Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Friday, March 9, 2012

Michael Williams, How To Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens

Michael Williams, How To Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens: A Guide to Christ-Focused Reading of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.

The goal of Michael Williams’ new book, How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens, is clear enough from the title: to explain how each book of the Bible points to the person and work of Jesus Christ. He wants to give believers a central figure around which they can organize all the Bible’s strange and confusing details. To this end, Williams writes a brief chapter on each book of the Bible in which he overviews its plot and main theme, views it through the “Jesus Lens,” considers “Contemporary Implications” and offers “Hook Questions,” which explore avenues of contemporary application. This is a tall order for a short book (only 267 pages), but Williams has a gift for selectivity and brevity, and he pulls it off. In this review, I want to do two things: 1) consider the legitimacy of reading the Bible, especially the OT, Christologically and 2) interact with Williams’ chapters on Exodus and Leviticus.

One sunny day at a little cafĂ© in Davis, California, some buddies and I were discussing Augustine’s interesting allegorical readings of the Old Testament in City of God. We were all somewhat troubled by Augustine’s find-Jesus-everywhere-whether-he’s-there-or-not kind of approach. We deliberated how we should read the Law and Prophets, which Jesus said testify about him (Luke 24:27; John 5:39) and which he came to fulfill (Matthew 5:17). My friend Stanford said that, as Christians, we must read the Old Testament Christologically, that is, always consider how an OT text points to Christ’s coming fulfillment. My immediate reaction was to disagree, being convinced a) that we need to understand each text in its own context and let it speak on its own terms before we “find Jesus in it” and b) that OT texts are understandable and applicable without filtering them through NT teaching. For instance, the numerous calls to worship and justice make perfect sense and lay clear obligations upon us even if we don’t tie them to Jesus. Likewise, OT narratives can challenge us even if we don’t find foreshadows of Jesus in the characters and events. The rest of the discussion didn’t change my mind, but it did cause me to think about how we – and I – do, by default, read the OT from a Christian viewpoint: we always see it as an unfinished story that finds its climax in Jesus Christ, and, even if the practical implications of a text are clear, we always (or should always) ask how to apply it as Christians, living under the New Covenant. This was not the first or last time I would wrestle with the question of how to approach Jesus’ Bible (the OT) as Jesus’ disciple. I relate the story here to give some context to my hesitant response to Williams’ project.

My problem comes when we assume that the OT can only make sense or have value for Christians when we read it explicitly “through the Jesus lens” or when we feel compelled “find Jesus” in every OT character, text or narrative. Such an approach seems to tacitly deny the value of the texts themselves and of our ability to discover their original meaning apart from later revelation. But didn’t these sacred texts powerfully shape and speak God’s people for centuries before Jesus stepped on the scene? And can’t we go a long way toward understanding their meaning by applying all the standard tools of evangelical interpretation: reading them in their ancient context and attempting to overhear their message as the original audience would have understood it? Doesn’t that give us the best starting point for the complex task of discerning how Jesus fulfills them?

All this rambling seems to have moved me some distance from a review of Williams’ book. But my concern is that a work like Williams’ gives the impression that we can have a two-page understanding of a book of the Hebrew Scripture and then quickly and easily jump to the “How does Jesus fulfill this?” question without further ado. This leaves a whole host of comlex questions unanswered about how we properly make that jump and leaves a lot of biblically illiterate Christians feeling like they can apply the OT as Christians without thinking through any of those questions. It’s not that we don’t need to read and apply the OT Christologically, it is that we need to do so carefully and thoughtfully. Careless interpretation of Scripture is already proliferate among Western Christians. I hesitate to give us any more (over)confidence to irresponsibly read and apply Scripture without diligent and informed study.

Of course, Williams’ intent is not to give believers license to do this themselves, but to give them an example of how it’s done. On that level, he’s done a fine job; it is clear that he has done his homework to grasp the original meaning of OT texts so he can see clearly how they do relate to Christ and how “the Jesus Lens” can further clarify and deepen their significance.

There is much to commend in Williams’ presentation of individual books throughout The Jesus Lens. The chapter on Exodus sets the story in the narrative framework of Genesis and gets right at the main question: will Pharaoh stop God’s promised plan for his people? The answer to the question and the narrative of the book are encapsulated in its main theme: “God delivers his people from slavery into his presence.” Williams rightly stresses that YHWH delivered the Israelites so that he might dwell among them. This begins as soon as Sinai, where God becomes terrifyingly present to reveal the Ten Commandments. The execution of the tabernacle plans after the golden calf debacle demonstrates God’s merciful willingness dwell with the Israelites despite the deep, “internal and tenacious” bondage that still had its grip on their hearts. “The Jesus Lens” section focuses on how the tabernacle furnishings point forward to the presence of God in Christ and the atonement accomplished in his sacrificial death. The whole story of deliverance anticipates Jesus’ greater deliverance of people from death and into a meaningful life in his presence (Rom 7:21-25).

Despite the correct focus on deliverance into God’s presence, there is at least one alarming absence in this chapter: Williams does not discuss the covenant. The covenantal relationship that governs the history of God’s dealings with his delivered people begins at Sinai. Only if they keep his covenant will they be allowed to remain in his presence. And their continual covenantal faithlessness and failure is the reason Jesus came to accomplish a New Exodus and establish a New Covenant which would allow his renewed people to dwell forever in his presence. So Jesus fulfills not just the purposes of specific tabernacle furnishings, as Williams rightly notes, but the tabernacle itself and whole covenant relationship for which the tabernacle allowed fellowship.

Williams properly points out, in his “Contemporary Implications” section, that no human ruler can thwart God’s deliverance; this is a truth we should heed, especially in an election year, when many Christians worry that the wrong official could be tragic for the cause of Christ in our nation. But instead of going to Romans 5:9-10 to emphasize the certainty of God’s preserving power, I wish he would have used a NT text that has more obvious connections to the main themes of Exodus. The “Hook Questions” for Exodus, urging readers to live in the freedom of God’s presence and help others do the same, are on target and challenging.

Once God delivers and dwells among his people, a problem remains: how will an unholy people live in the presence of a holy God? Thus the theme of Leviticus is, “God instructs his people how to live in his presence.” That is, he shows them “how to set themselves apart for him and the purposes he has for them,” namely, to live in his freedom and bless the nations. Each of the sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7 reveals a dimension of the sacrifice of Christ. Through “The Jesus Lens,” Leviticus helps us view Jesus not only as our spotless Sacrifice but also as our sinless Priest who offered himself for our sin (Heb 7:27) to fulfill the Levitical code and give believers access to God’s holy presence. In light of all this, we should strive, by the Spirit’s power, to be “blameless and at peace with him” (2 Peter 3:14), so we can live in his presence. The “Hook Questions” for Leviticus challenge readers to consider what holiness looks like today and to cultivate that kind of life.

Despite Williams’ clear and succinct discussion of holiness, sacrifice and life in God’s presence, this chapter on Leviticus, like the one on Exodus, leaves some key themes untouched. I would have liked Williams to go beyond Leviticus 7 and touch on purity regulations (esp. the Day of Atonement, ch 16), the annual festivals (ch 23) and the Jubilee (ch 25). Space limitations may have required selectivity, but he unfortunately overlooks important background themes for understanding the person and work of Jesus.

Although Williams could not cover every theme we may have wished, he has given us a very well-written, uniquely-focused and widely-accessible introduction showing how every book of the Bible propels Scripture’s storyline and relates to Scripture’s central character. This is a great resource for Christians who want to learn how it all fits together and where Jesus fits in it all.

I received a free copy of How To Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens for the purpose of this review.

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