You probably don’t love the Bible as much as you wish you do. Here in the “Bible Belt”, glowing references to the “Good Book” saturate conversation and every form of media. Yet, for all the hoopla, few people read it much at all, and most people find it exhausting. There’s a gap between the praise directed to the covers of Bibles and the attention given to their pages.
If you’re being honest, do the things you privately say about the Bible sound a whole lot like the things you say about . . . flossing?
I wrote this article because I think I know why.
I didn’t always enjoy reading the Bible. Sure, I carried one to church every Sunday and sang all the Bible propaganda (“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me!”), but it was always this huge book, and when I read it I had no idea what I was looking for. Beneath the surface, the Bible—particularly the Old Testament—was disconnected and incomprehensible.
And I refuse to believe I was the only one who has ever felt that way.
Ask yourself: Why did Jesus wait thousands of years after Adam and Eve sinned to come to Earth? Wouldn’t it have been a whole lot easier if, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God just sent Jesus to the Earth to die on a cross right then? Sure would have saved a lot of time. Instead, you have to read four thousand years’ worth of weird and seemingly irrelevant material (that you probably won’t read) and then finally you can read about Jesus. You have to read about Abraham wandering in the wilderness and God’s promise of many sons. You have to read about their slavery in Egypt. You have to read genealogy after genealogy. You have to read about Moses talking to a burning bush. You have to read how God ordered the genocide of every man, woman, and child living in Jericho. You have to read prophecy after prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem. You have to read about a law that we are no longer commanded to follow, but which just goes on and on and on and on….
Did God just stumble onto this sin problem and at the last minute cook up a man named Jesus to forgive our sins? If not, then what in the world was God doing for 4,000 years?
If you can’t answer these elementary questions, it’s really no wonder your experience with the Bible is so vapid. You’re missing everything. You’re missing the thing that makes the Bible rich, cohesive, mysterious, and—above all—RELEVANT. If you’ve just accepted that the Old Testament is there, but never questioned why, you are missing out on the uncensored passion and genius of God—not to mention the meaning behind virtually everything in the New Testament. If you don’t find the Old Testament relevant to your life today, you’re not just missing out on the first half of the Bible; you are missing the whole Bible.
Lucky for you, one unsung verse in the Bible tells you how to read the Old Testament and bring life to the New Testament; one verse makes the Tolkienesque stories of the Old Testament more than stories; one verse makes the Law of Moses more than just a very, very odd law; one verse connects the Old and New Testament in ways that will make the seemingly huge Bible into something you will only wish was bigger.
Hebrews 10:1 won’t be found on many VBS posters. It won’t be quoted by anyone seeking office. You won’t even hear it in many sermons or read about it in many books. Yet, while it receives little attention in most church circles—let alone popular culture—I’ve concluded that it’s the most important verse in the whole Bible. Start your journey there and, even in the most notoriously boring parts of the Bible, you will find wonder through the end of your life. The verse reads:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.
Really, Chris? That’s what you made me read this whole thing for…for that? Yes, that’s the verse. And here’s how to read it.
When the writer refers to the “realities”, he’s talking about the spiritual world. Even before the scientific age, humans have been in the business of drawing conclusions from observing the physical world. But the Bible from page one insists that the spiritual world—not the physical world—is what matters. This would be fine if we could see or test on the spiritual world to draw conclusions about it, but we can’t. It’s invisible. And that leads to the genius of Hebrews 10:1 (and, by extension, the whole Old Testament). Hebrews 10:1 essentially says that the Old Testament is an analogy. It shows us in physical terms what the spiritual world is like. Perhaps you don’t find this to be huge.
But it’s huge.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts, just consider how long the Old Testament is. 39 books covering thousands (or, in my opinion, billions) of years. Now understand that Hebrews 10:1 is saying that ALL of it is an analogy to the spiritual world. I’m not going to cover each of the connections that the Old Testament has to the New Testament. Really, I’m not going to even come close. Between the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life in Heaven, there are thousands of connections. In this article I’ll talk about maybe three. Or four, depending on how excited I get.
So, let’s start with the Law of Moses. Like any law, the Law of Moses has context. The beginning of the Law starts with a preamble that God repeats over and over in the Bible:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Of all the Hebrews’ worries during their lives as slaves in Egypt, rain was not one of them. Thanks to the Nile and a sophisticated irrigation system installed during the Middle Kingdom dynasty, the Nile River Valley in Egypt basically remains fertile all year. When God rescued the Hebrews from the ironic comfort of slavery, he led them into the vulnerability of desert.
