Understanding Scripture correctly (II)
BY: Denis Haack
Consider this thought experiment. You are attending a small group Bible study, and the discussion has been lively. Someone comments, “Jesus came into a broken, fallen world. The problem in this case is hunger, the need to eat, and as the Redeemer he solves the problem with a special supply of food. Won’t it be great in heaven when we won’t need food any more?”
Here is the thought experiment: Is this a legitimate understanding of the text?
My thought experiment would make more sense if I told you what text of Scripture the small group was studying. It’s Mark 6:30-44. Jesus had sent the 12 apostles out on a mission to tell people the gospel of the Kingdom and to heal the sick and oppressed. Now, we pick up the narrative as Mark reports it:
30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
When we read something—this Scripture or any other text, or even something outside of Scripture—we read it through some lens, some perspective that shapes our understanding. No one comes to any text as an infinitely neutral observer. It’s impossible. We have been formed by our ideas, background, culture and experiences even if some or much of it is subconscious. Since that is the case, we would be wise to intentionally adopt a lens that fits with our world and life view. For Christians that will mean a lens that is itself shaped by God’s word.
When I read the Scriptures I don’t particularly want to be creative when I analyze or interpret what I read. I want to be orthodox, correctly understanding the meaning of the text. There is plenty of room for creativity when it comes to responding to the text, applying the truth of God’s word to my life, world, and culture.
The lens I wish to commend here is the biblical Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration (C, F, R & R). This four-part lens provides a perspective formed by God’s revelation of himself in Scripture, the written word and in Christ, the living word. It’s an approach to understanding Scripture that grows as we study so that the more we know the Bible, the better able we are to understand each section as part of one whole.
You have probably guessed from my thought experiment that I think the person’s comment about hunger is not an orthodox understanding of this text. You are correct. There is a problem in the story that Mark records, but it’s not hunger. (More on that in a moment.)
Examining the Lens
There are several reasons why it makes sense to use C, F, R & R as a perspective to guide our understanding of Scripture. First, it is biblical. We are not bringing something foreign in from the outside, but allowing the Story of Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Second, it is natural. If I don’t understand a comment you have made, it’s only natural to ask you what you meant. Or I can take what else you’ve said and allow it to make sense of your latest comment. I may still have trouble understanding you, but at least no one would argue I’m going about things wrongly.
Third, it is historical. Reading each part of the Bible in light of the whole is not a new idea, but one that resonates in the teaching of orthodox Christian belief and practice over the past 2000 years.
And finally, it is substantive. By that I mean it helps us get the heart of the biblical message, to the real content of God’s revelation. It doesn’t just skim the surface.
More specifically, the hermeneutic or interpretive lens of C, F, R & R provides us with two helpful and interconnected avenues for understanding the text of Scripture.
First, it provides us with a world & life view that is both profoundly satisfying and fully holistic. C, F, R & R is the Story as it unfolds from Genesis to Revelation. All of history, reality, culture, and life fit in this Story because it is God’s Story, the Story of how he is bringing all things to their appointed end in Christ.
Each of the four chapters or parts answer key questions that every worldview or truth claim or belief system (philosophical or religious) must address.
Creation: Where are we? Where did we come from? Who are we? What is the nature of the world, life, history, and reality? Is there a God? If so, what is this God like?
Fall: What is wrong? How did it come about? How is it manifested? Can we solve it by ourselves? Can we know right and wrong, truth and error? How can we know we know?
Redemption: What is the way out of the problem we face? Has humankind found a solution? Has God provided a solution? How extensive is the solution? How is the solution made available to us?
Restoration: How will the Story end? Is there meaning to human history? Is there significance to our individual lives? What happens at death? In the end will there be true justice and a fulfillment of our deepest yearnings?
The second avenue for understanding comes because C, F, R & R is Christ-focused. This allows us to read each text as revealing something, explicitly or implicitly, of Christ who as Prophet, Priest and King is the central focus of the entire biblical Story.
Creation: How does the text reveal, implicitly or explicitly, Jesus as Creator, Sustainer, Word (Prophet), and Wisdom of God?
