by the preaching of God’s Word, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, cause revolutions which change the whole current of events. Natural ability and educational advantages do not figure in this matter. But, capacity for faith, the ability to pray, the power of thorough consecration, and ability of self-littleness are all important factors (103).
Prayer is out of date—almost a lost art. The greatest benefactor this age could have is the man who will bring the preachers and the Church back to prayer (101-2).
–Scott S. Wilson
A free online version of E. M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer, is available here.
“Baptist21 exists to contend for ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). We embrace our past, believing this faith has been proclaimed in our Southern Baptist heritage. We work in the present, believing the Kingdom effectiveness of Southern Baptists will be in proportion to our fidelity to the Gospel. We cooperate for the future, believing the only hope for the people of the world is the Gospel of King Jesus.”
In keeping with this statement, we seek to honor one of the great leaders of our past and present. This week Baptist 21 was blessed to interview Dr. Paige Patterson, the President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Patterson is well known in Southern Baptist life for his leadership in the Conservative Resurgence and in charting a new direction for SEBTS. We are grateful for his leadership and recognize that if it were not for him we would most likely not be studying in Southern Baptist institutions. There is much that can be written about Dr. Patterson (it is our hope at some point to do a spotlight blog on him), but recently he came to my mind as I was speaking with a friend of mine about church planting. We were talking through some questions of ecclesiology and missiology in light of church planting. It hit me that if it were not for the conservative resurgence many of the questions that we were asking and that young seminarians are working through, would not even be in discussion. The discussions might then encompass the documentary hypothesis, women as elders, or the ordination of homosexuals as opposed to how to best reach the culture for Christ. My friend’s reply was one of gratitude as well and he intimated that we will be held accountable for how we handle this new and positive direction that we as a convention have inherited. I agree with what some others in the blogosphere are saying that we would never have been able to talk rightly about a Great Commission Resurgence without the Conservative Resurgence, but I think it even goes further than that. We would not be working through matters of ecclesiology, church planting, or soteriology on our campuses and our blogs if it had not been for the Conservative Resurgence. The return to the Bible in our academic institutions has led to a multitude of healthy conversations about theology, missions, ecclesiology, and church planting. We are indebted to men like Dr. Patterson and I am grateful that he, like Luther, was willing to say, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” We are delighted that this week’s highlight of the Baptist 21 podcast is an interview with Dr. Paige Patterson.
Some of the questions Dr. Patterson answered include:
Quotes from the Podcast:
Benefits of denominations- “There is no way any of us can do all that is involved in our Christian commitment alone… it is always going to happen whether we call it a denomination or something else”
Challenges for the SBC in the 21st- “The single largest challenge invariably has to do with success, when you succeed you are already in trouble… we’ve become complacent and we believe we have done this do to our cleverness or the fact we more right than this group or that… at the risk of sounding more Calvinistic than I am known to be, I would say it is all by the grace of God”
Focus on in the 21st- “I believe that our generation, I’m speaking broadly there, broadly enough to encompass a young man like you and an old codger like me, we have to got recover our walk with God… I’ve got to the point now where I wish every young minister would memorize the book of Proverbs”
“We’ve got to decide whether we believe hell is real… I think we all confess we think hell is real we don’t live like it”
Conservative Resurgence- “What convinced me we had to do it was being a little bit of church historian, I had read carefully Spurgeon’s ‘downgrade controversy’ literature and had observed in church history that nothing ever drifts to the right, everything drifts to the left”
“(I thought) you can just leave and go be an independent Baptist, that was an option, less costly, but that means abandon all the assets of our fathers and all hard work they did”
Dr. Paige Patterson is truly a giant on whose shoulders we stand. It is to our hope that you will listen to this interview and be challenged and encouraged. It is to our profit that we can hear from a man that has stood faithfully in that line of saints from the apostles until now. It is our hope that as we learn from his example and that we to can stand in this line of faithful men and in turn be stewards of the grace that God has bestowed upon us as we seek the best manner to pass on this faith to future generations.
