[K:NWTS 10/1 (May 1995) 3-9]

Balaam, the Magi and Herod: A Study of Continuity in God's Revelation and Redemptive Historical Preaching

Stuart R. Jones

Kerux 10N1A1

I. Two Styles: Static and Dynamic

Redemptive-historical preaching, in opposition to the moralistic method, strives to understand the text of Scripture in its unique historical context, with a view toward what the text tells us about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Part of what defines the uniqueness of a text is determined by what makes it different from similar incidents or lessons in other parts of the Bible.

The moralistic sermon is not necessarily devoid of reference to Christ. Such a sermon will often conclude with an orthodox call to repent of moral failure in reliance upon Christ. The standard schematic of a Puritan sermon was to preach the law, induce a sense of helplessness, and conclude with the grace offered in Christ. In such a sermon, emphasis must fall on some sort of moral continuity between the text and the moral responsibility of the hearer. How would one then accomplish a Puritan "law work" using the case laws of Exodus 21, for example? Some search for moral continuity is required. Modern theonomy regards the Westminster Confession as providing justification for the search on the "general equity" provision of that creed.

Those who approach texts with redemptive-history as the guiding interest do not necessarily deny moral continuities, but are concerned to give place to the discontinuity which has been especially informed by eschatology. The old order must be regarded as preparatory for the fullness of redemption in Christ. In debate, the two different emphases can become characterized in the worst possible light as examples of pharisaic legalism or dispensational-antinomianism.

Here it will be suggested that there are different kinds of continuity between the Old Testament and the New which need to be appreciated as background for sermon formulation. If Redemptive-History is dynamic, which it by definition must be, how do we avoid radical temporal relativism? Moral continuities are more easily grasped by the common audience and so what has been called "moralistic preaching" has had an easy acceptance among rank and file Christians seeking practical help in their lives. A sermon on Samson and the need for self-control can be easily applied, even if the same sermon can be preached using Esau.

While redemptive-historical sermons on Old Testament texts may emphasize the promise-fulfillment schema, this schema may still presuppose enduring core moral values, e.g., sexual and moral self-control. In fact, under this schema, the sermon will note that greater resources of grace are available to the child of God under the new creation order, supplied with Christ's resurrection power. There is, therefore, less excuse for moral failure and greater reason for hope of change. Indeed, the resurrection becomes a basic presupposition for any call to "morality" which is, in New Testament terms, a call to Christ likeness. Such a call will have real grace to back it. In addition, the redemptive-historical approach does not immediately separate the individual and his religious experience from the community which is in Christ. This enables organic ties to be made to the Old Testament community rather than seeking isolated moral lessons in the lives of individuals.

Some will urge a hybrid of the two preaching styles. The danger of an uncritical adoption of this position is that the resulting sermon will in fact be a moralistic sermon with a little more emphasis added on grace and Christ's resurrection. The new schema will do little to highlight the fundamental organic unity of the Old and New Testaments. The dramatic development of God's plan over time is still too easily treated as extraneous material. Individual religious experience, important as it is, still largely leaves the corporate life of the believer in connection with the church, in total eclipse.

II. Issues in Matthew Chapter Two

The story of the Magi in Matthew 2 provides an interesting text for examining different themes and issues confronting the preacher seeking to prepare a faithful sermon. One typical moralistic sermon on this chapter will talk about the need for seeking Jesus. "The Magi took the effort to seek Jesus. The inhabitants of Jerusalem stayed home." This pious thought, though not wrong in itself, does not capture the fullness of the issues resident in the chapter. At least three major themes exist in this chapter which need examination for us to suggest a redemptive-historical way of viewing continuity in the Bible.

Perhaps Robert H. Gundry (Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art) has captured one of the more central issues of this chapter, particularly that dealing with the slaughter of the innocents, when he heads part of his exposition as a preview of Jewish calamities resulting from the rejection of Jesus. He also believes that the Balaam prophesy of Jacob's star resides in the background of the Magi experience, though the connection is not strongly demonstrated. In addition, most commentators recognize an obvious parallel in this chapter with Pharoah's campaign to destroy the male newborns in Exodus.

These three different lines of thought provide enough material for three different sermons allowing for organic comparisons and progression, viz., Jewish rejection of the Christ previewed, Jacob's Star fulfilled, and fulfillment of Pharoah's struggle against the promised seed.

The first sermon makes Herod's actions prophetic or preparatory. The last two potential sermons make Christ's coming a fulfillment of older biblical events. Of course, that latter two sermons might also focus on a preliminary character of the events in chapter two leading to the manifestation of Christ to all nations and the ultimate resurrection victory of Christ against the political powers that put him to shame.

The three suggested sermons have been structured with a dynamic promise-fulfillment schema, while a continuous presupposition exists that men should receive or seek Christ.

III. The Mystery of the Cross: A Key to God's Historical Works

Simply preaching an abstract schema of promise and fulfillment using Herod and the Magi does not reach the goal of the Scripture to place Christ at the center of our message. Certain details in Matthew chapter two take us to another level of continuity in God's historical actions revealing a mysterious aspect of his method of salvation. Certain parallels which seem literary or coincidental require deeper consideration.