The Hebrews suddenly depended on rain.
Have you ever been a slave to something? Has the familiarity of that thing strangely felt more desirable than the vulnerability and uncertainty of leaving it? Have you ever left something you hated, but it pursued you? Have you even wanted to return to it? The Hebrews did.
Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians”? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!
So God promised that if they followed the Law, he would provide rain. Deuteronomy 11 makes it explicitly clear that the Law of Moses was a prosperity gospel (read it if you don’t believe me). The whole covenant was based on rain, food, and security (and there are still many here in the Bible Belt who talk about Christianity this way).
Now turn to John 7. Seriously, do it.
The Jews are celebrating the Feast of the Tabernacles, which occurs each year right after the long dry season. The eight-day feast, in which the Jews construct and live in small branch shelters, commemorates the way God took care of the Jews who escaped Egypt even through their uncertain life in the desert. Not surprisingly, during the eight days, the High Priest preached on and on about water. Each year, he would read the following passage from the prophet Jeremiah:
Lord, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.
To the Jew, this was just a recitation of the Law: Obey it and God will give you rain; disobey it and you’ll get dust.
But Jesus was about to activate Hebrews 10:1.
As the festival progressed from one day to the next (and as the crowd consumed more and more wine—yes, wine), the crowd got louder and louder. On the last and greatest day of the festival, the high priest would pour wine and water over an alter and the crowd would cheer loudly “HOSANA!” (which means “God, save us!”, like by giving us rain).
On the last day of the festival, it was definitely loud. And in John 7, it says Jesus— who had been hiding the whole week—stood and said in what had to be a very loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
Let’s do it again.
Jesus—in cinematic perfection—revealed an other-wordly source of satisfaction that is incomprehensible to our senses. All this time, the Jews had relied on God for water. Now God’s people would long for something much greater. Something invisible (By the way, as an aside, ever read John 8 and wonder what Jesus wrote in ground the day after the Festival? Read Jeremiah 17 again.). God’s people would long for a life that can’t be comprehended in this universe. Water on Earth lasts until you die of thirst. Living water lasts for eternity. God’s supply of water to the Jews then was a shadow of God’s later gift of eternal life to all who believe.
Once the Hebrews left Egypt, God promised them the land generally called Canaan, a land already inhabited by various well-armed tribes and cities. The Old Testament is full of God-ordered war and that rightfully bothers people. If you are simultaneously not familiar with Hebrews 10:1 and not bothered by the war of the Bible, you are strange. The war (really, let’s be real—genocide) does bother me, but I can at least see what God is communicating. Deuteronomy 11 says from the Law:
If you carefully observe all these commands I am giving you to follow—to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him and to hold fast to him—then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and stronger than you.
The pattern that shows up in the Old Testament more than any other is the weak and vulnerable defeating the strong and powerful. And this pattern is central to the whole Bible. Here are a few examples:
- Jacob, the youngest, steals the inheritance of Esau, the oldest;
- The Hebrews cross the Red Sea after being trapped by Egyptian soldiers;
- Joseph, the youngest, is served by his older brothers who earlier sold him into slavery;
- Samson defeats an entire Philistine army with a jawbone;
- Gideon reduces his army to 300 soldiers;
- Boy David defeats giant Goliath;
- King Nebuchadnezzar was made to live like a wild beast after he bragged about his kingdom.
In virtually every battle, the size or skill of the Hebrew army was completely irrelevant. In fact, they were usually far outmatched. Read the Old Testament much and God seems to always put them in situations where the only plausible explanation for victory was his own power. Is anyone really going to brag about the way they defeated Jericho? By marching around it and blowing trumpets? No way!
In the same way, does anything in your life look like a giant? Are your sins too big to fight? One thing that becomes clear if you read the Old Testament with Hebrews 10:1 eyes is that your sin is never too big and your battle with sin won’t be won with human effort. The enemies of God weren’t beaten with military force. No doubt, you play a part in overcoming sin, but you won’t defeat it by yourself. Sin is a spiritual thing and it’s bigger than you. In the same way that the Jews won battles in spite of their often over-matched military, God’s power today is revealed when people trust in him despite feeling “over-matched”. It comes when we are powerless, but leaves when we are prideful. Don’t see much of the power of God? Perhaps, your heart is like Nebuchadnezzar’s. Go read Daniel 4.
