Beyond the Minutiae
Do you participate in weekly Bible study? Together with Sunday worship and fellowship events involving coffee and cake, this is a regular activity of church life. We get together to explore the Scriptures and discover new things from the Word. Along the way a lot of questions will be asked: “Why does Paul say it like this?” or “What exactly does that phrase in Isaiah 14:12 mean?” Some questions may be minor and some may seem insignificant. Even these are worthwhile, to ponder why the Spirit led someone to choose this word or take this emphasis.
Yet we sometimes lose sight of the big picture. So focused on the individual trees, we forget that it’s an entire forest we’re admiring. At the end of some sessions, all are agreed that we’ve gained a better knowledge of some point of doctrine, and we’re satisfied that our agile minds were able to dissect some passage. But is that the purpose of Bible study? Is it merely about sorting out facts and details?
Alternately, is Bible study only about “what this text says to me today?” Sometimes that’s the overriding desire, that we find some application of this Scripture for our life tomorrow at school or work or in the home. We might skip over most of what the text says, and focus on the one phrase that we “like”—something we feel that we can work with. This too, is losing sight of the big picture because we’re fixated on one aspect of a text.
Take a Stroll through the Forest!
When we study Scripture, we need to put a wide-angled lens on our vision and have a focus wider than the particular passage we’re studying. This helps us make sense of all the little facts and minute details put together.
And what’s that new concentration? When we study, our ultimate focus must be on the Lord Jesus Christ. For He’s the very centre and heart of the Bible, the greatest truth on its pages. Without Christ, we have no salvation from our sins and the death we deserve. And if there’s no salvation, why study the Bible? Is the Bible only a nice read, some inspirational thoughts for a marginally better life? Or do we go to Bible study because there’s nothing better to do on Tuesday evenings? We study the Scriptures because they’re all about our one hope, our new life, and our only comfort.
Taking this focus agrees with the Bible’s whole purpose. Think of what Jesus says in John 5:39-40. He was rebuking the Jews for not believing in him, though they knew the Bible impressively well:
“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
When he says “Scriptures,” Jesus refers to the Bible of the time, what we call the Old Testament. He says that all of it points in one direction: to the coming Messiah. The Jews knew the plot and the setting of the Scriptures, but they had overlooked the main character!
Jesus says a similar thing in Luke 24 after his resurrection. He was walking to Emmaus with two disciples who didn’t recognize him. These two disciples were dismayed about the events of Jesus’ death and the disappearance of his body. Yet there was no need for disappointment; as Jesus says, “‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’” And Luke tells us (vv. 25-27),
“Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
If already the Old Testament is all about Christ, then the New Testament is even more! The gospel of Mark, perhaps the first New Testament book to be written, begins with our Saviour, front and centre: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). Paul too says how Christ is the focus of all ministry: “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). It’s only fitting then, that He’s also at the heart of any study of Scripture. Every time that we stroll through the Bible our eyes should be open for seeing the Saviour, and we should be eager to do some “cross-referencing.”
Progressing and Fulfilling
When we study an Old Testament book it can be hard to focus on Christ. There, He doesn’t preach or heal or suffer. So how do these Scriptures testify about him? We can begin to focus on Christ by seeing Old and New Testament together on one, unbroken line. And we should be deliberate in thinking about this unity.
Someone once suggested ripping out the blank page between the Old Testament and the New in our Bibles, lest we ever think that Matthew 1 begins a completely new story. The Bible is one book, with a certain progression from the first gospel promise in Genesis 3 to the time of its fulfillment with the arrival of our Saviour.
This means that we can read any Old Testament passage and legitimately ask, “How does this get echoed in the New Testament? How does this event, this person, this announcement, relate to the coming of Christ? Is this God working out his salvation promise? Or is this perhaps Satan trying to prevent his own destruction?” For instance, Deborah defeating the Canaanites is God preserving his people, even by a most unlikely saviour, for the eventual arrival of another most unlikely Saviour. Or Ahab marrying Jezebel is Satan trying to hinder the Messiah’s birth by breaking down the difference between the church and the world. For every moment of the Old Testament, vital things are at stake.
God also gives specific promises in the Old and brings them about in the New. Think of the prophecies of the virgin conception, the place of Christ’s birth, the style of his ministry, and so on. Especially in the days around his crucifixion, almost every moment is the fulfillment of a different prophecy. After his ascension, the apostles tell how these results of Christ’s work were predicted long ago: the giving of the Holy Spirit in fullness, the spreading of the gospel to all nations, the end-times and Judgment Day. With the 20/20 hindsight of New Testament vision, we can read from Genesis to Malachi.
Foreshadowing and Contrasting
We also look for the events, objects, and people that foreshadow Christ. There are Old Testament events that get repeated in the New according to basically the same pattern; the event is replicated in Jesus, but in a fuller way.
For instance, the sacrifices are a vast collection of ceremonies and rituals foreshadowing Christ. Everything from the altar of incense to the structure of the tabernacle point ahead to aspects of our Saviour’s work. Consider also how the priest-king Melchizedek of Genesis 14 foreshadows Christ our high priest and Lord (Heb 7). How Jonah in the fish for three days prefigures Christ in the tomb (Matt 12). How the manna in the wilderness connects to the teaching about Jesus as the Bread of Life in John 6. Or marvel at 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul speaks about how Israel fared in the wilderness journeys: “They drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (v. 4). The Rock was Christ! Jesus wasn’t with them physically, but the reason God’s presence went with the Israelites was the merits of the Saviour, as-yet unborn.
