Christ-Centered Interpretation of the Bible

In my message last Sunday, I encouraged everyone to build their lives on the foundation of understanding God’s Word. Specifically, I gave this as our take-home principle:

I’ll build my life on a JESUS-CENTERED understanding of GOD’S WORD.

At the core of this statement are two important principles.

First, we need to recognize that our foundation shouldn’t be on what some “wise” person tells us, the latest fad, or something that “really resonates” with us. Our foundation needs to be on the revelation of God. However, that’s also a problem because people regularly misunderstand, misinterpret, or even misuse the revelation of God. They will take the Bible and read it in a certain way that supports their point even though it doesn’t make sense with the rest of Scripture or what Jesus taught us. In other words, we can’t build our lives on a foundation of what we think the Bible says. We need to build on a rock that is more solid than that. That’s why this statement includes the second principle.

Secondly, we need to recognize that a proper understanding of God’s Word is always going to be Jesus-centered. Let me prove this point with a few quotations from the Bible itself:

The primary will of the Father is that we would put our faith in the Son:

And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.— 1 John 3:23 NIV

Our ability to understand the Scripture is based on the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. — 1 Corinthians 2:14 NIV

And the main job of the Spirit is to point us to Jesus, to speak Jesus’ own words to us:

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” — John 16:12-15 NIV

Then, of course I’ll mention the passage we considered on Sunday:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. — Matthew 16:16-18 NIV

The revelation of the Father to Peter is focused on the identity of Jesus, and it is supposed to be the foundation for Christian life… the foundation for the Church.
This is only a quick summary of the relevant passages, but I hope the point is clear. A true understanding of God’s Revelation to us will be centered on Jesus. The Bible is given to us to point us to Jesus. Jesus spends a great deal of his ministry on earth teaching his followers how to understand the Bible. He even spends hours on Resurrection Day explaining to the guys heading to Emmaus that the Hebrew Scriptures were really about him all along!

Therefore, I encourage you to follow this interpretive framework when you are trying to understand what any passage in the Bible is saying:

  1. Ask what the passage has to say about Jesus.
  2. Ask what Jesus has to say about the passage.

An Example

Let’s work through those two questions as an exercise. Last week, I went looking for one of the Old Testament passages that are “scary.” You know, one of those passages that can be hard to understand or one of those passages that is uncomfortable for people to accept these days. To do it, I just did a search in the Old Testament for the word “destroy” because those are often the passages that make people nervous. I found this one:

Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. — Deuteronomy 6:14-15 NIV

On the surface, this is a scary sounding passage. God is telling his people that if they deviate in their faithfulness to him, he’s going to get them, he’s going to wipe them out, destroy them from the face of the land. This is one of those passages that makes us think the Old Testament God is an angry God. Also, consider jealousy. Not only does this tell us God is angry, it also tells us he is jealous. Our only experience with jealousy in our world is with people who are jealous because of selfishness. Perhaps we can justify God’s jealousy by saying he is the only one who has the right to be selfish, but then again, that makes God look like a selfish being. Taken at face value, this passage shows us God is selfish, jealous, angry, and is willing to kill people who waver in their faithfulness to him!

Let’s go deeper. When we begin to look at the passage with consideration to Jesus, we initially encounter something truly difficult. Assume for a moment that you were a person back in the days of Jesus, and you were a fan of Deuteronomy. Let’s assume you were a big fan of Deuteronomy like a Pharisee-level fan of Deuteronomy. Let’s assume you were convinced that we should follow God and God alone and if we didn’t, God just might become angry with us and destroy us. And now, let’s assume that while you are trying your best to follow God and God alone, and while you are trying to teach your fellow Israelites to do the same, a human man shows up on the scene and claims that we should follow him! This man, let’s call him “Jesus,” uses a different word for God than you do. You use the word “Yahweh” or the word “Adonai,” but this man uses the word “Father” to assert that he somehow has a special relationship with God… a relationship so close that you really should follow him and put your faith in him. If you were one of those fans of Deuteronomy, you might get the impression that the angry God of Deuteronomy would be angry with you if you started to follow this man. What if other people started following this man? What if enough people started following this man that God got upset with the whole nation? That would be a matter of life and death. Either that man goes or the whole nation will!

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” — John 11:49-50 NIV

See, a face-value reading of the passage in Deuteronomy actually leads directly to the crucifixion of Jesus!

But what if we read the passage in Deuteronomy through the lens of Jesus? What if we read the passage in Deuteronomy with a presupposition that Peter actually did speak words of divine revelation when he said what he said:

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

If Jesus is the “Son of the Living God,” somehow God incarnate, what does the passage in Deuteronomy teach us about Jesus?

