The hit TV show Seinfeld has been called a show about nothing. One of the most pernicious falsehoods about the Bible is that it, too, is a book about nothing, that it is a random collection of ancient myths and moral aphorisms. Strangely, some Christians seem to regard Scripture this way. Others find unity in Scripture around God’s plan for national Israel and/or a time of millennial glory. Still others treat the Bible as if it is about the reader, as if there is no such thing as a “text” or authorial intent but only the reader’s experience of the text. Even more crassly, the Bible is read as if the reader (and his or her prosperity and happiness) is at the center of the story.
Reading the Bible the New Testament Way
These errant approaches to the Scriptures are borne from the misapprehension that the biblical writers themselves did not understand themselves to be contributing to a larger unified story and that they did not have a way of reading the Scriptures. There are writers who admit that such a unity and way of reading Scripture exists, but they contend Scripture is inspired and therefore it is beyond our ability to imitate the biblical hermeneutic. This view is mistaken. Scripture is inspired, but the biblical hermeneutic is not-at least not so that we cannot observe and imitate it. That is precisely what we shall begin to do in this essay.
The Scriptures are organized around God the Son who was “manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16; esv).
Our Lord himself claimed throughout his ministry to be not only God the Son incarnate but also to be at the center of God’s saving purposes and revelation. Indeed, he attacked the hermeneutic of the Pharisees as wrongheaded. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life,” but the Scribes and Pharisees missed the unifying message of the history of redemption and revelation: the Scriptures “bear witness about” Jesus (John 5:39). The Pharisees claimed to believe Moses, but they did not, because Moses, “on whom you have set your hope” (John 5:45) accuses them. The Pharisees missed the point of the Pentateuch: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46).
One of the great and common misunderstandings of the Bible is that, before the incarnation, believers had direct, immediate access to God the Father and that the mediating work of the Son began only with his incarnation. Such a view is directly contradictory to the explicit teaching of Jesus. He said the Father’s “voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen.” He was even more explicit in John 6:46 that no one has “seen the Father except him who is from God ….” If anyone would see the Father he must look at Jesus, the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). According to Jesus, his mediation does not mean less access to the Father, but more: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus was conscious of his office as the “revelation” of God (John 1:1). He knew that “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God … has revealed him” (John 1:18).
Jesus repeatedly challenged the myopic hermeneutic of the Jewish leaders. Just as they claimed to follow Moses, they also claimed to be Abraham’s “children.” Jesus rejected the premise of their claim. He said that he is the fulfillment of Abraham’s deepest longing: “‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, he saw it and rejoiced.'”
Not only did Abraham and Moses trust in God the Son and in the salvation he would bring to his people, but so did the prophet Isaiah when he said, “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (Isa. 53:1). He was anticipating Jesus’ response to the blindness of the Jews (Isa. 6:9, 10) and predicting the reception Jesus received. The Apostle John says “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41).
Jesus provoked the Pharisees by querying them about the identity of the Messiah: “‘What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?'” Good scholars that they were, the Pharisees replied that the Messiah must be the “son of David” (Matt. 22:42). After evading so many of the Pharisees’ traps, Jesus had set one of his own. If the Messiah must be David’s son, how is it that, according to Psalm 110:1, David calls the Messiah “Lord?” whom God the Father has placed at the right hand in power (Matt. 22:42-46)? Totally baffled, they did not see that Jesus, whom they sought to murder, was both David’s son and David’s Lord.
On the cross our Lord, by applying Psalm 22 to himself, appropriated to himself all the Psalms. He made it clear that it was not David who was utterly abandoned by God; David did not substitute for those whom the Father had given to him (John 6:39; 10:39), David did not drink the cup the Father had given to him (John 18:11). Jesus is the man who delights in the law of Yahweh. He announced God’s name to the brothers (Ps. 21:23; Heb. 2:12). It is his royal signet ring (Ps. 2:12) that must be kissed in submission. He is the “shepherd” (Ps. 23) who went through the valley of the shadow of death, and he alone had “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4). We can see how the New Testament reads the Psalter by the way it uses Psalm 110. In more than twenty quotations and allusions, the New Testament makes clear that God the Son, who became incarnate, is the “Lord” to whom the Father said, “Sit at my right hand.” It is to and about him that Yahweh has sworn, “You are priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
After his resurrection and ascension Jesus gave the disciples a vital lesson in biblical interpretation. All the prophets, he said, testified that the Messiah must suffer before entering into glory. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). Jesus did not simply apply particular Messianic passages to himself. He interpreted the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures as referring to himself. Thus, reading the Bible with Christ at the center is not reading anything into Scripture; it is refusing to read him out of it.