Whoever you are in whatever station you might be as you sit down to read this post, let’s play a game of pretend together. Let’s pretend that you are a young man in your mid-twenties. You have just graduated from seminary and have been called to your first pastorate at a small rural church. The church to which you have been called has plateaued numerically, with their only growth in the last decade coming through biological means. The church has baptized no one in two years and the people are beginning to forget that the hollowed out portion in the front right wall of the sanctuary (the baptistery) actually served a purpose at one time. As you prepare to begin your first pastorate in this church, you desire fervently to turn this church around so that they will once again fulfill the Great Commission. What would be the most important thing you would do to shepherd this church as they begin to reach their community again for Christ? Would you change the worship style to make the service more attractive to the lost? Would you host a revival or start an evangelistic outreach program (e.g. FAITH) to move their hearts towards evangelism? Would you trust that your expository style of preaching, not seen in this church in years, would be enough to turn the tide and begin reaching people?
How many of us when asked that question would honestly say that the most important thing we would do is pray? How many of us would say that prayer, more than new programs, more than a new sermon series, more than a new outreach event, more than…than…than…is the thing that is most needed if a dying church in our care is to regain her footing? Perhaps some of us would say it but how many of us would actually prove that we believe it in the way we allocate our time in the new pastorate?
A study by Barna , conducted from 2001-2003, indicates that younger pastors in particular may not have answered “prayer” to the hypothetical question posed in the above scenario. Younger pastors, Barna’s research states, are more likely (than older pastors) to describe themselves as skilled administratively but are less likely (than older pastors) to describe the churches they shepherd as having prayer (among other things) as a priority. Another study by Ellison Research, conducted in 2005, revealed that younger pastors (under 45 years of age) are less likely to report being “satisfied with their prayer life” and spend less time in prayer per day than older pastors
While the research cited above certainly does not prove the following statement, my fear is that younger pastors, understanding the challenges facing the contemporary church, will depend on nearly everything but prayer as they lead the church in the 21st century. Perhaps we will lean on our “administrative” skill and our ability to “pull off” successful events. Perhaps we will lean on our preaching prowess and trust that our charisma, or better, our faithful exposition, will draw the masses. But how many will lean on prayer above all else, realizing that nothing else they do will matter if it is not undergirded with the Spirit’s power?
I recently sat down and leafed through a classic book by E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) called Power Through Prayer that I had read a few years previously. I was challenged again by Bounds’ words just as I was when I first read them. Bounds’ message, though penned a century ago, is as apt today as the day the book was written. In the remainder of this post and in a subsequent post, I want to consider several of Bounds’ statements and apply them to the current needs in SBC life.
Near the mid-point of Power Through Prayer, Bounds writes, “It may be considered a spiritual axiom that, in every truly successful ministry, prayer is an evident and controlling force. It is evident and controlling in the life of the preacher, evident and controlling in the deep spirituality of his work” (40). Most would not object to Bounds’ statement here, provided that “truly successful ministry” is understood according to God’s definition of success. Naturally, one can draw a crowd with just about anything, but numerical growth is not proof that God is being glorified or that the true Gospel message is being preached (e.g. Joel Osteen).
One of the most powerful sections of Bounds’ book is his discussion of numerous examples of godly men down through the ages who were men of prayer and were in turn used to do mighty things for the Kingdom. Bounds mentions John Wesley who spent two hours a day in prayer. Bounds, citing the words of a close friend of Wesley, writes, “He thought prayer to be more his business than anything else, and I have seen him come out of his closet with a serenity of face next to shining” (44). Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer” (45). How unlike us this is! If we are busy, do we not take this as an excuse not to pray or at least not to pray as long? What did Luther understand that we have forgotten amidst our busyness? Another example given by Bounds is the Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne who said, “I ought to spend the best hours in communion with God. It is my noblest and most fruitful employment, and it is not to be thrust into a corner. The morning hours, from six to eight, are the most uninterrupted and should be thus employed” (46). Another Scottish preacher, John Welch, who was known to spend a third of his day or more in prayer, was also given to frequent nighttime prayer. Bounds writes, “He kept a blanket near his bed so that he might wrap himself when he arose at night. His wife would complain when she found him lying on the ground weeping. He would reply, ‘O woman, I have the souls of three thousand to answer for, and I do not know how it is with many of them’” (46).
