Reading the Bible in 3D

Reading the Bible in 3D April 7, 2019

In our experience and observation, countless evangelical, postevangelical, Reformed, charismatic, and mainline Christians are not aware that the main subject of the entire First Testament (that is, the Old Testament) is Jesus Christ.

But consider what Jesus Himself said about the Scriptures: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!”

It is for this reason that statements such as “according to the prophets,” “as it is written,” “according to the Scriptures,” “that the Scripture might be fulfilled,” and “in all the Scriptures” are peppered throughout the entire Second Testament (that is, the New Testament).

What is more, the Second Testament authors consistently interpreted the First Testament writings in the light of Christ.

Many believe that the Second Testament writers simply used parts of the First Testament as proof texts to show that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah of Israel and Lord of the world. But this is not the case.

The Second Testament writers consistently quoted or cited large sections of the First Testament, using them to unfold the Jesus story.

But that’s not all. The Second Testament authors used the same First Testament texts independently of one another. And they interpreted them in exactly the same way, often citing the texts in the same order.

This fact alone demonstrates that the Second Testament authors shared a common method of interpreting the First Testament. The questions emerge, then: Where did they find this method of interpretation?

What was their common source?

The answer is that Jesus Himself was the common source.

Jesus Revealed Through the Scriptures

The Gospels tell us that Jesus took His followers through the Scriptures and gave them a divinely inspired hermeneutic (method of interpretation) by which to understand the First Testament. In turn, the Lord’s original disciples passed this interpretative key to those whom they influenced (this would include people such as Mark, Paul, and Luke).

Luke suggested this in his gospel when he rehearsed Jesus’ encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus:

Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.

Note the words “all the Scriptures.” This includes the First Testament—Genesis through Malachi. They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”

Luke went on to say that Jesus opened the Scriptures to His disciples: “Now He said to them,

‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”

In this passage, Jesus unveils Himself through the three parts of the Hebrew Bible: (1) the law of Moses (the Torah); (2) the Prophets (the Nevi’im); and (3) the Psalms, which represent the Writings (the Ketuvim).

These three sections make up the Tanakh—the rabbinic name for the Hebrew Bible. The way the Second Testament authors quoted the First Testament forms a pattern—a shared hermeneutic for understanding the First Testament.

It is easy to see, then, that the source of this common hermeneutic was Jesus Himself. Jesus taught His disciples how to understand the Hebrew Scriptures, and this is reflected throughout the Second Testament.

Jesus’ use of the First Testament text was revolutionary for His time. As R. T. France points out, Jesus “applied the Old Testament in a way that was quite unparalleled. The essence of his new application was that he saw the fulfillment of the predictions and foreshadowings of the Old Testament in himself and his work.”

The early Christian church “was founded on this distinctive and revolutionary use of the Old Testament”—a usage that was handed down to the apostles by Jesus Himself. Jesus clearly said that He was the fulfillment of the entire Hebrew Bible (represented by the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets).

If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.

Consider this question with these texts in mind: If you were to ask Jesus what the Scriptures were about, what would His answer be?

R. T. France comments, “Jesus saw his mission as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures; not just of those which predicted a coming redeemer, but of the whole sweep of Old Testament ideas.”

In this regard, Jesus not only completes the First Testament story; He fulfills it. But fulfilling doesn’t happen only in view of the accomplishment of its promises. As you will discover in this book, Jesus actually embodies the First Testament. He “fills full” the ancient Text.

In a word, Jesus is the thread that holds all Scripture together. He is the prism that breaks forth its multifaceted colors. He is the lens that puts all of it into focus, the switch that sheds light on its dimly lit quarters, and the key that unlocks its meaning and richness.

We agree with a long tradition of theologians who do not view the Scriptures as a storehouse of propositions on every imaginable subject but instead discover the place from which the Spirit of God makes Christ known.

Or as Protestant Reformer Martin Luther has put in epigrammatic fashion: “Scripture is the cradle in which Christ lies.”

Reading Scripture as a Whole

Given what we have established so far, the approach we are taking to the Scriptures is both holistic as well as reductionist. It is reductionist in that we are drawing from the best findings of modern historical research.

Yet it’s holistic in that we are bringing the First Testament stories, events, and accounts into the core narrative of Jesus—just as the Second Testament writers did when they interpreted the First Testament.

We are searching for the story the Gospels tell about Jesus in the story found in the First Testament.

The Bible didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. It is a historical but also metaphorical and narrative story of truth written within history. Thus, history matters in our interpretation of the biblical text. At the same time, the Bible is a collection of writings that are tied together by a common theme. Therefore, the interweaving of both Testaments also matters in our interpretation of the biblical text.

To use a metaphor, we are not only inspecting each tree in the forest (the reductionist approach) but also stepping away from the trees to view the entire landscape at high altitude, making note of how each tree connects with the others in an ecosystem (the holistic approach).

And further, we reveal how we see that forest as nourishing, creative, life-giving, revelatory, and beautiful.

To put it another way, the Bible contains its own hermeneutic.

Augustine has put it best: “In the Old Testament, the New is concealed; in the New, the Old is revealed.”

This being so, the Holy Spirit often had an intention in Scripture that went beyond its authors’ present knowledge.

