Reading Scripture Backwards And Forwards (Mitchell East)

Reading Scripture Backwards And Forwards (Mitchell East) November 8, 2017

aaron-burden-300807By Mitchell East, an intern for the university ministry of St. Aldates Church in Oxford, England.

Most of us are familiar with the “fishers of men” story from the gospels (Mark 1:16-20; Matt 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-11). We might also be familiar with the sermon that follows from it. Some of the disciples were fishermen by trade, but when Jesus calls them to follow him, he says he will make them “fishers of men.” The preacher concludes that likewise, Christians must “catch people” and bring them to church. The sermon is a call to evangelism: individual Christians should seek out non-Christians. (We hope no one uses bait and hooks, but you get the point.) I may never have questioned that sermon had I not read Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels.

As Hays works his way through the four gospels (and Acts, here and there), he demonstrates a way of reading Scripture called “figural reading.” Whether or not you’re familiar with figural reading, Hays shows how this method can help you see the riches of Scripture, especially in passages you’ve read before. Hays caught my attention with his figural reading of the phrase “fishers of men.”

Rather than an evangelistic call to bring people to church, Hays argues that this call is to carry news of God’s judgment on sin. He diverges from the typical evangelistic sermon because he sees the image of “fishers of men” in the prophets. Jeremiah uses this imagery for judgment against Israel: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them… For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence… I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations (Jeremiah 16:16-18). Amos uses fishing as an image of judgment as well: “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness. The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:2).

This is a far cry from the sermon about inviting non-Christians to church. “Fishers of men” carry news of God’s judgment on sin and the audience is not receptive. Israel was not thrilled to hear their prophets tell them of conquering nations coming to destroy their home and deport them to foreign nations. Why would we want to carry similar news of God’s judgment on our sins?

Figural reading helps us answer that question. According to Hays, figural reading establishes a connection between two events, passages, or people in the Bible such that (a) the first signifies the second (b) the second fulfills the first, and (c) the first remains intact. In the example above, the first event is God sending the nations of Babylon and Assyria as “fishers of men” who would judge Israel’s sins. The second event is Jesus sending the disciples as “fishers of men” who bring news of God’s judgment on God’s people. Let’s work through the three parts of figural reading.

First, when God calls Assyria and Babylon “fishermen,” this signifies the way we should understand Jesus’s call to be fishermen. Jesus’s call means we will bear the news of God’s judgment of sins. God does not shrug his shoulders when he sees the sins of the world. As a just God, He will judge our sins, and disciples carry this news – whether they like it or not.

Second, God’s judgment of Israel during the exile is fulfilled in Jesus’ judgment of the sins of the world. The same God who judged Israel is the one who finally, once and for all, judged the sins of the world through Jesus Christ. The difference is that God’s judgment does not befall God’s people, but a representative named Jesus Christ. God’s judgment will not result in our suffering, but the suffering of His servant Jesus.

Finally, the fulfillment of the first event does not mean the first event should be dismissed. We should not read backwards from Christ’s fulfillment and say, “Surely God wouldn’t do something so abhorrent as judge His people.” In fact, when Christians see God’s judgment fall on the Israelite named Jesus, they see God’s just judgments on Israel leading up to it. God’s justice goes all the way through Israel’s history and culminates in the cross.

Two disclaimers are in order. First, the call to be fishers of men by carrying news of God’s judgment should not dismiss the ministries of healing (Mark 6:13), service (10:42-45), or evangelism (13:10). And yet, the calling to be fishers of men shows us that discipleship includes something that we might have missed had we not read the passage figurally.

Second, God’s judgment is good news. God’s judgment means that God will set things right. God’s judgment means that God will lift up the lowly and brokenhearted. God’s judgment means that God will bring down the powerful from their thrones. His judgment may seem harsh to us, but He does not bring bad news.

In the upcoming posts, I’ll address other ways this kind of reading can help us, but for now we see one great opportunity. This Sunday you can teach your church that Jesus calls his disciples to declare God’s judgment upon us for our sins. Who wouldn’t want to hear that sermon?


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  • Martha Anne Underwood

    It is interesting that Evangelicals want to turn any passage that sounds like love for people into Jesus preaching about how sinful we are and that we better be careful or we will end up in hell because we did something that God wants to punish us for. I see Christ coming to draw us closer to God and redeem us not to bring retribution. I cannot follow a God who will rain down retribution with satisfaction on those he puts in a fiery hell.

