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I hear it quoted by many American Christians, especially during election seasons: 2 Chronicles 7:14.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

Attached to this verse are pleas for different groups to change their wicked ways. Sometimes it’s applied to American Christians, American politicians, American politicians who are Christians, or just America in general. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter. They’re all mistaken.

I know this may upset some well-meaning believers who have cited this verse time and again when things look morally bleak across the land they love. It’s all the more confusing when, say on social media, fellow Christians respond with a hearty “Amen,” retweet your post, or click the Like button in a spirit of solidarity. But it still doesn’t remove the fact the biblical text is being misapplied. To be direct, 2 Chron. 7:14 has nothing explicitly to do with the United States. Nothing.

How so? When in doubt, always look at a Scripture’s context. We first notice 2 Chronicles is an Old Testament book which deals with God’s original (or Old) covenant people, the Israelites. That should be a big clue as to why the USA doesn’t factor into this passage. It gets clearer as we examine the immediate context. 2 Chron. 7 follows King Solomon’s dedication of the Temple he built on behalf of Israel. Verse 12 says God spoke to Israel’s king in a dream saying Israel should obey the Lord’s covenant with them. If the Israelites do, they will enjoy the blessings of the covenant which includes a fruitfulness of the physical land itself.

Look at how Deuteronomy 28:1-6, 8 details Israel’s obedience to the old covenant and the physical blessings it entailed.

And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out…And he will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Clearly this is an Old Testament passage to an Old Covenant people with a call to be faithful to the Old Covenant promises in order to receive Old Covenant blessings (see a pattern here?). The King of Israel and his people are to keep covenant with Yahweh and in doing so, God will bless them, even the very land of Israel itself.  2 Chron. 7:14 is simply referring to these Old Covenant promises. Now the immediate context of v. 13 makes better sense. God says if Israel disobeys he will “shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people.” Blessing and cursing is literally tied to the land itself.

But how come American Christians don’t quote that part of the verse? In the ESV v. 13 is actually the first part of the sentence which v. 14 completes. This only demonstrates how 2 Chron. 7:14 is explictly a command and promise for Israel. They are the “my people” in context. It’s about Hebrews in ancient Israel, not modern-day Christians in America. Old Covenant people receiving Old Covenant promises, not New Covenant people receiving New Covenant promises. For the record, the Gospel of John demonstrates that for New Covenant believers, these promises and blessings are fulfilled in Jesus. Christ is the better Temple, People, sacrifice, high priest, etc. This is where, once again, Bible readers (and quoters) should understand at what stage each biblical book is in the progressive revelation of salvation history. The text at hand is Chronicles not Corinthians.

This also demonstrates that quoting 2 Chronicles 7:14 and applying it to the USA isn’t so much a historical blunder (although many would argue that as well) but a theological one. It’s mixing apples and oranges. It’s confounding two covenants that, while one builds on the other, are still different covenants – with different peoples of God that were/are dealt with in different ways by God. In the New Covenant, the church replaces ethnic Israel as God’s people. Peter refers to Christians essentially as the true Israel calling them “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Removing 2 Chron. 7:14 from your quotation arsenal won’t really change much in what you hope for the United States. You can still call fellow Americans to repent of their sins. You can continue hoping and praying for a national revival where fellow citizens come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to remove the fact that our national history clearly had Judeo-Christian moorings in its founding. You also can continue to love America and think it’s a special place – one blessed by God. All of those things can still be true without quoting 2 Chron. 7:14. The only difference is you won’t be using the Bible incorrectly.

…and don’t get me started on Phil. 4:13. 😉

During a health break this summer I spent time studying through Leviticus. I’ve joked for a long time that Leviticus is the quicksand for those who try to read the Bible in a year. They cruise through Genesis and Exodus only to get swallowed up by the myriad of ritual regulations from a culture, covenant, and mindset that feels incredibly alien to a 21st century New Covenant Christian in North America. Thus, it wasn’t too surprising when we shared with the church about preaching a series in Leviticus there were some good-natured snickers and head-shaking.

I admit, it’s a challenge. In order to preach Leviticus you not only must give explanation to the in’s and out’s of the Old Covenant sacrificial system but also place what’s happening within the redemptive history of God’s people. This means that in addition to the looking right at the text of Leviticus, one must also look back to Genesis and Exodus while also looking forward to how it all comes to fruition in Jesus in the New Testament. On top of all this, the preacher still has to bring to bear in his illustrations and applications the sermon’s one big idea. And, at least at CCCC, do it within 33-35 minutes.

This is where I think many preachers bail. The amount of time explaining feels too great for the sermon to bear. Consequently, many a pastor will stay away from texts, mostly non-narrative sections of the Old Testament, when it comes to preaching the Bible. They may fear the message will come across too academic, or too boring, or too complicated, or something less than what the people need.

But here’s what your congregants need: to see the glory, hope, and wonder of Jesus in all the pages of Scripture. Jesus himself said in John 5:39, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” For what it’s worth, “the Scriptures” Jesus was referring to was the Old Testament. Indeed, the New Testament leaders preached Jesus from Old Testament texts and what did God do? He spread the church throughout the ancient world. The chorus of the first part of Acts was that the “Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved,” (Ac. 2:47, 5:14, etc.) and this at the preaching of Christ in the Old Testament. You can bet Leviticus was a part of that preaching. Did you know that Leviticus has parallels in 19 of the 27 books of the New Testament? One scholar reminds us that New Testament writers were as familiar with Leviticus as the preachers of today are with Matthew or Romans. 1

However, with all of that said, I confess I myself yesterday a little timid about preaching the purification offerings Leviticus 4:1-12. It all sounds good until you actually have to step into the pulpit, look people in the face, and preach God’s Word. I prayed something to this effect before stepping up to preach, “Lord, I believe you will use your Word. I believe Leviticus is written for us to know Jesus more. May we know him more because of the work your Spirit will do in the sermon.” Even after our third and final service I wondered how it went. I too felt like I explained a lot and questioned if I had hit the mark. Then this morning I received several notes about the message and, at the risk of coming across as self-promoting, I thought I’d share one.