There are also revealing contrasts between the Old and New. There are positive contrasts: Moses was a great prophet, but Christ was greater (Acts 3). Solomon was wise, Jesus even wiser (Matt 12). And then we can think of many negative contrasts: for example, Saul was disobedient in his office as king, but Christ is faithful, the perfect king.
Tracing Scripture’s Themes
Running through Scripture are numerous themes, long and continuous arcs that can be traced over many centuries and many Bible books. In one way or another, all these grand themes culminate in the work of Jesus Christ. For example:
· The theme of human sin and its judgment, evident in various ways—such as in God’s law, the days of the judges, the major and minor prophets—cries out for a Saviour.
· The theme of deliverance—such as from the Philistines through David, from Babylon under Zerubbabel, from Haman under Esther and Mordecai—anticipates our salvation from sin and the devil in Christ.
· The theme of God’s covenant faithfulness—such as keeping his promise of land and descendants to Abraham—parallels how God keeps his promises to us in Christ.
Other themes too, presage the richness of what Christ does for us and gives to us. Think of themes of temple, sacrifice, and priesthood; themes of war and victory; themes of inheritance and blessing; themes of prophets and prophecy, and more.
Undergirding all these lines is the essential truth that our powerful and gracious God is the same today as He was back then. His people are also the same: sinful and stubborn, but saints. And his desire to save and renew is the same. Paul speaks of this continuity in Romans 15, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (v. 4).
Know When to Draw the Line
Students of the Bible are rightly eager to find Christ in the Old Testament, but sometimes their “cross-references” are highly imaginative. As an example, it has been said that the wood of Noah’s ark points ahead to the wood of Jesus’ cross. Just like the wood of the ark provided deliverance from the flood, so the wood of the cross saves us from God’s curse on sin. But does this suggestion hold water?
There’s a necessary check on our exegetical imagination, which is that the Bible itself should give us reasonable grounds for seeing a connection to Christ. There is a “bridge” from the Flood to the cross, but it’s not made of wood (1 Pet 3:20-21). We’re not the apostle Paul, who can say so boldly, “That Rock was Christ!” Nor do we need to make countless Old Testament details into direct indicators of the Saviour, but we can see him other ways, in the ideas of progression and fulfillment of promise, foreshadowing and contrast, or through tracing Scripture’s themes.
The “New iPhone” Effect
When your Bible study group chooses a New Testament book, it’s almost natural to focus on Christ. Because when we open the four gospels, they’re all about Jesus. Acts is about Christ building his church. The apostles Paul, Peter, John wrote constantly about the Lord Jesus, and He’s a main character in Revelation as the Lamb and the King. It seems it’d be simple to have a Christ-focus, but that’s not necessarily the case.
This neglect can be because we’ve read a passage so often, we feel like we know what it’s all about. Take John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Simple—let’s move on to the next verse! But do we really know how Christ fits here? Think about it: how could the Father give up his own Son? What does it mean that He was given for “the world?” And what does that bronze snake in the desert have to do with all of this? (v. 14)
We also might stop noticing Christ because he occurs on every page of the New Testament. Call it the “new iPhone” effect. Every year or so, Apple comes out with a new phone that everyone needs to buy. It’s thinner, faster, and does even more than the last one. People line up overnight to buy one, and they’re keen to show their friends what they just spent $800 on. But after a while, everyone has one. And so the excitement fades.
The same is true for Christ: it’s a wonderful name, occurring hundreds of times in the New Testament. But when we notice that it’s everywhere, the excitement fades. We may read over his name quickly, like at the beginning of all Paul’s letters: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:2). This is when it’s good to ask: Why does Paul greet us in Christ? Why not just in the Father? And how does Christ send grace and peace?
That’s good to reflect on in our Bible study. When Christ is mentioned, even dozens of times in a short chapter of the New Testament, ask why. Why bring him in here? What’s his place in this teaching? In this passage, what do we learn about him? And when He’s not mentioned as often, like in the letter of James, ask the question how Christ still has everything to do with what the Spirit has written.
Building on the Cornerstone
This plea for more “cross-references” doesn’t mean that the main topic of every Bible study has to be Jesus’ work on Golgotha. Scripture is far too diverse for us to speak only and all the time about the crucified Christ. But it does mean recognizing how all of Scripture does point to him.
Some texts teach about our desperate need for a Saviour. Other texts reveal what preparations the Father made for his Son’s coming. More texts recount what our Messiah did in life and death, and what He’s doing in heaven right now. Still other texts instruct us about serving the King today, and what He’ll do in the glorious future.
In the study of Scripture, we place our hands not just on details and facts, but on a living and saving truth so profound that a lifetime of study cannot reach its depths. Whenever we study Scripture, let’s be able to answer: “What has the Holy Spirit taught us in this passage about the glories of God the Father and Christ our Saviour?”
The Bible is a diverse book about many things, but it’s about especially one thing: God’s redemption of his people through the blood of Jesus. With that gospel fixed in the centre of our minds and hearts, let’s faithfully search the Scriptures!