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How to Teach Old Testament Characters

Recently, I taught through the life of David in a series called “The Search for a King,” and I thought I’d use that to offer some reflection here on how I have learned (and am learning) to teach through Old Testament characters in Gospel-faithful ways.

We discover that the life of David occurs in the midst of a quest Israel was on to find a king. Israel yearned for a king who could give them stability, guarantee their prosperity, and ensure their security.

Saul seemed like the perfect choice for Israel. He was a good leader, charismatic, and promised to provide Israel with everything they desired. In the end, of course, he bitterly disappointed them.

The next king God gave to them was of a fundamentally different type. He was, literally, the last guy in a room of 7 brothers whom you’d choose to be king. He was small. Unimpressive. He smelled like sheep. But he had a mighty trust in God. Because of that, he would point Israel consistently to hope in God as their true King. David was God’s choice to be Israel’s king because God was David’s choice to be King.

Even David, however, would disappoint Israel, and bitterly. David’s life ends as a string of tragic failures—an adulterous, murderous relationship with Bathsheba, severe parental failure with Absalom, and the blasphemous sin of counting of the people in opposition to God’s instructions. In one of Israel’s most crucial hours, David failed them as a husband, father, and leader. David’s life ends with 70,000 Israelites dying for his sin, with David wishing he could die in their place but unable to.

David’s life, however, points us forward to another King who was coming–the Messiah–who was in some ways like David but in many more ways unlike him. Unlike David, who sent innocent Uriah to die to cover up David’s own sin, Jesus, the truly innocent one, would die for ours. Unlike David, who neglected his son Absalom when Absalom needed him most, Jesus would pursue us, His children, even when it cost Him His life. And unlike David, whose people had to die for his sin, Jesus would die for ours.

Jesus was the “truer and better David,” the real Hope of Israel.

The truth is that all of us, like Israel, are searching for some type of King. We long for something to give us prosperity, stability, a sense of meaning, and security. David’s life shows us that all kings but Jesus will disappoint. Jesus is the King they were searching for, and the one we are searching for as well.

The main purpose of David’s story, or that of any Old Testament hero, is not to give us an example to emulate, but to point us forward to the Messiah who is coming. Old Testament characters often gave signs and pictures of what the Messiah was like but just as often showed us what He would be like in how they failed. He would do what they, being mere men and women, were never able to do.

Most approaches to David’s life tell you, “Do you want to be a man after God’s own heart? Then be humble like David. Be courageous against your giants like David was against Goliath. Forgive your enemies like David forgave Saul. If you do these things, God will feel about you like He did about David.”

David certainly is, in some ways, worthy of our emulation (1 Cor. 10:6). Yet he failed in some of the most important ways. Jesus, the Messiah, is the hero in David’s story. He succeeded where David failed. And He gave His perfect life for us so that when we fail we could be forgiven and accepted. God’s favor is a gift that is given to us because of what Christ did for us, not what we are to do for God. That knowledge is what gives us real courage, real humility, and real generosity. Jesus was the real Man after God’s own heart, and He gave us His position before the Father as a gift.

Interestingly, almost all of the Old Testament stories end like David’s did—with a befuddling sense of disappointment. Moses, the Lawgiver, is not allowed to go into the Promised Land because he broke the laws of God. The Temple that Ezra builds is so 2nd rate that people who remembered the first one wept when they saw it. David, Israel’s greatest king, turns out to be a desperate sinner who can’t even save himself, his family, or his people. At the end of his life, he repeats all of Israel’s sins and laments his inability to save them.

The whole message of the Old Testament is that we need a Lawgiver who not only keeps the laws Himself but can redeem us when we break them. We need someone to build a glorious, eternal kingdom that not even our sin can tarnish. We need a Shepherd who will not abuse his sheep but die for them. We need a father who will not neglect his children but will lay down his life for them. We need a King who will not use His people but serve them. That role can’t be filled by Moses or Nehemiah or David; it’s only filled by Jesus Christ, God’s Son and God’s appointed King.

He is the King we are searching for. And that is good news for many of us who have lost our way and made a mess of our lives because that means we can hope in His work on our behalf. He can rebuild our lives where we have destroyed them. He can give hope where we feel hopeless.

God is not looking for our perfect record; He is looking for us to receive the gift of salvation He provides. And that means that the same God that saved and used David is the God who can save and use us.

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J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.