How New Testament Authors Read the Bible

My last post explored how Jesus told us to read the Bible: as one big story with himself at the center. The New Testament writers handled the scriptures the same way.

Seeing Christ in the Psalms

For example, Hebrews 1:14 quotes Psalm 91:11-12: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

But when we look at Psalm 91, we don’t find anything to indicate that this text is about Jesus:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place —
the Most High, who is my refuge —
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”

Now, did it take supernatural knowledge to know that Psalm 91 was about Jesus? Perhaps. But it’s just as likely, especially given what Jesus taught, that the early church knew that everything in the Bible was about Jesus.

Seeing Christ in the Prophets

Other New Testament writers also quote passages from the psalms and prophets that clearly show they read the words of Scripture as being all about Jesus. In his first letter, Peter writes,

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Peter shows that the Spirit of Christ in the prophets was pointing to the person and work of Christ in their writings.

These are just two of many examples of how the New Testament writers view the Bible as one big story with Jesus at the center.

What we see in the New Testament usages of the Old Testament shows us how the early church read the scriptures. That means both the Apostles and everyone else in the church were able to interpret the Bible Christocentrically, or with Christ at the center.

And it gives us permission and direction to read the Bible in the same way.

The Story Within the Stories

To summarize, every part of the Bible is about the historical unfolding revelation and accomplishment of the gospel salvation through Jesus.

There is a story within all Bible stories of God’s redeeming a people for himself by grace in the midst of their sin. When Jesus says the Bible is all about him, that means all the major themes, figures, genres, and storylines are reflective of and fulfilled in him.

How Jesus Told Us to Read the Bible

The Bible tells one big story from beginning to end. There are 66 books and two testaments, and while each of those tells discrete, individual stories, they also tell one grand narrative.

If we’re not careful, we’ll miss that one big story and read the Bible piecemeal, jumbling the various stories and missing the larger narrative. When we absorb the Bible in a piecemeal way we risk taking passages that belong to the overarching story of Scripture and unintentionally reshaping them into the narrative of our lives.

Rather than being confronted by the overarching story of God’s redemption, we bend the text into the shape of our own lives and make the Bible a story more about us — our fulfillment, our sanctification, our hopes and dreams. In other words, if we miss reading the Bible as one big story, we make it a story about us. But we aren’t the ones at the center of the story. 

How We Read Scripture Without Making It About Us

So how do we read Scripture without distorting its overarching shape, without making the Bible a story about me instead of about God? We read it the way Jesus did.

In the last chapter of Luke, we see two disciples walking down the road to Emmaus. They were dejected because their hopes and dreams of Jesus being the Messiah had been crushed on the cross. Suddenly a man appears and joins them on the road. He wants to know what they’re discussing, and one of them answers, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:18).

The man appeared not to know what they were referring to, so they explained everything — that they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, that he had performed signs and wonders, but that he had been crucified and buried. And now it had been three days, and some were even saying his body was missing. 

The mysterious man surely took them by surprise when he said, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). Then, beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he interpreted to them how Christ was at the center of all the scriptures.

Burning Hearts

They approached a village and asked the man to join them. As they sat down to a meal, the man took the bread and blessed it and broke it. That’s when they realized who he was. It was Jesus. Then he vanished right before their eyes. Their first words were:

Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures? (Luke 24:32)

Jesus taught that they had to read Scripture as the unfolding story of God’s redemptive purposes. The Bible tells one big story, and at the center of that story is Jesus and his salvation.

(For more on this, see Tim Keller’s teaching on the Bible as one big story, particularly the first 9:18):

Opening Minds

The Emmaus-road encounter wasn’t the only time Jesus made this point. Later in Luke, he tells his disciples: 

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:44-47)

Here Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand that all of Scripture, which at that time consisted of the Law, Moses, and the Prophets, is all about him and his salvation.

Jesus makes the same assertion in John’s gospel:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:39-47)

Here again, Jesus says that the scriptures bear witness about him and that Moses words were really about him. He confronts his hearers with how they don’t understand the Scriptures’ testimony because they don’t understand how all of it, including what Moses wrote, was about him.

