Jeff McSwain, Reading the Bible With Jesus as the Guide
Jeff McSwain is the founder of Reality Ministries of Durham, North
Carolina. Jeff went on to earn his doctorate in 2015 at the University of St. Andrews.
We all bring our own viewpoint to Scripture, so it’s important for us to read the Bible through a Christ-centered lens.
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JMF: Two people can read the same passage in Scripture and come to totally different conclusions. Is there a right way to read the Bible?
JM: I love that question, because it comes down to understanding and probing into the question that is behind it all. What is the Word of God? Or, more specifically, who is the Word of God? And is Scripture, this Holy Scripture, the same…do we want to talk about the Holy Scripture as the Word of God in the same way that we talk about Jesus Christ as the Word of God?
JMF: I’ve heard it put that way.
JM: Many times it’s put synonymously.
JMF: It’s like the Bible is Jesus Christ in print.
JM: It’s God-breathed, and therefore [some say] “it basically is the equivalent of God himself.” I don’t think you have to say, that just because the Bible is God-breathed, that it’s on the same pedestal as God himself. That can lead to some problems, maybe leading even more toward Biblio-idolatry, where we don’t want to go, where we begin to worship the Bible in a way that it’s not meant to be worshiped. (It’s not meant to be worshiped at all.) We don’t confess our sins to the Bible, we don’t pray to the Bible. The Word of God, in its written form, is not the same as the Word Jesus Christ. You have to go no further than John 1 to figure that out.
I was doing a foundation grant recently, a proposal, and it had a place for me to sign off on their statement of faith, and part of that statement of faith said “the Bible is the only inerrant Word of God.” I felt in good conscience that I needed to respond to that before being able to sign off on it, and say to them, “You guys probably don’t mean the Bible is the only inerrant Word of God as a way of replacing the fact that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, right? I mean, I felt like I needed to say that and at least ask you that, because I don’t think you guys would want to substitute the Bible in John 1 for the Word and say ‘in the beginning was the Bible and the Bible was with God and the Bible was God.’ I don’t think you’d want to do that, but I felt like I should say it because of the way your statement is phrased.” I passed muster and everything was fine, and we were still in contention for the grant.
But oftentimes we don’t think about this. If we’re going to have a really high view of Scripture, we need to keep the written word subservient to the Word, the Living Word. What I mean by that is to have the highest view of Scripture, it needs to be in its proper place. It needs to be held accountable to Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ redefines the Old Testament when he comes in his ministry and says, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” He’s reinterpreting what’s written in the written Word. He is reinterpreting that. He has a right to do that as the Living Word himself, Jesus Christ.
The highest view of Scripture we can have would not to be to put it up on the same pedestal as God and to worship it as God in that way, but keep it in a place where it serves Jesus Christ, because he is the most direct revelation of God that we have.
The irony is that we find out about Jesus Christ mostly through the Scripture, but we have to submit the vehicle to Jesus Christ, and we have to say that Jesus Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God. He is the way God has revealed himself to us. No one has seen God, but Jesus Christ his one and only Son has made him known. Everything regarding out biblical study must start with Jesus Christ.
JMF: I’ve seen a bumper sticker, I’m sure many people have, that says, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” They mean their personal interpretation of what they think God said, and that settles it in their mind, at least.
JM: Right. It’s easy to fall prey to a simplistic interpretation of Scripture that says…where it’s not really an interpretation of Scripture, it’s “I just do what the Bible says. Don’t give me any theology, don’t give me any interpretation, just give me the Bible.” But we all come to the Bible with a predisposition. We all read the Bible with a certain pair of glasses.
If I said to somebody, “You’ve got to hold the Bible accountable to Jesus Christ,” they would then, perhaps, if they were of that mentality, they might get really insecure and they might think, “If that’s the case, you can just pick and choose whatever you think is in congruity with Jesus Christ, and you’re just going to pick and choose, and it’s all going to be up to you.” It’s scary to them to let go of the idea that every single word needs to be worshiped in the same way and given the same value – and to allow for Jesus Christ to interpret the Bible makes them pretty anxious.
Yet when they say to me, “That just allows you to pick and choose,” I say, “People do that anyways. People pick and choose all the time.” Even the most literal biblical exegete or interpreter of Scripture or reader of Scripture, the most literal person who believes and exalts the inerrancy of Scripture, picks and chooses all the time. How many times have you seen somebody, lately, greet someone with a holy kiss? And yet that’s an express command.
JMF: Some say that the church falls short because they don’t [greet one another with a kiss].
JM: That’s true. But there’s so many places where the church falls short it begs the questions about whether or not we’re interpreting things correctly.
