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Archive for the ‘1 & 2 Samuel’ Category

I grew up loving stories. I loved listening to my uncle tell funny ones of the sneaky hare and the scary ones of giants and ogres. I loved reading any story I could find in our school textbooks and would pause everything for a storybook. There’s just something in a good story that not only excites the mind but grabs the heart. Stories can teach your most complex ideas and moral lessons in a very simple and yet compelling way.

When I came to the Bible even before I could say I was a believer those Old Testament narratives always got my attention. In Sunday school they informed our training curriculum. I wonder who in this country has not been taught about Joseph, Samson, Father Abraham, Moses, David, Samuel… And I think here in the African church the Old Testament remains an important text for many pulpits today. Our preaching is in many ways storytelling and there’s a lot of merit in that when it’s done well and faithfully.

But the problem with the stories in the Bible is they don’t end up where other stories end. In our African storytelling, a good story has done its job when the moral lesson is arrived at. You can actually change a few details to make the story do the work for you. You can change character names and give it a more modern feel. In the end, people don’t stand and say that would never happen. They ask, what I’m getting out of it. There would also be more than one lesson from a good story and it’ll work for any group of people.

The Gospel interprets Bible stories

But Bible stories are to be understood a bit differently because they are not just mere stories to draw out moral lessons from. As Christians, we believe them to be historical and they are not just crafted for moral lessons. God is the one telling his redemption story to us through them and he has a specific lesson for us as reflected within the grand narrative of the Bible. But more importantly, we need to remember that we are living in a different time today to when the story happened and was first told. We are in the era of the new covenant of grace not the old covenant of the law.

Here I find the book of Hebrews is really helpful in understanding the transition between the Old to the New Covenant. This is probably the one book every preacher must read and understand though I know I say the same for a lot more others in the New Testament. This is where the preacher gets his theology right as we see right from Hebrews 1:

1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. Hebrews 1 NIV

This is a great place to comment on how God speaks to us today. But another implication is that teaching the Old Testament to people in the New Covenant calls for us to ask, how does this passage point us to Jesus and his Gospel? That’s a good rule for teaching any passage in the Bible but even more important in the Old Testament. A better way to put it is, what is Jesus our New Covenant teacher, saying to us today in this passage about himself and what he came to do? This doesn’t mean we ignore what the Old Testament passage had in mind for the original audience but we cannot stop there as New Covenant believers. We must always come to that point when we ask, how does this point us to Jesus and the Gospel message?

Samuel points us to Jesus

For instance, if we read the story of the calling of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3, we meet God speaking to a young boy while ignoring the old Eli who’s obviously failing in his job as a priest and parent. If we stop here we’ll get the lesson that God is about to replace the wicked priesthood of Eli and his sons. We’ll see Eli’s indifference to God and his voice. But if we stopped there in our preaching then we are likely to end up only with good moral lessons. Depending on our theology we can say almost anything at this point and there’s no way of saying some are more right than others if it’s all about our take from the story.

But if we read this story as New Covenant disciples we’ll see a lot more here. We’ll actually be amazed what Jesus is teaching us about himself and his Gospel this early in the Bible story. We’ll see that Samuel in many ways is like Jesus. We’ll remember the popular Luke 2:52 from Sunday school days. His encounter with the teachers of the law early in life will come to mind. But more than that we’ll see what Hebrews tells us, that Jesus is a better leader and high priest. He’s the one who is better than Eli and his sons who are wicked. But also better than Samuel because he won’t die. In Jesus, we have the perfect high priest who is sinless and eternal. The one who guarantees our eternal salvation and is always present to hear our prayers. There’s a good lesson for today’s leaders within the church to take away here. But even that is to be seen in the light of the Gospel and Jesus example, not from a good moral lesson perspective.

Now, I know this example makes it sound like it should be so easy and obvious, and yet that is not the case. I also know there’s a danger of reading narratives backward when we only want to see Jesus in the pages not wrestle with the details of the passage. I know the route to Jesus and the Gospel can sometimes feel too simplistic. I’m aware certain people can make sermons all about getting things theologically right and not living it out. That this can make the church sound like a theological school, not a discipleship training ground. I also know we’ll only preach specific passages better when we have the grand narrative clear in our minds. But I think this is a good place to start. We already know how to get the moral lessons out. What I am suggesting is we go an extra mile to pay attention to the story while also asking the big picture questions. To be biblical and Gospel-minded in our preaching we need to point people to Jesus and the Gospel.

