"What the Bible Is About"#89-37
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 15, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
One of the greatest onscreen TV detectives of all time, in my opinion, was Lieutenant Colombo. You remember him? If not, he's not too different from the main characters of crime dramas on nowadays, but Lieutenant Colombo stands out. He stands out with that cigar in his hand, or with the notepad he's always scribbling on. He often has a puzzled look on his face, and he's always wearing that crumpled beige overcoat. He was like a blue-collar Sherlock Holmes from Brooklyn. And his frequently underestimated powers of observation are always revealed at the end when he tells the second story—the one that makes sense of the initial story. The initial story was the lived experience of all the characters in the drama, like pieces of a puzzle haphazardly thrown on the table. The characters were trying to sort them out, trying to see the picture they reveal, trying to hear the story they tell, but it's not till the end, when Colombo tells that second story, that it makes sense.
Now, the second story, it's not a different story, it's what the initial story was all about, all along, but the characters living in the story couldn't see it at the time. Not until the master detective tells the second story, when he gives that clear and concise sequence of events that reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt whodunit. Once you hear the second story, the initial story makes sense. In your mind, you can run through all those details that seemed inconsequential at first. You can say, "Oh, that's why the comment from the hotel clerk was important, and I knew that the make and model of the camera mattered, but I never even noticed the clock on the wall in the ransom photo." The second story shows what was most important, and how the rest was just details. On this program, we're in a three-part series called "Rediscovering the Bible."
This is part two. Last week we talked about what the Bible is like. This week we're saying what the Bible is about. What is the Bible about? That's not just a merely intellectual question. It's not just for a classroom. That question, what is the Bible about, is intimately related to another question: What's your life about? Do you ever feel that your life is like 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, except that when you got the pieces, they didn't come in a box? You got instead a gallon- sized Ziploc bag overflowing with pieces, and you're not even sure about what you've got, whether it really is a puzzle or just a mishmash of pieces. You might get glimpses, snippets, and edges of a bigger picture, but some days it feels like a big mess that's all going to end up in the trash. Our lived experience is like that of characters in a crime drama. We are stumbling through the initial story, trying to connect the dots with the days and the decades, trying to put the puzzle together. So, what if a friend comes up to you and says, "Here, this might help." Your friend's holding the box from whence all the pieces came, and on the cover is the picture you've been looking for, the big picture that shows you how it all fits, what life is all about.
The Bible has been that picture for countless people through the centuries. It can continue to be that for you and for me, but we need a friend to show us how, someone like Colombo. We need someone who can help us reread the initial story, in the light of the second story. There is an account from the New Testament of the Bible where such a thing happens. It's in the book of Acts 8. A man in the middle of nowhere opens up the Bible, and starts reading somewhere. As he's puzzling over it, another guy named Philip comes up and says to him, "Do you understand what you're reading?" The first man says, "How can I, unless someone shows me how?" So, he invites Philip to come up and sit with him. Now, the Bible passage the man was reading was from the prophet Isaiah. It went like this. "He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so He did not open His mouth. In His humiliation, He was deprived of justice. Who can speak of His descendants, for His life was taken from the earth." The man says to Philip, "Who is the prophet talking about, about himself or about someone else?"
Philip, in essence, says, "Here, this might help," and then he gives him the big picture on the box from whence all the pieces came, and beginning with that Scripture from the prophet Isaiah, Philip told him the good news about Jesus. Philip showed him how all the pieces fit together. He showed him Jesus, because Jesus is who and what the Bible is all about. Jesus Himself explained this to His first followers, after He was raised from the dead. He told them, everything written about Me and the Law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then He opened their mind to understand the Scriptures. He said to them, "So. It is written that the Christ, the Messiah should suffer, and on the third day rise, and that repentance—turning back to God for the forgiveness of sins—should be preached in His Name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:44-47).
