For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. All the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendour and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary….Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness; tremble before him all the earth..then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.
(Ps 96.4-6, 9,12&13)
This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live;..Seek the Lord and live…Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is. Hate evil, love good…Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light…I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…but let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream!
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
Jesus grew up in a devout Jewish family, with the traditions of temple worship, synagogue teaching, and the books of what we call the Old Testament were his only scripture. We forget this at our peril, and if we avoid studying these books because they make us uncomfortable, or if we claim that we don’t need them in order to understand the gospel, we are in danger of developing a very innaccurate understanding of God. Jesus was not ashamed of the God revealed in the Old Testament(He called him “Father”), he did not dismiss the narratives, or set aside the wisdom and the prophets. In fact, he claimed that these scriptures foretold his coming and that he was their fulfillment.
Our housegroup is currently studying the prophetic words given to Amos, a short book, full of grievous warnings of judgement to come on the nation of Israel. In fact, they would shortly be invaded, their rulers captured, and would never exist again as a distinct entity – the end had come. At the time when Amos spoke, they were enjoying political prominence and economic prosperity – but there was a huge gulf between rich and poor, and the religious systems were approving, rather than challenging this situation. The elite were secure and scornful of the threat which Amos described, deaf to repeated entreaties to see through their worldly security to their real danger in the eyes of a holy God. Their religious observances made them feel safe, but through the prophet, God speaks of his abhorrence and anger at their behaviour.
This message recurs through the narratives and prophetic books, as God calls out to his people to remember that their hope lies in him and not in rituals, good deeds, and an abundance of religious laws and observances. God longs for their hearts to be devoted to him, to be truly Lord of their lives – so that good deeds flow as a part of their worship and obedience, not in order to earn his favour.
The truth is that God’s holiness is a burden too great to be borne by fallen humanity. Our innate sinfulness makes it impossible for us to be devoted to him as he desires – and the Old Testament bears witness to this as the covenant people repeatedly fall into idol worship and rebellion, or legalistic and superficial adherence to God. But all through the stories and prophecies, it is clear that when people recognise their sinfulness, realise how completely it alienates them from God who alone gives them hope, they throw themselves upon his mercy, and by faith depend upon him for salvation. This is the faith which Abraham displayed in trusting that God would fulfill the promise – that faith which was credited to him as righteousness.
The message of the Old Testament is that humanity needs a saviour, one who can deal with their sin, and transform them to live as God’s people ought to live – creating in them new hearts and transforming their minds by his power so that we can begin to live truly as companions of a holy God. We need a saviour to bear the proper wrath of holiness against sin, to see that justice is done, so that God can welcome us into his presence and call us his own.
The prophets call us to a profound awareness of our own sin and helplessness; they magnify the holiness of God until it is a great weight which threatens to destroy us. And so they greatly glorify our Lord Jesus, who in his life, death and resurrection opened the only way by which sinful humanity can enter into the awesome presence of the Almighty. Let us rejoice in the one who came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and give him all our praise!