Perhaps the most powerful example is that of Dr. Adoniram Judson. Bounds’ comments on Judson are recorded here at some length:
Dr. Judson’s success in God’s work, as an American missionary in India, is attributable to the fact that he gave much time to prayer. He says on this point, ‘Arrange thy affairs, if possible, so that thou canst leisurely devote two or three hours every day, not merely to devotional exercises, but to the very act of secret prayer and communion with God. Endeavor seven times a day to withdraw from business and company, and lift up thy soul to God in private retirement. Begin the day by rising after midnight and devoting some time amid the silence and darkness of the night to this sacred work. Let the hour of opening dawn find thee at the same work. Let the hours of nine, twelve, three, six, and nine at night witness the same. Be resolute in His cause. Make all practical sacrifices to maintain it. Consider that thy time is short and that business and company must not be allowed to rob thee of thy God.’ (48)
Perhaps suspecting that many of his readers would describe Judson’s model, and the models of the other men Bounds surveyed, as unrealistic, Bounds follows the previous section with this charge to his readers:
Impossible! we say. Fanatical directions! Dr. Judson impressed an empire for Christ. He laid the foundations of God’s kingdom with imperishable granite in the heart of Burma. He was successful—one of the few men who mightily impressed the world for Christ. Many men of greater gifts and genius and learning than he have made no such impression. Their religious work resembles footprints in the sand. But, his work endures, as if it were engraved in stone. The secret of its profoundness and endurance is found in the fact that he gave time to prayer…No man can do a great and enduring work for God who is not a man of prayer. And, no man can be a man of prayer without giving much time to prayer (48-9).
Pastor, as you read the testimonies of the prayer lives of these great men, how does your prayer life stack up with theirs? If you are anything like me, the example of these men is humbling. As Bounds writes, “The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men” (8). May the example of those God has used mightily in the past move us to be better men, to be men of prayer. The title of the post asks, “What do SBC churches in the 21st century need most in order to fulfill the Great Commission?” The answer according to Bounds would be that churches in this century need the same thing churches in every century have needed—pastors who are men of prayer themselves and who lead their congregations to be people of prayer. Only such churches, wholly dependent on the Lord through prayer, will see God work in and through them to reach the nations for King Jesus!
–Scott S. Wilson
[This is part one of a two-part series. On Monday I will post part two, which will include more excerpts from E. M. Bounds’ work, Power Through Prayer. In part two, we will consider the areas of our church life that have been negatively impacted by our prayerlessness. Also, we will look briefly at the obstacles pastors will need to overcome if we are to become the men of prayer God has called us to be.]
Interpreting OT history is often a confusing task for the church. How do you apply Israelite history to the modern church? There have been two dominant attempts to resolve this tension: allegory and historical-grammatical method. Allegory arose mainly with people who deeply believed the OT was of value to the church and about Christ, so they struggled to read it as Christian scripture. Their difficulty over the literal sense of the text led to an allegorical, spiritual interpretation of the text that sought to raise the literal sense to a higher plane. Historical-grammatical method deeply values the literal sense of the text, employing a kind of scientific method to read the text and find out what it meant in its own time. Neither adequately accounts for the complete message of the Bible as a work about Christ. A Christocentric hermeneutic should be used instead of allegory or just historical-grammatical method.
Both the allegorical approach and the historical-grammatical method generate similar outcomes for the application of OT history. An allegorical approach basically de-historicizes the OT. On the other hand, the historical-grammatical approach can cancel out the OT as Christian scripture because its history meant something to Israel at the time, but it is difficult to see how it applies today. Those who subscribe to this kind of method usually only see application as learning from history so you do not repeat it (i.e. moralism).
Can the Old Testament be read in its literal sense and still be of value to a Christian audience? Allegory says, “No,” and historical-grammatical method does not know. The Bible answers this question with a “Yes,” and that yes is Jesus Christ. The entire OT is about Jesus (Luke 24:27), and all of history points to Jesus (Eph. 1:10). This means that OT history is about Christ and moving towards Christ. Christ is Abraham’s seed, so those in Christ are offspring of Abraham, heirs of the Israelite promises, and part of the vine of Israel (Gal. 3:29; Rm. 11). That means that Israelite historiographic literature is Christian historiographic literature. Jewish heritage is Christian heritage in Christ. Therefore, Christians cannot read Israelite history as if they are reading someone else’s mail. In order to read OT history as Christian scripture, the reader must read the narrative Christocentrically. All of the Old Testament is pointing to Christ, and if we are in Christ then it is pointing to us mediated through Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). The Old Testament does not first and foremost apply to the Christian; rather, it first applies to the Christ, and then it is mediated to the Christian. This means a typological, Christological reading of the Bible as a whole. The Bible is one book, and the Old Testament is the first part of that book. The little narratives should not be examined apart from the big narrative. Jesus and the apostles seemed to use this strategy. An analysis of the ark narrative of 1 Samuel 4-7 will demonstrate the deficiencies of allegory and historical-grammatical method, as well as the value of Christocentric reading.
