Holy Week: How to Stop Shrinking the Jesus Narrative

The focus and work of years was seemingly coming to its climax. The bold announcement at the beginning, the gathering of his co-workers, the teaching and the mighty works, and then the growing tension and hard confrontations—all of the lines were coming together to reach their single goal.

Holy Week.

The work of Jesus was coming down to this, his last few days. What would his final act look like? What would he do? Would he meet the expectations of the crowds? Of his own closest followers? He had set his countenance and his feet straight for Jerusalem—so what did he have in mind?

Whatever the central meaning of his life and ministry, it would have to show itself right now. This was Jesus’s moment, if he was going to have one. And it was not a simple one. From his birth right through to his final entry to Jerusalem, Jesus has been evoking numerous strands of Israel’s long and pregnant story. There are rich layers of significance that precede this week. Will all those promises of meaning be kept?

From his birth right through to his final entry to Jerusalem, Jesus has been evoking numerous strands of Israel’s long and pregnant story.

For too many of us, these Holy Days have been reduced to one day—Good Friday—and to a single assigned meaning of that day.

“Jesus died for my sins.”

A personal substitutionary atonement.

Now the death of Jesus on a Roman cross is certainly not less than this. But it is also so much more. There is a profound loss when we minimize the meaning of the crucifixion to my salvation, especially when I conceive of this saving merely as an escape to heaven when I die. In such a reduction we shortchange the gospel and shrink the impact and import of all that Jesus has accomplished.

How do we avoid this? As with so many things in the Christian life, a healthy recovery can be found when we return to the Scriptures. The fullness of Holy Week is found in the fullness of the Bible’s telling of the story. A renewed commitment to understanding the narrative as it unfolds in the Gospels will pay multiple dividends in appreciating the depth of the Passion drama.

The Gospels, like other books in the Bible’s library, should be read whole. Their telling of the end is embedded in the context of what they’ve been saying along the way. The Evangelists build their stories of Jesus intentionally, so each Gospel gives us a unique angle on the life and meaning of Jesus. We could appropriately pick any of the four Gospels to help us in this restoration, for they each lead us up to this momentous last week in their own way.

But as an example, we’ll take Mark’s story of Jesus, since he is the most intentional about tracking each of the days. So I invite you to read Mark’s whole telling of the week’s story. Without trying to impossibly unpack everything here in this short space, we will instead simply raise questions that point us to deeper significance:

“As they approached Jerusalem . . .”

Light breaks on the first day of the last week. Jesus has spent his entire ministry focusing on the kingdom of God. It is the theme par excellence of all his previous efforts. Now Jesus clearly calls up echoes from Israel’s royal history (from Saul to Solomon to Judas Maccabeus) to boldly embody the coming of the King himself into David’s city. Jesus’ prophetic announcement of God’s return here transforms into an explicitly messianic claim. So the stage for the week is set: Jesus is Israel’s king. But what kind of king is he?

“The next day as they were leaving Bethany . . .”

Jesus has entered the city, but now his focus turns exclusively to the Temple. Why is the Temple at the center of Mark’s story here? Why does Jesus curse the fig tree? What is he looking for? Why does he immediately enact a parable of the Temple’s destruction? What is the point of his quote from the prophet Jeremiah?

“In the morning . . .”

Mark now spends more space describing the events of Tuesday than any other day of this week. What’s happening? Jesus is clearly and strongly confronting those who govern the affairs of the Temple and make up Israel’s supreme ruling body. The rulers, for their part, directly challenge Jesus’ authority. The clash that’s been long brewing in the ministry of Jesus is now coming to a head. Then the parables and provocations of the day culminate in a troubling prediction of the physical dismantling of the Temple within a generation. (It’s important to pay attention to literary form here, recognizing prophetic metaphors and apocalyptic language.) Israel’s story has reached a major turning point, and it is centered on Jesus.

“It was two days before the Passover . . .”

There are two contrasting responses to Jesus here, an act of adoration surrounded by two references to betrayal. Jesus forces choices even as he is preparing for his own death.

