Followers of Jesus around the world recognize the importance of the Bible to our faith. Whether in daily devotions, Bible studies, or church services, the assumption is that the Bible is a book worthy of reading – and reading often. While there is broad agreement that the Bible ought to be read, there is often less reflection on how it is meant to be read.
Is the Bible fundamentally like a science textbook, a dictionary, or a collection of quotes? Is it a “flat” document where every word is applicable to the life of every Christian without qualification? Perhaps you have never given conscious thought to these questions, but we all read our Bibles with a set of assumptions about how to read it. The fancy word for this is your hermeneutic.
All Scripture Points to Jesus
At the end of Luke’s Gospel there is a short encounter between the risen Jesus and some disciples that touches on this exact issue. After the crucifixion of Jesus, two of his disciples were on their way to a town called Emmaus. They had walked with Jesus, seen his miracles, and based on their assumptions about the Old Testament, were disappointed that he had not restored the fortunes of their people. Their hermeneutic led them to read the Bible in such a way that the death and resurrection of Jesus was unexpected. Here is how Jesus responded:
“‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Luke 24:25-27, NRSV
At a later encounter with some other disciples, Luke declares that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:44-47). What Jesus did in these meetings was to provide the interpretive key for Scripture – that at its core it was not a textbook or a collection of isolated promises, but a story that reached its clearest point in his own life, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. Jesus is the lens through which the Bible’s meaning is most clearly seen.
This same concept pops up very frequently throughout the New Testament. Preaching by the earliest apostles revolved almost entirely around the Old Testament’s primary function as a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather than a collection of historical anecdotes, ethical guidelines, and quotable bits of life wisdom (Acts 2:14-40, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 7:2-60, etc.). The books of Scripture, so vital to the spiritual life of God’s people, were seen as containing a meaning most clearly brought out through the life and teachings of Jesus. One of the New Testament authors put it this way:
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” Hebrews 1:1-2, NRSV
What these various voices show us is that the Bible itself authorizes a Jesus-centric reading of Scripture. As the clearest reflection of the Father, his words provide the final word, proper interpretation, and perfect interpretive lens for reading the Bible. This is why the Gospels frequently state that he taught as someone “with authority” and not simply as a teacher. It is also why texts like the Sermon on the Mount (where Jesus interprets the Bible of his day) have enjoyed a central place in the life of the church, and especially those churches with an Anabaptist heritage.
The Brethren in Christ View
The Brethren in Christ embraces a Jesus-centric view in its guidelines for scripture interpretation, as found on the third page of the denomination’s Manual of Doctrine & Government:
“In preparing the doctrinal statement we affirm an understanding of scriptural interpretation that recognizes (1) the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit; (2) the centrality of Christ in divine revelation; (3) the New Testament as interpreter of the Old Testament; (4) the scriptural focus on piety and obedience; and (5) the essential value of community consensus in the interpretive process.”
The challenge of reading the whole Bible in a Jesus-centered way means that every reading must be tested against the words and witness of Jesus Christ. Individualistic, context-free quotes from the Psalms or Proverbs, so popular in modern evangelicalism, need to be weighed against the teaching of Jesus. Theological systems must be built from the whole witness of Scripture rather than select “proof-texts” from the prophets. Cultural practices such as the Old Testament food or circumcision laws (which are in the Bible) are relativized by Jesus’s offer of grace outside of those systems. It also means that although the Bible addresses historical issues, readings that isolate that history from the work of Jesus in pursuit of scientific or even apologetic aims simply “miss the forest for the trees.”
Adopting “Jesus Lenses” in Your Own Scripture Reading
Since we all approach the Bible with built-in “lenses” it might be challenging to learn how to read the Bible with a “Jesus lens.” Developing a “Jesus lens” might mean learning how to re-read a book that you’ve been reading your entire life.
Here are a few ways to grow in this way of approaching the Bible:
- Look at how Jesus reads/uses the Old Testament in the Gospels (Luke is a great Gospel for checking this out).
- Familiarize yourself with New Testament preaching (Acts 2:14-40, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 7:2-60, etc.) and how they reinterpreted their Scriptures as a testimony to Jesus.
- Read the Old Testament (the “Bible” of Jesus and the early church!) – and if your Bible has cross references, check out where the verses are referenced in the New Testament and how they are used there.
- Use a good daily liturgy that puts Jesus at the center (Take Our Moments & Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book and Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals are good places to start).
Articles & Books
- Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays.
- “Fuller Meaning, Single Goal: A Christotelic Approach to the New Testament Use of the Old in its First Century Interpretive Environment” pgs 167-217 in Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament by Peter Enns
- A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way by Bradley Jersak
- Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence by Gregory A. Boyd
- Radical Christians & the Word of God (part 1 of 3): Authority by Bruxy Cavey,
- For the Kids: Jesus Showed Us! by Bradley Jersak and Shari-Anne Vis.
Videos & Podcasts
- The Bible Project – Luke-Acts series (9 videos).
- Reading the Old Testament Christotelicly. Episode 117 of The Bible for Normal People podcast.
- For the Kids: The Seriously Surprising Story: Meeting Jesus on the Road to Emmaus
- What We Believe About the Bible: A Brethren in Christ approach to reading and interpreting Scripture.
- Take Our Moments & Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book – smartphone app available on Apple and Google App Stores
- Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals – available as a book or online at CommonPrayer.net
This blog was originally published by Plowshares BIC.