As Christians we are not called to be “biblical” but to be Christlike; we are called to be followers of Jesus, not followers of the Bible. But the Bible is clearly important, even necessary, for us to be good followers of Jesus. As Christians, how should we think about the Bible? How should we read the Bible to follow Jesus? This is the first part of a three-part series exploring these questions. See here for part two, and see here for part three. See here for the series in a single document.
Imagine that you’re reading a really good story. It’s the kind of story you hate to put down and you can’t wait to get back to. It’s got an interesting premise, a believable world, compelling characters, and a riveting plot. It’s enlightening and challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing.
Now imagine that you’re reading along in this story, you finish a chapter, you turn the page—and it’s blank. The story just ends, abruptly. “Wait a minute,” you think, “that can’t be it. There must be more!”
So you talk with others who have read the same book, and you find they feel the same way. There are too many expectations unfulfilled, too many questions unanswered, too many tensions left unresolved, too many characters undeveloped, too many loose ends. The story is terrific—it’s just incomplete. It needs a sequel.
As you talk with other fans of the story, though, you realize everyone has different views on how the story should end. You argue back and forth, and different camps emerge: some say the story would best be completed in one way, others say, “No, it has to finish this way!” and still others think they alone have the best ending to the story.
This was the way it was for the people of Israel after the time of the Old Testament, after the ancient kingdoms had fallen, after the exiles to Assyria and Babylon and beyond, after some had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild a city, a temple, and a way of life. In those centuries, the Jewish people read their Bible just like this story: it’s compelling, it’s enlightening, it’s challenging—but it’s incomplete. There was something more to come. There just had to be.
The Jewish Scriptures presented a story in search of an ending.
But Jews of that day disagreed about how the biblical story should end, and different views emerged. Some expected God to come in a mighty supernatural act to overthrow God’s enemies and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Others longed for that same result, but thought God would only act if everyone followed the Law of Moses the way they were supposed to. Still others thought God would not act supernaturally, but God would only act through his people, so the Jews needed to be prepared to fight God’s enemies when God came. Some thought they needed to begin the fight right now. And still others thought all this was nonsense: God comes among us now when we worship in the Temple, they said, or when we study the Law of Moses.
Today we know of these different groups as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots—and there were others, and factions within them. Each of these groups saw Scripture as a story in search of an ending, and they each offered a different ending to the story.
And then along came Jesus.
For the first followers of Jesus, the earliest Christians, nearly all of them Jews, Jesus was the proper end to the biblical story. To use the Apostle Paul’s words, Jesus is the “end” of the Law of Moses—he is its telos, its “completion,” its purpose and goal, its fitting conclusion (Rom 10:4). To use language especially loved by Matthew, Jesus “fulfills” the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 5:17-18). All those biblical expectations of God coming to his people, of God acting on behalf of his people, of God bringing in his kingdom on earth—Jesus fulfills these expectations. All throughout the New Testament, this same idea comes through in different ways (e.g. Luke 24:13-27; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 2 Tim 3:15-17; 1 Pet 1:10-11).
The Jewish Scriptures—the Christian Old Testament—present a story in search of an ending. And Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.
To say that is an act of faith, of course. Not everyone in Jesus’ day agreed with this, and not everyone agrees with it today. But one of the earliest and most basic confessions of Christian faith is “Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah,” and to confess that is to say exactly this: we believe Jesus is the promised king in the line of David, the one who will bring in God’s kingdom on earth and fulfill God’s purposes for Israel and all humanity. In other words, Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.
We also, of course, need to be careful how we say this. We must not devalue the Old Testament in its own right. These are the sacred Scriptures of Judaism, and they are challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing and enlightening—through the many voices of these Scriptures one can still hear the voice of God. But even Jews today acknowledge in some sense the incompleteness of these Scriptures, and so they look to other writings like the Mishnah and Talmud to complete them through explanation or expansion, or they await a completion still to come.
So the Old Testament is a story in search of an ending. And by faith we as Christians say that Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story. But what difference does this make for how we should read the Old Testament? We’ll take a look at that next.