For 2,000 years and running, this is how the followers of Jesus have been reading the Bible. Dr. David Steinmetz, a professor of Christian church history explained it in these terms. He said the church learned to understand the Bible, like we understand a classic crime drama. We understand it backwards, that is from the vantage point of the final chapter, the final scene, from the second story. Steinmetz wrote, "Early Christians believe that what had occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was of such importance that it had transformed the entire story of Israel, the story of the Bible, and with it, the story of the world." However, under the influence of popular media, many modern people approach the Bible without this second story. They don't see how everything fits together in a simple narrative, and they're left with a mashup of pieces. It would be like watching episodes of a crime drama, but always stopping before the reveal at the end.
Watching it like that, you might be interested in the rhetorical structure of the hotel clerk's comments, or what the choice in the make and model of the camera implies about the director's troubled home life, or the spiritual appeal of the clock on the wall. You might be interested in some or all of these details, but you'd never know what the story is about, because in a crime drama, as with the Bible, it's the second story, the one revealed by the master—that's what the whole drama is about. The second story doesn't ignore the details that we experience in the first pass through the story. It illuminates them, making the more important ones stand out from those that are less important. Compare it to how people share their lives through social media. Even in a single day, there are just too many details to share. If I want to share something on social media, I need to be selective—and we all know people who could be more selective, right?
I shouldn't share every photo, every video clip, every conversation. I have to pick, and when I pick, I say implicitly, this is important. The rest is just details. I make these choices based on some final story that I'm hoping my life tells. If my life isn't based on the second story given in Jesus, then I'll try to construct it around some other story. For example, if you think that you are the most important thing in your life, if you think that your story must be a story about the fulfillment of your thoughts and desires and experiences, then self-fulfillment becomes your story. If that's the story you bring to the Bible, it will affect the meaning of what you read. Or if you decide self-fulfillment isn't feasible because you find your life to be a series of unfair and unfortunate mishaps, ending in death, then maybe despair becomes your story. If that's the story you bring to the Bible, it will affect the meaning of what you read.
The writers of the New Testament, who'd been reading the Old Testament of the Bible their whole lives, when they reread it, after knowing Jesus, they read it with His story in mind. And this affected the meaning of everything they read. They read Jesus as the fulfillment. Jesus became the main character, the second Adam, the answer to God's promise to Abraham and Sarah; Jesus is the fulfillment of the Exodus. He's freedom from slavery, our way home from exile. He's the Lamb led to the slaughter, the High Priest who offered the sacrifice. He's the new temple in person. He's the King who became the Servant, deprived of justice, suffering humiliation to put the world right again.
Jesus is God's Son, first-born from the dead, the spiritual Heir of innumerable descendants, the elder Brother of an ever-expanding, adopting family. The writers of the New Testament looked to Jesus for the second story, for the final story, not because He fulfilled their initial wishes. On the contrary, whatever wishes they had for self-fulfillment died with Him, when He was crucified. Jesus became their second story, because they saw Him bodily raised from the dead, confronted with this whodunit, they concluded God had. God, the Author of this mystery from whence all the pieces have come, God wrote the concluding chapter in which they all fit, and Jesus is the Friend who shows us how.
In a detective drama, the episode soon ends after the master sleuth tells the second story. Colombo explains whodunit. Then the credits role. In contrast, the second story centered on Jesus, doesn't only work backward, but also for the story still to come. It's truly the story of everything, the true ending of every story, and that includes you.
When the story of Jesus becomes yours, it tells you what is most important. It's not your self-fulfillment. It's not the thought that life is unfair and unfortunate. It's not the fact that one day you'll die. The second story tells you what's most important. One of the inspired writers of the New Testament, a man named Paul, who wrote 13 of the New Testament's letters said it this way: "What I received, I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that, He appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time" (1Corinthians 15:3-6).
Paul's letters are full of second story moments like that. These statements became the basis for the brief narrative recounted in the universal Creeds of the Christian church, the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds, for example. By these creeds, Christians today still confess what happened, what matters most, and whodunit. Life is puzzling, and so is the Bible. Where do all the of pieces fit? Where do you fit? The New Testament says that you find your place by being baptized into Jesus. In another one of Paul's letters, he wrote, "We were therefore buried with Jesus Christ through Baptism into His death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. Because if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection. We know that our old self was crucified with Him, so that the body of sin would be done away with, that we would no longer be slaves to sin. Because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. So, if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him" (Romans 6).
