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  • Writer's pictureMark Bocanegra

Which book should a non-Christian read first?

Many say, read one book of the Gospel; most likely the book of John. Some have said Romans (which was very helpful for me when I was a non-Christian). Rarely, a book of the OT is mentioned... sometimes Genesis. But for sure, Exodus would not be on the radar... but it is now on mine. Emil Brunner, one of the most prominent theologians of the 21st century (and the man I'd like to do my PhD on if the Lord wills*), believed that,

The work accomplished in Israel through its own history must be patiently done by the missionary to prepare the way for a full acceptance of the revelation in Christ, a revelation that itself is received by faith as indeed it was by the first disciples and by all subsequent believers.

Essentially, he argued that non-Christians/new believers should be taught the OT before the NT. Drawing from the Reformation tradition, Brunner believed that God revealed himself in a way that was appropriate to the human condition, pedagogically. God revealed himself through three necessary steps: General Revelation, the Old Testament, and the New Testament. The previous step establishes and is presupposed by the next step. Therefore, he concluded, if God believed it was wise to take these steps, then it would be wise (pedagogically) to teach the OT before teaching the NT in evangelism as well. At first, I was skeptical.

During seminary, I always wanted to do a sermon series on Exodus for my own personal edification; however, I wasn't sure how to contextualize for the Japanese people or if it was relevant non-Christians. A Japanese pastor asked me to do the sermon series. While preparing for it, I was amazed at how helpful Exodus is for understanding the faith from both a Christian and non-Christian perspective for the Japanese context. (WSC also thoroughly prepared me to do that. Believe it or not, Kline's Kingdom Prologue, Prophetici idiom, Exodus motif, Clowney’s triangle, and Hebrew IV helped me with contextualization...) Now, I'm convinced of both the evangelistic and discipleship value of teaching the OT first to non-Christians and new Christians. However, no matter how much I prepare, the HS and your prayers are needed, so please pray for me and the hearers. Here's an excerpt of my first sermon on Exodus 1:1-14. It's nothing spectacular, but here's a little window to our ministry and how we minister in Japan. ...In the grand narrative of the Pentateuch, the Egyptian King, or Pharoah, is an enemy of the people of God, a force of Satan. Ultimately, this Enemy tries to prove that King YHWH cannot protect his people and that the people of God is not worthy of the Kingdom of Rest he wishes to give.

In 1:8, this new king is completely unaware of how Joseph and the people of God save the entire empire of Egypt—concluding that the King YHWH and his people are irrelevant. In v9, he is threatened by how King YHWH is growing, blessing, and strengthening his people—this is why he tries to ‘deal shrewdly with them’ (in v10). The King of Egypt is attempting to outsmart King of Israel, King YHWH himself.

The weapon of choice is hard work and slavery. Work that produced toil and pain that never ended. Work that made life itself bitter. Slavery that forced you to do backbreaking work that gave without any relief. However, the great irony is that the weapon of Pharoah was the weapon in which King YHWH brought more blessing. In v12, the more the Egyptians oppressed, the people of God grew and multiplied. The more the people of God were attacked, the more they were blessed. However, Pharoah does not relent. In verses 13 and 14, he increases his attacks—this is a showdown between King YHWH and Pharoah--but clearly this shows that King YHWH was a stronger, mightier, and powerful King. Israel continued to grow and multiply—YHWH won, is winning, and will win.

But this does not mean that the people “enjoyed” oppression and were stirred to believe in God more. In fact, the oppression caused many to leave the faith. Furthermore, it tested their allegiances. The Jewish tradition believed that Moses—the ultimate Liberator of the nation of Israel—was able to persuade only “one fiftieth” (2%) of Israel to depart their slavery. The immediate temporal pain of slavery and fear was more powerful than the absolute reality that King YHWH would rescue them. Why would they make such a choice?

Imagine this. For 400 years after the death of Joseph, the people of God suffered under the wrath of the Egyptian empire and the hand of Satan—telling the people of God, you do not deserve rest. You do not deserve anything. You’re only value is to produce something—to work . If you don’t produce, you are useless and dispensable—trash of society. Yes, you may say that your God will give you a kingdom of rest—but where is He? He has left you in suffering. God does not exist, only the whip of the taskmaster and the bone-crushing chariots of Egypt. Yes, the world doesn’t care about you. Society doesn’t care about you. But isn’t it better to serve the real world that doesn’t care about you, rather than an imaginary God who never actually answers you? As one commentator said, the Egyptian oppression deliberately “reduced a proud people to willing serfs, cogs in the machine of state.”

I read that and thought of myself as I worked as an employee of a Japanese company. Perhaps the Japanese society has told you these same things all of your life: "It only makes sense to serve without rest, without hope, without value. Why? Because to believe anything else is ridiculous. I own you. I can hurt you. To listen to anything else is meaningless." Perhaps we are so inundated with work, the whip of the taskmaster, and fear of shame that we can't really see the blessing and the power of King YHWH? Perhaps we have started to believe the lie and have been 'outsmarted' by Satan, Pharoah, and Japanese society. Perhaps we also have said to ourselves, "we have no hope for rest, we do not deserve eternal life. We should not waste time on ridiculous things like the promises of God and it is better to merely work some more," despite the fact that God is working powerfully to defeat our enemies.

Therefore, in the same way, we must ask ourselves, whether you’re a Christian or non-Christian, as King YHWH and Satan wage war, but with the victory of King YHWH in sight, the question is who shall we serve? The taskmaster King Pharoah, the Japanese Company, or Satan who will dispose you once you disobey or no longer useful? Or the King YHWH who is absolutely committed to bring you rest and who is coming very soon? Regardless of whether you think you deserve rest or not, the first and most basic question is who shall you serve?

*For those who are familiar with Brunner, I completely disagree with his neo-Orthodoxy; however, his use of the Reformed tradition to further missionary theology has been an interest of mine for many years.

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