When I was in seminary, one of the things that drove me nuts was when professors would write, “Further explanation” or “More details” on a paper. You asked me to summarize Church history in 5 pages! Of course I could have added more! It’s unfair to have expectations beyond the set limits. Anyway, I don’t recount these sentiments for my own catharsis, but to make a point. I’ve been given the opportunity to receive a free copy of Michael Williams‘ How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens thanks to Zondervan on the condition that I would read and review the book on my blog along with a number of other bloggers. And the topic that Dr. Williams is addressing is one that could fill the pages of a bookshelf worth of books: “How does the whole Bible witness to Jesus?” This is what Dr. Williams calls the “Jesus Lens.” Pointing to John 5:39 and Luke 24:27, Dr. Williams asserts, “Reading the Bible through the Jesus lens is reading it the way it was intended.” To show how all 66 of the Bible’s books point to Jesus is quite a task. So as I review the book, I am going to try to keep in mind my seminary experiences and the size of the task at hand in order to be fair and helpful.
For starters, I really appreciate the idea of the book. Dr. Williams is clearly writing to Christians who believe that the whole Bible points to Jesus. (I do, in fact, believe this. The reason I signed up for the blog tour was because I was preaching on this idea right around the time I received notice of the book). Particularly, he seeks to provide a resource for Christians regardless of how theologically trained they are, and I think he achieves his goal of “avoid[ing] the usual dry, data-intensive introduction to the Bible…” (p. 9). Dr. Williams has written a quite accessible, easy-to-read book.
One of the other aspects of the book I appreciated was the effort to illustrate what all the Bible’s talk about Jesus means for us. This, for me, was an unexpected and pleasant surprise. Dr. Williams doesn’t let the reader settle for having knowledge about the Bible and Jesus. He rightly takes the next step to “consider what the fulfillment in Christ must necessarily entail for believers, who are being conformed to his likeness” (p. 10). So I applaud Dr. Williams for this approach.
Yet, as I worked my way through the book and listened to Dr. Williams apply the “Jesus Lens” to each book of the Bible, I could not get past a feeling of disappointment. So I decided to apply the words I offer couples in Marriage Preparation sessions: disappointment often comes from expectations, examine your expectations. What was I expecting of this book that contributed to my disappointment? And were they fair expectations? Well, part of my excitement about The Jesus Lens stemmed from my enthusiasm for the other books in the “How to Read the Bible…” series, in particular Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible Book by Book. This book resides in our church library, on my shelf, and in the collections of numerous congregants who have acted on my recommendation of it. Book by Book–about 180 pages longer than The Jesus Lens–points out the basics of each biblical book (author, date, main themes, etc.) and then summarize the structure of each book. I find Book by Book–while perhaps a bit “dry” and “data-intensive”–to be an incredibly valuable reference material for lay people. That’s what I was expecting from Jesus Lens: a reference material that would equip people for personal Bible study, that small group leaders could print off before they entered into a new study, and a resource that would give people categories to understand the Christ-centered direction of the Scriptures. My disappointment, I think, came when I realized that The Jesus Lens read more like a devotional or sermon.
For instance, instead of developing categories for how the Bible points to Jesus, The Jesus Lens takes one overarching theme from each book (many of which are debatable) and finds a New Testament texts that make the same point about Jesus. For me, the problem with this is it leaves a number of curious omissions: no connection of the Passover in Exodus to Jesus, minimal reference to how genealogies shape the Story, no allusion to messianic Psalms, no discussion of how the structure of Acts presents the life of the Church as a mirror of the life of Jesus in Luke, no note of the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2, and no hint that John’s Gospel presents Jesus as the fulfillment of numerous Old Testament events and symbols (ie. Passover Lamb, temple, bronze serpent, Manna, the Water and Light at the Feast of Tabernacles, Shepherd, etc.). In fact, in the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) chapters, there are as many quotations from Romans 7 as from the Gospels. All of these are confusing to me as they are Christ-centered moments of the Scriptures that I would want Bible readers and small group leaders to pick up on with the help of a resource like The Jesus Lens.
