March 20, 2014 Broadcast

The Historical Narrative

A Message by R.C. Sproul

The Bible contains chapters, and even whole books, that are made up of historical narrative.  That is, they tell the stories of God’s people, but they do not necessarily explain what these stories mean.  This forces us to ask, “How are we to apply narrative passages to our lives?”  In this lesson, Dr. Sproul teaches us a rule of thumb for interpreting and applying historical narrative.

From the series: Knowing Scripture

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Why the Old Testament?

  2. blog-post

    The Infancy Narratives: Part Two — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology

  3. blog-post

    The Infancy Narratives: Part One — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology

Why the Old Testament?

Iain Campbell

B.B. Warfield famously described the Old Testament as a room “fully furnished but dimly lit.” By that he meant that all the fundamental elements of the gospel were revealed in the Old Testament but awaited the coming of Jesus Christ to bathe that revelation in glorious light. As Jesus walked alongside the Emmaus disciples after the resurrection, He began shining His light on the Scriptures. Who these two were, we do not know; but what they were is evident: “they stood still, looking sad” (Luke 24:17). His diagnosis of their condition was their misinterpretation of the Old Testament and its clear evidence that “the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (v. 26).

Jesus’ solution for them was to take them right back to the earliest sacred writings of Holy Scripture — the books of Moses — to highlight the messianic themes of the Pentateuch. The details are not supplied. Did He refer to Genesis 3:15 with its first prediction of a savior of mankind who would deal a deathblow while receiving injury himself? Did He refer to the promise to Noah that God would be the God of Shem’s line (Gen. 9:26)? Or to the promise to Abraham that his offspring would be blessed by God (17:7)? Or to the prediction of Jacob that a son of Judah would wield a royal scepter (49:10)? Or to Balaam’s forecasting of a star that would rise out of Jacob (Num. 24:17)?

We cannot be sure, but — to paraphrase C.H. Spurgeon — this was a remarkable moment in which the best teacher used the best textbook to teach the best lesson. The teacher was the Lord Himself, as He was the lesson. That is always the reality of our gospel learning — the Christ of God opens our eyes to the glory and wonder of His own work. And His textbook was the Old Testament Scriptures — Jesus began with Moses and the prophets and went on to show that He Himself is the meaning of the Old Testament, the key to unlock it, and the one to whom it leads. Not every part of the Old Testament is explicitly messianic, of course, but the Messiah stands behind every theological concept, every word picture, every historical event, every birth and death, every poem and psalm, every aphorism and metaphor, every jot and tittle of our Old Testament.

And as He stands before us in the Old Testament, we realize that it is not just some vague notion of Him that is presented to us, but the specifics of His suffering and His consequent glory. We understand that a host of Old Testament passages do not merely pave the way for the Savior but present to us the particulars of His work as mediator, showing us that there were things He had to suffer and that there was a consequent absolute necessity of His being exalted after His suffering and death. The light may not have been filling the room, but the essential elements were there all the time.

All of which means, for us, at least three things: First, we are not simply New Testament believers. We are whole Bible believers. We read, preach, and meditate on the whole of the inspired Word, because in every part it is our access to the eternal, incarnate, and glorified Word. We come to the Scriptures in every part, as the Greeks came to the feast in John 12, saying “we wish to see Jesus” (v. 21). And bathed in the light of the finished work of Christ, the Old Testament shows us things about Jesus that we might otherwise have missed, as the Psalms (for example, in Psalm 22) tell us what Jesus was thinking on the cross.

Second, understanding the Old Testament is often the key to our understanding the New. The disciples of Emmaus needed to hear exposition and application from a sermon based on a string of Old Testament texts in order that they might better understand the cross. And the New Testament labors the point that what happened in the Old Testament happened for our benefit (1 Cor. 10:11). Can we make sense of Hebrews or Revelation without knowing our Old Testament?

Third, biblical theology is the best cure for spiritual depression. Sad hearts can be turned into burning hearts by meditating on the messianic theme of the Old Testament. Nothing can dispel gloom or lift us out of despair quite like having the story of the Bible unfolded. For that reason, every Bible preacher has a duty to follow the example of the Savior at this point and to direct his hearers along the roads that lead to Jesus. When it comes to opening the understanding (Luke 24:45), Jesus stands alone; but in opening the Scriptures He commits His own prophetic spirit to the preachers of the gospel, and in unfolding the Word of Christ, the hearts of believers are warmed, stirred, and drawn to the Christ of the Word.

What began as a journey to Emmaus ended up as a tour of the furnishings of the Old Testament. And when these two disciples finally recognized Him in their home (Luke 24:31), it was only because first they had been shown the portrait of a suffering and glorified Messiah that had always been hanging amid the rich furniture of the room we call the Old Testament.

