photo by Ben White

The Surprise of Jesus

Peter Enns writes on his blog:

The Old Testament story does not come to a climax “naturally” in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Nor does the Old Testament “predict” Jesus of Nazareth in any conventional sense of the word “predict…” Rather, a crucified and risen messiah is a surprise ending to Israel’s story.

I remember back in college group at church studying all the Old Testament passages that pointed to Jesus as the Savior God had been promising from the beginning of time. The point of the exercise was to prove to us and give us confidence that all of history pointed uniquely to Jesus of Nazareth as the expected Messiah and Savior of all creation.

Made sense to me. I mean, if an old prophecy says the messiah will be crucified but won’t have any bones broken — even though breaking bones is part of the standard process of crucifixion — and then this guy Jesus is crucified without any bones being broken, it’s pretty clear the Old Testament writer was predicting Jesus’ death, right?

But one thing always bugged me. The people who were closest to Jesus never saw it. The gospels, especially Mark, are full of examples of the disciples not understanding Jesus or his role. In the pivotal moment of the book, the end of chapter 8, Jesus begins to predict the terrible death he will suffer. In verse 32, “Peter {one of Jesus’ closest disciples} took [Jesus] aside to reprimand him for saying such things.”

If the Jewish people believed from their religious writings that the coming Messiah was going to die a horrific death — as I was taught to believe — why didn’t the disciples know this? Why didn’t Peter hear Jesus talk of death and recognize the suffering Messiah?

Even though they had the writings and the prophets, even though they had angels and messengers of God, even though God spoke into their midst, the Jewish people missed what God was trying to tell them.

Jesus was the foreshadowed Messiah, but he didn’t look at all like what the people of God expected. In Enns’ language, Jesus was a surprise.

This is a fine academic exercise, but it leads me to another question.

The Jewish people had full access to the written and spoken words of God, yet they missed the climax of the story because they didn’t understand the words they were hearing.

They church today has the same access to the written and spoken words of God. Why should we assume we are doing any better a job with it than our ancestors did? How are we, in the certainty of our modern, western mindset, completely missing the point?

And this leads to an even bigger question.

Assuming we are reading the words but missing the point, how should that change how we read the bible? how we relate to the bible? How does this change our understanding of the authority of the bible?

In the article Pete Enns linked above, Enns makes two statements:

  1. “They read the Old Testament creatively, not bound by what the authors were trying to say for their time, but shaped by what they believed God was doing in the present time.”
  2. “In other, other words, their faith that Jesus was the telos of Israel’s story was their starting point and governing principle for how they read their Bible.”

The bible is formative to me. I don’t wish to throw it out as is common in some progressive circles. Instead, I want to learn to read it in a creative, midrashic manner that remains true to the story God is telling.

Is there a way to read the bible that doesn’t say “all interpretations are valid,” but isn’t bound by the doctrinal systems the western church has historically used to understand it?

Maybe one answer is to read the bible through the surprise of Jesus. Where does Jesus shock his religious audience? It’s in his active choice to lay himself down to death, to be sure, but its also in his radical inclusion of women, children, and others who were marginalized. Its in the way he spoke to the leaders of his day. Its in how he chose his friends. It’s in the counterintuitive values in his words and actions.

Step One: Read the gospels listening for the surprise.

Step Two: Read the rest of the story through that framework.