JMF: There’s even those who say, “I take the Bible literally and you must not, but I do, and I believe every word of the Scripture.” They don’t, of course. The Bible says God is a rock. They don’t believe that God is a rock. They understand that that’s a figurative statement, and in order for that statement to be true, you have to take it figuratively, because if you take it literally, it turns God into a rock, which is nonsense. So God is not a high tower, and he’s not a rock… he’s not water…
JMF: All those are figurative statements, and we know that, and we interpret it that way. But people want to stand on the idea of literal, not even understanding what literal means.
JM: There’s the story of the church leaders back during the Enlightenment day, who wanted to prove that the earth was the center of the universe, because God made the sun stand still for Joshua to complete his battle. God made the sun stand still, therefore it’s the sun that moves, not the earth. And the earth must be the center of the universe. Galileo and Copernicus came along and proved otherwise, but those kinds of things come out of a literal interpretation of Scripture that’s not meant to be literal.
We fall into those figures of speech all the time…calling the sunset or the sunrise by that particular phrase is not accurate, but it’s just a metaphorical way of speaking. The sun doesn’t “set,” the sun doesn’t “rise” – it does in our perception.
The greater disparity and the greater danger is when we get into issues of doctrine that divide the denominations in severe ways. Paul says in Galatians chapter 1, “If anyone has a gospel other than the one that I’ve taught you, let him be damned.” A lot of leaders of churches professing their own particular interpretation of Scripture, their own brand, their own doctrine, will say in all seriousness, “I’ve got Paul’s gospel. I know what he’s talking about here.” It gives them permission to damn people who don’t have it, and to say they’re in error, they’re unorthodox, et cetera, et cetera. People love to do that kind of thing. It’s part of our fallen nature. We shouldn’t love it, but we enjoy making those kinds of judgments way too much.
Something’s got to give here. Either Paul needs to come back to us and tell us what his gospel is, …and that would settle it for everyone, what he meant by that…or we need to have a modicum of humility where it comes to scriptural interpretation and to be able to say, “God’s ways are higher than our ways, his thoughts higher than our thoughts. I don’t have a corner on the market of truth. I can’t comprehend the gospel, but I’m apprehending it, and I’m trying to learn what it means to interpret Scripture in a way that it all holds together most coherently.”
It’s an exercise, as T.F. Torrance taught us, of constant repentance. Theology is an exercise of constant repentance. You try a framework and a way to wear a pair of glasses to read Scripture, see how far it gets you, see how cohesive the Holy Scripture holds on that framework. If it doesn’t work, you might go back and try another pair of glasses. I think a Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture which allows us to say “that is of Christ, that is not of Christ, that goes along with the law of reality, the law of the real (as Bonhoeffer says), that does not seem to go along with the law of the real” actually holds things together in a better, more cohesive and meaningful way. But it means, again, to submit the vehicle itself to the revealed Word of God, Jesus Christ.
My friend Douglas Campbell at Duke Divinity School has just come up with a book called The Deliverance of God in which he tries to, from his perspective, interpret Romans in a way that’s never been done before. He bases everything on this participation model of the Triune God and Jesus Christ as God’s revelation of his life of love – Father, Son, and Spirit. Douglas does a great job of continuing over and over again to be disciplined as an exegete and as a theologian to define everything that he can by what God has revealed of himself in Jesus Christ.
Somebody criticized Douglas recently, and they said, “Can you believe in the preface… Dr. Campbell says that for the longest time I’ve been looking for a theology. I’ve been looking for a scriptural interpretation that would fit the theology that I felt God had given me, and finally the lights came on and I realized that this way of thinking actually held Romans together in a much more cohesive and life-giving way and in a more scholarly consistent way than any other presupposition or pair of glasses I had ever brought to the Scripture.”
That was the gist of Douglas’s words, and this guy said, “Can you believe that he’s trying to fit the Bible into his presuppositions?” I said, “Well, at least he’s honest about it.” Everybody tries to fit the Bible into his or her presuppositions. The question really is, which presupposition is the most Christ-centered, which is based more on the accurate revelation of God that we see in Jesus Christ?
There are a lot of question marks for me when there’s something that doesn’t seem congruent to the way God has revealed himself in Christ. I just have to chalk it up to “I don’t know. I don’t know how that fits together.” Instead of fitting Jesus Christ into the Old Testament [making him conform to our understanding of the Old Testament], I think it would behoove us to make sure that everything we read in Scripture is fit into the interpretive key of grace, the interpretive key of Jesus Christ. That means reading the Bible from right to left instead of from left to right, I guess you could say.