“On the first day of the Festival . . .”

So Jesus has chosen Passover, Israel’s great liberation event, as the backdrop to provide the meaning of his next action. Jesus claims to be bringing an Exodus, a new freedom movement. What were the elements of the first Passover and the original Exodus? Are all those elements to be found here as well?

“Very early in the morning . . .”

Jesus has now fully entered into the trial—the time of great tribulation and testing that the Jews knew would precede their full redemption. He is convicted twice, by both Jewish and Roman tribunals. Of what specifically? What do the differing charges tell us about Jesus and his work? So Jesus is condemned to death, precisely as the King of the Jews. What have the week’s events, all of them carefully chosen by Jesus himself, told us about what Jesus thought his death meant? Is his death more than a sacrifice? How can it possibly be a victory?

“The Sabbath”

As Jesus journeyed through the week, he was surrounded by symbols and echoes of Israel’s story. His recapitulation of them was not a mere repetition, but rather filled them with new and surprising meaning. Now, on the seventh day, he rests in death. What has been accomplished?

“Very early on the first day . . .”

If Israel’s story was always all about the world’s story, what does the resurrection of Israel’s Messiah mean for the rest of us? What does an echo of the creation story imply?

♦♦♦

We have seen the birth of a new kind of king and a new kind of Temple. And I hope we are waking up to the possibilities of a new kind of kingdom and the renewal of worship. The powers who ran Israel’s first-century world—both Jewish and Roman—knew and followed only one model for ruling. Jesus came into the city having staked his life and his chance at victory on a completely different vision, one centered on the power of self-giving love.

Yes, Jesus died for me.

But my place is found only in a much bigger and better story than my own small tale. You, me, and all of us are called to take up our place in God’s transforming work. And the only place we learn the ins and outs of God’s holy work is in God’s holy book.

The way to avoid shrinking reductions of biblical truth is nothing other than a rediscovery of the fullness of the Bible own tellings. Read big. Read in context. Make connections.

None of the Bible Was Written to You…And That’s a Good Thing.

Every single bit of the Bible was written to people from another time and place.

Therefore, exactly 0% of the Bible was originally addressed directly to you or to me.

The Bible is not a guidebook that blandly tells us what to do, no questions asked. The Bible is not an instruction manual for looking up the right answers to all our questions. It’s not even “a love letter” from God, or if it is, it’s the strangest love letter ever written. (That is not to say, however, that it’s not a love story, which is something else entirely.)

The fact is that many of the shorthand descriptions we commonly hear about the Bible just don’t accurately capture what the Bible is and how it actually works. And that’s too bad, because the way the Bible was built to help us remains undiscovered. The common descriptions often lead to confusion, distortion, and misreading, while the real benefits of these sacred writings remain undeciphered.

The key to finding the Bible’s purpose for us is first and foremost to be honest about the nature of the Bible itself. Grasping a handful of basic points will put us well on the way to a healthy and beneficial interaction with the Bible.

1. The Bible is Rooted in Ancient History and Culture

We begin with a full acknowledgment that the Bible is rooted in an ancient world. It is speaking directly to people in that world, not our world. Now it’s true that some things stay the same over the course of history, like the basics of the human condition. So the Bible will always be relevant in that sense. But it’s also true that a lot of things change, like the cultural frameworks that shape how people see their world and make sense of it.

The Bible is not trying to be modern (or postmodern). It’s simply trying to be what it is—an account of the beginning of God’s interactions with a family-turned-nation that is crucial to accomplishing his intentions for the whole world. So we must begin our Bible reading by doing all we can to understand what it is saying to those people first of all. What were the assumptions of Israel’s ancient world? How does the Bible both reflect and challenge those assumptions?

Another way of saying this is to affirm that while the Bible is certainly for us, it was not written to us. (We are definitely involved, but our part comes later, as we’ll see.)

