Book Review: How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens

 

Note: I did receive a free copy of this book from Zondervan for this review. I am thankful for this opportunity.

How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams is the latest in the "How to Read the Bible" series from Zondervan.

A couple excerpts from the introduction lay out plainly what Williams is attempting to accomplish in this tight reference work.

The simple truth is that all of the Scriptures--Old Testament and New Testament--testify about Jesus seems to be often overlooked. ... Reading the Bible through the Jesus lens is reading it the way it was intended. It keeps our reading, understanding, teaching, and preaching properly focused on God's grand redemptive program that centers on his own Son. Seeing how each biblical book makes its own unique contribution to that redemptive focus enables us to use these diverse materials with much more confidence and accuracy.

What this little book (less than 280 pages!) seeks to do then is give a brief overview of each book of the Bible and proceed through a five-step process.

  1. An overview of the book including a short statement about the overarching theme.
  2. A Memory Passage
  3. The Jesus Lens
  4. Contemporary Applications
  5. Hook Questions

In this brief exploration of each biblical book, Williams will examine the highlights that are especially pertinent for making the ultimate connection to Jesus. Obviously, for some biblical books (e.g., Ephesians) this is a much easier task. For others (e.g., Nahum) this is a little more difficult.

First I want to review his exploration of two books of the Bible (Nahum and Ephesians) and then give some final thoughts about the place of this book in our study, interpretation, and teaching/preaching of Scripture.

READING NAHUM THROUGH THE JESUS LENS

Now the book of Nahum is a prophetic "book" or oracle by the prophet Nahum against Nineveh.

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh. (Nahum 1:1, NRSV)

Williams begins by contrasting the repentance of Nineveh in the story of the prophet Jonah with the contemporary situation in which God has had enough and will now punish them. The theme of the book of Nahum is summarized as follows:

The Lord is sovereign over all and will judge Nineveh.

Fair enough. The memory passage is Nahum 1:7-8:

The Lord is good,
   a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
   but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh.

Williams then moves into the "Jesus Lens" portion of the book. Here is where I struggle to connect the book of Nahum with his interpretive move. The prophecy against Nineveh is reinterpreted as an eschatological rescuing that God will do for us (through Jesus) at the end of history.

Like the people of God in Nahum's day, we can look forward to comfort and relief from those who trouble us, because God "will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled. ... This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels" (2 Thessalonians 1:6-7). Jesus is the one who will judge between those who are his people and those who are against his people. (pg. 139)

The contemporary application summarizes this book as a reminder that we have been set free from the destructive judgment of God and that we should therefore have an urgency about telling others how they too can be reconciled to God and escape judgment.

The Hook Questions end with asking questions about God's judgment and determining who is in charge of our lives. Good questions to ask for sure. But can we get these out of Nahum?

Summary: While the introduction to the book of Nahum is helpful, and the text for memorization is important both for our formation and our understanding of the book itself, the "Jesus lens" seems like a big stretch. It's like those times you heard a sermon that started out, "The Bible says, 'He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.' And speaking of rain and water this brings me to my subject of baptism." The observations that Williams makes about God's judgment of those who are rebellious and his salvation for those who trust in him are not wrong, they just don't really come from Nahum without some significant hoops to jump through.

READING EPHESIANS THROUGH THE JESUS LENS

The book of Ephesians, written by Paul (questions of authorship are not raised here), to the church in Ephesus is one of the most theologically dense of Paul's writings. A tall order for four pages!! In a brief overview of who the recipients were and a discussion of the brokenness that comes from sin, Williams summarizes the theme of Ephesians as follows:

God establishes the church as the firstfruits of his shalom.

This is true. (One might question, as I do, if this however is the main theme of the book of Ephesians.) Williams uses this theme to tie together the recurring themes of unity (in contrast to the brokenness of sin) that flow throughout Ephesians.

The memory passage is Ephesians 2:17:

He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.

In the next step, the "Jesus Lens," Williams makes the point that Jesus is the one who brings this shalom back into our lives that was taken from us in our sin. He alone is the one who could heal the rift between ourselves and God, and that when this rift is healed we are then able to close the gap between ourselves and others as well.

The contemporary application revovles around the unity of the church and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit for such a life of unity both with God and with one another. "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:2-3)

The "Hook Questions" are intriguing:

  • Do you know peace in your life? Why should there be any brokenness at all?
  • Do others see peace in your life? How would they be able to see it? What have you done to promote the gospel of peace?
  • Where do you look for peace? What is the difference between what unbelievers call "peace" and what you call "peace"? Could you explain the difference to an unbeliever. Have you?

SUMMARY: There are some good things here. Is the theme of "peace" important in Ephesians. Absolutely. But again, it seems that this simply makes the most logical jumping off point for a people-centric reading of Ephesians. What does peace mean to you? How do you live out peace? If we read Ephesians carefully, I think we will see a much more God-centered framework for understanding how peace works in the community. In this section I struggle to see how the contemporary application and hook questions connect with the overarching narrative found in Ephesians.

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FINAL WORD ON "HOW TO READ THE BIBLE THROUGH THE JESUS LENS"

Ultimately, I think this will be a good starting place for those who want to get some clues as to how we can be informed about the connection points between Jesus Christ and the breadth of Scripture. Is this a perpetual challenge for the church? Yes. Is this why we often neglect especially the Old Testament? Sure it is. But a couple words of caution for those who will employ this resource (and for "hunting for Jesus" anywhere in Scripure, especially in the Old Testament):

I disagree with Williams overall premise that "all of the Scriptures--Old Testament and New Testament--testify about Jesus" (pg. 9)

I would be curious to see the "Jesus lens" of the laws about sexual relations in Leviticus 18, or David's "collection" of one hundred Philistine foreskins (yikes!) in 1 Samuel 18, or the lists of greetings that conclude many of the Epistles "testify about Jesus". In other words, the burden of such all-inclusive langugage only causes us to jump through hoops that simply aren't there.

There is a danger in "jumping" to the "Jesus lens" especially in the Old Testament.

It is a serious danger that we jump too quickly to Jesus in our understanding of Scripture, especially in passages that are either (1) in the Old Testament or (2) that are difficult to grasp or explain. We can be tempted to "rescue" God's reputation.

We look at the Canaanite genocide where God commands Israel to kill everyone (and I mean everyone) in those cities. We then hurry to the "Jesus lens" and say something like, "Because of Jesus no one has to die anymore." This doesn't mean that it is wrong, but we have not stopped to hear Scripture, to wrestle with what that text (hard to swallow as it may be) tells us about God or about God's people or about us. We have spared ourselves that difficult and sometimes unsettling work.

If this is the extent of your study of any particular book in the Bible you are on shaky ground.

I don't think by any means this is the intention of the book. He even tells in the introduction that a more detailed class taught at a seminary will be soon available that goes through much in the same way that the book does. But my point is this: This might be a good tool, but it is A tool.

Ultimately, How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens will be a nice addition to your library for study and preaching/teaching if:

(1) You recognize it is a place to stimulate your thinking.
(2) You spend time in the actual text itself and its meaning and implications BEFORE you "use the Jesus lens."

GOD GIVE US MERCY TO READ YOUR WORD WITH EARS TO HEAR, EYES TO SEE, AND A WILLING AND RECEPTIVE HEART.