I love this question from a podcast listener named Lauren: “Pastor John, how can I make the most of my Bible reading in the Old Testament books that seem to have no obvious connection to Christ and don’t seem to have any application to my life? I’m struggling to read through Numbers right now! I often wonder what God’s purpose in giving so much detail about certain offerings, festivals, and laws. As I’m reading through books like this, how and what can I learn and grow from these books?”
Well, Lauren, I am reading Numbers right now also. And I have felt some of your frustrations, and my guess is that most of us have if we are honest, right? And the answer to the problem has so many layers and so many parts, and whole books could be written about the glories of Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy and the parts of the Bible that we find confusing. But instead of even going into any of those layers of the usefulness of Numbers, I want to sow a seed in Lauren’s mind that just might bear more fruit in this regard than the specifics of how one might profit from a particular Old Testament book. We can come back to that later at another time if you want to, but this is what I have in my mind.
The main thought I want to suggest is that the Bible, with all of its many wonderful and strange parts, is designed by God, inspired by God, put together by God, not just for 21st century Western, middle class culture, but for thousands of cultures around the world spread over thousands of years with all of those centuries and all of those cultures being dramatically different. What a challenge. What a challenge for God to put together a book that works like that.
If you were God, how would you create a book that would be useful in all the cultures of the world and all the centuries of the world? And make no mistake. Paul says, “All Scripture . . . is profitable for teaching . . . that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). And he didn’t just mean me in my particular little cultural place and time. He wasn’t just referring to us.
So, you can see what I am suggesting. It may be that the way the book of Numbers or some other part is written is exactly what would capture the imagination of some other culture and time besides our own. Here is the way John Owen wrote. I snatched this quote out of the book that I just wrote, because I am just loving thinking about how to read the Bible these days. Here is what Owen said:
In the writing and composing of the holy Scripture, the Spirit of God had respect unto the various states and conditions of the church. It was not given for the use of one age or season only, but for all generations, — for a guide in faith and obedience from the beginning of the world to the end of it. . . . The principle end of the Scripture . . . is to beget in the minds of men faith, fear, obedience, and reverence of God, — to make them holy and righteous. . . . Unto this end every truth is disposed of in the Scripture as it ought to be. . . . [In the depths and] shallows of this river of God, the lamb may wade, the elephant may swim. (The Works of John Owen, 4:193)
I can hardly picture John Owen talking about elephants, but there it is. So, the point is that we are not the only ones for whom God inspired the Bible. There are thousands of cultures, thousands of years besides our own, and there are in each culture lambs and in each culture elephants. In each of those cultures, some need the simplest things and some need the challenge of the most complex structures, and God aims to glorify himself both ways.
Let me give you just one example that so helped me when I first heard it years ago. It is told by Lynette Oaks in the book Hidden People: How a Remote New Guinea Culture Was Brought Back from the Brink of Extinction. So, she must be related. I don’t know what her relationship is, but Jess and Jennie Oaks went to a people group in Papua, New Guinea, to the Binumarian people in 1970 and began to translate the Bible.
[Little side note: This people only had 111 people — devastated after some kind of disease — from 3,000 people. They chose the smallest people group they could find to show that God cares for the least. I am just blown away.]
And they devoted years and years of their lives to putting the Bible into the Binumarian language. There was this point in the translation process where the helper got very excited. It happened to be when they were translating the genealogy of the first 17 verses of Matthew, the genealogy of Jesus that takes the genealogy of Jesus back to Abraham.
And he said: We must gather the leaders and read this to them tonight. And Jess didn’t know why that was. But when they gathered together and they began to read it, the place was stone silent. They gathered around. They looked down on the piece of paper, and he was at first frightened and then, when they were done reading it, the leader said, “Why didn’t you share this with us before? No one bothers to write down the ancestors of spirit beings. It is only real people who record their genealogies. Jesus must be a real person. Jesus must have been a real man on the earth. He is not just white man’s magic. Then what the mission has taught us is real.”
Shivers went up and down my back, like, Duh! I mean, why have I read that 100 times and never thought, “There is going to be a culture somewhere that is going to hear this genealogy that I find so tedious and so irrelevant to my life and say, ‘Whoa, he is real!’”?
So, the point is that there are going to be parts of the Bible that I as a 21st century, middle class, white guy find difficult to find relevance in or any kind of echo of my own present concerns. When that happens, I don’t think I should neglect any part of the Bible. I think I should be patient and pursue it all. But O, to respect God’s wisdom in what he has put in this book for the thousands of cultures and thousands of years! What a great book we have, what a wise book we have — all the lambs, all the elephants going swimming here, and it is going to be perfect for somebody somewhere.