So Jacob was afraid and said, “How fearfully marvelous is this place! This is none other than the House of God. This is the Gate of Heaven!” — Genesis 28:17
The title above was one of Walter Kaiser's favorite quips to his students when they defaulted to a New Testament passage for an answer. This tongue-in-cheek jibe captures the tendency of Christians to spend 90% of their time in the New Testament, the last third, or back, of the Bible. Doctrinally, Christians of the evangelical stripe proclaim their commitment to the full inspiration of the whole Bible but pragmatically, we tend to function as Marcionites. In other words, we often treat the Old Testament as less relevant than the New Testament at best and as mere background material at worst. There are numerous reasons for this neglect and most of them are relatively benign in terms of intent. However, this does not make the avoidance of the Old Testament any less damaging to our full and proper understanding of Scripture. Simply stated, anyone who wishes to truly understand the Scriptures and the revelation of Jesus and the disciples cannot do so without understanding the Old Testament. It only takes one example to illustrate this vital truth.
Near the end of John chapter one, Jesus encounters Nathanael. Philip points out Jesus to Nathanael and enthusiastically relates that Jesus is the one of whom Moses and the prophets wrote. Nathanael, apparently more jaded than some, sarcastically notes his belief that nothing (and, by implication, no one) good can come from the town of Nazareth. Clearly, there was some sort of town rivalry at play here. Perhaps the Cana patriots had been shut out of the championship game by the Nazareth Tigers. Whatever the reason, Nathanael is not convinced by Philip's description of Jesus so Philip challenges Nathanael to see for himself. When Jesus sees Nathanael, He makes the rather enigmatic statement that our sarcastic doubter was an Israelite in whom there was no guile. At face value, this statement indicates Jesus’ awareness that Nathanael is a straightforward person. With just a little more back and forth discussion, Nathanael is “all-in” and proclaims that Jesus is who He claims to be. Jesus announces that Nathanael's belief will only be strengthened when he sees “the heavens opened and angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51).
This is truly a strange claim by Jesus unless we know the Old Testament. Jesus’ reference about the angels is to the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:10-22. In Jacob's vision, he saw a stairway of sorts and angels ascending and descending on this stairway. In effect, Jacob witnesses the angels going between heaven and earth in order to carry out the missions that God assigned them. At the top of the stairway was God Himself. In the Old Testament, one needed a special place or places, as revealed by God, in order to have access to the deity. There was not the automatic assumption that access to God could be had just anywhere. This was not to say that the idea of God being omnipresent is missing from the Old Testament. Rather, there was the understanding that access to a holy God by an unholy human being was limited and that there were particular places where God revealed Himself to be accessible.
When Jacob awakens from his vision, he is astounded. Surprisingly, he marvels not at the promise God makes to him in the vision but that the place where he had slept could be the access point to God and heaven. Jacob had camped out in the equivalent of a Walmart parking lot and God reveals it to be an access point to Himself and heaven!
Fast forward to John 1:51. Jesus is citing this very vision and applying it to Himself. In other words, Jesus is making several claims by referencing the narrative theology of the Old Testament. First, Jesus is the access point between God and people. Second, Jesus was laying claim to being God incarnate for only God could reveal acceptable points of access between Himself and earth. Third, Jesus is changing the way people will communicate with God. Moses communicated with God as a man speaks to his friend but this was an exception rather than the norm (Exodus 33:11). With the advent of Jesus, Moses’ experience would become the norm for all who followed Jesus. In other words, by citing the vision at Bethel, Jesus is claiming to transform the very way in which people are able to communicate with God. Those who have access to Jesus, have access to God, anywhere, anytime. All of this would have been understood by Nathanael because he knew the whole of the Scriptures available at that time. Yet, how much do we miss and misunderstand because we do not understand the message and theology of Genesis 28:10-22? How much do we take for granted because we do not see that the access to God provided by Jesus is a rare and special change? A change from a situation in which communication with a holy God was difficult?
Jesus, and subsequently the disciples, taught in a manner that assumes knowledge of the entirety of Scripture. His pedagogy demands an understanding of the continuous, unified revelation of God. If this knowledge was lacking, the expectation was that the one seeking relationship with God would seek the answers from Scripture and teachers who expounded it. So, how much are you missing because you assume all the answers are in the back?