by Doug Ward

On March 9, 2014, Christian scholar Marvin R. Wilson of Gordon College was a guest speaker at Oxford Bible Fellowship in Oxford, Ohio. Dr. Wilson is best known as the author of Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Eerdmans, 1989), a book on Christianity's Hebraic heritage.


A key part of that heritage, Wilson pointed out at the start of his sermon, is the Bible itself. The Hebrew Scriptures, carefully preserved by the people of Israel through the centuries (Rom 3:2), constitute over three quarters of the Christian Bible. It is unfortunate, Wilson said, that we traditionally call these books the "Old Testament", as if they were outdated or in some way inferior to the New Testament. (He suggested that "Original Testament" would be a better name.) Indeed, for Jesus and the apostles the Hebrew Scriptures comprised the entire Bible.


Dr. Wilson asserted that for Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, there is no new way of salvation. Quoting Gen 15:6, Paul instructs Christians to "do it Abraham's way" (Gal 3:6; Rom 4:1-12). In his epistle to the Romans, Paul likens Gentile Christians to wild olive shoots grafted into the cultivated olive tree of Israel (Rom 11:17). The wild shoots share in the "rich root" (NRSV) of the tree, nourished by the scriptures of Israel. Paul's analogy thus pictures the Original Testament as foundational to Christianity.


A Holistic Approach to Life

In his sermon, Wilson highlighted six major life lessons from the Hebrew scriptures. He began with the lesson that life should be theocentric (God-centered). A God-directed focus is commanded in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God. the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." (ESV) Wilson observed that this passage is probably one of the first that Jesus committed to memory as a boy, since it is the start of the Shema, an affirmation of faith repeated by Jews twice a day. The Talmud (b. Sukkah 42a) states that Jewish boys were taught the beginning of the Shema as soon as they were able to talk.1


As an adult, Jesus (Mark 12:28-34) identified Deut 6:4-5 as the greatest commandment in the Torah, and linked these verses with Lev 19:18: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Wilson said that these commandments constitute the "Gospel of Moses," Christianity 101. They are the basis of a holistic approach in which there are no "nonsacred" parts of life.


A second important lesson is the understanding that life is a walk with God, a faith journey. "If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit," writes Paul in Gal 5:25. We read in the Hebrew Scriptures that Enoch (Gen 5:22) and Noah (Gen 6:9) walked with God. The prophet Micah (6:8) states that walking humbly with God is a key to living a life pleasing to him.


Right and wrong ways to walk are contrasted in the first Psalm. Another Psalm, number 119, praises the Torah for providing guidance and direction for our journey. "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." says Psalm 119:105. Paul affirms that "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Rom 7:12).


God promises that we will not be alone in our walk with him. "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you" (Isa 43:2). He provides strength for the journey. In Isa 40:31 we read that "they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint."


Meditation and Prayer

Since the Bible directs our walk with God, a daily focus on scripture is important. This was Dr. Wilson's third point. He observed that scripture is internalized through meditation, a practice he described as a linchpin that holds together the Original Testament. Indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures are traditionally divided into three parts-the Torah, Prophets, and Writings-and the Prophets and Writings both begin with directives to meditate upon the Torah. Joshua, the first of the "former prophets," was instructed, "This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success" (Joshua 1:8-9). The first Psalm, at the start of the Writings, describes as "blessed" a person who takes delight in the Torah and "meditates day and night" upon it (v. 2).


Wilson explains in Our Father Abraham2 that the Hebrew word for "meditate" is hagah, which means to "emit a sound," "murmur," "mutter," or "speak in an undertone." As is hinted in Joshua 1:8, where meditation on God's Word is connected with keeping it in one's mouth (see also Ps 49:3; 19:14), the meditation described in the Bible is a noisy activity that involves verbalization of the scriptures.


Wilson added that the scriptures are intended to be memorized, and repeating them aloud is a key part of memorization. On this point he quoted William Foxwell Albright, who stated that "writing was used in antiquity largely as an aid or guide to memory, not as a substitute for it."3


Meditation is naturally accompanied by prayer, and the key role of prayer was the fourth lesson brought out by Dr. Wilson. He pointed out that the term "Jew" comes from Judah, the leading tribe of Israel, and "Judah" means "praise." So in expressing gratitude and praise, Jews are being faithful to their name. A third of the Psalms have been classified as psalms of praise.


Wilson quoted several scriptures in support of the practice of filling the day with prayer and praise. "In all your ways acknowledge him," instructs Proverbs 3:6. "I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth," says David at the beginning of Psalm 34. Paul instructs Christians to "pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances" (I Thes 5:17-18). He explained that Jews implement the principle of blessing God at all times by having "one-liners"-short blessings-prepared for many different aspects of life. Such practices give a continual reminder that all of life is carried out in God's presence.4


Effort and Time

Dr. Wilson observed that it is easy for people involved in academic pursuits to undervalue manual labor, and he held up the dignity of every kind of labor as a fifth scriptural lesson. All of life is God's domain, he said, and there are no nonsacred occupations. "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men," instructs Paul in Col 3:23.


The value of work is implied by the Hebrew word avodah, which is used for work, service, and worship. Wilson noted that ancient Jewish teachers often engaged in trades. For example, Jesus was a carpenter, Paul worked in leather, Hillel was a woodchopper, and Shammai was a surveyor. An understanding of the connection between work and worship, he asserted, would have ruled out the Holocaust scenario of Nazis who went to church on Sunday and murdered Jewish prisoners on Monday.


Wilson concluded his sermon by highlighting the value of a proper philosophy of time. Our spiritual lives may go like the stock market, he said, with frequent peaks and valleys. The Psalter includes psalms of lament (e.g., Psalm 22) as well as psalms of praise. But while pagan cultures were tied to the cycles of nature, the biblical view of history does not have us spin in circles. The Bible gives a much more linear, progressive view, headed to a climax with resurrection and peace as the ultimate outcomes. The conclusion of the story is summarized in Zech 14:9: "And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one."5


The biblical view of history produces hope, even in times of oppression and exile. Wilson observed that the Hebrew scriptures, arranged in their traditional order, conclude with a note of hope. In 2 Chron 36:23, King Cyrus of Persia calls for Jews in exile to return to the land of Israel.


The New Testament continues the forward-looking emphasis of the Original Testament. We are not dualists, Wilson declared as he brought his sermon to a close. Evil will not overthrow good. Instead Jesus, the prince of peace (Isa 9:6-7), will one day return to rule. The kingdom of God, which has been inaugurated, will be consummated. The world will be redeemed. As it says in Exodus 15:18, "The Lord will reign forever and ever." In the meantime, "we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).


1The Shema consists of Deut 6:4-9, Deut 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. See Our Father Abraham, pp. 122-125.


2See pages 154-156.


3From the Stone Age to Christianity, Second Edition (Doubleday & Co., 1957), p. 64, quoted on p. 303 of Our Father Abraham.


4For more on this topic, see the article "Prayer Without Ceasing: A Lesson from Hebrew Spirituality" in Issue 14 of Grace & Knowledge.


5Wilson develops these themes further on pp. 160-162 of Our Father Abraham.

Issue 29


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On 25 Mar 2014, 18:31.