(2 Tim. 3:16-17) All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Rarely do we go to the Scriptures looking for help in doing good works. Even more rarely do we go to the Old Testament, and Paul’s reference “Scriptures” has to be taken as primarily a reference to the first 39 books of the Bible.
I can’t recall ever hearing a sermon or attending a class on how the Scriptures equip us for good works. As a rule, we tend to approach the Scriptures to find salvation or great cosmic principles. And, frankly, we feel much more comfortable talking about those things.
So how does the Old Testament equip us for good works? Well, I’m not entirely sure, and that suggests that there’s something important about the Old Testament I’m missing, making this a truly important hermeneutical principle. So let’s explore this together.
* We adults don’t study the “Bible stories” much, thinking that they’re for bedtime reading for small children. But, of course, there’s a reason we teach our children about David and Goliath, Abraham, and Joseph. These stories carry with them powerful moral lessons. And lessons about doing good.
Consider Rahab, who chose to follow God in faith rather than continuing a life of prostitution in a pagan society.
Or Moses, who led the children of Israel away the world’s most powerful kingdom–and despite great age and a lack of self-confidence.
Or David, who sinned horribly with Bathsheba, suffered the consequences, and yet experienced forgiveness and remained in close relationship with God.
There are far too many such stories to summarize, and as Paul says, they are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
I think one of biggest mistakes we make in the realm of adult education is assuming our members all know these great stories. But many don’t. As we only teach these to children, those were converted as adults never get to hear them. And many of the most valuable stories aren’t told to children, because they’re too risqué!
We really need to have more courses built on the Old Testament stories! Maybe we should label them “Warning! This material may not be suitable for all audiences”! That’ll pack ‘em in!
* But perhaps most importantly, the Old Testament teaches us what God care about the most–if we’re willing to pay attention.
(Deut. 15:11) There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
(Job 22:7-11) You gave no water to the weary and you withheld food from the hungry, though you were a powerful man, owning land—an honored man, living on it. And you sent widows way empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless. That is why snares are all around you, why sudden peril terrifies you, why it is so dark you cannot see, and why a flood of water covers you.
(Prov. 17:5) He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker … .
(Prov. 19:17) He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.
(Prov. 21:13) If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.
(Isa 10:1-2) Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, 2 to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.
(Isa. 14:26-32) This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? … The poorest of the poor will find pasture, and the needy will lie down in safety. … That answer shall be given to the envoys of that nation? “The LORD has established Zion, and in her his afflicted people will find refuge.”
(Isa. 58:6-12) “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a wellwatered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
(Ezek. 22:29-31) The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. “I looked for a man among them who would build up the
wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.”
Entire books have been written including little more than the hundreds of passages in the Bible about caring for the poor, the oppressed, the needy, the alien, the stranger, the widowed, and the orphaned–the most vulnerable of society.
Many of these passages are quoted by Jesus and others in the New Testament. We often try to keep our money in our billfolds by “spiritualizing” these teachings, but in fact the New Testament, following the Old Testament and God’s revealed character, says much about the same things.
In Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by reading from Isaiah in a synagogue–
(Luke 4:17-21) The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
What was the good news for the poor?
(Luke 14:12-14) Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
(Matt. 5:7) Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
(Recall that the Good Samaritan was described as showing “mercy” on the robbed man. When Jesus heals in the gospels, it’s often in response to a request for “mercy.” “Mercy” is not just forgiveness but includes giving any needed but undeserved gift.)
And so, you see, Jesus follows this principle of hermeneutics. Indeed, it’s so central to understanding the Scriptures that it’s part of the gospel!
In other words, our salvation fails of its essential purpose if we don’t respond by serving others–especially the most vulnerable of our society. Helping to plan a class party or teach a Bible class is also a good work, but it’s not the good works the Scriptures teach unless the community you help build and knowledge you help instill lead to service to the needy. It’s really just that simple.
(Eph. 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Paul could not more plainly say that the reason Jesus died for us is to re-create us so that we’d do good works.
(Eph. 4:11-12a) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service … .
Therefore, the primary function Paul assigns the leaders in the church is to prepare the members for works of service! Sound doctrine, proper organization, Godly assemblies … are all important, but they are not by themselves fulfillment of the purpose for which we were saved! No–Paul says we were saved for good works.
Now, I hasten to add that seeking and saving the lost is also a central part of the gospel. It is, after all, providing for need even greater than physical hunger! But the hungry won’t respond in faith until they’ve seen love in action.
How do I know this? Because I read the Old Testament.