The Bottom Line

If we want to read the Bible the way Jesus told us to, we have to read it as one big story with him and his salvation at the center.

I’ll talk more about what the Bible has to say about being one big story, why this is important, and how we read it this way in my next posts.

How to Put Work in Its Proper Place

Many of us work far too much and enjoy it far too little.

We determine a person’s value by what kind of work they do. We let vacation time go unused. When we do take vacations, we bring our email with us. We put in 50 or more hours and sometimes add a side-hustle or two.

This is the ceaseless American work ethic, or what some are calling workism: “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

How did we get here?

The Religion of Workism

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson explains that the decline in traditional faith in American society has led to the worship of a pantheon of gods: “Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.”

Thompson points to two recent studies to prove Americans’ growing religious devotion to work. The first was a 2018 paper on women at elite universities showing their primary reason for attending a prestigious college is not higher pay, but more hours at work. The second was a Pew Research report on anxiety among our youth that revealed 95 percent of them value having a job they enjoy over loving their neighbor or getting married. “Finding meaning at work beats family and kindness as the top ambition of today’s young people,” writes Thompson.

Predictably, turning work into a god goes as poorly as deifying anything else. Today, work promises identity, community, even transcendence, but fails to deliver. The problem with the god of work is that it always disappoints: “a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout,” says Thompson. He goes on to say, “Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight.”

Why are we burning ourselves out? Because our hard work pays off. Or at least, it appears to. Hard work and obsessive dedication will often produce favorable results, or “goods” — affirmation from a boss, the satisfaction of a job well done, higher pay, a sense of making a difference.

But these goods come at a cost.

What Monks Can Teach Us About Work

After researching a story involving a monastery in New Mexico, Jonathan Malesic decided to visit. To enter a monastery is to step out of the rhythms of one’s daily life, particularly the demands of work. As Malesic left his daily tasks behind, he pondered the American work ethic (including his own). He began to identify it as a demon that is “chasing us over a cliff.” But the monks surrounding him — all of whom have their own work of some form — didn’t appear to be haunted by the same demon of workism, though they surely have their own.

Why weren’t these monks slaves to their careers? They had learned to put work in its proper place. Though they experience the same temptations to perform for those “goods” mentioned above just like those outside the monastery, they don’t let the pursuit of work or its goods supplant their primary objective: a life of prayer in service to God. Malesic writes, “For monks, these goods compete with their spiritual ideals and relationship to God.”

If they sense their work is pushing God too far to the margins, they begin to limit it in order to stave off the negative effects. If this isn’t possible and they can no longer keep up their way of life and the work at the same time, they walk away from the work and find something else to do.

If Monks aren’t keeping a close eye on their work life, it can eclipse their devotion to God through prayer. If we’re not careful to keep ourselves from burnout, we become unable to sustain our relationship with God.

How can we, who are not monks, keep ourselves from burnout and put work in its proper place?

A Personal Solution to Workism

Thompson suggests that one solution to workism is to take some of the misery out of work. “But maybe the better prescription,” he writes, “is to make work less central.” While that’s not a bad place to begin (it’s a major part of the solution, as I’ll explain below), a better answer to workism is to make God preeminent in our lives, thus putting work in its proper place.

Monks tame the demon of work by limiting it, Malesic explains. This limitation frees them up to pursue higher goods (a life of prayer and study). He suggests that for us non-monks, “the monastic principles of constraining work and subordinating it to moral and spiritual well-being might help us keep our demons at bay and recover the dignity in our labor and in ourselves.” That means we would limit our work to healthy amounts and view our work as one means to help us live a life devoted to God and serving others (which I assume is the goal of life for evangelical followers of Christ).

Intentionally limiting work sounds like a good way to get fired though, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. Studies continually show that burned out workers are far less productive than those who limit their work to a healthy amount and take regular days off. If you work hard and rest hard, you’re likely to be more productive than if you work hard all the time. As Malesic writes, “Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those are worth as much as your dignity as a person.” To work all the time is to view ourselves as undignified because it limits our value to our productivity.