Understanding the author’s intent in a given portion of Scripture is certainly part of the task of biblical interpretation. But it’s not the whole task. As you read this book, this fact will become abundantly clear. The Second Testament authors “remain true to the main intention” of the First Testament authors.

But they go beyond that intention to the Spirit-inspired meaning found in Christ. In our theographical snapshots, we will be employing the same method of interpretation that the Second Testament writers used in their interpretation of the First Testament—a method given to them by Jesus Himself. This method of interpretation safeguards us from entertaining subjective, fanciful, and forced allegorical interpretations on the one hand and completely missing Christ in the sacred Text on the other.

Again, the Scriptures are not a library of disjointed, independent, inspired books. The First and Second Testaments are not two separate books bound together between a single cover. Rather, they are a unified canon. All the books of that canon contribute to the plotline of God’s covenantal relationship with humanity through Jesus.

You can think of the First and Second Testaments as act 1 and act 2 of the same drama.

Each book, therefore, must be understood and interpreted within the framework of the greater whole.

Jesus Christ is the glue that binds both Testaments together. As Brevard Childs says, “The completely New of the gospel is formulated in terms of the Old. Herein lies the deep mystery surrounding the two testaments. Separate and yet undivided, two voices yet the sound is similar, an Old Word pointing to the New, yet the New is only known in the Old.”

That said, it’s a profound mistake to detach Scripture—both First and Second Testaments—from Christ. The Bible has no real meaning unless it is grounded in Christ. The beauty of Scripture for followers of Jesus is to reveal Christ.

Many who have rightly taught that Jesus is the hermeneutical key to the Bible have failed to look at all Scripture through the lens of Christ. What we will demonstrate in this book is that everything in the Bible points to Jesus—either His person, His work, or His character.

When we fail to see the entire Bible christologically and theographically, the door is opened for the Bible to take on a raft of contradictory interpretations. We believe, therefore, that failure to read the Bible christologically is the cause for the countless divisions among Christians. The internal unity of the Bible is its witness to Jesus. He is the Canon within the canon.

Reading Scripture through a christological and theographical lens is more radical a move than we might think at first blush. In our observation, it’s rarely practiced today—even among those who claim to uphold the centrality of Christ. It’s one thing to profess to read the Scripture christologically or to agree with it in principle. But it’s quite another to actually practice it.

Many Christians read the Bible with modern or postmodern optics, then clip on “Christocentrism” sunglasses. But reading Scripture through a christological lens changes the way we see and approach the entire Bible, as well as how we regard and handle biblical doctrine.

It also prevents us from making the common mistake of missing the drama for the details. Reading Scripture christologically turns Bible reading from two dimensions into 3-D. It transforms it from black-and-white into high-definition Technicolor. We are confident that as you read this book, you will better understand what we mean.

Toward a True Red-Letter Bible

Many Christians grew up reading red-letter editions of the Second Testament. Those are the Bibles wherein the words of Jesus are printed in red. Now imagine a First Testament where every reference, every prophecy, every shadow, every image, and every allusion to Christ appeared in red.

If such a red-letter First Testament existed, it would glow in the dark. And if Jesus is YHWH, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Richard Bauckham, and others have argued, then it could light up a living room.

One of our favorite metaphors for reframing how people see the Bible is to approach it as a movie.84 But not any simple, straightforward movie—one filled with flashbacks, interweaving relationships and plotlines, metaphors and narratives, multiple voices, and circles of meaning, an organic and rich symmetry of dynamic signs, a story that reveals the truth of Jesus Christ in freshness, surround sound, and living color.

As with any great story, there are characters, sequence, conflict, climax, and resolution. Unlike any other story, however, this is a never-ending story. This story invites you to become part of it with its main character, who wants to merge His story with yours.

Let the Bible tell its own story to you. Trust the Jesus story as it moves from Genesis to Revelation. And see if the Holy Spirit doesn’t open your eyes to see the greatness of Christ anew and afresh.

Adapted from Jesus: A Theography (Thomas Nelson, hardcover, 424 pp.) by Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola. To read the entire chapter with endnotes, click here. For details on the book, free resources, and discounts, click here.

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  • Kevin

    This probably misses the point of this entry and the book, but in terms of “evangelism,” I think we Christians often make the mistake of thinking that the unbelieving world already has a belief in God, but is simply rebelling against him and that they just need to be educated in the scriptures, which mean nothing to them. When the disciples made reference to the First Testament, they were speaking to a people who believed in the God of the First Testament and were calling them to a new covenant understanding of their relationship of their God. Using the scriptures would have been an effective means of doing this. My question is; how should we approach sharing that same God with one who doesn’t even believe in God or the scriptures in the first place?

  • Frank Viola

    Check the date on this one. I made that statement *after* I published this post. In addition, I said it would be the norm. You’ll learn that from this past Monday until today, virtually every post has been short with the exception of one. 🙂

  • Sally Roach

    I thought you said these posts were going to be short.

  • Frank Viola

    The same as what it meant for first-century Jews who used it (like Paul, Peter, Matthew, John, and the other followers of Jesus in that day). They will discover that the Hebrew Bible all points to *the Christ*. That is what they will conclude if they use the hermeneutic that Jesus gave to His followers.

  • Isaac Larson

    What does this christo-theographical hermeneutic mean for the Jew who reads the First Testament today?

  • Summer Smith

    I can’t wait to get my copy!