The Apostolic Hermeneutic
The first official, public proclamation of the apostolic message centered on the “foolishness” of Christ and him crucified (Acts 2; 1 Cor. 1:25; 2:2). Like Jesus, Peter interpreted the patriarchs and the prophets with Jesus at the center of their message. He preached not an earthly millennium, but “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). This twofold title, “Lord and Messiah,” is important because it gives us a clue as to how Peter understood the Hebrew Scriptures.
Frequently in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the covenant name of God, Yahweh (Exod. 6:3) is translated with the Greek word Kyrios. For example, in Psalm 110:1, the Hebrew text says, YAHWEH says to Adon, sit at my right hand ….” The two characters in the dialogue are distinguished by two different titles. The Greek translation of Psalm 110:1, however, from which Peter quoted in Acts 2:34 reads: “the Lord says to my Lord….” Our English versions reflect the fact that the same noun is used for both persons. The distinction that was clear in the Hebrew text became ambiguous in the Greek text and the apostles capitalized on this ambiguity. They did so because what distinguishes the Father and the Son is not a difference in divine essence, but a difference in their persons and it belongs to the person of the Son to become incarnate, but the incarnate Son is and remains consubstantial with the Father. Thus, to call Jesus Lord and Messiah is to say, “When you see the LORD speaking or acting in Scripture, think of Jesus.”
All this means that God the Son did not first appear in the history of redemption in the incarnation, but has been mediating the knowledge of God and saving his people for thousands of years before. This is how the Apostle Paul read the history of salvation and why he declared, “There is one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). We see this way of thinking in his admonition to the Corinthians regarding their conduct at the Lord’s Table, where he reminded them that they were not the first to be baptized (1 Cor. 10:1-2) and they were not the first to eat the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:3). Indeed, they ate the same food and drank the same drink we do: “For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.” Paul did not see only occasional types of Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, he saw God the Son actively operating throughout Scripture. In other words, the unity of the covenant of grace is not merely typological but substantial. We Christians today are partakers of the same justifying and saving grace by which God the Son justified and redeemed his people before the incarnation. Paul said this much when he told the Corinthians, “For the Son of God Jesus the Messiah whom we preached among you … is not Yes and No, but in him the Yes has come. For however many are the promises of God, their Yes is in him. Wherefore also through him is our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:19-20).
The writer to the Hebrews also saw Christ as the center of redemptive history. Much is made of the heroes of faith and of the quality of their faith in Hebrews 11, but not enough is made of the object of their faith. Moses turned his back on privilege in favor of identification with God’s people, because “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt… ” (Heb. 11:24-26). This means that there were Christians before the incarnation, believers who had, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism Q. 21, “a certain knowledge and a hearty trust” in Christ fifteen hundred years before the incarnation. Moses’ story is the story of a Christian pilgrim on the way to the heavenly city (Heb. 11:16), as we are, but who happened to live in the time of types and shadows (Rom. 5:14; Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:5). More than looking forward to the incarnation, Hebrews also places God the Son at the center of the action of the story of redemption. Arguably, no place was more basic to Israel’s national identity than Sinai, and whom does Hebrews place thundering at the top of the mountain? Jesus, “the Mediator of a New Covenant” (Heb. 12:24). The one to whom we have come was there all along, with whom Jacob and Moses spoke “face to face” (Gen. 32:30; Exod. 33:11) and now, in the incarnation, with us. Read this way, we understand that with the incarnation we have not been cut off from God by the incarnation. Rather, we have more and greater access to God (Heb. 4:15-16; 9:15).