2. The Bible is a Library

The next step is to realize that the Bible is not really a single book. It’s a collection of very different kinds of writing that were spoken, sung, written, and edited over a long period of time. A critical element of good Bible reading and interpretation is to ask: What kind of book is this? and What are the rules for understanding this kind of writing? The ancient Hebrews used lots of kinds of literature, and there are regular rules of engagement that go with each one. A failure to attend to them can easily lead to misreadings of lyrical poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic, letters, and even historical accounts (which functioned with ancient standards of history writing, not modern ones).

3. The Bible Is a Story

But the Bible is not a random collection of ancient Hebrew writings. The Holy Scriptures are a library whose contents come together to tell a single, connected story. There are narrative threads that tie the books together, progressively revealing more and more of God’s slow and patient plan to reclaim his creation. That is, there is redemptive movement through the books over time. This movement is not always smooth and easy, effortlessly gliding toward God’s final intentions. Rather, the story moves in fits and starts, with huge setbacks and failures that lead to real questions about how God’s big plan is working.

Later this month I’ll be speaking at a seminar taking a deep dive into how the story of the Bible works. The seminar is free – click here to learn more and register.

One of the burning questions for first-century Jews was precisely this issue of God’s faithfulness to the covenant and the fate of his chosen people. For centuries the story had appeared to be stuck. Is this story even true? But the New Testament claim is that the utterly surprising story of Jesus reveals God’s remarkable work to save the story and rescue the world. The Bible itself claims the story has a beginning, a long meandering middle, and an ending that will embody God’s longtime intentions.

So the way to read the Bible is to feast on whole books, understood as the literature they are and speaking to the Bible’s first audience, while staying aware of the place the various books take within the developing narrative.

4. The Bible Is a Festooned Story

Sometimes it is objected that the “Bible as story” approach is overdone since not all the Bible’s books are narrative in form themselves. But this objection misunderstands how the books fit together. Of course it’s true that many contributions within the Bible are something other than narrative—there are song books, proverbs and longer wisdom reflections, apostolic letters, law codes, collections of prophetic oracles, etc. But the point remains that all of these other kinds of writing adorn the Bible’s narrative by adding depth and color, allowing us to see and feel more deeply what it was like to live within this story of God and his people.

The non-narrative books of the Bible offer crucial ways for us to enter more deeply into the story and understand it from the inside out, in greater detail and texture. These books open up what it was like for ancient Israelites or early Christian believers to live out God’s story in the real world. The “festoon” books allows the Bible to show and not merely tell what this great drama is all about.

How the Bible Actually Helps Us Today

So, putting it all together, the good news is that we don’t have to pretend that we’re supposed to read the Bible and simply do everything it says. God has never wanted us to be robots. Instead, God gave us the wonderful gift of the Bible so that we can see what he’s done throughout history and absorb the story deep in our bones. And he’s trusted us to faithfully carry the story forward today.

How do we do that well? First, we have to ask what any particular part of the Bible meant to its first audiences. We explore how it contributes to the ongoing story: What new thing is happening? or What’s going wrong here in terms of where God wants the story to go?

Then, once we’ve done our due diligence on what the Bible meant, we can proceed to what it means—for us, now. We do this by reflecting on that original meaning and looking for connections to our life now. What perennial human tendencies, weaknesses, temptations are addressed? What signs do we see of God’s ultimate redemptive intentions? What do we learn about how God works?

And finally, preeminently, we watch explicitly for how Messiah Jesus is at the center of the story. It is in his life and ministry that we see what the world looks like when God rules. Not everything that God will accomplish in the end was completed during Jesus’ life, but in him we do see most clearly who God is, what he wants, and what the central trajectory of the story is.

And it’s in that redemptive, restorative trajectory of new creation that we live. Our job is to read the Bible thoroughly and well so we know what God has done and what God is doing. Our work is to labor alongside God himself, making our own contribution to his kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. And the only way we can know and do such things with competence and clarity is by reading and living the Bible well.

Want to learn more about the story of the Bible and how we can live it today? Register for our free seminar later this month. If you live in the Colorado Springs area, join us at the live event. If not, you can still register and receive a video recording.

