A few years ago, my wife and I traveled to a western state where I spoke at a ministry gathering. On Sunday, we made our way to a local Southern Baptist Church to join them in worship. While people were welcoming, the pastor’s sermon—to put it bluntly—was not a Christian sermon. He read the Beatitudes, and then launched into a moral talk that would have been welcomed at the local Rotary Club or even at a Jewish synagogue, outside of one, scant reference to Jesus Christ. To him, the Beatitudes were about moral living, not kingdom life for those united to Christ.
One can imagine that this kind of non-Christian sermon multiplies weekly in Baptist and other evangelical churches. I have no reason to doubt that pastor’s faith in Christ or his sincerity in gospel ministry, nor that of other evangelical pastors who fall into the same practice. Certainly, I’ve fallen into that trap in earlier years in ministry, with a number of my sermons deserving to never see the light of day. We might guess that such a pastor had never been mentored or had no theological education or failed to grasp basic hermeneutical skills necessary for the pulpit. Yet, even with those excuses, what happened is inexcusable if one reads the Bible. Let me illustrate what I mean.
JESUS ESTABLISHES A HERMENEUTICAL FRAMEWORK
As Jesus appeared post-resurrection to His disciples, He gave them (and us) some of the most essential truths that His followers need to carry on the work of ministry. We gladly point to the Great Commission, and its call to take the gospel to the nations, as primary in His pre-ascension teaching. Yet as He gave the church its marching orders, He also gave us a pattern for reading and interpreting the Scriptures. Luke 24:44–47 contains, “the theology of the Bible in a nutshell” [Andreas Köstenberger and Richard Patterson, For the Love of God’s Word: An Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015), 86]. “Now He said to them, ‘These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are 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” (Luke 24:44–45). The Gospel writers only give us a snapshot of what Jesus said and taught in those closing days before He ascended to the Father. He reiterated His teaching, at least to some degree, so that the disciples might be assured that they were on track in the way that they handled the Scriptures as they preached and taught.
LESSONS FROM JESUS
First, note that Jesus identified all of the Old Testament Scriptures: “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms,” which is the Hebrew ordering of Scripture. He explained particular texts in conversations, illustrated with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35), that set forth the plan and purposes of God summed up in Jesus Christ. As Darrell Bock rightly put it, “Jesus is the topic of Scripture. . . . The events of his life are thus no surprise; they are in continuity with what God revealed throughout Scripture” [Luke 5:51–24:53, ECNT; (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1936]. Köstenberger and Patterson concur: “The various parts of the Christian canon all cohere and contribute to this overall purpose of showing the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope and message in Christ” [For the Love, 86]. So Jesus teaches us to read the Scriptures with Him as the aim of OT revelation [see Edmund Clowney, Preaching Chirst in All of Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 39–40].
Second, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Apart from the revealing work of the Spirit, we cannot rightly understand God’s Word. Obviously, some have claimed new revelations by the Spirit, but we reject that as inconsistent with what Jesus did. He opened their minds, not to receive something at variance with the revealed Word of God, but rather, to understand that Word.
Third, Jesus sums up the teaching of the OT Scriptures concerning Himself by using the formula that we find throughout the New Testament: “Thus it is written,” literally conveying, ‘it stands written forever and ever.’ “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46–47). Did the average first century Jew understand from reading and listening to the OT the passion and resurrection of the Messiah, with the redemptive message of the gospel for the nations? Certainly not, yet Jesus’ hermeneutical framework for the OT declared His suffering of death, resurrection, salvation in His name, the gospel for the nations, and the Great Commission starting point as Jerusalem. In other words, He instructed His disciples to read the Scriptures through that interpretive lens. That principle for Bible reading remains the same.
While every verse in the Scripture is not directly about Him, as in giving us a neat Christological statement, the message of each book is about Him. The holistic intention of a given passage ultimately frames the message of God’s Word in such a way that we see the divine design concerning Jesus Christ [see Bock, Luke, 1937]. Jesus’ statement in Luke 24:46–47 indicated, as Leon Morris explained, “that there is no part of Scripture that does not bear its witness to Jesus” [The Gospel According to St. Luke (TNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 343]. So whether we’re studying the Beatitudes in the NT or the genealogies of the OT, the grand aim is to unfold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. A Christian reading and interpretation of the Bible point to Jesus Christ.
Ed Clowney drives this truth home. “To see the text in relation to Christ is to see it in its larger context, the context of God’s purpose in revelation.” He warns teachers and preachers, “We do not ignore the specific message of the text, nor will it do to write an all-purpose Christocentric sermon finale and tag it for weekly use.” The approach is clear, “You must preach Christ as the text presents him. If you are tempted to think that most Old Testament texts do not present Christ, reflect on both the unity of Scripture and the fullness of Jesus Christ. Christ is present in the Bible as the Lord and as the Servant” [Preaching Christ, 11]. And that’s the interpretive framework that Jesus taught.