While I’m on this topic, it should be said that sometimes the Hebrews were commanded to engage in more than conventional war. Sometimes they were commanded to slaughter every person in a city. And when they didn’t—when they left any trace of the city—God would abandon them and terrible things would fall upon them.
At the risk of sounding like genocide is simply an academic thing, I’m going to do my best to try to explain what I think was happening. Think of Saddam Hussein in Kurdistan. Think of the Darfur conflict. Think of Bosnia. The horror and suffering of those events is unimaginable. Killing—let alone mass killing—is traumatic. So when God commanded that of his people, it demands your attention.
In Exodus 34, God commands the Jews not to enter into treaties with foreigners and not to marry them. Otherwise, they would convince the Jews to start worshiping their gods (and when the Jews later did make treaties and inter-marry with foreigners, they did just as God predicted).
Viewed through the lens of Hebrews 10:1, foreigners in the Bible are an obvious pattern of evil in the spiritual world. It’s easy for Christians to get rid of some sin, but to hold on to just a little bit. But the lesson is this: Even one area of sin that remains in your life—even if you feel good about having gotten rid of all others—will continue to grow and destroy you. Further, by God’s nature, he cannot live with sin. So harbor sin in your heart, and you will be all alone. This is an important enough truth that God allowed countless deaths in order to teach it.
War is a shadow of spiritual warfare. It’s ugly on Earth, but it’s more ugly in your soul.
So following the Law of Moses gave water and security. But what was the Law? What did people actually have to do to follow it? In a nutshell, the Law is about things that make God’s people unclean. The list is long and really painful to read from beginning to end. It’s what drives readers mad when they get to Exodus and Leviticus.
Notice a sore on you’re skin? You’re unclean. Eat a fish without scales? You’re unclean. Touch a lizard? You’re unclean. Go out for a jog and trip over a carcass? You’re unclean. Touch a fabric that rested under a clay pot that came into contact with someone who touched a lizard? You’re unclean. Ejaculate?
You guessed it.
Jews were obsessed with avoiding unclean things. After all, unclean people had it rough. For every unclean thing, there was prescribed an elaborate and intrusive remedy to become clean again. Contract a skin disease and you would have to live outside the camp and in the wilderness until it healed, though no fewer than seven days. A priest had to inspect you before you could come back into town.
Further, an unclean person couldn’t enter the Temple—the center of all Jewish life. All sacrifices were made at the temple, and God lived in its innermost part. It was a big deal when Solomon built the temple. It was a big deal when Ezra rebuilt the temple. It was a big deal when Herod made the temple even bigger.
So it was a really big deal when Jesus told some Pharisees “Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days!”
More than a millennium after Moses wrote the Law, Paul wrote “We are the temple of the living God.” Uncleanliness under the Law, which separated you from God in the temple, is a shadow of the reality that your sin separates you from God in his heavenly temple and in your body, which is a temple. But if you are clean, God will live inside of you. Jesus would say:
But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.
The Law is a shadow of the holiness of God.
And in the same way violating the law always led to the death of something—usually the sacrifice of an animal—the invisible power of sin is death. Hebrews 10:4 makes clear that the blood of bulls and goats can’t stop the spiritual power of destruction that comes from sin. You sin and your soul is dead. So when you read all the grizzly details of each kind of sacrifice in the opening chapters of Leviticus, you are reading about Jesus, who died when you should have. Hebrews 9 describes it this way:
It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.
Sacrifices were a shadow of Jesus.
As you’re probably beginning to see, God didn’t just create the Law and later stumble upon Jesus as the solution to the problem of human sin. He has been illustrating it from the beginning of time. I can’t see sin leading to death. I can’t see sin separating people from God. I can’t see the power of God. I can’t see the power of sin. I have no idea what eternal life in Heaven is. These things, which are the most important things, are invisible.
But they are put on full display in the Old Testament, and for that reason, the Old Testament is relevant and exciting—if you know why you’re reading it. Hebrews 10:1 will always struggle to be popular. In doesn’t give an easily consumable, quick answer to anything. Instead, Hebrews 10:1 is the beginning of a lifetime of thousands of answers. And for that reason, I believe it is the most important verse in the Bible.