What We’re Reading: December 2018

From time to time we’ll share some of the interesting and thought-provoking content from around the Internet that we come across during our work. Enjoy!

*Note: Sharing doesn’t necessarily imply 100% agreement with the article or endorsement of the author.

Tiny Books Fit in One Hand. Will They Change The Way We Read? by Alexandra Alter, NY Times

Research proves time and time again that most people prefer reading print books, but the convenience and portability of cell phones has led lots of people to start reading books on their device. This fun article outlines how one publisher is still tinkering with print design to meet modern needs of portability while pushing for the best possible reading experience.


Fiction Writers and The Church by Jason Link, Multiply Magazine

Living in the Age of Information tempts us to reduce the Bible to a trove of information that must be parsed and analyzed. In this interview with Joel Green, Dean of the School of Theology at Fuller Seminary, Green shares how reading fiction like The Lord of the Rings shapes how he reads the Bible. There’s a lack of imagination within the evangelical church, he says, and it’s been replaced with logic and propositions and syllogisms. Reading fiction and fantasy opens up a different part of our brains and unlocks our imaginations to experience wonder and emotionally respond to what we read. All of which are valuable skills for reading the Bible.


Ask N. T. Wright Anything Podcast hosted by Justin Brierley of Premier Christian Radio

In this brand-new podcast, renowned New Testament scholar N. T. Wright fields questions from listeners on a variety of topics from the atonement to the historical Jesus to the reliability of the gospel accounts. Wright is able to explain complex theological concepts at a very accessible and non-technical level, and takes listeners into the world of ancient Judaism and the first-century church. Here’s a small sample, and you can view a few more video samples of the podcast here.

“Eat This Book” – What Eugene Peterson Taught Us About the Bible

Eugene Peterson didn’t give us the Message per se. The Good News itself preceded him.

But Eugene did grace us with a rendering of the Bible that woke us up, causing us to take notice of the startling, disruptive power of these holy words all over again.

Eugene knew from teaching Sunday School in church that we are all susceptible to the Holy Bible doze. He was teaching Galatians and folks were stirring their coffee, nodding off. He was astounded. Galatians! Paul is so angry he’s swearing, and people are bored and mentally wandering away?

Eugene was like Anne Lamott, reminding us this gospel thing is actually like dynamite, while we come into church and sit calmly, oblivious, worried about wrinkles in our pants. “Hey, hey people! Have you actually read this? Do you get what it says?”

So, yes, The Message was a gift. The God-given words of grace, gracefully written. A presentation of the Bible to make us think again about what we thought we already knew. It helped us feel again what words with power can do. It made the case for the Bible not by arguing for it, but simply by embodying the Scriptures as a speech act—words that do more than stand around shuffling their feet on the page. These were words to accomplish things, executing God’s own actions in us and for us by promising, convicting, healing, and restoring.

Eugene Peterson gave us back the Bible, made fresh.

Living and active, fully in the present tense.

But there’s more. Eugene also wrote about the Bible and our reading of it. The point, he said, is not just to read it, but to read it for living. “What I want to say, countering the devil, is that in order to read the Scriptures adequately and accurately, it is necessary at the same time to live them.” In Eat This Book, which he subtitled A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, we find all the elements of good reading laid out plain and clear.

Realize what’s at stake, he said:

“The opening page of the Christian text for living, the Bible, tells us that the entire cosmos and every living creature in it are brought into being by words. St. John selects the term ‘Word’ to account, first and last, for what is most characteristic about Jesus, the person at the revealed and revealing center of the Christian story. Language, spoken and written, is the primary means for getting us in on what is, on what God is and is doing.” (3)

and this:

“I want to pull the Christian Scriptures back from the margins of the contemporary imagination where they have been so rudely elbowed by their glamorous competitors, and reestablish them at the center as the text for living the Christian life deeply and well. I want to confront and expose this replacement of the authoritative Bible by the authoritative self.” (17)

Receive the Bible, don’t merely use it, he said:

“C. S. Lewis, in the last book he wrote (An Experiment in Criticism), talked about two kinds of reading, the reading in which we use a book for our own purposes and the reading in which we receive the author’s purposes. The first ensures only bad reading; the second opens the possibility to good reading.” (30)

Read big, not piecemeal, he said:

“Meditation is the aspect of spiritual reading that trains us to read the Scriptures as a connected, coherent whole, not a collection of inspired bits and pieces. . . . What is surprising today is how many people treat the Bible as a collection of Sibylline Oracles, verses or phrases without context or connections. This is nothing less than astonishing. The Scriptures are the revelation of a personal, relational, incarnational God to actual communities of men and women with names in history.” (100-101)

Read it as a story, he said:

“Story is the primary verbal means of bringing God’s word to us. . . . Unfortunately, we live in an age in which story has been pushed from its biblical frontline prominence to a bench on the sidelines and then condescended to as ‘illustration’ or ‘testimony’ or ‘inspiration.’ Our contemporary unbiblical preference, both inside and outside the church, is for information over story.

“. . . Spiritual theology, using Scripture as text, does not present us with a moral code and tell us ‘Live up to this’; nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, ‘Think like this and you will live well.’ The biblical way is to tell a story and in telling, invite: ‘Live into this—this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world.’” (40-44)

Enter into the drama, he said:

“As we cultivate a participatory mind-set in relation to our Bibles, we need a complete renovation of our imaginations. We are accustomed to thinking of the biblical world as smaller than the secular world. Tell-tale phrases give us away. We talk of ‘making the Bible relevant to the world,’ as if the world is the fundamental reality and the Bible is something that is going to help it or fix it. . . . What we must never be encouraged to do, although all of us are guilty of it over and over, is to force Scripture to fit our experience. Our experience is too small; it’s like trying to put the ocean into a thimble. What we want is to fit into the world revealed by Scripture, to swim in this vast ocean.” (67-68)

Eugene Peterson gave a good portion of his life’s work to bringing the Bible to us in “American”—in distinctly American language and addressing particularly American ways of misconstruing the world. For him, pastoral work was always local, but we can be thankful that the size of his parish increased over time, benefiting us all. Eugene exerted himself greatly, deploying his love of language and the Scriptures to invite us all back into the bigger, grander, hope-filled world of the Bible.

Rest well in peace, Eugene. We’ll express our gratitude to you properly when we all rise together at the great resurrection.

“Words—spoken and listened to, written and read—are intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness, wisdom and hope. Yes, eat this book.”

The Great Commission, Discipleship, and the Bible

There has been discussion for many years about the relationship between the evangelization of the world and the return of Christ. Completing the Great Commission, it is often said, paves the way for the second coming of Jesus.

Where does the idea of this connection come from?

It has its roots in Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus, particularly the claims of King Jesus and his mission-defining mandate to his disciples. But to get to the heart of this definitive and vocation-creating call, we must take a closer look at what Matthew is actually doing and saying. (As always, the key to understanding short statements in the Bible is bigger and better reading of the context.)

The Great Commission: Jesus Is Building Something New

The ending of Matthew’s Gospel brings to a head and then resolves the narrative tension that’s been growing throughout his story. Jesus has burst onto the national scene as a rabbi and prophet, bringing a renewal movement to Israel. But Israel’s leaders want none of it—they have their own narrative about how Israel’s story is supposed to go. The heart of the confrontation has to do with authority: who is authorized to speak for God? who can see clearly where Israel’s God is taking their story?

This conflict reaches its breaking point when Jesus enters Jerusalem as a king, the blessed Son of David, to the adulation of the crowds. From this point on, every day Jesus is becoming more and more open with his challenge to Israel’s current regime:

Did you never read what the Bible says?” said Jesus to them:

“ ‘The stone the builders threw away

Is now atop the corner;

It’s from the Lord, all this, they say

And we looked on in wonder.’

