How to Read the BiblePart 1
I was recently at a service where the speaker told a fable. It went something like this:
There were four fellas; they each wore different-colored glasses, red, blue, yellow and green. They stood at the edge of a field; in the distance was a zebra. They were each asked to describe the color of the zebra.
As one would expect, the guy with the red glasses saw a red and black zebra; the guy with the blue glasses, blue and black. So, it went, yellow, and green, each seeing the zebra through their lenses, in their respective colors.
The speaker then presented the question to us, “Who is correct regarding the true color of the zebra?” He paused long enough for me to have the thought, “Zebras are white and black.”
But that wasn’t the question.
“Who knows the true color of the zebra?” the speaker asked again and then he answered…
What the Hell?
I remember the first time I read about how David won a battle against the Moabites and after the battle, “he made them (the Moabites) lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought him tribute.” (Samuel 81:2)
When I finished reading this I literally said out loud, “What the hell?”
Seriously… what the hell?
This story is just a paragraph in the many chapters of David’s incredible life. It’s a seemingly insignificant footnote, unless you were a Moabite, then it’s a story of horrifying slaughter. And oddly, the author apparently didn’t feel the need to enlighten us as to how David came to this seemingly random approach to flirting with genocide.
This cold-blooded brutality, this almost casual annihilation of entire people groups; it’s everywhere in the Old Testament. And what’s most disconcerting is that, as often as not, God seems to be credited as the primary instigator.
Moses writes about it a good deal. In fact, he’s the guy who “penned” the famous story of Noah. You know, the story where God seems keen on killing everyone.
“The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” (Genesis 5:6-8)
What the hell?
The Old Testament is littered with stories like this one. Stories where humanity is depraved, and God is angry, and destruction is imminent, and then often realized.
Then, to the wonder and eternal gratitude of all of us, Jesus is introduced into the narrative. And with His arrival, God’s thoughts about us suddenly seem to change.
In the Old Testament, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.” (Deuteronomy 22:22) And yet, in the New Testament, when a woman, caught in adultery, is thrown at Jesus feet, He says, “neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11) and He forgives her.
In the Old Testament, God “hates all who do wrong.” (Psalms 5:5) In the New Testament, He fellowshipped with sinners. He dined with them, laughed and cried with them, He delivered, healed and saved them. I can’t think of any stories where He killed them. I don’t think it happened even once.
So yeah, I’m not the first person to notice that the God of the Old Testament seems to be very different from the God Jesus revealed in the New. The disparity is enough to make one think God was either a seriously manic for a long time, or that He is fickle – changing like the wind. But then we read Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change…”
And so, we’re left with the question, “If God didn’t change, what did?”
2,000 years ago, Jesus walked the earth and for the first time we saw God as He truly was – and God was way different than we thought. He wasn’t a controlling, punishing deity disappointed by our stumbling. He didn’t seem outraged by our brokenness and our sin. He wasn’t in a bad mood. He wasn’t angry, at least not in the vengeful or wrathful way the writers of the Old Testament seemed to portray Him. He didn’t smite anyone, didn’t even seem to want to.
Yes, He strongly addressed issues where he encountered a lack of faith. Yes, He challenged all humanity to wholehearted surrender. And yes, one time He even used a whip to drive the money lenders out of the temple grounds. But there were no deaths, not even a report of injury – just hurt pride and exposed hypocrisy.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Jesus did get angry.
But when Jesus was angry, it was with the religious leaders; the self-righteous who sought control like the drug that it is; the self-serving who used the theology of control to oppress others; those who shamed and condemned others in His name; those who wielded control like a sword. Yet, while He used some strong language when confronting or describing them (“brood of vipers,” “blind guides,” “fools” and “hypocrites”), even then, He never once followed it up with a killing spree.
Jesus never once had people put down in the dirt, divided into thirds, and then had two out of every three slaughtered where they lay.
