A Commentary by John Stott
The apostle’s categories sound foreign to our ears, and his argument is closely knit. Yet he is expounding here some eternal truths.
a). A truth about God.
This could be expressed in the words of a well-known hymn: ‘God is working His purpose out as year succeeds to year.’ Some people seem to think of the Bible as a trackless jungle, full of contradictions, a tangled undergrowth of unrelated ideas. In fact, it is quite the opposite, for one of the chief glories of the Bible is its coherence. The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation tells the story of God’s sovereign purpose of grace, His master-plan of salvation through Christ.
Here the apostle Paul, with a breadth of vision which leaves us far behind, brings together Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. In eight short verses he spans about 2,000 years. He surveys practically the whole Old Testament landscape. He presents it like a mountain range, whose highest peaks are Abraham and Moses, and whose Everest is Jesus Christ. He shows how God’s promise to Abraham was confirmed by Moses and fulfilled in Christ. He teaches the unity of the Bible, especially the Old and New Testaments.
There is a great need in the church today for a biblical, Christian philosophy of history. Most of us are short-sighted and narrow-minded. We are so preoccupied with current affairs in the twentieth century, that neither the past nor the future has any great interest for us. We cannot see the wood for the trees. We need to step back and try to take in the whole counsel of God, His everlasting purpose to redeem a people for himself through Jesus Christ. Our philosophy of history must make room not only for the centuries after Christ but for the centuries before Him, not only for Abraham and Moses but for Adam, through whom sin and judgment entered the world, and for Christ, through whom salvation has come. If we include the beginning of history, we must include its consummation also, when Christ returns in power and great glory, to take His power and reign. The God revealed in the Bible is working to a plan. He ‘accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Eph. 1:11).
b). A truth about man.
After God gave the promise to Abraham, He gave the law to Moses. Why? Simply because He had to make things worse before He could make them better. The law exposed sin, provoked sin, condemned sin. The purpose of the law was, as it were, to lift the lid off man’srespectability and disclose what he is really like underneath – sinful, rebellious, guilty, under the judgement of God, and helpless to save himself.
And the law must still be allowed to do its God-given duty today. One of the great faults of the contemporary church is the tendency to soft-pedal sin and judgment. Like false prophets we ‘heal the wound of God’s people lightly’ (Je.6:14; 8:11). This is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it: ‘It is only when one submits to the law that one can speak of grace…I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly.’ We must never bypass the law and come straight to the gospel. To do so is to contradict the plan of God in biblical history.
Is this not why the gospel is unappreciated today? Some ignore it, others ridicule it. So in our modern evangelism we cast our pearls (the costliest pearl being the gospel) before swine. People cannot see the beauty of the pearl, because they have no conception of the filth of the pigsty. No man has ever appreciated the gospel until the law has first revealed him to himself. It is only against the inky blackness of the night sky that the stars begin to appear, and it is only against the dark background of sin and judgment that the gospel shines forth.
Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit our need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will we ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.