Faith in the Face of Apostasy: The Gospel According to Elijah and Elisha
Great model of Christ-Centered OT Exposition
In today's church, the Old Testament is often overlooked. When attention is drawn to it, the focus tends to be on creation science, Proverbs for daily living, Psalms for devotional nourishment, and character studies for us to emulate. The Christian church largely focuses on the New Testament for its teaching and preaching. In a sense this is natural, because the New Testament is so definitive for church life. Yet the NT spends a lot of time focusing on the Old Testament, and the early church's Bible was primarily the OT. In fact, the more one understands and appreciates the message of the Old Testament, the better he or she will be prepared to really be impacted by the teaching of the New Testament.
Thankfully, the last twenty or thirty years have seen a revival of interest in the Old Testament and the recovery of preaching it as a Christian testament. Moralistic surveys of the characters of the Old Testament might have some use, but they are being set aside today in favor of a biblical theological approach that sees a unity in the Bible as a whole. The narrative of Scripture is being seen again as thoroughly Christocentric, and countless believers are being revitalized in their faith through finding the glory of God in the Old Testament afresh.
A big factor in the renaissance of the study of the OT has been the impact of good Christian books. P & R Publishing has produced a series of helpful books on OT themes called "The Gospel According to the Old Testament" series. The first book in that series is "Faith in the Face of Apostasy: The Gospel According to Elijah and Elisha" by Raymond B. Dillard.
Dillard's book and the series as a whole, parts ways from a simple anthropocentric approach to the OT. Such an approach centers on people and their needs, and looks to the OT for examples to follow, and life-lessons to learn. Dillard's approach, in contrast, focuses on what we can learn about God from the story, remembering that all OT stories have the unique quality of being divine revelation. The "first question" in this approach, "will not be `What's here for me?' but rather `What do I learn about God from this passage?'" Once we learn "about what God is like" from the passage, we are then prepared to ask "How we should I respond to this God?" Dillard then goes a bit further. "For Christian readers of the Old Testament", he says, "there is yet another step to take.... We need to ask, How can we see God in Christ reconciling the world to himself in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures? That is, in addition to anthropocentric and theocentric ways of reading the Bible, there is also a Christocentric approach." (pg. 124-125)
With these goals in mind, the book begins with a historical overview of the time period of Elisha and Elijah and the likely time when Kings was written (the Babylonian exile period). It is interesting to note that Elijah and Elisha are singled out and given almost 1/3 of the space of the entire book of 1-2 Kings. Dillard also traces how later Scripture uses the account of Elijah and Elisha, focusing particularly on the parallels Matthew draws between Elijah and John the Baptist, and Jesus and Elisha.
The book moves on to a treatment of all the texts in 1 and 2 Kings where Elijah and Elisha have an important role. Each chapter contains, two or three passages (quoted entirely) which are discussed individually followed by questions for further reflection. Having the Biblical text included allows for the book's easy use as a devotional guide. The study questions make it handy for a small group study, and the material covered is simple and direct enough to allow for several uses. The themes developed and traced often throughout Scripture, make this an accessible theological resource, and the brief nature of the thoughts shared make it a perfect tool for pastors, who could easily prepare a longer sermon using the material Dillard offers as their starting point.
Dillard's exegesis is sound and the application he draws is challenging, relevant and helpful. I particularly enjoyed how he brought to bear a detailed understanding of the historic worship of Baal (from the Ugaritic texts) and how this highlights many of the points made in the stories of Elijah and Elisha. From crossing the Jordan, to the chariot of fire, from the rain being stopped and with fire coming from heaven, all of this relates to the alleged domain and limits of the god Baal. Dillard also excels at translating the concerns of the agrarian age of Elijah and Elisha to our own contemporary problems. Along the way he also develops a thoroughly God-centered approach.
The anticipatory function of Elijah and Elisha (e.g., the confrontation with Baal on the spot of the future battle of Armageddon, the feeding of a hundred men from 20 loaves with food "left over", and etc.) is highlighted well in this book, even as parallels with Christ are carefully and judiciously drawn. Sometimes more explicit NT connections are left for the discussion questions, and I credit the author with stopping short of stretching too far in finding types and analogies of NT truths in the stories. I was intrigued too by the fascinating parallels drawn between Elijah and Moses when they went to Mount Horeb, and the discussion of the redemptive role of miracles - restoring creation to how it was intended to be.
The stories of Elijah and Elisha are breathtaking, and life-giving in themselves. Just as Elisha's bones brought a man to life, so too will this book bring life to your spiritual soul as you see those stories in a fresh and faith-filled way. The book may open your eyes to a Christian understanding of the Old Testament that you were unaware of. At the very least it will thrill you to the wonderful, covenant keeping God we serve, and His Son Jesus Christ. I highly recommend this book and others like it in "The Gospel According to the Old Testament" series.
Disclaimer: This book was provided by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing for review. The reviewer was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.
May 28, 2011