THE BATTLE (4:1-18)
Israel goes to battle with the Philistines at Ebenezer and is defeated. In Deut. 28 there is a warning of cursing for disobedience. Israel’s routing at the hands of the Philistines is described in terms of a covenant curse. How had Israel broken the covenant? In the context of 1 Samuel, the gluttony and sexual immorality of Hophni and Phinehas and Eli’s failure to restrain them was one cause for the defeat (3:12-13). Another reason was idolatry (cf. 7:3, Psa. 78:58ff.).
The Israelites propose to bring the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of Yahweh, into the battle in order to be saved. The ark was there for the victory at Jericho (Joshua 6), so the people try to use it here as a good luck charm. The ark does not help. The Philistines win, take the ark of Yahweh and kill Hophni and Phinehas. Yahweh is being led away captive by a foreign army, and his priests lie slain on the battlefield. When Eli hears about the capture of the ark he falls over backwards and breaks his neck because he is so fat and old. God’s judgment has fallen on Eli for his sins.
Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, is pregnant. When she hears the report she goes into premature labor and gives birth. She dies as a result of the birth, but before she does she names the boy “Ichabod” because the “glory has departed from Israel.” The ark, the presence of God, has gone into exile (galah). This word for “departure” is a word used often for the exile of Israel and Judah (2 Kg. 17:6, Isa. 5:13, Jer. 1:3, Ezek. 12:3, etc.). Yahweh is in exile.
The Philistines place the ark in Dagon’s temple before Dagon, as if to say Yahweh is bowing in defeat to worship Dagon. The next day the Philistines enter the temple to see their god lying prostrate before the ark of Yahweh. Dagon is worshipping Yahweh. The Philistines have to pick their god up (cf. Psa. 115; Isa 46:1-4). When the Philistines enter the temple early the third morning they see Dagon has fallen to pieces. His head and hands are cut off, and he lies on the ground defeated before Yahweh.
Within the larger narrative of the Bible the ark narrative is clearly a foreshadowing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The warning of the covenant is exile for disobedience (Dt. 28:41-64). The people of Samuel’s time deserve captivity and exile. But what happens is surprising. The people are not taken into captivity, but Yahweh himself goes into captivity to “serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known — wood and stone.” Yahweh takes the curses of the covenant on Himself. This is a pattern recognizable within the larger narrative. He has been defeated and is forced to serve a foreign god as a captive in exile (i.e. Samson, Manasseh, Israel in Babylon, etc.). Yet, the gospel truth of the New Testament is seen here because Yahweh is a God who brings victory out of defeat and life out of death by substituting Himself for His people.
The gospel promise of Genesis 3 is being carried out in a foreign temple. God promised in Genesis 3:15 that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent while at the same time bruising his own heel. From that point forward God started crushing heads, and this points to God’s salvation through the seed of the Woman and His victory over the serpent. In 1 Samuel, the Philistines wake up on the third morning to the crushed head of Dagon, and in the context of Samuel this anticipates another Philistine head crushing. The seed of the woman, the Messiah, is prefigured in a little shepherd boy who puts his hand in a bag and slings a stone that crushes the forehead of the Philistine champion Goliath (1 Sam. 17:49-51). The humiliated shepherd boy defeats the exalted giant just as the humiliated Yahweh defeats the seemingly victorious Dagon.
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. God takes on himself the covenant curses and judgments. He substitutes himself for his people. Jesus is taken captive by a foreign army. Jesus is humiliated by the Gentiles. Yet, what seems to be a defeat for Jesus ends up being his victory. He dies on one day. He lies in the tomb on the next. And early in the morning on the third day he is raised from the dead and crushes the head of the serpent. Humiliation leads to victory, which leads to exaltation. If one reads the Bible holistically, centered on its fulfillment in Christ, then the ark narrative clearly foreshadows the gospel event. In isolation, this passage may look like an historical event that simply shows Yahweh’s superiority to the gods of the nations, but in the grand storyline of the Bible this event is much more than a demonstration of Yahweh’s superiority. This victory of Yahweh over a god of the nations points forward to THE victory of Christ over the gods of this age at his crucifixion and resurrection. And it is no coincidence that Yahweh gains his victory on the morning of the third day. After the defeat of Dagon, Yahweh attacks the Philistine cities with plagues, tumors. This is a recapitulation of the Exodus. Captivity in a foreign country brings plagues upon the enemies and their gods. The Philistines devise a plan to send the ark away.