Fall: How does the text reveal, implicitly or explicitly, Jesus as Judge?
Redemption: How does the text reveal, implicitly or explicitly, Jesus as Savior, Lord of all, and High Priest?
Restoration: How does the text reveal, implicitly or explicitly, Jesus as King?
This Christ-focused approach is vitally important because Christ taught his followers to see all of Scripture as revealing him (see Luke 24:27). The stories found in the Bible are not given to us so we can extract “morals” from them, as with Aesop’s Fables, but to show us Christ. The point of Daniel 6 (Daniel in the lion’s den) is not “to be courageous like Daniel,” but that Daniel’s God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is sovereign over all, over the ruler of the entire known world, over his followers, and over all creation (even lions).
So, C, F, R & R provides us with a series of questions we can bring to each text of Scripture as a guide to understand its meaning.
The problem of food
Now we can return to the small group discussion about Jesus’ feeding the crowd of 5000 people. When we look at this story recorded by Mark, we can use the lens of C, F, R & R.
The story of Creation tells us that God created us as finite creatures. That means we are not, like God, self-sufficient. One way that manifests itself is in the need to eat. So, it is not surprising to discover that food was introduced in the Creation. (See, for example, Genesis 1:29-30 and 2:9, 15-16.) The need for food, in other words is not a result of the Fall, but a result of God’s grace to us. This is why we find food and eating in the Restoration as well. The great hope we are given for the return of the King and the consummation of his Kingdom involves feasting with him. We will continue to be finite for all eternity, need food, and have the delight of the culinary arts forever. (See, for example, Revelation 19:9.)
Hunger, as in the need for food, is not bad in itself, not a problem produced by the Fall. It comes from our finiteness, which God called “Good” in the Creation narrative. Still, the Fall perverts everything, even the good gifts of God. Needing food is part of being human, while the inequitable and inadequate distribution of food is one horrible result of the brokenness we suffer. This too is reflected in the Scriptures (see, for example, Isaiah 5:13-14 and 49:9-10).
So, in our reflection on the text in Mark 6:30-44, I would say the primary tension in the text is not the hunger of the people in the crowd. The primary tension or problem is in the response of the disciples to the Lord’s challenge to feed them.
The crowd had been with Jesus all day, and needed to eat, just as the disciples had been tired and hungry after finishing the mission Jesus had assigned them. First the disciples suggest sending the people away to fend for themselves, an idea Jesus vetoes. After all, Jesus had chosen the spot because it was desolate, away from towns (though not, as it turned out, from crowds). Then the disciples ask whether Jesus expects them to go spend “200 denarii” for supplies. That is an exceedingly cynical question. 200 denarii is the equivalent of 7-8 months wages for the average working man in that day, a ridiculous amount of money to which the disciples had no access.
It could be the disciples were still weary, first from their mission and now after a long day listening to Jesus teach. They probably had rather low blood-sugar levels. And they may have been disappointed that their day away in a quiet place alone with Jesus had not only been interrupted by a crowd, but by a crowd of strangers they now needed to feed. If so, I can understand why they responded to Jesus as they did. “Feed them? You’ve got to be kidding. Oh, I know, let’s just go spend $30 grand and make a picnic! Great idea.”
That is the primary tension or problem in the text. Not that the crowd was hungry, but that the disciples responded inappropriately to their Lord. They could have asked, simply, “What would you have us do, Lord? Command and we’ll obey.” But instead they were, as my grandchildren would put it, snotty to Jesus. They should have bowed. The mission Jesus equipped them for should have told them this was not an ordinary Rabbi. Jesus is revealed as Lord of all.
Eugene Peterson captures the narrative well in The Message:
The apostles then rendezvoused with Jesus and reported on all that they had done and taught. Jesus said, “Come off by yourselves; let’s take a break and get a little rest.” For there was constant coming and going. They didn’t even have time to eat.
So they got in the boat and went off to a remote place by themselves. Someone saw them going and the word got around. From the surrounding towns people went out on foot, running, and got there ahead of them. When Jesus arrived, he saw this huge crowd. At the sight of them, his heart broke—like sheep with no shepherd they were. He went right to work teaching them.