Since each blogger has agreed to focus on a particular section of the Bible, I’ll show more what I mean (plusses and minuses) as I focus on the prophetic books:
- Some of the prophetic books were some of the The Jesus Lens’ best chapters, in my opinion. For instance, Amos might have been my favorite in the whole book. Part of the reason was its connection to a Gospel (Matthew). Dr. Williams showed how Amos’ oracles against false religion are connected to Jesus’ heart focus in his Kingdom Community vision in the Sermon on the Mount and in the holistic nature of Jesus’ ministry (proclamation, compassion, healing). Habakkuk and Malachi were other high notes for me, partly because they emphasized Jesus as the Revelation of God, not just how Jesus benefited us.
- In part, the above books stood out–in my opinion–because too much of the rest of the book is using a “Substitutionary Atonement/Imputation Lens” instead of a “Jesus Lens.” Now, I am a subscriber to Substitutionary Atonement (Jesus took on the death-punishment I deserved for my sins, so that I could be forgiven and live out Christ’s life) as a valid interpretation of the Cross. But I do think this understanding of Jesus’ life and death can be overemphasized. The overemphasis shows up in Hosea, a book about God’s almost unbelievable mercy and faithfulness, when Dr. Williams writes, “We may take comfort in knowing that the faithfulness of Jesus is counted as our own” (p. 115-116). Yes, I believe it is. But it would have seemed less forced to me to say, “We may take comfort in knowing that the Cross shows God’s faithfulness to us even when we have been unfaithful to him.” (See also Proverbs, “[Jesus] is the wise one whose wisdom is credited to us before God…” [p. 80])
- Isaiah is a long book; so here I tread lightly in seeking to be fair. In the “Jesus Lens” section of the chapter, however, Dr. Williams chooses only to focus on Jesus as the Immanuel (God with Us) of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23. I agree with this connection, but it is an extremely limited way of connecting Isaiah to Christ. I was rather shocked that Isaiah 61:1-3 (a passage that Jesus reads and applies to himself!), was completely neglected both in chapters on Isaiah and Luke. Isaiah 52-53 is mentioned, but not in the “Jesus Lens” section, even though it would have been a far more natural link to Jesus’ sacrificial death than other links proposed in the book. Isaiah (alongside the Psalms) is a clear illustration of where I think Dr. Williams’ approach (choosing one theme per book to apply to Jesus) falls short of truly equipping the reader with a Jesus lens. And this leads me to my final thoughts…
How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens succeeds in its emphasis on application (not just information), its structure (background-theme-Jesus Lens-application), and its readability. At the same time, it is not what I was hoping for. I was hoping for a book that captured the rich, subtle, brilliant, artistic, and decidedly storied ways the Scriptures point to Christ, an accessible but more comprehensive resource for Bible-readers to understand the Christ-focus of the Bible. In other words, something more like what Fee and Stuart have done in Book by Book. Dr. Williams offers a more devotional book. It is a better read from cover to cover than Book by Book, but I don’t think it is as valuable of a reference material. The category shift to “reference material” would have allowed a little more space (Book by Book is longer, but it still allows someone who wants to better understand a book to get lots of help in 4-12 pages), the option of bullet-pointing some of the diverse ways the Scriptures point to Christ, and introducing some new language that would give Bible-readers some new categories with which to discover Jesus in their Bible reading.
We do have some great materials out there for people who want to understand how the Bible’s pieces fit together to reveal a picture of Jesus. Not least among these is Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Jesus Storybook Bible (super accessible) and Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan (a bit more academic than The Jesus Lens). How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens will be added to this collection. But I’m still looking for that resource that goes both deeper and broader into the Christ-focus of the Bible’s Story for the average Bible reader.
Discussion with Dr. Williams on his book: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=98Xzvun5ae0