Why Do We Need Jesus in Our Exegesis?
Except for a period in my early twenties, I have been involved in the life of a local church for as long as I can remember. Because I was so involved in various ministries, I made it a priority to study the Bible in preparation so that I could be, in the words of Paul, a workman unashamed. Still, something wasn’t right. The spiritual growth and change I desired wasn’t happening on a notable or consistent basis. I remember doing my “quiet time” one afternoon in my teens and becoming exhaustingly discouraged. Sunday after Sunday I would walk out after the service on a spiritual high only to crash into the reality of my own brokenness within minutes of leaving the church building. I didn’t realize what was missing until later in life. While my salvation and early spiritual growth had come from the work of the Spirit in my heart and life, I began relying less on the Spirit and more on my flesh for my continued growth (Galatians 3:3). Like many believers have confessed to me over the years, I turned to Jesus for salvation, but trusted in myself for sanctification. Most of the teaching and material I was exposed to presented lists of Christian attitudes and actions, along with a call to do these things, and that’s it. I am not saying there is a problem with calling people to act in God honoring ways. Descriptive examples and prescriptive imperatives are all over the Bible.
However, problems arise when you approach examples and imperatives the wrong way. My exasperation found its roots in incomplete exegesis. I was approaching the Bible as if it was primarily about me; the stories just examples of morality that I should try to emulate. As I’ve sought a deeper relationship with my Savior, I’ve come to the conviction that the Bible is not primarily about you and I. It’s about Him. While this does not dissolve our responsibility concerning biblical imperatives, it does change how we approach and apply them to our lives. It fundamentally changes our hermeneutical framework and our method of Bible application. Until my mid-twenties, I approached the bible as a compilation of morally commendable stories. I completely missed THE Bible story. The story of Jesus. This is the aim of Christ-centered hermeneutics – to center everything on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the Link Between Every Part of the Bible and Us
The Bible is very clear that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). In light of that, shouldn’t we approach interpreting God’s word as mediated to us through Jesus Christ? I have come to believe that this is the hermeneutical grid that Jesus and the Apostles advocated (John 5:39; Luke 24:27; Luke 24:44-45; 1 Corinthians 2:2; Colossians 2:2-3). Essentially, all of Scripture needs to be interpreted by the definitive person and work of Jesus Christ. I believe Graeme Goldsworthy said it well:
The Old Testament does not stand on its own, because it is incomplete without its conclusion and fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. No part can be rightly understood without him. In this sense it is about Christ. God’s revelation is progressive, moving in stages from the original promises given to Israel, until the fullest meaning of these promises is revealed in Christ…Thus Christ, interprets the New and Old Testaments.
There are thoughtful Christians who are skeptical of Christ-centered hermeneutics because they think it advocates an unbalanced allegorical approach to interpreting the Bible. They would contend for a more strict expository method that doesn’t stray too far from the controls of the immediate context of the passage.
Advocates of the Christ-centered method push back and maintain that they are simply widening the contextual parameters to the entire canon and focusing in on Jesus as the key to understanding God’s word. Therefore, the trajectory of every passage and theme in the Bible points to Christ through type, antitype, promise, or symbol. Tony Merida contends, “the goal for Christ-centered expositors is not to ‘look for Jesus under every rock,’ but rather to find out how a particular text fits into the whole redemptive story that culminates in Christ.” I do not think Christ-centered hermeneutics and grammatical historical driven hermeneutics are antithetical. Combined, these methods give us the proper exegetical approach to reading and applying God’s word focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, if Jesus is the climax of God’s revelation (as we read in Hebrews 1:1-3), how does this change the way we read, preach, and teach the Bible? And why would it have mattered to me in my earlier spiritual development as I was being confronted with the law’s demands and my own inadequacies? Here is where Christ-centered hermeneutics unleashes an ocean of benefits for Christian sanctification.
