"Dare to be a Daniel." "Slay the Goliath in your life." "Conquer your own Canaanites."
As a Christian, have you heard a phrase like this before?
Christians with a basic knowledge of the Bible know it is full of stories of people who have done great things in the service of God. They've heard of these men and women of renown in sermons, in Sunday school, in vacation Bible schools. But perhaps you have wondered: is there nothing more to the Bible than these tales of bravery and heroism? Isn't there more to the Bible than mighty heroes carrying out mighty works for God? What about God saving sinners? Is there hope for the very un-heroic among us?
If you have ever asked questions like this you are not alone. Throughout the twentieth century many pastors and theologians began to ask the simple, yet profound question: if the Bible is nothing more than a continuous narrative of faithful human examples for us to emulate, where is the gospel in all of this? Surely Christianity is more than "Dare to be a Daniel."
There is something very important in these questions. They get at the heart of how Jesus Himself commanded that we read the whole Bible; namely, as being about Him. We see this in Luke 24:44-47 (among other places):
Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."
The whole Bible—from start to finish—is about Jesus (v. 44). In particular, it is about His suffering, death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins (vv. 46-47). That means that the whole Bible is about the gospel, the good news that God saves sinners in Christ Jesus. Unless we come to terms with what Jesus is saying in this passage, what we say about human examples of faithfulness in the Bible will turn into mere moralism. What it means to be a believer will be answered with nothing more than "Be brave like Daniel," "Be valiant like David," etc.
But what about those examples?
What should we do with all of those figures in the Bible who have done mighty deeds in the service of God? What, if anything, can we learn from them? Should we ever ask the questions "What would David do?" "What would Joshua do?" "What would Paul do?" Even: "What would Jesus do?"
A danger lurks for those who have (rightly) come to read the whole Bible as speaking of Jesus and the salvation He has accomplished. The danger is this: that we fail to do justice to another vitally important biblical mandate, that of following the examples of those who have gone before us in the faith.
The fact that we must read the Bible in a way that pays attention to its human examples is not mere speculation. The warrant for reading the Bible this way can be seen in the numerous ways the New Testament itself uses exemplary figures from the Old Testament.
Consider two foundational texts:
Hebrews 11: in this chapter the author recounts for us over twenty examples of believers in the Old Testament who had faith in God and thus "received their commendation" (11:2). Genuine faith is what made Abel's sacrifice, rather than Cain's, acceptable to God (11:4); faith led Noah to build, and eventually enter, the ark and thus be saved from God's judgment (11:7); faith taught Abraham to look away from the things of this world and to fix his eyes on "the city that has foundations" (11:10), that is, on the heavenly inheritance that God had prepared for him; faith caused Moses to leave the luxuries of Pharaoh's court, which are described as "the fleeting pleasures of sin" (11:25), because "he considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt" (11:26).
In all of the examples in Hebrews 11 the central point is the same: faith in God is the only mode of living appropriate for those who, like Abraham (and like all believers down through the ages), have not yet "received the things promised" by God (11:13), and who must therefore patiently wait in faith for a "better country, that is, a heavenly one" (11:16). Indeed, "without faith it is impossible to please God" (11:6).
1 Corinthians 10: the New Testament, however, does not simply give us positive examples from the Old Testament to emulate. It also presents us with negative examples that must be avoided. 1 Corinthians 10:1-22 provides us with a particularly striking instance of this. In this text, which recounts part of Israel's wilderness wandering as narrated in Exodus and Numbers, we read that "these things took place as examples for us" (1 Cor 10:6). The story that Paul is referring to is that of Israel's grumbling and rebellion against Moses, and ultimately against God. Paul lists four things in particular that believers should learn from the bad example of Israel in the wilderness: that we must not become "idolaters as some of them were" (10:7); that "we should not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did" (10:8); that "we must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did" (10:9); and finally, that we should "not grumble, as some of them did" (10:10). Each of these sins against God grew out of hearts "set on evil things" (10:6 NIV). In each instance God's judgment was death (10:5, 8, 9, 10).
