Saturday, May 7, 2016

Starting Points for Biblical Interpretation: Part One (Luke 24:44–49)

Learning to read Scripture involves a commitment to understanding how the entire Bible fits together. My two recent books Invitation (Seedbed, 2015) and (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2016) have reflected on the narrative of the Bible as a coherent story from Creation to New Creation.

NIV Luke 24:44-49 He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

This text occurs in the climactic section of Luke’s Gospel. The risen Jesus meets with his astonished band of disciples and begins to prepare them for their ministry as apostles. Here are some of the highlights:

1) Jesus views his life, death, and resurrection as the fulfillment of Scripture. Notice Jesus’ use of the phrase “Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” This is shorthand for the totality of Israel’s Scriptures. Jesus taught his followers to read the Scriptures messianically. In other words, Jesus’ followers read the whole Bible as a witness to the mission of God as fulfilled in Jesus. This does not mean, as it has in some quarters of the Church, that the Old Testament becomes a mere pool of proof texts for the coming of Jesus. For example, the whole purpose of the book of Micah was not to predict that Bethlehem would be the place from which the messiah would come (Mic 5:2). Rather the Church is to listen to the witness of the Old Testament on its own terms and to recognize a trajectory that points beyond its witness to the coming of God’s Messiah to usher in the age of salvation.

2) Scripture is to be read missionally. If most Churches do a good job recognizing and teaching Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, it struggles in emphasizing the missional implications of this. Look again at verses 47-48. As a result of recognizing Jesus as the long-awaited messiah from God, the apostles are unleashed into the nations to be God’s witnesses. In other words, learning to read the Old Testament as a witness to Jesus is not about mere information it is about being transformed into a missional community with good news to share with the world. This will impact our reading of the Bible because it invites us to read Scripture missionally. That is we read the Bible not merely as a guide to personal piety or to create theological systems, but most profoundly in order to shape our own missional practice as we seek to live faithfully in our world as Jesus’ witnesses. The starting point for a missional reading of the Bible is the recognition of this reality. Christopher Wright in his essay “Mission as a Matrix for Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology” on page 109 asks, “Is it possible, is it valid, is it profitable for Christians to read the Bible as a whole from a missional perspective, and what happens when they do?” Wright, of course, believes that this is indeed the proper approach. Perhaps the pages of the New Testament bear witness to what happens when Christians do indeed read and act on the Scripture’s missional message. Wright's most comprehensive work on missional reading can be found in his seminal work The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative.

3) The Spirit of God empowers the Church. Verse 49 promises the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. This of course was fulfilled at Pentecost in Acts 2, but I want to suggest that this on-going reality has implications for our reading of the Bible. We do not read the Bible merely out of our own intellect, experience, education, and setting. Since the Spirit of God abides in each believer, it is important to recognize the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation. We do not read alone. Prayer for illumination is vital so that the Spirit of Truth may lead his people into the truth. I don’t want to overemphasize this aspect and I don’t see the indwelling of the Spirit as somehow legitimizing any or every reading of a text offered by a believer as there is a profound synergy involved in the interpretive process. But a text such as Luke 24 promises the empowerment of the Spirit in the life of the Church on mission. This implies, I think, guidance for the Church in its reading of the text as it seeks to bear faithful witness to the world about the salvation that God offers in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us apply this promise by continually praying that the Lord would astonish us anew with the richness of the Word.