Reading a Hard Bible for Signs of Jesus

Convention 2019 part two of four

by Layton Friesen

Praise God for the Bible, the very Word and words of God! At the core of being simply Christian is the ancient Christian experience that in the Bible we meet our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. All the Church wants to do, ever, is see Jesus.

How Jesus loved the Scriptures! His Bible, the Old Testament, was what he used to think with, pray with, and teach with. On the Cross, Jesus shouts in white-hot pain and out spills Psalm 22 and Psalm 31. Jesus had said these psalms so often they became his instinctive cry of pain and grief to the Father.

A Lamb and an Elephant

But, of course, the Bible can be a difficult book. Gregory the Great in the 6th century wrote a beautiful line when he said the Bible “is surely like a river, if I may say so, which is wide and deep, in which a lamb may walk and an elephant swim.” Some things in the Bible can be grasped by a child—but that child can spend the rest of her life mining down into mystery beyond mystery in the words of God.

There is no better example of this than Hebrews 4. The plain message there is that by obeying the powerful Word of God we enter God’s Sabbath rest. Obey the Word of God and by it God will guide you to the country of His Sabbath rest. In this passage that is where a lamb might wade.

But Hebrews 4 is also a river where elephants can swim.

Hebrews 4 is in the middle of a mysterious argument that starts at least in chapter 2 where the writer has placed God’s seventh-day rest in Genesis 2, God’s deliverance of Israel in Exodus, the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua, and Psalm 95 alongside each other. In placing these texts alongside each other, the writer discovers a delightful dilemma that resolves beautifully when Jesus is seen within them.

Rest—God’s and Ours

The question has to do with God’s rest, both His own rest and the rest He gives the people. In Genesis 2 we are told that God rested. The seventh day, as we know, had no end, no morning and evening, an eternal rest. But then we see God back at work in the exodus and the conquest, struggling with his stubborn people who refuse to listen to his Word. In Psalm 95, centuries later, we find again the opportunity held open for the people to yet enter God’s rest. So how can God’s eternal, seventh-day rest be happening when he still seems to be sweating and struggling with getting his people their rest?

Then the figure of Jesus emerges in these scriptures. Now in Christ all these “rests” come together: the eternal Genesis 2 rest of God, the rest God struggled to give his exodus people in the Promised Land, and the rest still open for those who hear in Psalm 95. All are coming together and coming true, really happening. Jesus is the new Moses, Joshua, and David bringing his people into the Sabbath of God’s rest. By joining Jesus we find God’s eternal seventh-day rest.

But even now, ironically, we still need to work hard to have this rest. Work hard at resting, Hebrews says. Work hard by listening to the Word of God and allowing God to reduce and shape you. Jesus speaking in the Bible is a powerful, living, active force, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing right inside of us, laying us bare (Heb. 4:12-13). And in this hard work of hearing Jesus, we ironically enter God’s rest.

Or something like that. Elephants swim in that river, but I am not sure I can swim all that well myself!

Thrilled by Its Difficulty

Here is the big point I want us to consider: the writer of Hebrews is thrilled by how difficult the Old Testament is to read. He is energized by the tensions and apparent contradictions he discovers between Genesis 2, Exodus, Joshua and Psalm 95. These difficulties have been placed there by God to frustrate us, to cause us to struggle to understand, to show us that we still have cataracts that prevent us from seeing the spiritual reality of Jesus.

Yet as we struggle with the Old Testament, gradually we see Jesus standing in the middle of it. In this struggle to see Jesus in the Old Testament we gain a hard-won Christian wisdom. But when it happens, wow, do we ever fall in love with Jesus!

Jesus Emerges in All of the Bible

The apostles came to believe that, though, at first the Old Testament might look like an ornery set of texts that don’t have a common meaning, as we get to know Jesus, as we become more like Jesus himself, suddenly his figure emerges in all the Bible.

As we begin to see Jesus unifying apparently unrelated stories and texts across the centuries of God’s saving work in both the Old and New Testament, we are getting a first glimpse of Jesus as we will see him in Heaven—the Lord unifying all time and history.

We are glimpsing Jesus as Lord of creation, God of Abraham, contender for Israel, the true King David, the truly wise Solomon. He is the prophet, sage, priest and king. All of history is coming under the lordship of Jesus. And as this Lordship is inscribed through our reading eyes into our souls and minds and bodies, as we consent to it with all our lives—we come to a place of rest, peacefully ready for life in Heaven with God.

To Train Us to See Jesus

No wonder the Bible is so hard to understand. Today we think the Bible is hard to understand because it was written 2,000 years ago to a different culture. Yet that is not what the writer of Hebrews would say. He would say the Bible is hard to read because we are not yet ready for Heaven. We don’t yet have the eyes to see Jesus. We don’t have the eyes to see Jesus in Leviticus and so we think it’s so hard and boring. We don’t have the eyes to see Jesus in the conquest of Canaan and so we think it’s crude and violent. But those difficulties are there to train us to become more Jesus-sensitive, to perceive Him in almost impossible places.

The Bible forces me to swim with elephants and that exposes the fact that I can’t really swim. But as I submit to the Spirit and confess my sin; as I wrestle with the Bible, memorize it, learning to be present to the God within the Bible; I am being shaped from one degree of glory to another into the image of Jesus. I am being trained to enter the Sabbath rest of God—I am being prepared for Heaven because I am being prepared to see Christ as Lord over every stage of history.

To Meet Jesus

There is nothing we need in life, finally, but to meet Jesus. That is to be simply Christian. In the Bible we see Jesus reigning at Babel, reigning in Egypt, reigning at Sinai, reigning in Bethel, and reigning in Babylon. Jesus, the one whom the Queen of Sheba really set out to see. Jesus, the one who made Jeremiah weep. Jesus, the one who goaded Amos into rage. Jesus, the one who set David singing. We see him in Galilee teaching and healing. We see him on the cross, in the grave, and on the road to Emmaus.

On the road to Emmaus our minds begin to burn as beginning with Moses and the prophets he interprets for us the things about himself in all the scriptures. Our eyes are opened, we recognize the Lord of history, and come to God’s Sunday rest.

Layton Friesen

Every day will be Sunday, Lord, on the other side!

Layton Friesen, PhD, is the EMC’s conference pastor and was the 2019 convention speaker in Picture Butte, Alta. This series is based on his convention sermons. Layton lives in Winnipeg, Man., with his wife Glenda and their two young adult children.

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