When his disciples thought this had gone on long enough—it was now quite late in the day—they interrupted: “We are a long way out in the country, and it’s very late. Pronounce a benediction and send these folks off so they can get some supper.”
Jesus said, “You do it. Fix supper for them.”
They replied, “Are you serious? You want us to go spend a fortune on food for their supper?”
But he was quite serious. “How many loaves of bread do you have? Take an inventory.”
That didn't take long. “Five,” they said, “plus two fish.”
Jesus got them all to sit down in groups of fifty or a hundred—they looked like a patchwork quilt of wildflowers spread out on the green grass! He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples, and the disciples in turn gave it to the people. He did the same with the fish. They all ate their fill. The disciples gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. More than five thousand were at the supper.
In this text Christ reveals himself as Lord, providing a foretaste of the feast he will enjoy with his people in the coming Kingdom. He reveals himself as Lord, able to provide the grace needed for the obedience of his followers. And though he is able to meet all needs by himself, he chooses to work through the resources of his disciples. That is indeed, grace.
C, F, R & R Dismembered
One of the problems the church faces in the 21st century is that too few Christians are conversant in the 4-part Story of Scripture. In fact, since the Enlightenment, two sections of the church have reduced the four-fold Story of C, F, R & R so that attention is paid to only two of the four chapters. In doing so, they have dismembered the gospel, reducing it to something far less than what the Bible proclaims.
The first reduction of the gospel involves concentrating just on the first and last chapters, Creation and Restoration. The attraction of this is that it skips the messy parts, like the idea that God’s Son had to die in our place to appease the Father’s anger, or that God is angry to begin with. Things like hell can be skipped, along with sin and judgment, so somehow the gospel seems more attractive. Although this reduction tends to be found primarily among those known as “theological liberals,” it is the de facto position of many evangelicals who want desperately to be accepted and seen as relevant in a post-Christian pluralistic world. The problem, of course, is that C & R is not in itself the biblical gospel, has nothing distinctly Christian to say to a broken and suffering world, and ultimately provides no hope.
The other reduction of the gospel involves concentrating on the second and third chapters of The Story, Fall and Redemption. The attraction of this is that it concentrates on the primary issue, which is personal salvation. After all, why worry about trivia like vocation or politics or culture when souls are about to go to hell? Ignore all that and win souls, tell them a memorized, simplified outline of F & R and your Christian task is complete. Everything else is secondary, a distraction to this primary task. Although this reduction tends to be found primarily among those known as “fundamentalists,” it is the de facto position of many evangelicals concerned to evangelize. The problem, of course, is that F & R is not in itself the biblical gospel, is ultimately dehumanizing, and proposes a solution to a problem that makes no sense.
The Christian gospel is the biblical Story, which is a 4-stanza drama of Creation, Fall, Redemption & Restoration. All four chapters are essential; none are optional or expendable. If you are a Christian, embrace them all and rejoice in grace. If you are a non-Christian, please consider the claims this Story makes. Charlie Drew, pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church (Manhattan), sums it up this way:
The promise of redemption is that, through the Messiah Jesus, God has worked, is at work, and will work to reverse everything that has gone wrong with life as a result of Adam’s fall. When we sing at Christmas, “He comes to make his blessings flow / Far as the curse is found,” we celebrate this great hope. The arts, the environment, worship, human relations at every level—all of these things are being renewed by the risen King. Certainly there is a future dimension to that renewal for which we must wait. But we must remember that Jesus has already sent his Spirit into the church, making us, even now, agents of all the good things that are to come. The believer who is content simply to improve his prayer life, and who otherwise waits passively for Jesus to come again and fix things, quenches the Spirit.
C, F, R & R is also a potent and practical lens through which to understand the Scriptures, a biblical hermeneutic which helps us interpret God’s word correctly. We commend it to you.
Charlie Drew online
Denis is the author of The Rest of Success: What the World Didn’t Tell You About Having It All and has written articles for such journals as Reformation & Revival Journal, Eternity, Covenant, and World. He holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.