JMF: I find it fascinating in Luke 24, the road to Emmaus story, and the two people walking along with Jesus. They don’t know it’s him, and they’re perplexed by everything that’s happened, and they thought Jesus was Messiah, but he’s dead now. Then, on the road, it says, “He revealed to them or explained to them everything contained in the Scriptures.” The thing that he reveals to them is that the Scriptures, meaning the Old Testament, the Scriptures that the Jews had at that time, were about him, and about that the Messiah would die and be crucified and raised in three days.
Well, it never says that in the Old Testament anywhere. You don’t find that. And yet Jesus is telling them that that is what the Old Testament is all about, that’s how you read it, how you understand it, and that’s what it’s all pointing to. What a light bulb that is, when you get your mind around it!
JM: Talk about the lights going on…I’d love to have been there and to have heard that. But we can imagine that, and we can think, what would he have said? We know a little bit about what he said from the text, but can you imagine him going through and elaborating on all the Old Testament Scriptures in that way?
The thing I imagine is that he takes the Psalms, I would think, and says, remember when you guys used to think of the righteous and the wicked in categories where you were the righteous and the other guys were wicked? You have the good guys, and that’s you, and the bad guys, and that’s the wicked. The Psalmist seems to be dualist in that way. Paul debunks that basically in Romans 3 when he uses all the passages that are quoted about the bad guys in the Psalms and he puts them all together and says that’s everybody. ”All have sinned and fall short. No one is good, no not one.”
Then he says that within the good news… all have been redeemed and justified by the work of Jesus Christ. There’s the symmetry of the “all” and the “all.” All fall short, and all have been justified by his grace in 3:23 and 24. Paul reinterprets the Psalmist’s dualism and what he wants to eventually lead to is to talk about the fact that those two things are not a dualism, they’re a duality that’s defined by the person of Jesus Christ, the two natures in one person – that Jesus Christ, that we are the wicked, all of us, but Jesus Christ has shared our wickedness…that he is the righteous, but he’s also shared his righteousness.
He shares our wickedness to give us his righteousness. That wonderful exchange moves us past the dualism of the Old Testament and moves us into the Christological way of understanding righteousness and wickedness as a duality, instead of in a dualistic way where we’re the righteous, they’re the wicked.
JMF: So we are actually the righteous and the wicked, because we are in Christ, and we are also the accepted and the rejected because we are in Christ, and these come together with the accepted and the righteous winning out because Christ has redeemed us in himself.
JM: He shares our nature with us, and in solidarity with us, he shares our nature, and he shares his nature as God with us, and we’re made children of God like the wondrous exchange that the early church fathers talked about – the wondrous exchange which was the Son of God became son of men to make sons of men sons of God. That humiliation and exaltation that takes place in that movement of grace, that double movement of grace, is all in the Old Testament, but they didn’t recognize then that what they were talking about in the righteous and the wicked was really a way of talking about what humanity looks like, because of the revelation of Jesus Christ, and instead they became self-righteous many times.
We have a tendency to do that now, to become pharisaical and self-righteous because we think in taking the Bible literally we’ll read the Psalmist’s expressions about how he’s righteous. We think, that’s us, too, now that we’re Christians, or that’s us, too, because we believe that to be true about ourselves, because Christ has given us some kind of righteousness to wear, maybe.
But it’s interesting that in thinking about the Psalms christologically, we can give full play not only to our righteousness as being real and true by the grace of Jesus Christ, but also give full play to the wickedness of our lives, and we can know that, as Jesus says, “If your Father gives good things to you who are evil, how much more will he give of things of righteousness?”
JMF: It resolves also the unfairness that we see in the Old Testament so often. David was anointed king, but Jonathan son of Saul was a righteous man, faithful to God, dear friend of David, loyal to him in spite of his father’s opposition to David, and yet he gets killed in an ignominious way, and it seems very unfair, the treatment of him. Even Esau… he like so many of us, he’s hungry, and he’s desperate for food, and so he despises his birthright, as it were, which is kind of a harsh judgment for just trying to get some food…
The New Testament says, let’s talk about that, “Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.” That statement is often taken to show, or to prove, that anyone who says God loves everybody is false because, after all, the Bible declared that God hated someone, namely Esau, therefore you’re a heretic if you say God loves everybody. What’s a right way to understand that passage in its context?
JM: In the Psalms it talks about God hating evildoers. You think, if God hates evildoers, then as the righteous person that I am, I can hate evildoers too – it gives us that kind of permission. You’ve got the “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated,” and you think, there is a place in God for hate, if you take those passages and lift them out of context. Jesus, though, as the revelation of the inmost being of God, says, “Love your enemies.” What does it mean? Because Jesus even uses the word hate when he says, “If any man would come after me he must hate his father and mother.” What does that mean?