This is why the solution to workism starts with individuals. We have to decide to constrain our work and relegate it to its proper place as we first pursue a life of devotion to God and service to others. I’ve worked hard over the last seven years to limit my work so I can sustain the family and spiritual life the Lord has called me to. Life is more enjoyable (and I’m more productive) when I work hard during work hours, then “turn it off” until the next day or week.

Based on what I’ve learned, here are some ways you can put your work in its proper place:

  • Pause before lunch each day for a time of prayer, asking God to keep you focused on him throughout your day.
  • As much as possible, do not check or respond to work email after hours.
  • If possible, do not add your work email account to your phone.
  • Review your calendar weekly and make sure you know when your work hours are, and ask yourself if you are able to stay devoted to God and others with that schedule.
  • Before ending your work day, review your calendar for the next day so you know what to expect.
  • At the end of your workday, spend five minutes in prayer and silence, asking God to prepare you to leave work behind and to focus on what or who will soon be in front of you.

While each of us can limit the effects of workism in our lives, it takes organizations partnering with individuals to really make put work in its proper place.

A Corporate Solution to Workism

An organization’s work ethic is a matter of dignity just like your personal work ethic. Malesic writes,

Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem exercens: “human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person, a conscious and free subject.” We need to acknowledge this value, in others and ourselves, if we’re going to keep the desire for productivity from turning demonic. A quarterly profit goal isn’t worth as much as the person who labors, at the cost of her health, to meet it. No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints. Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.

An organization — even a religious one — that demands more of you than is healthy is one that does not respect your dignity. By expecting or requiring over-production of its employees, an organization is saying its margins, services, or goods are more valuable than the people producing them. This is, unfortunately, exactly how most workers feel.

But this means the inverse is also true: An organization that does not demand more work of you than is healthy is one that respects your dignity. An organization that truly values its people as people is one that will allow its employees to have needed time off and not expect that they check in after hours and put in regular 60-hour weeks.

Employers have a responsibility to help their employees live a more balanced life because they’re working with people, and people have dignity. Here are some ways employers can treat employees with dignity:

  • Instruct managers to send emails during regular business hours, reserving after-hours emails for true emergencies (they can use services like Boomerang to schedule emails to arrive in inboxes at the beginning of the next business day).
  • Monitor employees’ workloads and shift things around teams as necessary to lighten individuals’ loads.
  • Require employees to “cash in” at least some of their vacation days each year, or limit the number of carry-over days to encourage employees to use them each year.
  • Be careful not to praise someone for putting in obscene hours on a project; thank for a job well done, not how the job was done.

Putting Work in Its Proper Place

Let’s start treating ourselves, our coworkers, and our employees with dignity. Let’s choose to prioritize people over products, sons and daughters over services, men and women over margins. Let’s tame the demon of workism.

Let’s put work in its proper place.

Spurgeon Brings Us to the Cross

I was listening to an audio performance of a Charles Spurgeon’s sermon on Hebrews 9:22 (“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”) and was blown away at his ability to put his audience in the story. Here’s how he takes us to the cross:

First, let me show you the blood-shedding, before I begin to dwell upon the text. Is there not a special blood-shedding meant? Yes, there was a shedding of most precious blood to which I must refer you. I shall not now tell you of massacres and murders, nor of rivers of blood of goats and rams.

There was a blood-shedding, once, which did outrival all other shedding of blood by far. It was a man—a God—that shed His blood at that memorable season! Come and see it.

Here is a dark and gloomy garden. The ground is crisp with the cold frost of midnight. Between those gloomy olive trees I see a man, I hear Him groan out His life in prayer! Listen, angels! Listen, men, and wonder! It is the Savior groaning out His soul! Come and see Him. Behold His brow! O heavens! Drops of blood are streaming down His face and from His body.

Every pore is open and it sweats; but not the sweat of men that toil for bread. It is the sweat of one that toils for heaven—He “sweats great drops of blood”! That is the blood-shedding, without which there is no remission!

