Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Squirrels That Look Like Jesus: Gospel-Centrality and the Scriptures

You've probably heard this Sunday School humor tidbit:

Sunday School teacher holds up a picture and asks the class, "What is this?"

Little Johnny answers, tentatively, "Well, it looks like a squirrel, but I know the answer is 'Jesus'."

I can laugh at the Little Johnny and the Squirrel story, but I think it's true too. The best teaching and preaching always makes the answer "Jesus."

Not every biblical text is explicitly about Jesus of course. But no matter what it looks like, we can show that the answer is Jesus.


Here's how I approach biblical texts in the mode of gospel-centrality:

If I'm looking at an exhortation/command/Law, I ask what precipitates it. Sometimes you have to draw in the gospel reminder if it's not immediately in the text or context. For instance: Leviticus is chock-full of commands, but this book comes after Exodus, after the Israelites are set free from Egyptian bondage and are in the wilderness. So I remind myself and my church that obedience is a response to God's freedom, not the leverage for God's freedom. In other words, we don't obey to be set free; we obey *because* we've been set free. In the same way Jesus announces the blessings of the kingdom coming in the Beatitudes, and then proceeds to tell us what life in the kingdom looks like (the rest of the Sermon on the Mount). Pronouncement precedes exhortation; being precedes doing.

This is easier to do in Paul's letters, because Paul is always connecting commands to gospel pronouncements, couching what we do in "what we are." One has to try really hard to divorce Paul's exhortations from Paul's gospel proclamations. A lot of preachers do it, but you really have to put the blinders on. It gets harder in the Old Testament, but even in some of the hard core hellfire and brimstone passages of the Minor Prophets, there are plenty of little gospel pronouncements. (Malachi's burning furnace and threat of God smearing dung on our faces comes after he explicitly reminds us "I have loved you.")

If the text I'm looking at is a story of some kind, the most important thing I try to do is use it to point to Jesus as the hero of history. So David and Goliath becomes not about our having courage in the face of adversity but about Jesus defeating sin/death/Satan on our behalf. We aren't David in that story; we are the scared Israelites.

A good template for gospel-centered biblical storytelling is Ferguson's "Jesus is the true and better __________."

This is extremely important. And once we make it our routine practice, it will get easier to see the gospel springs running beneath the hard soil of God's harder words. Once we train our eyes to see it, we will see the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected as the theme of all of Scripture, not just the New Testament, and not just the parts in the New Testament that are "easy."

Eventually we can look at any text and say, "Well, it looks like a squirrel -- and maybe it is a squirrel -- but we know the answer is Jesus."


io said...

I've been trying to wrap my head around this sort of understanding the Old Testament (especially Old Testament Law). This post is great. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I think I mostly agree with you. I think when you look at the uber-themes of Scripture, everything points to Jesus. However, I don't know that you can do it with every single passage. You start to run the risk of the medieval theologians who insisted Song of Solomon wasn't really about sex; it HAD to be an allegory. It seems to me that there are some OT passages that are PREscriptive (this is what you must do)-- and one can make the connection to Christ. But other times scripture is DEscriptive-- saying how things are without commenting on how things should be. How do you find Christ there? It's a bigger challenge with, say, the first few chapters of Chronicles. Sometimes a census is just a census, sometimes an angry Psalmist is just an angry Psalmist ("how happy is he who takes your children and dashes them against the rocks!"), and sometimes a squirrel really is just a squirrel.
Good thoughts, though.

Jared said...

James, that's why I said "and maybe it is a squirrel."

I agree that SoS is about the marital covenant and largely about the joy of sexual intimacy inside the marital covenant. But this points us to the giver of that gift. As the censuses point us to the Maker of History and creator of peoples, etc.

That's all I mean.

nhe said...

Great post Sinclair! (er, I mean Jared!)........I also think that this way of looking at scripture needs to be what we mean in our community groups when we say "study the bible together" (in fact I hate that term) - community bible study truly should be encountering Christ together - the distinction is super important.

Pastor Pants said...


I agree that "SoS is about the marital covenant and largely about the joy of sexual intimacy inside the marital covenant" but think that your main point in this post applies even here and does so beyond a mere pointing "to the giver of that gift".

If we take Eph 5:31 and see marriage as representative of the relationship between Christ and His Church, then there is a mass of application to us within SoS. I'm not talking here about any allegorizing, rather understanding it in its context of sexual intimacy but applying SOME of those principles in light of Eph 5.

I think your point holds up well even in that particular OT book.