The documentary, “Long Lost Family,” tells the stories of people being reunited with family members. Adopted children embrace their biological parents. Siblings separated in childhood by strange and tumultuous events are brought together.
The stories I find most fascinating are when people discover they have a vast new family—numerous half-siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins—they never even knew existed. Their shocked faces tell the whole story. This newly revealed heritage enriches their lives in unanticipated ways.
About 25 years ago, while a young man at seminary, I began to realize the church has her own “long lost family.” The difference—and it’s a key difference—is that we do know they exist, but for the most part we keep our distance. Oh, we may occasionally drop in for a few hours, but we’re not going to move next door. They’re just too odd for our tastes. We speak the same language, yes, but it’s like we’re talking right past each other.
I’ve spent the better part of my last 25 years getting to know (and helping others get to know) the church’s “long lost family.” I guess we might call this “family” the Old Testament, but I don’t think that’s quite an adequate word. It’s more than just a collection of 39 books. It’s the whole world those books entail: God, land, promise, temple, time. It’s how we understand who we are, what salvation is, what the kingdom of God is.
Here’s just a thumbnail sketch of how all of us in the church can move from an occasional visit to our long-lost family, to living next door, indeed, perhaps even to sharing the same roof, same speech, same world.
Not They and Theirs but We and Ours
For starters, rather than watching Israel’s story as if it’s some Netflix drama about ancient Babylon, let’s enter this story and confess ourselves to be rooted in its narrative. Abraham is our father. Our people were enslaved in Egypt. We built the golden calf. We ate the manna. David and Solomon were our kings. Jerusalem was our city.
Though of Gentile origin, we have been adopted into the Israelite family, fully heirs of the writings of Moses and the prophets. When we read the Old Testament, we’re not reading someone else’s mail. This is our family’s history, for we have been (to use Paul’s image) “grafted into” the olive tree of Israel (Rom. 11:17). The Old Testament is not about “they and theirs” but “we and ours.”
The “Gentilification” of the Gospel
When having a conversation with a woman from Samaria, Jesus told her, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John. 4:22). It’s not from the Samaritans and their temple on Mt. Gerizim. And it’s certainly not from the Romans and their cults of Jupiter or Athena. Salvation is from the Jews. But what exactly does this mean?
It means, at the very least, that if we are to understand what “being saved” entails, we cannot understand it apart from our heritage in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings. This salvation is not some flat and shallow, vanilla-flavored “God’s now cool with you.” It. Is. So. Much. More. To be saved is to be:
*brought home from exile in a faraway country to be on holy ground again
*to worship in a purified temple where priests serve God in righteousness and holiness
*to enter “the age to come,” when God ushers in his kingdom to reign over the world
*to experience resurrection whereby God breathes life into his people
*to enter a new covenant, marked by forgiveness, upheld by divine fidelity
*to experience these gifts not just individually but corporately, as the people of God
In a “salvation from the Jews” world, salvation is rich, deep, multifaceted, and physical. And, in different ways, all these gifts are ours in the Messiah. He brings us home, makes us priests in his body the church, enrolls us as citizens in his kingdom, baptizes us into the resurrection life, cuts a covenant with us, and makes us members of his corporate body. To make “being saved” anything less than all these is to engage in one of the more common vices of the church: the “Gentilification” of the gospel. In other words, to make it appear as if “salvation is from the Gentiles.”
Playing Footsie with Gnosticism
If there’s any would-be lover who catches the church’s eye, he’s almost always flashing a Gnostic smile. Gnosticism, ancient and modern, has one consistent quality: it undermines, undervalues, and denigrates the goodness and God-giftedness of creation. For example, to say, “The body doesn’t matter. It’s just a shell, or a prison, for the soul,” is to sing a Gnostic song. Or, when eternal life is pictured as souls floating forever in some abode in the sky instead of living in resurrected bodies in the New Jerusalem on the new earth; or, when we act as if the New Testament is about the God of love and the Old Testament about the God of wrath; or when we are seeking emotionally charged inner spiritual experiences instead of receiving Christ in baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and biblical preaching—all this hyper-spiritualization is the church playing footsie with Gnosticism while holding the hand of the Jewish Messiah. You can’t have it both ways.
The Lord likes this creation; he made it, after all. And he who made this world has redeemed it and reconciled it to himself. He has thus always employed the stuff of this world—like water, grain, oil, incense, wine, flesh, blood—as the stuff by which we worship him, and he serves us. God never tells us to close our eyes, journey inward, and forget this body and this world to really get in touch with the divine. No! He bids us open our eyes, taste, smell, feel, hear what God is doing. If there’s anything Leviticus teaches us, it’s that God’s worship is not ethereal but concrete, material, sensory. It is not only salvation that is from the Jews; worship is, too.
Maybe We Are the Strange Ones
As I said, this is just a thumbnail sketch of how we can live under the Old Testament’s roof. The more we immerse ourselves in the heritage of this “long lost family,” the more it will enrich our lives, our ministry, our churches, our worship.
Here’s a challenge for you: If you’re a pastor, why not spend the next one or two or even three years preaching on the Old Testament, leading Bible classes on it, as well as exploring the culture and mindset and expectations of 1st century Jews? Read contemporary literature such as that collected in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, as well as Josephus, Philo, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Get a copy of The Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament to unearth a wealth of subsurface OT allusions from Matthew to Revelation. The more you poke around in the basement of the New Testament, the more you’ll see the foundations, the piping, the wiring—the entire substructure—is stamped with Hebrew characters.
If you’re a parent or teacher, don’t just teach Old Testament stories, but communicate them in such a way that the children see them as our stories, our heritage, as those who are followers of the Messiah of Israel. For individuals, dive into Genesis, Judges, the Psalms, or another OT book. Let us help walk you through it in our podcast, “40 Minutes in the Old Testament.” We’ve spent over 200 episodes doing this so far!
I know, our “lost long family” seems strange. But perhaps we’re the strange ones. We’ve grown weird by separation from our heritage. We need once more to discover where our story began and where it continues, for “salvation is from the Jews.”