The Gracious Benefits of Christ-Centered Hermeneutics
First, we need to have a proper understanding of our own struggles and find security in Christ. Too many honest Christians struggle with their own sin nature because they can’t make sense of its place in their Christian identity. If I am a Christian, why am I (still) so broken? I will always be thankful for Bryan Chapell’s book Christ-Centered Preaching on this point. Chapell introduces the concept of the “Fallen Condition Focus” in this work. Our fallen condition is the mutual human condition all believers share when confronted with the demands of God’s law, which in turn draws us towards the grace of God found only in Christ. When we look at the perfection of Jesus, the God-man, we are confronted with our own failures and the failures of people in the Bible. As Ed Clowney once wrote, “Jesus fulfilled the law not only by keeping it perfectly for us, but also by transforming our understanding of it. Christ not only obeyed the law, but also displayed its true meaning and depth.” Therefore we don’t simply approach the Bible as a handbook of life for moral direction, but as God’s word revealing our hideous sin and the beauty Jesus’ perfection. Jesus is faithful when we are failures.
Second, the primary way to respond to our fallen condition as it is revealed in the Bible, and through the Spirit, is faith in the completed work of Christ. Moreover, the implication of Christ’s work on our behalf becomes the motivation and power for faithful Christian living. Graeme Goldsworthy argues that “The ethical example of Christ is secondary to and dependent upon the primary and unique work of Christ for us.” It is from Jesus’ life and work, also his death and resurrection, that the motivation and power for Christian living flows. Relying on our own will power to live the Christian life will leave us devastated. This feeling of hopelessness can often be the result when we jump to an immediate application of a biblical text without first seeing the text through the lens of Jesus Christ. In other words, we don’t approach the Bible with the question: what does this mean for me? without asking prior questions like: How does this text relate to Christ? How do we relate to Christ? Only then can we ask, in light of Christ’s work on our behalf, how can we respond with our lives in worship as gratitude for his grace? Further, we then plead with the Holy Spirit to provide wisdom and motivation for living in a God honoring way.
Third, the good news of the gospel is Christ’s work for us and the fruit of the gospel is Christ’s work in us. Jesus produces fruit in us where our willpower fails us every time. The good news of Jesus is something we need to be reminded of throughout the Christian life. Tim Keller is well-known for saying, “The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s of Christianity but is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.” The gospel needs to be applied to every area of one’s thinking, feeling, relating, working, and behaving consistently throughout life. This is why Christ-centered hermeneutics is so important for properly understanding the Bible. When we read and apply the Bible without Christ as the center, we naturally swing towards either religion or irreligion. We either apply the text in ways that send us on a trajectory towards self-exultation because we become the hero of our faith, or self- exhaustion because we cannot consistently live up to the standards of our faith.
A Christ-centered hermeneutic teaches us that in every passage the canonical trajectory points us to Christ as the hero of our salvation and our sanctification. Moreover, we learn that we are to approach the Bible with the posture (As Keller has said on many occasions) that we are more sinful and flawed than we ever dared believe, while being more accepted and loved by Jesus than we ever dared hope. Christ-centered hermeneutics not only informs the mind, but also employs the truth to appeal to our emotions and challenge our will to respond appropriately and entirely to the good news of Jesus Christ. Certainly, to understand the Bible correctly requires faith in Christ along with the Spirit’s enlightenment. Jesus is revealed as central to the Bible so that no part can be rightly understood without him. Sadly, many Christians read, many preachers preach, and many teachers teach the Bible in a way that would be agreeable to someone outside the faith. The key question in biblical hermeneutics is: How does this text testify to Christ?
If the reader, preacher, or teacher hasn’t addressed and answered this question in their pursuits, they are not approaching the Bible in an explicitly Christian way.
Further Resources for Understanding Christ-Centered Hermeneutics
- Gospel-Centered Teaching (Forthcoming), Trevin Wax
- Proclaim Jesus, Tony Merida
- Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, Ed Clowney
- How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens, Michael Williams
- Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, Graeme Goldsworthy
- Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, Graeme Goldsworthy
- Him We Proclaim, Dennis Johnson
Matt Capps currently serves as the Brand Manager for The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, TN . Matt is a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and is currently a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (D.Min.). Matt blogs here.