I got called in to pinch hit for my pastor when he came down with something nasty and lost his voice. So I reworked an old sermon on Hezekiah’s renewal from 2 Chronicles 28-30. Here’s video of the sermon. (Note the now ironic intro mentioning Tiger Woods not winning a major for several years … which he did when he won the Masters yesterday.)
After seeing Tony Reinke’s high praise for Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human, I decided to look it up through my local library, and found a free audiobook through Hoopla. I’ve been listening to it on my morning runs for the last two days, and already, I can see why Tony was so impressed.
Scott treads what is, at this point, well-worn ground about the limits and abuses of the digital tech we swim in today, but he does so in a fresh way. It’s hard to believe the book came out in 2015 (and equally hard to believe how long ago that seems in the scheme of the digital landscape).
The premise underlying the name of the book is that we now live in a four-dimensional world, one where we can easily operate outside of the previous limits of time and space — or at least it seems we can. Digital tech (think iPhones, social media, Skype, etc.) promise to put others in the “same room” as us, even though we are obviously in different ones. This ability to be both here and there at the same time is the fourth dimension.
He illustrates the title and concept by pointing back to a 1959 horror film called 4D Man. Here’s the film’s premise from IMDB:
Two brothers, scientists Scott and Tony Nelson, develop an amplifier which enables a person to enter a 4th dimensional state, allowing him to pass through any object.
You can probably already see the parallel to modern-day tech. Our screens are like that amplifier, allowing us to pass through the normal bounds of physical location to be present with others around the world.
But in the film, Scott soon discovers a problem with his newfound ability: Each time he passes through something, he ages rapidly. While he has found a way to enter the fourth dimension, he realizes he cannot do so without it taking a toll on his body.
And so it is with digital tech today, in my view. We can choose to enter into that fourth dimension through the screen, but we cannot do so without it taking a toll on our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls, and on others. While we feel as if we can be both here and there at the same time, we were made to be here. The fact that we can operate outside of that parameter does not make it untrue, and just because we can be here and there does not mean it is good for us.
My question has always been: “If we limit the amount of time we spend in the four-dimensional world, can we limit its negative effects and live an improved 3-D life?”
This question is also at the center of Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which I’m reading right now. I’m 100 pages in, and so far, Cal’s answer seems to be yes, but not without the limits. The limits are everything, he explains, because there is a law of diminishing returns with tech use, just as with certain processes. There are real returns (rewards, benefits) with a certain amount of use, but beyond that point, the returns start to diminish. The input increases but the output decreases.
I find this to be true in my own life. When I use helpful services, tools, or software in small, healthy doses, I typically enjoy the returns, in terms of time saved, connecting with others, etc. These are the times when I understand the fourth-dimensional tools to be in service of my three-dimensional life.
But when I forsake my third-dimensional world for the fourth-dimensional one, those returns begin to erode, until I am giving more and more of myself to something that returns less and less (sounds a lot like idolatry).
I’ll probably be writing more about these two books as I go along, but those are some initial thoughts and reflections.
The Bible is not primarily a book about morals. Though Scripture has a lot to say about how we live and act, it’s not primarily a manual for moral living.
The Bible is not about us. It’s about God.
Edmund Clowney, who was a professor and theologian, said that if we read a particular story without putting it into the bigger story about Christ, we actually change the meaning of the particular event for us. It becomes a moralistic exhortation to try harder rather than a call to live by faith in the work of Christ.
In the end, there are only two ways to read the Bible: as if it’s all about us or all about Jesus. In other words, is it basically about me and what I must do, or about Christ and what he has done?
Who Is the Book About?
If we read David and Goliath as a story that’s giving me an example to follow, then I’m reading the story as if it’s ultimately about me. And I have to muster the strength or courage to face my giants and win my battles. But if I read about David and Goliath as basically showing me about salvation through Jesus, then the story is about him. Then I can see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin and death) for me, which is the only thing that will give me the courage and strength to face my giants.
The Bible is not a collection of fables; it is not a book of virtues. It’s a story about how God saves us. That story works out in the four movements of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.
When we read stories disconnected from the whole, we lose their grounding in the redemptive arc of the Bible and place the significance solely in the events or details of that one story.
For an example of how this works out, let’s look at John 3:14-15 where Jesus says,
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus is referencing the story of the bronze serpent found in Numbers 21:4-9:
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
In this passage, Jesus puts the serpent story into the bigger story with himself at the center. The serpent story sheds light on how Jesus saves us (it only takes a look to be healed or saved, and that he is made to be like the sin that’s killing us) — but it also means that we can’t understand the serpent story without realizing it’s pointing us to Jesus.
Jesus is the truer and better version of all the characters and stories we read about in the Bible.
A Word of Caution
Now, we do have to be careful of allegorizing when we read the Bible as one big story. Allegorizing results in strange interpretations that require a stretch in a text’s meaning.
Allegorizing has two bad effects:
- It results in arbitrary interpretations. It’s a way of getting a text to say almost anything we want, instead of living under the authority of God’s Word.
- It fails to honor the author’s original intended meaning.
We guard against poor interpretation and allegorizing by doing a proper inductive study of a passage before looking for Christ in the text and trying to connect it to the larger story of the Bible. When we keep both things in mind, we’re able to see how a passage is part of the larger story and points to Jesus. And when you understand that God has been pointing to Jesus from the very beginning, your study of the Bible becomes a whole new adventure.
Reading the Bible with the “big picture” in mind is much more than a good skill or approach to reading the Bible. The ultimate goal of reading Scripture with the one big story in mind is to grow into the image of Christ as we realize that we are a part of the Bible’s one big story.
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.
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.
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):
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.