The Infancy Narratives: Part Two — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology

Keith Mathison

This post is a continuation from The Infancy Narratives: Part One

The birth of John the Baptist and Zechariah's response are narrated by Luke in 1:57–80. The response to John's birth is Zechariah's prophecy, known as the "Benedictus" (vv. 68–79). Zechariah proclaims:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

In the announcement of John's birth, the angel Gabriel had spoken of John as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. In the Magnificat, Mary had spoken of Jesus as the one in whom Israel's eschatological hopes rest. In the Benedictus, Zechariah speaks of both John and Jesus, tying their redemptive roles together.i Jesus will be the "horn of salvation" (cf. Ps. 18:2; 132:17; Ezek. 29:21). Jesus is the Messiah, and he will come to the people who sit in darkness and death and will be a light of salvation for them.

The birth of Jesus and the immediate responses to it are narrated in 2:1–40. Luke places the birth of Jesus in its specific historical context. He writes, "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (2:1–2).ii Augustus had restored peace to Rome after a century of civil wars. He is referred to in inscriptions from the era as "savior." His birthday is referred to as the beginning of the "gospel."iii Luke's infancy narratives indicate that Jesus is the true Savior. His advent is the true "good news."iv

Because of the census, Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered (2:3–5). While in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus (vv. 6–7). Luke then describes the appearance of an angel to some shepherds, who were watching over flocks in a field. The angel declares, "Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord" (vv. 10–11). The angel is proclaiming the fulfillment of Isaiah 9:6–7. Jesus is the promised child. He is the Savior. He is the Christ, or Messiah. And he is the Lord. After declaring all of these titles of the child, the angel tells the shepherds, "And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger" (v. 12). The paradox here is that Israel's long-awaited Messiah is to be found lying in a feeding trough.

According to the law of Moses, a woman was considered unclean for forty days following the birth of a child (Lev. 12:2–4). After the forty days, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord as was necessary with all firstborn sons (Luke 2:22–23; cf. Exod. 13:2, 12, 15; Num. 18:15–16). In Jerusalem, they encounter a righteous man named Simeon, to whom it had been revealed that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah (vv. 25–27). When Joseph and Mary present Jesus in the Temple, Simeon takes the child, blesses God, and says, "Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel" (vv. 29–32). Simeon here speaks of Jesus as not only the salvation of Israel, but of the Gentiles as well. He is the one who will bless the nations in fulfillment of the ancient promise to Abraham.

Having offered his blessing to God for the birth of the Messiah, Simeon blesses the child's parents (vv. 33–35). He tells Mary, "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed." Simeon's first statement recalls the Isaianic prophecy of the stone of offense upon which many will stumble (Isa. 8:14–15). Many will stumble over the claims of Jesus. He will also be a sign that will be opposed. Simeon tells Mary of the anguish she will suffer because of the rejection of her son, a rejection that will culminate in his death.


i John Nolland, Luke 1–9:20, WBC 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), 91.
ii A number of historical questions surround these verses. For a helpful discussion, see Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 903–909.
iii Hans-Josef Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 296–98; cf. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 46.
iv Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX) (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 394.


Adapted from From Age to Age by Keith Mathison. ISBN 978-0-87552-745-1
Used with permission of P&R Publishing Co. P O Box 817, Phillipsburg N.J. 08865 www.prpbooks.com

From Age to Age is available in the Ligonier store.

The Infancy Narratives: Part One — The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology

Keith Mathison

The infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus following the prologue are also unique to Luke's Gospel (1:5–2:52). This section of Luke sets the story of Jesus within the context of the Old Testament story. John Carroll explains,

The language, style, and content of the narratives and speeches of Luke 1–2 converge to connect Luke-Acts as a whole with the story of Israel. The impression generated by these chapters is that one has been immersed in the continuing experience of God's people. Yet, Luke 1–2 also announces that the closing chapter in the history of God's people has begun. The hope of Israel is on the verge of realization.i

In other words, Luke uses these introductory chapters to indicate that the fulfillment of all of Israel's eschatological hopes is found in Jesus. All of the ancient promises of redemption are to be realized in him.ii

The infancy narratives of John and Jesus both follow the pattern of promise, fulfillment, and response, but a comparison of the two reveals the superiority of Jesus to John. The narratives begin with the promise of the birth of John the Baptist in 1:5–25. Zechariah, a priest of God, and his wife Elizabeth are an elderly righteous couple, but they are childless (vv. 5–7). While in the Temple burning incense, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah (vv. 8–12, cf. v. 19). He promises Zechariah that he and his wife shall bear a son whose name will be John (v. 13). Gabriel's appearance itself is already a hint of the eschatological significance of these events because Gabriel's only previous appearances in Scripture have been in the Book of Daniel when he explained Daniel's eschatological visions (Dan. 8:16–17; 9:21–23). His appearance here in the infancy narratives of Luke hints that the births of John and Jesus are closely associated with the fulfillment of Daniel's eschatological visions.iii