Follow that man further. They have dragged Him with sacrilegious hands from the place of His prayer and His agony and they have taken Him to the hall of Pilate. They seat Him in a chair and mock Him. A robe of purple is put on His shoulders in mockery. And mark His brow—they have put about it a crown of thorns and the crimson drops of gore are rushing down His cheeks! Angels! The drops of blood are running down His cheeks!

But turn aside that purple robe for a moment. His back is bleeding. Tell me demons did this! They lift up the whips, still dripping clots of gore. They scourge and tear His flesh and make a river of blood to run down His shoulders! That is the shedding of blood without which there is no remission!

Not yet have I done—they hurry Him through the streets. They fling Him on the ground. They nail His hands and feet to the transverse wood! They hoist it in the air. They dash it into its socket. It is fixed, and there He hangs—the Christ of God! Blood from His head; blood from His hands; blood from His feet! In agony unknown He bleeds away His life!

In terrible throes He exhausts His soul. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.” And then look! They pierce His side and forthwith runs out blood and water!

This is the shedding of blood, sinners and saints. This is the awful shedding of blood, the terrible pouring out of blood without which for you and for the whole human race, there is no remission!

Read the full sermon or listen to the audio performance.

Values-Based Digital Discretion

Andy Crouch likes to say that if you want to have a healthy relationship with technology, you don’t have to become Amish, but you might have to come closer than you think.

He’s right.

Before I get to why I think we need to be more Amish when it comes to technology, it helps to dispel a common myth: The Amish are not anti-technology.

The Amish Aren’t Luddites

Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, summarizes Kevin Kelly’s experience with the Amish:

“The simple notion of the Amish as Luddites vanishes as soon as you approach a standard Amish farm. ‘Cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on Rollerblades.’

Some Amish communities use tractors, but only with metal wheels so they cannot drive on roads like cars. Some allow a gas-powered wheat thresher but require horses to pull the ‘smoking contraption.’ Personal phones (cellular or household) are almost always prohibited, but many communities maintain a community phone booth.

Almost no Amish communities allow automobile ownership, but it’s common for Amish to travel in cars driven by others.

Kelly reports that both solar panels and diesel electric generators are common, but it’s usually forbidden to connect to the larger municipal power grid.

In one memorable passage, Kelly talks about visiting a family that uses a $400,000 computer-controlled precision milling machine to produce pneumatic parts needed by the community. The machine is run by the family’s bonnet-wearing, 10-year old daughter. It’s housed behind their horse stable.”

It turns out the Amish only reject some — not all — technology. Newport calls them the “original digital minimalists.” Why? “They start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.”

Values-Based Digital Discretion

This is one of the big takeaways from Newport’s Digital Minimalism: that values are crucial for living a healthy digital life. In the various podcast interviews with Newport I’ve listened to (I’ve yet to read the book), he explains that we should let our values determine and guide our digital lives.

He’s not the only one to draw this conclusion. Jameson Wetmore is a social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society who has studied the Amish doggedly. As one Quartz article put it, Wetmore “suggests that contemporary society needs to take a new approach to technology — one that weighs the value of our new tools before welcoming them into our lives.”

In Technology and the Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann, one of the go-to scholars for everyone reading and writing about technology, suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, we should determine our values first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values.

Christian thinkers have reached the same conclusion and started to lay out what this values-based digital discretion might look like. Two books that come to mind are John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City and Networked Theology, an interesting book I’ve not seen many people cite.

From the Garden to the City

From the Garden to the City, as I’ve written before, is helpful for both understanding technology’s history and applications, as well as its interplay with theology. Unless a better book comes along, I would say that if a Christian could only read one book on theology and technology, this is it. John Dyer is employed by Dallas Theological Seminary but has degrees and a background in both computer science and theology. He has built useful tools for the Internet and thought deeply about how technology affects humans and society.