JMF: We like to say love less, but the word actually is hate.
JM: Right. What does he mean there? I think it’s the same thing as the Jacob and Esau. It’s that hyperbole of contrast where he’s choosing one. He’s making a prioritizing claim. He’s choosing one.
JMF: It’s a hyperbole of contrast.
JM: To make a point he’s saying there is a choosing, and I am choosing one over the other. I think it would be a mistake for us to say that Jesus wants us to hate our mother and father literally, because that would go against the Ten Commandments, and we’re supposed to love our father and honor our father and mother. Surely that’s not what Jesus means.
If we can interpret based on letting Scripture interpret Scripture, we can come to the conclusion that Jacob was chosen over Esau. It was a severe judgment at that time to choose one over the other, but in the end it was to bless even Esau.
JMF: It’s for the sake of bringing about salvation of the world that God chooses Israel and doesn’t choose the rest of the world.
JM: Right. To say that God hates evildoers…in the Old Testament, in the Psalms, you could say, if that’s true, then what does Jesus mean about loving your enemies? You have to question, is Jesus God? If Jesus and God are the same, they’re speaking out of two sides of their mouth at once. Unfortunately, a lot of people give up on the idea of Jesus being God in order to keep Scripture, that inerrancy question, alive because they would rather err on the side of Scripture being inerrant than they would on the idea, in a way, of Jesus being the direct and full and final revelation of God himself….
JM: Unfortunately, in order to keep the idea of inerrancy intact, people are more likely to minimize Jesus being God …
JM: So if God hates evildoers and Jesus is God, what do you do then? Because then it sounds like, if Jesus is God and God hates evildoers, but Jesus says love your enemies, it sounds like God’s speaking, the Bible’s speaking out of both sides…
JMF: You get the idea of the harsh God of the Old Testament and then loving Jesus comes long and he’s kind of patching things up and fixing it and getting the Father out of the way.
JM: We know, even going back to that scarlet thread, of God’s own description of his identity in Exodus 34:6-7, that that is a prophecy of Jesus Christ full of grace and truth, just like in Exodus Yahweh says, “I am God of love and faithfulness,” which translates in the Greek on over to “grace and truth.” That is, Jesus Christ is Yahweh. Jesus Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God.
I would rather err on the side of interpreting the Psalmist when he says, “God hates evildoers” than I would of trying to wiggle out of the fact that Jesus and God are of one essence and one being, because what Jesus says there about loving enemies is really expressive of the heart of God. But if you start with that, then what do you do with the Psalmist’s quote? Then you have to say, “I’m sure the Psalmist felt that way, and the Psalmist is very raw about his feelings, but he probably feels, if God’s on our side and God is with us and God is our covenant Father, then he must hate those people, because I sure do hate them.”
JMF: Which is Paul’s point in the first few chapters of Romans, where he is pointing out to Israelites that you’re just as bad as the people that you want to condemn… Just going back to the Psalmist, he’s condemning, and very accurately, the wicked evildoers, but he doesn’t realize that he’s in the same boat. And Paul brings that together and says, “We all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. We all also stand under the grace of God in Christ.”
JM: That’s right.
JMF: And that revelation doesn’t mean we have to disassociate from the Old Testament. What it means is that we can draw and mine the riches of the Old Testament by looking at it through a Christ-centered perspective. With those glasses of God’s revelation in Christ, we can mine the Old Testament in a way we never could before.
Even internally in the Psalms, a person who comes down on inerrancy has to struggle with some of the internal contradictions in the Psalms, for instance when David says early in Psalms…when he talks about the wicked, he talks about the evildoers as being in the other category of people, and then he talks about, in Psalm 14 and 15, about, “Who may dwell in your sanctuary, who may live on your holy mountain, those whose walk is blameless and do what is righteous, who speak the truth from their hearts, who have no slander on their tongues,” all these things. He does not see himself as indicted or as fitting the category of the wicked, but he does see himself as being able to carry off these things.
Later, in Psalm 51, in his repentance after his situation with Bathsheba, evidently he says things that are completely the opposite, about how sinful he is and how he doesn’t seem blameless, or doesn’t seem to claim righteousness or blamelessness in that passage, “Wash away all my iniquities and cleanse me from my sin, for I know my transgressions and my sin is always before me.” That’s David in both places. That needs to be figured out, it needs to be solved. It’s tough for a person who believes in inerrancy to be able to solve that riddle, I guess, of the inherent contradiction within 50 chapters.
