I have remarkably few enemies. Yet there is one in particular that I’d like to introduce you to today. Her name is Kate Turabian. If you or your kids have been around school at any time in recent history, you know the name not for the person, but for the classic “Kate Turabian” style of formatting. This means that everything you write not only has to match the “Turabian” style in both font and spacing, but headings and subheadings require a set number of spaces. Your citations have to be carefully footnoted in the exactly proper form. The white edges on the sides of your papers have to be a certain width. And if you’re a student, you know the perplexing sting of learning you lost points on a paper because—and I’m not exaggerating—your hyphens were too wide.
Turabian. The name has become synonymous with an environment of strict standards and rigorous literalism. So it’s actually a bit exasperating to open the book of Hebrews to see the way the author often plays fast and loose with the way he haphazardly quotes Old Testament texts—with no citations, mind you. It’s no wonder the author remained unnamed—who’d want their graders to see how sloppy this sermon is?
What’s the author doing, exactly? The author of Hebrews is demonstrating something fundamental about the Christian Bible: that no Scripture is complete until it is understood in light of Jesus. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is open to being interpreted and re-interpreted, but it does mean that we understand the Bible only when we learn to see Jesus on every page. So in Hebrews 2:5-13, we see the author of Hebrews using a series of Old Testament quotations to explain just how awesome Jesus truly is. Let’s look at this text with the citations supplied (by me) in bold:
5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere,
“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.” [PSALM 8:4-6]
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying,
“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” [PSALM 22:22]
13 And again,
“I will put my trust in him.” [Psalm 18:2]
“Behold, I and the children God has given me.” [ISAIAH 8:18]
In today’s world, it’s tempting to select certain “favorite” verses or passages and make them something of a “life verse.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a few favorite passages, but the author here is saying that the Bible must be read as a continual story of God working in the world. One author writes:
“…the author [reads] non-narrative texts against the backdrop of the narrative of salvation history. He ‘narrativized’ material from Psalms and Proverbs, sometimes taking them as scripts on the lips of Christ or as prophetic words of God in relation to events in the new covenant. Words in non-narrative genres are read as words within the overarching narrative of salvation history.” (Ken Schenck, “God has Spoken,” in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, p. 324)
This is why the division between “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is somewhat misleading. The division came in the early centuries of the church, when a man named Jerome noted the contrast between the “old covenant” described by the prophets and the “new covenant” described by Jesus and his followers (the book of Hebrews will later make fuller explanation of this difference). So, he concluded, we should call the earlier scriptures the “Old Testament,” and the writings featuring Jesus and his followers the “New Testament.” But really, we need to recognize that the kinds of quotations we find in Hebrews aren’t that unusual. In his commentary on the Bible, A.E. Hill estimates that about 32 percent—yes, a third—of the New Testament is composed of quotations from the Old Testament (!). That’s a lot. And it highlights the way that the Bible is meant to be one unified story.
This also helps us understand how the Bible differs from other ancient and other religious writings. Even now we’re seeing some friction (to put it mildly) between Western cultures and the nature of Islam. Two articles from The Atlantic magazine (both in the last month or so) have been particularly telling. In the first, called “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood highlights the deep connection of Islamic beliefs and the recent escalation of violence. In a counter-article, called “The Phony Islam of ISIS,” Caner K. Dagli notes the ways that ISIS has really just hijacked religious language—the Quran, after all, is a starting point, and must be coupled with other writings such as the Hadith (the sayings of Muhammad). The result is a confusing web. We needn’t get stuck in the details of this, only to note that when a religious text is intended only to reflect a person’s experiences, we are left only with questions of interpretation. Does Islam promote violence? Or peace? Even these questions are partially obscured by the Muslim doctrine of “abrogation,” where certain texts are thought to “replace” pre-existing ones (!).
The Christian Bible is radically different. Yes, there are passages that generate confusion. Yes, there have been passages used (inappropriately) to justify violence and oppression. But the overarching story—the one the writer of Hebrews bids us to lose ourselves in—is one of salvation and redemption, a promise fulfilled in the arrival of Jesus.
But what about you and me? Sometimes it’s easy to flounder in our Bible reading because, well, we’re separated from the original culture by a few centuries or more. There’s a book on my shelf called The Hermeneutical Spiral. It’s one of those books you only read once, but the author’s central image is extraordinarily helpful. Grant Osborne (the author) suggests that when we read and interpret a part of the Bible, we’re really sort of drawing circles around it. The more we read, the more we interpret, the more our circles will spiral closer and closer toward the center—that is, toward the exact meaning. We may start of spinning in circles around a particular text, but with time, with experience, with community, we draw closer and closer toward the truth. This is partly why attending a Sunday morning worship service is so spiritually vital—because it is there that we grow in our understanding of God’s word as we hear it unfolded and explained. This is partly why a mid-week community group is important—because it is there that we see how God’s word impacts the everyday lives of those with whom we share life. Everyone loves a good story. And the Bible is the greatest of all.