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 second part of a three-part series exploring these questions. See here for part one, and see here for part three. See here for the series in a single document.
In the last post we explored two connected ideas: first, the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old Testament, present a story in search of an ending; and second, Jesus is the fitting ending to this biblical story.
This way of thinking about things can be really helpful for working through the question of how we as Christians should read the Old Testament. Let’s go back to that picture we started with last post: reading the story that ends abruptly.
Let’s say that in talking with others about this unfinished story, someone shares an ending to the story that is so compelling you can’t help but wonder if they are reading the author’s mind. All those unfinished plot threads are woven together. Characters are developed in believable ways. The questions are answered, the problems are resolved, the expectations are fulfilled. It’s a fitting ending to the story.
But let’s say this ending is surprising. We’ve all read books or watched movies that have a surprise ending. It’s still a fitting ending to the story, it makes sense of the story and brings everything to a satisfactory conclusion, but it’s different than anyone could have guessed.
What do you do with that book or movie? Well, the next time you read that book or watch that movie you’ll read or watch it differently, won’t you? The story is the same as it has always been, and much of it won’t seem any different. But you’ll see hints of that surprise ending that you never noticed before. Some of those things that seemed odd now make sense. Whole sections of the story take on new significance. You might even reconsider what the story’s really all about, now that you know how it ends.
That’s what it’s like for us reading the Old Testament, confessing that Jesus is its fitting ending. Because Jesus certainly is, in many ways, a surprise ending to the story.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected a Messiah, but no one expected a Messiah like Jesus: a Messiah who fed the poor and healed the sick and touched the lepers and ate with outcasts and forgave sinners.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to bring in God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace and justice, but no one expected the kingdom to come about like Jesus did it: not with an army but with a dozen straggling followers, not with swords but with words of truth and deeds of love, not with power and might but in weakness and self-sacrifice.
Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to act on behalf of Israel, but no one expected God to act like Jesus did: born in a stable, born into poverty, living in utter humility, utter humanity, suffering and dying in shame and disgrace.
Jesus is a fitting ending to the biblical story, but he is also a surprise ending to the story.
So what do we do with that surprise ending? We re-read the story in light of it.
This is just what the Apostles and the earliest Christians did, and we follow in their footsteps left for us in our New Testament. They proclaimed Jesus, they explained Jesus, and they did this in large part by re-reading their Scriptures in light of Jesus, the completion to the story.
This doesn’t mean we try to find Jesus explicitly on every page of the Old Testament. No, the plural “Let us make” in Genesis 1 is not a reference to the Trinity. No, the “angel of God” that appears to Abraham is not a pre-incarnate Jesus. No, there is no secret Bible code in the patterns of Hebrew words that spells out “Jesus” (not even ישוע). We still need to read the Old Testament in light of its genres, its different kinds of writing. We still need to hear the different voices of the various Old Testament writings.
Rather, it’s more that Jesus answers questions that are raised in the Old Testament. Jesus solves problems that are posed in the Old Testament. Jesus resolves tensions that are presented in the Old Testament. Jesus fulfills expectations that are prompted in the Old Testament. Jesus lives out values and virtues that are highlighted in the Old Testament. Jesus brings together important ideas that are introduced in the Old Testament.
So, for example, we see in Jesus an emphasis on love, that God loves us deeply, that the most important thing we can do is love God and love other people—and so we read the Old Testament as Jesus did and find running through it streams of hesed and tsadiq, loyal love and covenant faithfulness.
We see in Jesus a rejection of violence, a refusal to repeat the cycle of violence, a willingness to absorb violence himself in order to spare others that fate—and so we see in the violence of the Old Testament something less than God’s ideal, and we highlight the Old Testament calls for forgiveness and mercy and enemy love.
We see in Jesus God bringing about healing for broken people, even a broken creation—and so we find in the Old Testament a recurring pattern of God creating something good, then humans distorting that good thing through sin, and God never giving up, always responding with forgiveness and restoration.
So as Christians we read the Old Testament as if Jesus is the fitting ending, yet the surprise ending, to the Old Testament story. We read the Old Testament in light of Jesus, and we see in the Old Testament all those threads that are woven together in Jesus—threads of peace and justice, repentance and forgiveness, liberation and healing, suffering and joy, love and life, death and resurrection in the kingdom of God.
But there’s still more to the story. And this “more” is the most surprising thing of all.