The stories of God and mass killings seem to be missing from the four Gospels – the four books in which God is most clearly revealed. Oddly, the clearest revelation of God, the perfect picture of sovereignty, the clearest revelation of His nature seems to be missing the angry, murderous, destructive bent.
And no one seemed to understand.
Jesus lived absolutely counter to religious culture, He turned the world upside down. The last were first, the poor were rich, the meek inherited the earth, the weak became strong, sinners were loved, prostitutes forgiven, and willful prodigals greeted with a kiss – none of it made sense.
Jesus, revealing God for who He truly is, walked as the perfect expression of sovereign love. And everyone was baffled by it.
I would like to propose that the reason no one could truly comprehend was because all humanity wore colored glasses.
They saw everything, including Jesus, through the lens of punishment and sovereign control. It’s not surprising – punishment and control had been the prevailing perspective since the fall.
Even Jesus’ disciples, those who had never once witnessed Jesus do anything that smacks remotely of genocide, were wearing shades.
“When the days were approaching for His ascension, He (Jesus) was determined to go to Jerusalem; and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and said…
“What the hell?”
I’m not being trite, nor trying to offend. I believe hell is a pretty accurate word to expose the spirit behind the disciple’s thinking…
“…But He turned and said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.’” (Luke 9:51-56)
If you want the clearest understanding regarding God’s heart for humanity, this scripture is a good place to start. In fact, it’s the point of this entire article.
Long ago, I made Jesus (sovereign love) my hermeneutic – my “methodology of interpretation” – the lens through which my entire theology is defined. But the disciples hadn’t gotten there yet…
Jesus essentially says to his hell fire disciples, “Fellas, your theology is really messed up, your lenses are colored, your perspective of who I am is horribly flawed! For nearly three years you have witnessed me save, heal, deliver, forgive, redeem, restore and empower. Never once did I use fire and brimstone. Guys, the spirit behind your desire to see destruction reigned down is in direct opposition to everything I have been revealing.
“Seriously, the control/punishment lens through which you perceive me is from the pit of hell.”
Then Jesus continued to perfectly reveal sovereign love by journeying on to the cross and to resurrection life. He continued revealing the exact representation of God and His dealings and heart toward humanity.
And He completely changed the way we could know what God looked and acted like. No longer did we have to interpret Him through a theology of punishment and control, now we could know Him through the revelation of love.
Jesus is the lens.
He revealed a truer narrative and with it humanity gained access to the whole story. We can truly see God, from Old Testament through the New. We can truly discover sovereignty, we can truly trust Him, we can truly be free.
My point: It wasn’t God that changed from Old Testament to New, it was our perspective. Or more accurately, our perspective can change, if we chose to make Jesus (sovereign love) the lens: “the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)
You see, until Jesus, we had bits and pieces of the story: God-inspired fragments. The Old Testament writers revealed God like the zebra in a field. Some said, “He is red with black stripes.” Some said, “He is blue”; still others said, “yellow and green.” Then God walked among us in the flesh and revealed Himself perfectly.
“Who knows the true color of the zebra?”
I believe Jesus is the whole story. He is the lens through which I can truly know God. And He is the lens through which I read the Old Testament and the New.
For me, interpreting the Bible outside the revelation of Jesus is to completely miss the point. It’s foolish. It would be like watching the first pre-season game of the Buffalo Bills and then buying tickets to watch them play in the Super Bowl.
(Not as far-fetched an idea as when I first wrote this by the way ☺)
I am convinced that Jesus is the lens by which we interpret the Old Testament and the New. And I have discovered when I read through the lens of sovereign love, suddenly a story about a flood that wipes out nearly all of humanity doesn’t make me desperate or insecure.
It has always been God’s heart that none would perish. (2 Peter 3:9)
(to be continued…)
Jason Clark is a writer, speaker and lead communicator at A Family Story ministries. His mission is to encourage sons and daughters to grow sure in the love of an always-good heavenly Father. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children.
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