In other words, when you're baptized into the name of Jesus, His story becomes yours. When Philip spoke to that man who was reading the prophet Isaiah out in the middle of nowhere, he sat down with him, and he told him the good news of Jesus. The next thing the man said was, "Look, here's some water. What prevents me from being baptized?" The answer was nothing. Nothing prevented him from being baptized—and nothing prevents you.
When you are baptized, and you live like you believe it, all the mishmash of life fits together in Jesus. So, repent. Turn back to God again and be forgiven—set free from a life driven by self-fulfillment. Because every story of self- fulfillment eventually leads to death and despair. But your story doesn't have to end there. You don't have to die without Jesus. In Baptism you die with Him, and if you and I have died with Him, we also will live with Him. And the rest, the rest is just details.
Please pray with me.
Lord Jesus, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, so lead us in Your truth. Your Word is truth. Amen.
Reflections for May 15, 2022
Title: What the Bible Is About
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. And now back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Today, I'm talking with Dr. Peter Nafzger. He's a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and has devoted much work in academic research, and then as a pastor and a professor to helping Christians with how they think and talk about the Bible. Thanks for joining us, Peter.
Peter Nafzger: Thanks for having me.
Mike Zeigler: So we're discussing what the Bible is about. And Christians often talk about what the Bible is, that is, we say it's the written Word of God. Peter, why is it also important to say what the Bible is about?
Peter Nafzger: There's a lot of things the Bible is about if you break it apart into every verse. Of course, there's 66 books in the Old and New Testament combined, and those 66 books talk about a lot of different things. And it's easy when you're looking at a book as important as the Bible is for people to latch onto certain ideas, certain verses, certain chapters, certain books, and then run with it as God's Word. And it is God's Word. But the challenge is sometimes we don't have the big picture view of what the Bible is about as a whole. Then what happens sometimes is we go down a path with a certain idea that isn't aware of the bigger picture, what the Bible is about as a whole.
I have a friend who I learned a while ago that he had left the church, and I asked him, "Well, what happened? Why did you leave the church?" and he said, "God betrayed me." Of course, so I was very concerned. I asked my friend, I said, "Well, what do you mean? How did God betray you?" And he told me about his favorite verse in the Bible, a verse that many people hold near and dear, Jeremiah 29:11, "For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare, not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." He told me, "God gave me a hope. She was really cute, and she was God's gift to me." Of course, it was a young lady named Hope.
Mike Zeigler: All right.
Peter Nafzger: And he read his relationship with Hope as a fulfillment of this promise that God had made in His Word—
Mike Zeigler: Sure, sure.
Peter Nafzger:—to him. Then the problem was the relationship didn't work out, and Hope left him. And he read that as God going back on His promise. It may seem like almost a thing you can kind of smile about and chuckle about. But this is somebody who read the Scriptures, believed it was God's Word, and concluded, because he didn't know what the Bible was about, (the) big picture, and how this passage in Jeremiah 29 fit into the big picture, and so he misread the Bible to be saying something to him that it didn't actually say.
Mike Zeigler: So we know as Christians the short answer to what the Bible is about is the Sunday school answer, Jesus, but what does that mean? Why do we say Jesus?
Peter Nafzger: Yeah, and there's a reason that's a Sunday school answer because it's a really good answer—that the Bible is about Jesus. It's about the One who holds all things together, through whom all things were made, who became Man, became one of us to restore all things. It's all about Jesus, to recognize Jesus as the most fundamental message of God to us.
The Gospel of John calls Jesus the "Word." So, think of Jesus as God's Word to us, God's message to us. Any verse we might read, any passage of the Bible is one piece of the puzzle that helps us understand who Jesus is,
Mike Zeigler: Sure.
Peter Nafzger: what God says to us in Jesus. There's a Church Father from the second and third centuries, Irenaeus was his name, and he had a really great analogy for this. He has this image of a mosaic, a beautiful mosaic with thousands of gems and together, all put in the right spot, these gems form the image of a king. And he said that this image of the king is kind of like the Bible. You've got all these verses, all these chapters, all these books, and put properly together, they present this beautiful image of King Jesus.