When we begin to think of this passage through the lens of God’s revelation that Jesus is also somehow God-in-the-flesh, the Deuteronomy passage takes on a whole new meaning.

Now, Deuteronomy tells us:

  • Jesus is the only one we should follow.
  • Jesus is present with his people.
  • Jesus is jealous for his people.
  • Jesus will be angry with those who are not faithful to him.
  • Jesus will potentially destroy even his own if they are not faithful to him.

If that old passage is telling us about God, and if Jesus is God incarnate, then the old passage is really telling us something about the nature and character of Jesus. Is it possible that Jesus is jealous, wrathful, prone to destroy his own? Weren’t we always taught that Jesus is loving? Weren’t we taught that the Old Testament God is scary and mean but the New Testament Jesus is kind and loving?

Well, from this point of view, the Deuteronomy passage is telling us that Jesus is scarier than we have been led to believe.

But do we have any evidence to believe that?

Let’s address the second of our two questions.

What if anything can Jesus teach us about the passage in Deuteronomy?

Let’s consider one passage in the New Testament that comes to us directly from Jesus. In Revelation 3:15-20, Jesus is dictating a letter to the apostle John for John to send to the church in Laodicea. It says this:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. — Revelation 3:15-20 NIV

You are probably familiar with that passage, and it has certainly been analyzed a lot, but let’s consider what this statement from Jesus has to say about the passage in Deuteronomy.

First, it’s interesting how similar in tone the two passages are. Jesus appears to be angry that his followers are not following him completely. Our modern idea of being “lukewarm” communicates a halfway state that means being wishy-washy or lacking in true commitment. It’s possible that Jesus meant that, but it’s more likely he just meant they weren’t doing anything at all with their faith. They weren’t being refreshing (cold water), nor were they bringing healing (Laodicea was known for hot springs used medicinally) to the people around them. Nevertheless, however you understand the word “lukewarm” you can’t deny the intensity of Jesus’ emotions. He is angry. He is angry that his people aren’t being what they should be and he is preparing to rid himself of them (spew them out). It’s very similar to the tone in Deuteronomy.

However, there are some interesting things here that we don’t see in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, we see the word jealousy but here, we see the word love. In Deuteronomy, we see destroy, but here we see rebuke. In Deuteronomy we see the threat of God’s people being removed from their land, but here, we see Jesus’ followers being invited into receive blessing. Then, as an additional twist, in Deuteronomy, it says that God is among the people, but here in Revelation, Jesus says he’s outside trying to get in!

It’s interesting that Jesus in Revelation has the same tone as God does in Deuteronomy, but the additional bits give us more insight into why. In Revelation, Jesus makes it clear that the reason people should stay faithful to him is that he is the source of true riches. Everything in their lives is fake, but he has true blessings, true healing available to them. Therefore, applying that back to Deuteronomy, God is jealous not because he is selfish, but because he knows he is the only source of blessing for his people! When they are with him, they stay in the promised land. Without him, they are on their own.
Also in Revelation, we understand Jesus’ motivation is not to gain more influence for himself or to destroy people he can barely stand. His motivation is love and relationship, so that’s why he acts with rebuke and discipline. Applying that back to Deuteronomy, we see that God isn’t looking for a reason to kill more people, he is with his people and longs to be in relationship with them. That’s why he doesn’t want them to follow other Gods. That’s like seeing your spouse have an affair. It’s painful to the one who loves!

Finally, in Deuteronomy, God says that he is “among” his people, but in Revelation, Jesus is standing at the door, on the outside, knocking at the door hoping to be let inside. This reinforces the idea that God’s presence with us is not something he will remove. God’s presence with us is something we get to choose. God is with the people of Israel, but they choose to stay or to wander away. Jesus is trying to be with his people, but they are the ones keeping the door closed. As the old saying goes, “If you feel far from God, it’s not God who moved.”

Jesus-Centric Iterative Thinking

This is not circular logic. Nor is it simply using one part of the Bible to make other parts seem more palatable.

This is iterative study. This is the process of dialogue with the text. Every time you see something in the Bible that confuses you, it’s just one more moment for you to enter into this kind of process with the text. What does this passage teach about Jesus? What does Jesus teach about this passage? And repeat!

If Jesus was right about Peter’s statement that God reveals the identity of Jesus and if that revelation is the true foundation of the church, then we need to be people who are Jesus-centric in the way we view the Bible. And we need to be Revelation-centric in the way we view Jesus. We can’t make up the Jesus we want. We can’t make up the Bible we want. We allow the Word of God and we allow God the Word to collectively teach us.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. — Hebrews 1:1-3 NIV

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