Have you ever talked with someone who comes to the conversation with a sort of aural shotgun approach? There doesn’t seem to be an effort on their part to organize their words or subject matter; instead, they just word-vomit, more or less. Often when I have a conversation with someone like this, I feel that this person has just thrown a bunch of puzzle pieces from several different puzzles at me and left me to put it all together.
I think sometimes we approach the Bible as though God is this kind of conversation partner. I’ve heard sermons or devotionals that run all around the Bible without landing on any one passage, stitching things together without any respect for how God has spoken or revealed himself. I don’t deny the coherence of Scripture, and of course many passages of Scripture help expound other passages; but the approach I’m referring to assumes that the Bible is a great big selection of random stories, commands, and sayings, and that it’s up to the person speaking to put it all together.
I was sitting in on a class Vern Poythress was teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary, and he said something to this effect: “Respect the order in which God discloses himself. Ask, “How does the order unfold in the time and space in which it was originally disclosed?” In other words, it matters that Deuteronomy follows Genesis–Numbers. It matters to the interpretation of Isaiah that it was written at the point in history in which it was. It matters that John uses this word in a certain way, and that Paul uses it in a different way. While Scripture informs Scripture, we can’t pretend that it isn’t a collection of different books written by different authors with different perspectives in different languages and cultural settings at different points in history.
For example, there are a series of similar instances in Israel’s wanderings with important differences. In Exodus 14 the people rebel when faced with an enemy, and God delivers them. In Numbers 14 the people rebel when faced with an enemy, and the Lord curses them to wander in the wilderness for forty years, until an entire generation dies. At the beginning of Exodus 16, the people complain because they’re hungry, and God feeds them with quail. In Numbers 11, the people complain because they’re hungry, and God gives them so much quail that it comes out of their nostrils, and then strikes many Israelites dead. At the end of Exodus 16, some Israelites try to work on the Sabbath, and they are mildly chastised. In Numbers 15, a man is caught working on the Sabbath, and he is stoned to death.
Let’s say that we were just reading and teaching from Numbers, without thinking about it’s place in the Bible. We might string these three episodes from Numbers together and say something like, “be sure not to complain or disobey God, or bad things will happen!” And that’s certainly true, but it’s not primarily what Moses is trying to communicate. See, there’s one massive event between these two sets of stories: the giving of the law at Sinai. Before the law came, people sinned and God dealt with them gently. After the giving of the law, the people sinned and God killed them in judgment. There’s a pattern established, and the similarities are included and drawn out by Moses so we might see the pattern. This is what leads Paul to say things like “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56), and “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died” (Romans 7:9).
Unless we read the Bible as a united whole, a book about God’s redemptive work in Christ written in time to people, and not as some abstract collection of pithy sayings and stories, then we read wrongly.