JMF: But when you go back to Christ as the key to interpreting all of Scripture, it’s immediately resolved, because that’s who we all are. We’re both of those things, because Christ is perfectly righteous in us and for us, and yet he’s sinned, in that he’s become sin for us, as Paul puts it.
JM: Right. In an ironic way, Christ even defines our sinfulness. Not because he was a sinner in the things that he did, but because he assumed our sinfulness and teaches us about how sinful we are, but also to the great extent that we’ve been redeemed from that sinfulness.
JMF: It reminds me of how Jesus can take hold of a leper and heal him without getting leprosy, even though leprosy is contagious.
JM: Right. It’s the doctor becoming the patient, but remaining the doctor the whole time and healing us.
JMF: It’s funny how in human language we use metaphors and hyperbole all the time and we understand what we mean by it, and nobody takes it literally. If I say, “It’s raining cats and dogs” nobody runs outside to see cats and dogs smashing against the ground. We know what I mean. We know that it’s a way of saying that it’s raining very hard. Nobody has a problem with that. But God forbid that the Scripture should use the same kind of conventions that normal human language does. Well of course it does! If I say the Phillies bombed the Dodgers, I don’t mean the Phillies bombed the Dodgers literally. It’s just a way of saying that they beat them with a high score. Everybody knows that, but then we go to Scripture and we all of a sudden want it to be literal in everything it says….completely misusing it.
JM: Right. And here’s another thing that Christians tend to do along those lines, because they want to take the Bible as being applicable only to them sometimes, and in that way it’s also narrowly viewed. This is what I mean: Sometimes I have people tell me, “Jeff, you’re using these texts from the New Testament from the letters of Paul or the letters of Peter, but those are written to Christians. How can you say that that truth that you’re talking about applies to everyone, when those are expressly written to Christians?”
Well, we have to go to the Scripture and say, okay, these people are Christians. Why are they Christians? When did those things become true for them? …about them being sons of God, about them being adopted, about them being reconciled to God…if we say that those things became true for them when they believed, then I don’t think I would have permission to use anything that was written to those Christians and then apply it to the human race.
However, there’s a few places I could, because Paul does that when he uses the word “world” or when he says “all people.” But if those things were true about them because of what Christ did, and Christians are only those who by the Holy Spirit come to repentance and believe in Jesus Christ, then they are believing in a prior truth – something that was true about them before they believed it and, in fact, is true about all people, but some haven’t believed it yet, and some may never believe it.
JMF: Ephesians 1, Colossians 1 are explicit about that.
JM: What we can do, in a beautiful way, is to look through the experience of truth, to truth itself. It takes good theological exegesis to do this, but I’m looking through the experience of Christians who are experiencing the truth. You know how Paul talks about Christians coming to a knowledge, people coming to a knowledge of the truth. He doesn’t use the word Christians. Well, that’s what Christians are – folks who have come to a knowledge of the truth and who are celebrating it and worshiping God and giving credit where credit is due.
JMF: Our faith and our belief don’t create the truth or cause it to happen – they accept what is already true.
JM: And unbelievers are a part of this truth. They don’t know it, but… The good things that come out of unbelievers’ lives are there because of what Jesus Christ has done, and they are implicated in what he has done, and so if they act more Christian than Christians do sometimes, then that’s because of Jesus Christ. And yet they don’t give credit where credit is due as a worshiping, grateful, thankful believer will and should. In Scripture, what we need to do is look through the experience of believers to that truth that is applicable to all, and then all of a sudden we can see a lot of things that apply to everyone.
JMF: Sure. Good doesn’t come out of nowhere. If there’s good in the world, what’s the origin of it? It only comes from God.
JM: There are a lot of people, a lot of different religions…. When Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, there is no way to the Father except through him. And yet as people have these thoughts about God that aren’t Christian, what can you say? They would not even have those thoughts about God if Jesus Christ wasn’t somehow associated with their life. A person could never produce a green shoot from a dead stump, as P.T. Forsyth once said.
It’s because of Christ being nearer to them than they are to themselves that they could even have any thought about God. They don’t know they’re picking up the suitcase by their own handle. But as believers, let’s you and I give credit where credit is due.
And let’s say that no one even thinks about God, apart from the fact that Jesus Christ has unified himself with them, and that he is their Lord and Savior. Therefore no wonder they’re going to have these thoughts about God. That’s why we need to get out there and tell them the answer to this general feeling that they have.
JMF: Because it’s the Father’s will that everyone come to know Jesus Christ.
JM: Blaise Pascal once said, and put these words in God’s mouth, he said, “You would not seek me unless you had found me.”