“So then let me tell you this: God’s kingdom is going to be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the goods. Anyone who falls on this stone will be smashed to pieces, and anyone it falls on will be crushed.”*

Standing in the Temple courtyards, Jesus announces that he himself is the cornerstone of God’s new building. The challenge is to see and recognize what God is doing, or face the crushing consequences. Now Jesus gets specific and direct, predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple within a single generation:

Jesus left the Temple and went away. As he did so, his disciples came and pointed out the Temple buildings to him. “Yes,” he said, “and you see all these things? I’m telling you the truth: not one stone will be left standing upon another. All of them will be thrown down.”

As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately.

“Tell us,” they said, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that you are going to appear as king, and that the end of the age is upon us?”

“Watch out,” replied Jesus. “Don’t let anyone deceive you. You see, there will be several who will come along, using my name, telling you ‘I’m the Messiah!’ They will fool lots of people. You’re going to hear about wars, actual wars and rumored ones; make sure you don’t get alarmed. This has got to happen, but it doesn’t mean the end is coming yet. Nations will rise against one another, and kingdoms against each other. There will be famines and earthquakes here and there. All of this is just the start of the birth pangs.

Then they will hand you over to be tortured, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will find the going too hard, and they will betray each other and hate each other. Many false prophets will arise, and they will deceive plenty of people. And because lawlessness will be on the increase, many will find their love growing cold. But the one who lasts out to the end will be delivered. And this gospel of the kingdom must be announced to the whole world, as a witness to all the nations. Then the end will come.”

The next steps in the story are clear enough: Jesus tells his disciples there will be turmoil and trouble, both for them and for the world. Something new is struggling to be born, and there is pain in this, as in any birth.

But God’s new world is surely coming! A stone building in Jerusalem can no longer contain God’s intentions.

Jesus tells his disciples that the announcement of God’s reign is not just good news for Israel, it is the gospel of the kingdom for all people. The biblical story is making a massive turn, telling us how God is reclaiming the world—the turn that God had in mind all along. The strange and surprising victory of Jesus (he went out, alone, to die? and this was winning?) has laid the foundation for a whole new building project.

The disciples are to persevere through suffering, misunderstanding, and persecution to tell everyone that Jesus is not merely Israel’s Messiah, but the world’s true Lord and Ruler. The turning of the ages—from the present evil age to the promised new time of God’s life and light—is happening now, so the disciples have to be ready for a fresh assignment.

The ending of Matthew’s Gospel clearly confirms that the gospel announcement is precisely news to the nations about a new king:

So the eleven disciples went off to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had instructed them to go. There they saw him and worshipped him, though some hesitated.

Jesus came toward them and addressed them.

“All authority in heaven and on earth,” he said, “has been given to me! So you must go and make all the nations into disciples. Baptize them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. And look: I am with you, every single day, to the very end of the age.”

Making disciples is all about teaching allegiance to the new Lord of the cosmos, instructing them to do what he said. These followers of Jesus from all the nations, who live by their loyalty to King Jesus, together constitute God’s new global structure, the place he is taking up residence.

Knowing and Living the Bible Is the Doorway to Discipleship

For those involved in ministry with the Bible, the implications of all this are clear. Jesus said disciples must be taught—the peoples of the world are called to know and understand and live the story of the Bible. To follow Jesus one must know the story of which he is a part. To know that story is to be immersed in the Scriptures.

It is not enough to translate and distribute the Bible globally, as crucial as that is. Disciple-making on the model Jesus instructed requires big reading and deep engagement with God’s word. Having a Bible in my language does not automatically make me an effective follower of the Lord of the world. Having it on my shelf or my phone does not automatically transform me into a disciple. The research into Bible reading and literacy reveals that Christ’s church has to be more intentional about helping people actually read and understand the Scriptures they already own.

Reading, knowing, understanding, and living—this is what a fully formed follower of Jesus does with the Bible. Making more followers like this is what the church is called to.

Jesus said disciples are made.

Jesus said disciples are taught.

There is no gospel of the kingdom without deep Bible engagement. This is the task we all must embrace. Then the age that Jesus said is coming will indeed fully come, and God will return and make his home with us.

* All Scripture quotes are from The Kingdom New Testament, HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.