Yancey, you don’t know me but I’m an occasional attendee at Clear Creek. I attended service this morning and wanted to share with you the experience I had from your sermon. In my 38+ years of life and a regular churchgoer, nothing rattled my faith like what happened today. The message clicked. I always was raised to believe in God, and in Christ’s sacrifice. I grew up going to church every weekend, regular bible study, Catholic school, started up the Young Adult Ministry at my church. But I never fully understood what I came to understand today. Today you made it click, and I wish I could put to words what that did to me.

Despite my years of going to church, hearing sermons, studying the faith, reading books, listening to others’ podcasts, something was still missing. I just never quite put together “how” Christ died for our sins. I guess I just took it on face value and but deep down I still didn’t understand it. Hearing that message today I just about fell to pieces inside, part from the relief of finally understanding what this meant, part from the sorrow of what Christ endured, and part from the joy of really understanding why I love Christ because and for the first time it made sense to me what he did and how God worked through Him to be our salvation. I always would say “I love Christ” but frankly I really didn’t quite understand why, until today. The song following your sermon was surreal after what I just heard.

And as we left church I noticed I wasn’t the only person with welled up eyes. You struck deeply with a LOT of people today. One of the servers at the door was holding a box of Kleenex that by the time I made my way past it was completely empty. There was a near-silence as people filed their way out today. As my fiancé and I got into the car there was a sort of silence between us, both still trying to process the same overwhelming realization we just had (and she of all people is a very devout faith-goer and teacher at a Christian school, but this still was head spinning for her as well).

A few hours later I had to fly out for work and just before takeoff I sent her a text and mentioned “By the way, that sermon this morning really blew me away. Hard to describe. I hope they podcast that one. I kind of feel like I came to understand more about my faith in that 30 minute sermon than in the last 38+ years of my life.” She responded, “I ABSOLUTELY agree with you on that. I was thinking that same thing when we were leaving today.”  Your message today was beyond powerful and emotional. And I wanted to share with you the impact it had. I wish I could put to words what happened spiritually with me, and likely with a lot of other people in the congregation. I noticed on our way out that my mom was wiping tears from her eyes as well. She’s 65 and been an avid Christian her entire life, but something must have clicked in her soul as well. God spoke through you today in a way I’ve not seen before. Thank you for that.

This from Leviticus, my friends! Leviticus! What do our hearers need most? To see the glory, hope, and wonder of Jesus in the pages of Scripture. All the Scripture. Maybe, just maybe, there lies a whole wealth of truth in the Old Testament through which God wants to speak to his people about his Son in order to grow them in ways you never imagined. Parts of the Bible you’ve stayed away from for various and sundry reasons, but what if, God wants to use those very reasons to display Jesus in a way he’s never done before in your pulpit ministry? I know that was true for me this Sunday with Leviticus. May we follow the lead of the church’s first leaders and our Lord himself – let’s preach Christ from the Old Testament.

Notes:

  1. quoted by Henry Nelson Bullard, The Gospel in Leviticus, Bibliotheca Sacra, BSAC 064:253 (Jan 1907), 78-79.

Recently I had a stimulating conversation over lunch with a couple of pastors who were wrestling through some theological issues. One of the main threads of conversation was woven around how one deals with apparent contradictions or tensions in the Scripture. For example, how can we reconcile the doctrine of individual election with the idea that God desires all men to be saved? Well, we can talk about what the Bible means by “all men” or discuss the two wills of God, but those discussions still don’t remove us from the truth that many times learning about who God is and what God does leaves us at the foot of mystery. Personally, I completely okay with the tensions concerning what the Scriptures say about God and how he works. I don’t feel the need to smooth everything out. I don’t have to get all the answers. Frankly, the fact I can’t get them reminds me God is God and I’m not him. So if others regard me as inconsistent because the Bible seems to say contrasting things, I’m totally okay with it. I feel no need to explain how God makes those apparent contradictions work within his economy. Indeed, I couldn’t if I wanted to. Again, I’m totally okay with the mysteries of God in Scripture.

Afterward, one those pastors sent me a quote from the great 19th century preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, on Scripture’s tension intersecting his own theological beliefs (particularly how he dealt with the sovereignty of God in salvation versus texts, like 1 Tim. 2:3-4, which gives the appearance God wants all people to be saved). I thought it good to share with you:

My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture. I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God. I never thought it to be any very great crime to seem to be inconsistent with myself; for who am I that I should everlastingly be consistent? But I do think it a great crime to be so inconsistent with the word of God that I should want to lop away a bough or even a twig from so much as a single tree of the forest of Scripture. God forbid that I should cut or shape, even in the least degree, any divine expression. So runs the text, and so we must read it, “God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” 1

Spurgeon is so good here. I’m with him. I could care less about consistency with my views if the Scripture is clear to say differently. Scripture is the authority, not my theological constructs, as helpful as they may be. You might say, because I believe the Bible over any particular system, there will be times where I’m committed to be consistently inconsistent. And so should you.

Notes:

  1. From Spurgeon’s sermon, “Salvation by Knowing the Truth” (http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/1516.htm)