Scripture is a Narrative, Not a List

We’ve all heard the surely apocryphal story about the person who decided that he needed some Biblical guidance regarding the direction of his life or a decision he needed to make, and in order to obtain that guidance resolved to simply open his Bible, close his eyes, and place his finger at a random spot, trusting that God would bless this method as a means of leading him to the right decision. Upon opening his eyes, the man was horrified to read the following words:

And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:5)

Needless to say, our seeker of guidance did not believe that this was the message that God had for him, so he decided to try again. His finger landed on a different passage:

And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37b)

Horrified, but not yet deterred, he tried one more time and received only a seeming confirmation of the same directive:

Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” (John 13:27b)

Happily, in no version of the above story that I have heard has the protagonist followed this supposedly “biblical” advice, but it humorously illustrates how many unbelievers and, sadly, many Christians approach the Bible. Looking for easily-digestible bits of wisdom or tips for a better life, professing Christians who are unfamiliar with the Bible’s contents open it to find a confusing series of names, places, and events that hardly seem connected to one another, much less relevant to our lives today. Opponents of Christianity, looking for material with which to attack the faith, can easily find passages which seem ridiculous or dated when divorced from the narrative context of the whole (Leviticus is a favorite source for these).

Are there answers to the questions and objections of both of these groups? Yes, but they require more patience and exposition than soundbite-length answers. The common objection that Christians follow some Levitical laws but not others is answered by the theological formulation which divides the laws given to Moses in the Old Testament into moral, ceremonial, and civil categories. The New Testament, written over ten centuries after Moses, speaks of the latter two types of laws as having been fulfilled with the coming of Christ, and thus no longer in force. A number of passages can be brought to bear in support of this, but a brief one is found in Colossians 2:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)

Now, is there disagreement among Christians regarding which laws fall into each of the three categories? Yes, some, but all agree that there are moral laws which remain perpetually binding and others which have been fulfilled, having served their purpose. This becomes readily apparent as one becomes familiar with the scriptural narrative, but the reader expecting to find an easily understood (or debunked or ridiculed) list of rules will not understand this.

To the Christian, especially the new Christian who is looking at the Bible for perhaps the first time and wondering “how is this relevant to me?” remember most of all that the whole of Scripture points to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Christ admonished both his detractors and his followers when they failed to understand that even the Old Testament ultimately pointed to himself. Speaking to the Jews who did not believe, Jesus said,

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)

After his Resurrection, Jesus even chided his followers who did not understand that the scriptures told how he must suffer and then rise again.

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

As the apostles and their associates began their ministries, we read of Paul (Acts 17:2-3) and Apollos (Acts 18:28) using the scriptures to refute their opponents and prove that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah.

In the end, that is the narrative thrust of the whole of Holy Scripture: to point us to Jesus Christ. Are there genealogical records, historical narratives, and, yes, sometimes even lists of instructions? Yes, but even though these sometimes reveal interesting information that seems tangential to this central thrust, we err when we read the Bible as doing anything except telling us that God made us, we sinned against him, and God promised and then provided a Savior for us in the Lord Jesus.

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:11-12)

Are you reading the Bible today looking for “tips for a better life?” You won’t find them in any fulsome way until you understand that the better life—the eternal life—promised therein is the one provided to all who believe in Christ. Are you reading the Bible looking for absurdities and contradictions? If you read it honestly, on its own terms and not those you impose upon it, you won’t find any of those. Instead, you’ll find a single message, revealed through multiple authors over the course of fifteen centuries yet so brilliantly summarized by the Apostle Paul:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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