A couple of years ago a highly educated and successful Muslim apologist invited me to an Iftar meal at his Masjid during Ramadan. After the prayers and eating the meal I spent almost three hours in Bible study with him as my teacher. We went through the entire Gospel of John in three hours as he pointed out all the places in John that clearly demonstrate Jesus humanity. At the end of the exercise he said to me, “See, Jesus is truly a human person; therefore, he cannot possibly be Divine.” In order to say what he did, he had to ignore both the Jewish context of story and John’s intended audience. For every evidence of Deity presented by John, he had another explanation. His Islamic lens prevented seeing what was there.
Something similar can happen in conversation with Buddhists. Many Buddhists, such as the Vietnamese French evangelist, Thich Nhat Hanh, quote this statement of Jesus: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life
for my sake will find it ” (Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24). This statement fits well with Buddhist teaching on renunciation of desire provided one leaves out the words, “for my sake.” Remove these three words, and you have a most plausible Buddhist text. The Buddhist lens makes these three words superfluous, while for the gospel writer, they are the clue to its meaning.
The revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament provides the proper lens for reading any part of scripture. In Luke 24 after the resurrection, Jesus visited two men walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. All the messianic hopes they had placed in him appeared to have evaporated. Their unbelief prevented seeing what the Old Testament taught, namely that “Christ should suffer, and then enter into glory.” It was the light of His personal presence that turned on their capacity to see what was there.
Adjusting Our Lens
Years ago I bought a 499 page book entitled The Hermeneutical Spiral¸ by Grant Osbourne, which I never finished reading. Looking at this book made me wonder whether Biblical interpretation really should be classed with “rocket science” as something for highly specialized experts only. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The most important thing to remember in Biblical interpretation is that Jesus is the hub around which everything else revolves, and the fulcrum over which the history of heaven and earth turns. Nothing in the Old Testament can be properly understood apart from the lens of the New, and the epistles flesh out what the gospels introduce. Nothing in scripture stands alone independent of the gospel story. This is hermeneutical principle number one.
In Acts 6-7 we read of Stephan’s martyrdom. Stephan preached that the monopoly of the temple on worship was now obsolete, for “God does not dwell in temples made with hands.” Stephan rooted his argument in a series of Old Testament events, and then unleashed a vitriolic condemnation against the very court before which he was being tried for its earlier condemnation of Jesus. Stephan identified a solid trajectory of Old Testament history to back up his conclusions about Jesus and his condemnation of the court and the temple. Jesus, the Great High Priest had made the conclusive, definitive sacrifice that secured the salvation of humanity, and the temple was made obsolete.
Stephan’s exegesis of the Old Testament also laid the foundation for Paul’s theology of Gentile inclusion. After recognizing the role of Solomon’s temple, Stephan rejected the temple altogether and replaced it with Jesus, and then sealed his own death warrant by quoting the very words of Jesus when Jesus had stood before the same court, “I see…the Son of Man standing before the right hand of God” (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Luke 22:69). The fact that the Son of Man was now at the right hand of the Father was the central issue. A few years later Paul, who had participated in Stephan’s execution, quoted Stephan’s speech when preaching in Athens on Mars Hill (Acts 17:24). Obviously he had listened well.
After Jesus took his place to rule at the right hand of the Father, God removed his favor from the temple and permitted the Romans (or sent the Romans, if one uses Old Testament language) to destroy the temple and permanently put it out of business. The new temple had already been established, the Deity had move into his new temple at Pentecost (Acts 2), and the time to demolish the old structure had arrived, which happened in AD 70.
Jesus became not only the Great High Priest, he also became the King of Kings. Putting the old kings out of business has taken longer than removing the temple and ending the sacrifice. As the gospel yeast has spread in the loaf of humanity (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:21, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Galatians 5:9) new ways of thinking have percolated within the social order quite universally. Now democratic notions and human rights are on the world’s agenda, and the poor are finally being noticed, but peace on earth is nowhere in sight, while greed and corruption continue to reign.
The new kingdom needs to be fully in function before the old can be removed, just as in the case of the old temple. In Matthew 24 Jesus said, “The good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed across the globe…, and then the end will come.” Over time, the effects of the gospel yeast have served to dislodge the old order, and today the kings are mostly gone, but so long as King Jesus is not acknowledged, his peace cannot be received.
Revelation 6:4 describes perfectly the world we live in now. In that description a rider on a red horse took peace from the earth. When there were kings, the kings kept the peace. It was not a just peace, but it was peace after the manner of this world (John 14:27). In Matthew 10:34 Jesus said, “Don’t think I have come to bring peace to the earth, rather I have come to bring a sword.” Division and conflict inevitably follow the breakdown of authority in this sinful world, but that is part of the process. That which terrifies the broken world is already a sign of hope for us who believe in him.
INTERPRETING JESUS IN ORDER TO SERVE HIM