The problem is, and Irenaeus was writing at a time where people were intentionally rearranging some of the jewels to preach a different Jesus.
Mike Zeigler: There's been a controversy within the Christian church, within our larger society, about what the Bible is and what it isn't. And I understand it, there's a critical or a liberal side that says the Bible is more or less unreliable and that we have to sort out the reliable from the unreliable parts. Then there's a conservative Bible-believing side that says that the Bible is completely reliable in every way God's Word. And you and I, and our larger church body that we're a part of, we're going to say that the Bible is completely reliable, true, authoritative, and that Christians have always said this. This isn't anything new. But what happens when Jesus is absent from that debate?
Peter Nafzger: That's an important way to think about sometimes it's called the "battle for the Bible." It's been raging for the last couple hundred years. Those who would say the Bible is unreliable depart from the long history of the Christian church and put man above God. They make man kind of the judge over God's Word. Kind of make your own Jesus. And oftentimes its shaped by the cultural wins and ideas, and so Jesus kind of conforms to our ideas. That would be a Jesus without the Bible to give shape to who Jesus is.
But the other side of the picture would be to have a Bible without Jesus, the Bible's a list of true statements. The Bible is a set of truisms, maxims, words to live by, but Jesus Himself is left out of the picture. Those are equally problematic approaches to what Christians believe the Scriptures really are.
Mike Zeigler: I guess that analogy that I'm thinking of is if you have a letter from your wife, you were dating her in college or something, and you've got a letter from her. That letter, it represents her in some way, but she's more than the letter. She's not different than the letter, but the point of the letter is to bring you to her.
Peter Nafzger: That's a good way to put it. The purpose of the letter in that instance would be to strengthen your relationship with her. The Scriptures that God gives us are meant to strengthen our trust in Him, our confidence in Him, our obedience to Him, but it's always about Jesus.
Mike Zeigler: What would you want to say to someone listening to encourage them on how to walk this line, to hold Jesus and the Bible always together?
Peter Nafzger: It's always helpful for me when I'm reading the letters of the apostles, the Gospels, the New Testament, it's always helpful for me when they identify why they're writing what they're writing. So at the end of the Gospel of John, the evangelist says, "These things are written and that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing in Him, you may have life in His name." To me, that would be a helpful starting point for anyone who ever reads any part of the Bible. These things are written so that we would believe in Jesus and have life in His name. If we approach the Scriptures like that, and we recognize that it's completely true, completely reliable, then we can say, "Okay, how does this passage help me understand who Jesus is? How does this little gem fit into the mosaic of the King?" So I'm going to be less likely to take one little gem out of that mosaic and say, "Oh, look at this little colorful orange gem. This is such a beautiful little gem, and now I'll go take and use that in some other way detached from the image."
Mike Zeigler: Some other picture.
Peter Nafzger: Some other picture, right. Instead, I'm going to say, "Okay, this helps me understand Jesus a little bit better."
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. You mentioned the end of John, same thing at the end of the Gospel according to Luke. He's walking with the two to the village, Emmaus, and He thoroughly explains to them in all the Scriptures everything concerning Himself. He interprets what it's about. It's about Him.
Peter Nafzger: Yeah, and you see this actually all over the place when you start looking in this way. 1 Peter 1:10 and 11, Jesus talking about the Spirit of Christ that was in the prophets, leading them to prophesy about the sufferings of Christ. You've got Jesus talking in John 5:39 talking to some of His critics, and He's saying, "You think that you have life in these Scriptures? Well, they are they that testify of me."
So you start to see Jesus and the apostles are affirming, over and over again, the purpose of these Scriptures, the subject matter of them is Jesus. And they're written so that we would believe in Him and live in Him as His people.
Mike Zeigler: So it might be the Sunday school answer, but it's a good answer.
Peter Nafzger: It's a good Sunday school answer. That's right.
Mike Zeigler: Jesus and the Bible, keep them together. Thanks for being with us, Peter.
Peter Nafzger: My pleasure.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)