In his book, Dyer helps you understand technology along the spectrum of reflection (think “creation”), rebellion (think “the fall”), redemption, and restoration. This allows him to cover a range of biblical texts as he traces the theme of technology throughout Scripture and history. He summarizes thought leaders in the area of technology — Albert Borgmann, Jacques Ellul (whom Newport recommends reading) — while providing helpful analysis of their work. He then brings the truths of Scripture to bear on that analysis, helping you see past the limited views of the technological optimist or pessimist, as well as the shortsighted view of the instrumentalist, and gives a more nuanced approach of making decisions based on understanding your values and technology’s values.

After the closing section of the book, he suggests five steps for making these kinds of decisions:

  1. Valuation – Continually returning to the Scriptures to find our Christian identities and values
  2. Experimentation – Discerning the effects of technology through actual use
  3. Limitation – See what happens when boundaries are places on the technology you now understand
  4. Togetherness – Use the technology together with other believers as you discern the positive and negative contributions in community
  5. Cultivation – Participating in the creation and shaping of technology and its values.[1]

Like Newport et al, Dyer is telling us to begin with values so our devices don’t become the tail that wags the dog.

Networked Theology

Networked Theology, written by Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, comes from a mostly substantive (or technologically optimistic) point of view but tries to chart new territory in the theological discussion. More than any other books I’ve surveyed, this one cultivates a new paradigm from which to have a theological discussion.

Its title refers to a new approach to theology which understands persons and religions as forming their identities and values from networks. This understanding differs from historical ones that saw churches and people forming their identities based on familial, institutional, or other tightly controlled forces. Their work charts the way for a discussion of technology that’s not overly optimistic or pessimistic, yet also doesn’t fall into the trap of evaluating technology based solely on its uses (instrumentalism).

The authors do this by tracing the biblical theme of neighbor, and ask, in the digital age, “Who is my neighbor, where is my neighbor, and how should I treat my neighbor?” Through their answers, the authors lay a theological foundation for accepting both online and offline Christian community, but in ways that differ depending on the values of the individuals and the technological forms they seek to employ. This discussion leads to a four-stage framework for evaluating technology and deciding how to use it in one’s life:

  1. History – The history and tradition of the community that shapes who they are and what they stand for;
  2. Core Beliefs – Core beliefs of the group that relate to their general beliefs and choices related to media;
  3. Media Negotiation – The negotiation and decision-making processes they undergo, as it relates to a new technology grounded in the first two areas; and finally
  4. Community Discourse about Technology – The communal framing and discourses created by a group to justify their technology use in light of their values and identity.[2]

This model is very similar to the Amish one, where they carefully think through how each technological innovation will change their community if adopted. This is a strong decision-making framework, but it makes an assumption that may not be true of many. Campbell and Garner say their model “emphasizes the fact that, when deciding how they will engage technology, religious groups often prioritize communal and spiritual values above technological affordances or advantages.”[3]

While that would certainly be nice, I am not sure that is the case for many Christians, at least in America, though it does seem to be true of the Amish. Perhaps that’s why the Amish way of life has remained largely unchanged while American Christianity has eroded so precipitously.

LEDERs

My contribution to this discussion is what I call the LEDER framework, meaning that Christians consider the use of any technology, they should be LEDERs. They should:

  1. Learn broadly
  2. Evaluate biblically
  3. Discuss communally
  4. Engage skeptically
  5. Revisit regularly

You can read more about the LEDER framework here.

Will We Become More Amish?

You need to become more Amish than you might think if you want to have a healthy relationship with your devices. That doesn’t mean you have to give up technology, just like the Amish haven’t abandoned it entirely. It means you’ll have to consider technology’s impact on your values, including your family and community.

What’s unclear is whether we will look up from our phones long enough to realize our values, then ask ourselves whether our technological tools are congruous with them.

Will we consider technology’s impact on our communities, or will we adopt them sight unseen? Will we become a little more Amish in our technological thinking, or will allow technological change to set the course?


[1] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 176 – 179.

[2] Campbell and Garner, Networked Theology, 103 – 104.

[3] Ibid., 97.