One factor or irony in this chapter is that Magi, who normally would be connected to paganism and astrology in Babylon or Persia, are given divine insight while looking at the stars. The fact that the divine insight they receive is not full or sufficient in itself is instructive. We find them forced to travel to Jerusalem and to ask questions which can only be answered from the Old Testament Scriptures. Certain points can be made in a sermon about the necessity and sufficiency of Scripture and the accountability and reachability of the heathen m Africa (or Persia) from these verses. Such points are not the central issue of the chapter, however.

Examining the text more closely, we notice that the exposition of Micah, pointing to Bethlehem as Messiah's birthplace, is not related to the Magi by the expected source, viz., the scribes. It is rather Herod, informed by the Jewish leaders, who transmits this information in secret. Again we have some sermon points that are possible. God requires that we consult special revelation to find the Christ, but he is not limited in how that revelation can be delivered. His sovereign power means he can make his enemies prophetic voices for the truth. Though this sounds like a pious addendum which does not constitute the central theme of the chapter, it is an observation with a striking similarity to the Balaam situation in Numbers 22-24.

Some continuities between the testaments are obvious. The overweening political ambitions of Pharoah, Herod the Great, and the leaders who put Christ to death all mark the struggle of the kingdoms of this world against the Kingdom of God. The continuity extends to the moral depravity and desperation of those who oppose the Lord and his anointed. This moral-political continuity which is highlighted by the murder of innocents is a central thematic line of the Bible—witness the enmity of the seed lines outlined in Genesis chapter three.

A deeper look at the continuity of these incidents, widely separated in time, exposes certain ironies or antithetic parallels. The Hebrew midwives of Exodus disobey authority and lie about their actions in saving the male children of Israel. The chief priests and scribes tell Herod the truth, but thereby expose the Messiah to danger. Their fidelity to the earthly authority constitutes a proto-Judas stance. The Hebrew midwives are blessed with children while Bethlehem loses her children. Jerusalem's children will suffer later. This deeper parallelism places a special light on the problem of falsehood and the Hebrew midwives. Though their lying to Pharoah is not the central issue, it is clear that truthful betrayal is the thing which is more reprehensible and basic to the religious leaders. Juxtaposing Exodus with Matthew may presuppose "intrusion" ethics or war morality. It more certainly presupposes the evil of a truthful betrayal.

In returning to Jacob's star, we see another possible example of the deeper continuity of an antithetical parallel. The possibility of a parallel between Balaam and the Magi is already in place when we consider that these individuals all come from the east, have questionable religious credentials, and are called to travel to the habitation of God's people. That the Magi bring gifts with the intention of worshipping while Balaam comes as a response to payment for rendering a curse, points to an antithetic parallel.

Herod's Idumean background and the complicity of Midianites in opposing God's people (e.g., Gen. 37:28) may form another slight connection for the testaments. In any event, we have noted that one sermon point can be made from Herod's giving the prophetic word to the Magi. This same point holds for Balaam and his blessing of Israel. In addition to blessing Israel, Balaam tells of the star that will come out of Jacob. This prophecy of the coming Messiah receives its fulfillment in Bethlehem and its signifying miracle in the astronomical phenomenon observed by the Magi. At the same moment an inimical Herod points the Magi to Christ in Bethlehem—an actual parallel to the Messianic light prophesied by an inimical Balaam.

IV. The Continuity of the Gospel and God's Mysterious Use of the Wicked.

A synthetic interpretation of the historical events we have examined leads to the principle that God turns the deeds of the wicked to salvation. No where is this more importantly demonstrated than at the cross where a wicked man rightly prophesied that it was expedient that one man die rather than that the nation perish. The connections we have sketched reach beyond superficial similarities into the deepest wisdom of God's counsel. From the Old Testament and from Herod the Great, we learn that the goodness and greatness of God does not simply overpower evil; it harnesses wicked men to complete his purposes. Less clarity of how this method will work is present in the time of Balaam, but the principle is present. On one level, Balaam is a lesson about God's sovereignty. At a more vital level, it is sovereignty over wickedness employed to save God's people. His sovereignty not only makes prophecy come to pass; it makes prophets in unexpected places. Not all prophets will be saved, however.

Awareness of the mystery of God in using enemies to bring salvation provides the orthodox preacher with a special insight into interpreting the text. Though wonderful insights into the text of Scripture can be attained by doing linguistic, thematic, literary, and structural analysis, the secularized Bible scholar is always trying to enter the mind of the human author only. This approach involves a Matthew who transforms Old Testament materials to suit his purposes in accord with the dogmatic disposition of the church in his day. Though the subject of adapting materials is interesting and potentially helpful at times, undue reliance on this approach not only compromises the divine authorship of Scripture, it also forfeits the advantage of knowing that God controls history and acts according to certain principles that leave their mark in redemptive-history. Knowing what the cross and resurrection mean in our salvation and what they tell us about God is the most important starting point in interpreting the text of Scripture and forming a faithful sermon. Out of this knowledge, technical studies gain their value.

First Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Baltimore, Maryland