Writing to the suffering Christians of Asia Minor (central Turkey), the Apostle Peter assumed a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. The salvation that had been preached to them was the same prophesied by the prophets, into which those prophets had “searched and enquired carefully,” asking “what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet. 1:10-11; ESV). According to Peter, God the Son unifies the history of redemption and revelation despite the variety of circumstances and human authors of Scripture because God’s Word also has one divine, unifying author, the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who moved all the writers to write as did they in Scripture (2 Pet. 1:21), and who intended all along that Scripture should reveal Christ throughout.
The Son in the Hebrew Scriptures
Christ is the subject of Scripture. The question is not whether the Bible is Christ-centered but how? Following the pattern established by Jesus and the apostles, we find that Christ is revealed by an extensive series of types (illustrations of the reality to come) in the history of redemption. Jesus and the Apostles, however, have clued us in to an even more profound way of reading Scripture whereby Jesus does not simply appear typologically, but as a pre-incarnate actor in the drama of creation, fall, and redemption. He was the agent of creation. John 1:3 says that “All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made that was made.” Remembering that Jesus is the only Mediator, we must consider that when Genesis 2:15-16 says that YAHWEH Elohim put Adam in the garden and instituted the covenant of works (Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2), we must identify that divine person as the pre-incarnate Son of God. It was he who made the woman, conducted the wedding ceremony, whom Adam heard coming in judgment in the garden (Gen. 3:10), and who pronounced the curse. It was also the Son who preached the gospel for the first time: “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15) and who covered his people (Gen. 3:21). Read this way, this narrative takes on new depth. This is neither saga nor idle promise, for with this oath the Son solemnly committed himself to incarnation, suffering, and death in order to conquer the enemy. He did so again in the covenant-making ceremony of Genesis 15:17. It was he who went “between the pieces,” swearing a maledictory oath against his own life (Gen. 15:13). The mysterious figure with whom Jacob wrestled, and with whom he spoke “face to face,” (Gen. 33:20) was none other than the Mediator. That same person revealed himself to Moses as the “I Am” (Exod. 3:14; John 4:26; 6:20, 35, 41, 48, 51, 8:12, 58). Not only was his incarnation illustrated by the blood on the doorposts (Exod. 12:7) but it was he who sent the plagues and led his people through the Red Sea.
When we read the Bible this way, we are not only following Jesus, Peter, and Paul, but we are also following a confessional Protestant pattern. At the Heidelberg Disputation (1518). Luther argued that seeking unmediated access (trying to get around the Son) is a “theology of glory” and sub-Christian. A genuine theologian only approaches the Father through the Son and his cross.# Suggestively and brilliantly, Luther spoke of seeing God’s “backside.” He was alluding to Exodus 33:32 where God did not allow Moses to see his glory but only his “back, but my face shall not be seen.” If we would find God, it will not be in glory, but in the mediator who became wretched for us carrying a cross up Golgotha.
Scripture is not a random collection of ancient myths and aphorisms. It has a unifying message told in every genre, by every author, in every period of redemptive history. The unifying thread is not God’s plan to establish a glorious national people on the earth nor is the Bible about the reader. The Bible is about God the Son who became incarnate for us. The Son has been revealing himself to his people since the garden. It is not that God is indifferent to us. After all, we are those “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11), but we always remain readers of and not actors in crafted drama of redemption supervised by the same Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep (Gen. 1:2) and who hovers over the living temple of God (1 Pet. 4;14). The gospel is that the Mediator “become flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
For more detail on Jesus’ applications of Psalm 22 to himself, see Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ from All of Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), p. 41. See also Geerhardus Vos, “Eschatology of the Psalter,” Princeton Theological Review 18 (1920): 1–43.For examples of how the New Testament reads the Psalter, refer to Matthew 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; 16:19; Luke 20:42; 22:69; Acts 2:34; Romans 2:5; 8:34; 11:29; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:3; 8:1; 10:12; 11:15, 17:21.For information on Luther’s participation in the Heidelberg Disputation, see Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), pp. 52–53.
This essay first appeared in Modern Reformation Issue: “Gods Unto Ourselves” March/April 2007 Vol. 16 No. 2 Page number(s): 20–24