After seven months, they decide to send the ark back. The priests warn them not to send it back “empty.” This echoes the language of Yahweh’s promise to Moses concerning the Exodus, “And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be, when you go, that you shall not go empty-handed (Ex 3:21).” They decide to send it back with five golden tumors and five golden rats because the Philistines have five major cities. They send the ark back, and it comes to Beth Shemesh.
Yahweh strikes the men of Beth Shemesh because they look “in the ark of Yahweh.” They get rid of it, and the ark ends up staying in Kirjath Jearim for almost a hundred years before David brings it up to Jerusalem, after defeating the Philistines (2 Sam. 6:2). The ark stays in Kirjath Jearim for twenty years until Samuel issues a challenge and the people actually turn back to Yahweh. They do battle with the Philistines and win because Yahweh fights for them.
A typological, Christological hermeneutic is necessary to read the scriptures. God indeed works in patterns in history. These types find their fulfillment in the anti-type, Jesus Christ. The Bible says that all of God’s promises find their “yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). One huge pattern of the scriptures is the exodus motif. Israel is in bondage as captives in Egypt. In their humiliation, God hears their cries. Israel is born as a nation through the plagues, the Passover and their release. They loot the Egyptians as they leave. In the wilderness, they sin against God, and many die under judgment. The following generation, those twenty years and younger, conquer the land of Promise and drive out their enemies. This exodus motif is found in the ark narrative. God’s presence is taken away captive to a foreign land. He is forced to serve another god. He defeats the god of that nation. He sends plagues on the land. He plunders them as he leaves. He punishes Beth-Shemesh for their sin (i.e. faithless wanderers in the wilderness). The ark rests comfortably in Kirjath-Jearim for twenty years, and then there is a new conquest of the Promised Land, in which Yahweh fights for His people. The nation is reborn. This cycle will occur again. Sometimes it happens on an individual scale (i.e. Manasseh’s exile and return in 2 Chronicles 33:1-20). This motif will occur again on a national scale in the fall of Samaria and the exile of Judah in Babylon. The dead bones of Israel are captive in a foreign land, but there is promise of resurrection, rebirth, and the re-establishment of the kingdom. This fulfillment is seen partially in the return from exile. Finally, the exodus motif reaches its climax in Jesus of Nazareth. Israel continues to be under the rule of a foreign power. They are in exile in their own land. He is arrested by that foreign power, tried, found guilty, and executed. Jesus takes on Himself the covenant curses (Ezek.20:34-37). Then, three days later the dead bones of Israel are raised from the dead. The serpent’s head is crushed. The power of death is now overturned. Humanity is released from bondage to death and sin. Jesus (Joshua) leads the exodus from bondage to the curse. He plunders the enemy, and uses those gifts to establish His kingdom (Eph. 4:8-12). The exodus motif will find its fulfillment when the deliverer, Jesus, returns. Even now Christians are exiles in a strange land that is ruled by principalities, powers, and the “Prince of the Power of the Air.” Plagues will fall on this present world order (cf. Rev). Jesus will return for His people and lead a new exodus and conquest into a new land of Promise, the new earth. Only a typological reading sees the significant pattern that finds its culmination in Christ Jesus.
There has always been a struggle in applying OT history to the church. Allegory cancels out history in favor of spiritual reading of the text. Historical-grammatical method analyzes what the text meant, but ends up with moralism as the only way to apply the text, which puts the scripture on same level as Aesop’s fables. None of these methods adequately accounts for Jesus’ claims that the OT was about him (John 5:39). If one accepts that God works in types in history, and those patterns are fulfilled ultimately in Christ, and then are mediated to those in Him, then one can seek to identify those patterns today and apply the living word of Israelite history to the modern church. Sadly, many (if not most) evangelical interpreters are held captive to Enlightenment reductionism that would elevate modern hermeneutical methods above the methods of Jesus and the Apostles.
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