Gabriel tells Zechariah that the birth of John will bring him joy and gladness and that many will rejoice at his birth (v. 14). The child will be great before the Lord and will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, like the Nazirites of the Old Testament, the child is not to drink wine or strong drink (v. 15; cf. Num. 6:2–3). Gabriel then says of John, "And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared" (vv. 16–17). Here Luke sets forth John's role in God's redemptive plan. John is to be a prophet calling God's people to repentance. The reference to Elijah places John's work in an eschatological framework. He is to prepare a remnant for the long-awaited coming of the Lord.iv

The promise of John's birth is followed by Luke's narrative of the promise of Jesus' birth in 1:26–38. Again Gabriel is sent to bear the news, but this time he is sent to the one who will be the child's mother, a virgin named Mary (vv. 26–28). Mary is troubled by the appearance of the angel, but he tells her not to be afraid for she has found favor with God (29–30).v The angel then makes his announcement:

And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (vv. 31–33).

Concerning John, the angel had said, "he will be great before the Lord" (v. 15). But of Jesus, he says, "he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High." Zechariah's child will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Mary's child will be the Lord.

The angel Gabriel tells Mary that her child will be given the throne of his father David and that he will reign over Jacob forever in a kingdom without end. This is not a direct quotation of any particular Old Testament verse. Instead it is a summary of several Old Testament prophetic expectations, in particular God's promise to David (2 Sam. 7:9–16; cf. Ps. 89:26–29, 36; Isa. 7:14; 9:6–7; Dan. 7:14).vi The first thing then that Luke tells us about Jesus is that in him the promises made to David will be fulfilled. All the hopes of Israel and the world rest with this child.

Upon hearing the angel's announcement, Mary asks, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" (v. 34). Gabriel responds, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God" (v. 35). The angel tells Mary that her relative Elizabeth, who was barren, has also conceived a son (v. 36). Mary then humbly submits to God's will (v. 38). Although the manner of Jesus' conception is miraculous, the nature of the conception itself is not the focus of the passage. The focus is upon the identity of this unique child. The nature of his conception and the content of the angel's announcement serve to identify this child as the Son of God and the Davidic Messiah.vii

Luke continues by recounting Mary's visit with Elizabeth (1:39–45). Upon arriving at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary greets her relative. When Elizabeth hears the voice of Mary, her child leaps in her womb (v. 41). Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims to Mary, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (v. 42). She refers to Mary as "the mother of my Lord" (v. 43) and praises her for believing that what the Lord spoke he would certainly fulfill (v. 45). Mary responds with a song that has come to be known as the "Magnificat" (vv. 46–55). She says:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever."

The Magnificat most closely resembles Hannah's song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1–10, but it alludes to numerous other Old Testament texts as well.viii In the song, Mary seems to speak as the representative of the people of Israel.ix Throughout the song, two images of God are seen. God is described as the divine warrior who delivers his people from their enemies. He is also described as the God who is great in mercy toward his people.x


i John T. Carroll, Response to the End of History: Eschatology and Situation in Luke-Acts(Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 49.
ii See Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 47. Mark L. Strauss points out the specific mention of the promises to David in 1:26–38, 68–79; and 2:1–20 [The Davidic Messiah in Luke-Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic,1995, 76)].
iii Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977), 270–71.
iv Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 99–100.
v The phrase "found favor" is common in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen. 6:8; 18:3; 39:21; 43:14; Judg. 6:17; 1 Sam. 1:18; 2 Sam. 15:25).vi Strauss, The Davidic Messiah, 88–89.
vii Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX) (New York: Doubleday, 1981), 340; cf. also Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 127.
viii The opening verses (vv. 46–47) closely resemble Psalm 35:9 and Habakkuk 3:18. The first half of verse 48 echoes 1 Samuel 1:11, while the second half echoes Genesis 30:13. Verse 49 resembles Deuteronomy 10:21. Verse 50 is very similar to Psalm 103:17. Verses 51–53 are similar to 1 Samuel 2:7–8. And verses 54–55 echo several Old Testament texts, including Isaiah 41:8–9; Psalm 98:3; and Micah 7:20.
ix Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 43.
x Green, The Gospel of Luke, 102.


Adapted from From Age to Age by Keith Mathison. ISBN 978-0-87552-745-1
Used with permission of P&R Publishing Co. P O Box 817, Phillipsburg N.J. 08865 www.prpbooks.com

From Age to Age is available in the Ligonier store.

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