Attempting to discern how we can follow the examples of earlier saints (and avoid the examples of those who were unbelieving), then, must be just as much a part of our biblical reading strategy as is our attempt to see the whole Bible as testifying to the accomplishment of our redemption by Jesus Christ alone.
How should we do this? Thankfully the New Testament shows us how, and it shows us that an exemplary approach to the Bible is gospel-centered too.
The main principle is this: the examples from the Old Testament that we are told to follow are examples of those who had faith in God and who acted on that faith.
This is the whole point of Hebrews 11: faith leads God's people to look to their heavenly reward and therefore act with bold confidence in God during their earthly sojourns. How should we respond to these examples? We, "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses," must "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely," and "run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith" (Heb 12:1-2). In other words, we should follow the example of the saints of old as they too looked forward to heaven in faith and hope. It should mightily strengthen and encourage us to learn of the countless ways in which God's people have been able to look to God's saving grace and thereby find strength to remain near to him by faith during their earthly pilgrimages (Heb 11:13). Following their examples is as far from moralism as is possible. God has been faithful to save his people during all generations, and he has left us a record of this in the Bible to help us on our way to our heavenly home.
Alternatively, with negative examples, like those in 1 Corinthians 10, we are warned of the dangers of hardening our hearts in unbelief, of allowing sin to deceive us into "setting our hearts on evil things" (10:6 NIV). Those among the Israelites who—despite the privilege of being apart of God's covenant community (1 Cor 10:1-4)—rebelled against God in unbelief were judged and punished by him. "These things happened to them as an example" and "were written down for our instruction" (1 Cor 10:11) so that "anyone who thinks that he stands" might "take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor 10:12). In other words, we have the reverse of Hebrews 11: an example of unbelief, given to warn believers of the dangers of sin. Pride comes before the fall, and God keeps us near to him by showing us what would happen if we abandoned our trust in him. While none of God's elect will ever be lost (John 10:28-29; Eph 1:3-14; etc.), this can never give us grounds for sinfully presuming that we are secure in this life apart from clinging to Christ by faith every day.
In sum, the New Testament has much to say about following the example of those in the Old Testament, whether positively or negatively. Looking at these kinds of texts gives us an appreciation for the variety of ways the Bible urges believers to pursue holiness. Sometimes holiness is urged because of the blessings and true joy found in walking faithfully before the Lord (Psalm 1; Matt 5:3-10); sometimes through warnings of God's future judgment on the unrepentant (1 Cor 6:9; Gal 5:21; Heb 10:26-31); sometimes, as in texts such as Hebrews 11 and 1 Corinthians 10, holiness is commended to God's people through examples that set forth the positive or negative responses of people in the Old Testament to God. The latter of these motivations sometimes gets a bad rap because it is feared that pointing to examples will lead to moralism or a quest for self-salvation. Far from it: God alone saves, and He saves by faith alone. The only faith that saves is true faith, that is, a living and active faith (James 2:17), and this is precisely the kind of faith displayed in Hebrews 11 (and that is absent among the Israelites in the texts Paul recounts in 1 Corinthians 10).
In two future posts I will be turning to the Old Testament to see how we can apply the principles described above to texts that are not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament.
Here are some additional Scripture references for your further study:
New Testament texts citing positive examples from the Old Testament include Romans 4 (Abraham and David); James 2:21-26 (Abraham and Rahab); 5:13-18 (Elijah); 1 Peter 3:5-6 (Sarah). New Testament texts citing negative examples from the Old Testament include Romans 9-11 (Israel); 2 Cor 11:3 (Eve); Hebrews 3:7-4:13 (Israel); 12:15-17 (Esau); 2 Peter 2:6 (Sodom and Gomorrah); 2:15 (Balam).
Dr. Ben C. Dunson is professor of New Testament at Reformation Bible College.