  • Brian Varn

    Fascinating; however, I do not think this gives enough weight to Matthew 13: 48 and the ‘sorting’ process. Therefore, perhaps the approach to preaching/teaching is both judgment and salvation, so the whole world hears all the gospel; then the whole world is sorted at the end of the age?

  • Chad V

    Wondering how John 16:8-11 fit’s in here. If the Spirit’s role is to expose sin, righteousness, and judgment then it seems to me that the fishermen calling can serve all of those ends as the Spirit of truth works through us and our witness to the world. Yes, judgment indeed, but more.

  • DoubtingTom

    That’s a bit of strawman argument. Richard Hays (the man upon whose work East is basing his exegesis) is one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the United States, and perhaps the world. East (and Hays) are not pulling some exegetical sleight-of-hand to make Jesus sound angry and vicious. Plus, there are plenty of texts where Jesus clearly sounds that way without needing any help from exegetes, anyway. Jesus came to bring redemption AND retribution. It is literally written all over each of the four Gospels. Jesus talked more about Hell than any other person in the Bible. If retribution and Hell bother you that much, you may want to reconsider Christianity as your chosen faith.

  • Salvatore Anthony Luiso

    It sounds as if the author believes that when the Lord Jesus told Simon Peter and Andrew “Follow me, and I will make fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19), He was telling them that He would make them like the Assyrians whom God used to punish the Northern Kingdom in the Eighth Century B.C. and the Babylonians whom God used to punish the Kingdom of Judah in the Sixth Century B.C.. The Assyrians and Babylonians were not heralds of judgment: Amos and Jeremiah, were, along with other prophets such as Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, and Ezekiel. If anyone in the First Century A.D. is figurally like the Assyrians and Babylonians, I would say it is the Romans, not the Apostles.

    Therefore, I prefer the common understanding of the Apostles being “fishers of men”. When the Lord comforted Simon Peter by telling him “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men” (Luke 4:10), He did not mean that Peter would henceforth mete “God’s judgment on God’s people”, nor on any other people.

  • Chad V

    I agree. If Jesus envisioned judgment at all when he made the disciples “fishers of men” it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than secondary, maybe even prophetic, but certainly not primary.

  • Chad V

    With all due respect one cannot with integrity have the love of God without the judgment of God. To reduce God in such a way is tantamount to creating him in one’s own image, which is idolatry.

  • Jeff Y

    With DoubtingTom, this is a straw man as far as the above article goes. I’ll just add a thought on this phrase: “I cannot follow a God who will rain down retribution with satisfaction on those he puts in a fiery hell.” That isn’t anywhere to be found in the above discussion. To be sure, that quote is what a lot of evangelicals have taught – but, not all, and there are fewer and fewer these days who characterize judgment that way (except for the hardline Calvinists like Piper). But, judgment on those who do not repent of a course of life that is destructive of self and others, is part of creation and warned about by Jesus to those who want to walk a destructive path, contrary to God, as in Lk. 13:1-5; Jesus says, “except you repent you shall all likewise perish.” Jesus is telling them, their course of fighting Rome is going to crush them. And, he uses “hell” a great deal (no one does so more in the bible). But, it’s also not the straw man description you put up there. It’s the reality that if we walk away from God we are walking a path of death and separation from life and love. And, the fact is, that Jesus brought destruction on Jerusalem for their injustices because they did not repent and turn to him (Mt. 23-24). God laments this (Mt. 23:37-39). But, Jesus refers to his “coming” with reference to Rome’s crushing of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as part of his message in Mt. 24 – right in line with the prophetic judgment warnings re: Babylon; Assyria; etc.. If there were no judgment, no negative outcome for walking in idolatry & injustice, then there’s no need to repent. Jesus must have been wrong about that. That there is a call to repent by Jesus means we have to stop walking a self-destructive (and ultimately other destructive – the two go hand in hand) path. If you have children, you’ll figure out that they need to be warned about destructive behavior – and often suffer the pains of parental judgment on such behavior to help them. It’s restorative but it’s also for the purpose to help turn them away from an ultimate self-destruction.