Only the Gospel bears lasting fruit

The challenge when we leave people with moral lessons even good Biblical ones is that we leave it all in their hands. It’s upon them to change and become better disciples. But if we do that we are not only missing the grand narrative of scripture we actually set people up for failure. New Covenant believers know they can’t do it by their own might and grit. It doesn’t matter how committed and theologically right we are, we just can’t do it without our Father’s help. Only the Gospel of Jesus can bear the fruits we desire in our audience.

We need Jesus to bear the fruit he demands in us. We need the Father to kill the sin he hates in us. We need the Spirit to remind us of the small respectable sins we overlook. New Covenant preaching converts moral lessons to Gospel lessons. It calls for prayerful action, not just a determined response. It demands careful attention to the word but reminds its audience that they can’t actually do what it requires unless the Lord works it out from inside out. Faithful preaching goes beyond moral lessons, it points people to Jesus and his Gospel, to the only one who can truly change them from within.

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David and Goliath

 

When we read 1 Samuel 17 we surely need to see a fulfilment of Genesis 3:15 – the enmity between the forces of the Serpent and the forces of the LORD, a seed of woman who strikes the head of the seed of Satan (notice the emphasis on Goliath’s head – verses 46, 49, 51, 54, 57) – and a pointer forward to the perfect fulfilment in our representative who goes out (in weakness) to fight for us at the Cross while we stand helpless and quivering on the sidelines.

But… surely, we might say, there is also an emphasis on David’s faith in this story of 1 Samuel 17? Surely his great speeches of confidence are supposed to inspire us to have such faith in God in all our trials?

The danger here is that the idea of ‘faith in God’ becomes very vague.

when we look at David, for example, we don’t say that he just had ‘faith in God’ in some vague sense. He didn’t exist in some pre-Trinitarian time. He was very conscious that he had the Spirit (Psalm 51:11) and spoke by the Spirit (2 Sam. 23:2), he was well aware of the difference between the Father and the Son (Psalm 110:1) and his Lord was specifically Jesus (Matt. 22:41-45). So if we were preaching on 1 Samuel 17 (David and Goliath) we would want to bring out the big point – that this is a pattern of Jesus’ victory over the Great Enemy, but we might also speak of David’s faith in the very-present Deliverer LORD (1 Sam. 17:37; 45-47) and make clear that this was faith in Jesus.

(From forthcoming Utumishi wa Neno book)

David is a type of the Greater Christ to come but he is also already trusting in that Christ who is present with him to save. And then even this faith of David becomes typological – a type of Jesus’ faith in his Father. As the Great David goes out to face the Devil in single combat he goes for the glory of the Father (John 17:4) confident that the Father delivers the plunder into his hand (John 6:37-39; 10:29).

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An old question: Why does 1 Samuel 8 seem to be very negative about the idea of a king while Deuteronomy 17 seems to be fine about it and Judges seems to think the big problem is the lack of a king?

A friend helped me see recently that it’s not about having a king or not it’s about what sort of king. It’s very similar to (and connected to) the issue I keep banging on about on this blog that it’s not so much “Do you believe in God?” but “What sort of God do you believe in?”

You get two types of king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20: a) A king who is on the same level as his brothers, whose chief work is to daily read the Law so that he would fear God, keep and do the Law, and not be proud; and b) A king who accumulates stuff (“multiply for himself” x3) and sends the people back to Egypt.

The people in 1 Sam. 8 want a king like the kings of the nations around. Samuel explains what that sort of king is going to be like: v11-18 – he will be a taker (“he will take” x6) who will make himself and his aggrandisement the big project (“his” x9), basically enslaving you until you cry out like you did in Egypt (v17-18). But the people don’t care – there’s a sense in which that’s exactly what they want. They want a Big Man.

The LORD God says in choosing the world’s Big Man model of leadership they are rejecting him as king (v7). They are doing what they’ve always done, “forsaking me and serving other gods” (v8). Notice the connection between choice of deity and choice of king. The LORD God is not a Big Man-type leader. He isn’t a taker, he’s the giver. He isn’t an oppressor, he’s the liberator. He doesn’t make people serve his power agenda, he stoops to serve. But the Israelites (like we all naturally do in our perversity) want cruel tyrannical Big-Boss-In-The-Sky gods.

And the LORD says, that rejection of the true servant God and turning to tyrannical idols is now being played out at the human level: “so they are also doing to you (Samuel)” (v8). Samuel is the good leader of Deut. 17 – governing Israel by the Word and prayer (e.g. 1 Sam. 7 & 12). He is the servant leader who can say to the people, “What have I taken? Whom have I oppressed?” (1 Sam. 12).

What we need is what we don’t naturally want – The Servant King who perfectly fulfils the patterns of the Law and the Prophets: our Elder Brother who gives himself, who serves us, who sets us free. And second, we need servant leaders like Him – who are Word-driven, loving, obedient, serving, humble.

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