What George Washington teaches us about reading the Bible

This post is dedicated to Fred Gilham whose paper inspired this idea.

When you look at a painting, it can take a moment to determine its centerpiece. In this 1851 work by Emmanuel Leutze, it’s pretty clear. The centerpiece is not the boat or the river of ice. It’s not the men rowing or the guy holding the flag. It’s not the guy holding his hat or the guy steering the boat.

It’s the man standing in the center, rising up higher and straighter than anyone else. George Washington. He is the center of the picture.

He makes up only a small portion of the surface area of the painting. But the picture would not be meaningful without him. He’s the one who made the decision to cross the Delaware River in the middle of the night in order to surprise the Hessian army (artistic license made it a daytime crossing). He’s the one who led his exhausted troops through the freezing cold on that Christmas evening in 1776. The credit for victory in the Battle of Trenton goes to him. All the elements of the story come together because of him.

By contrast, the centerpiece of the Bible is obscured. Most people read the Bible as a disparate collection of stories and rules. It’s a jumble of conflicting accounts, moral fables, arbitrary regulations, and senseless violence. The stories don’t seem related. Themes do not span across authors or books. The God of the Old Testament is vindictive and cruel whereas the God of the New Testament is gentle and patient. And that’s only what Christians think.

One method of determining the main point of a book is to look at its ending. In Revelation, Jesus ascends to the throne of earth and is united with his bride, the church. The New Jerusalem will have a tree of life in its center (an echo from Genesis) but there will be no temple because Jesus is the temple. By this method and others, Jesus is the centerpiece of the Bible. He is the gracious redeemer who rescues and transforms a corrupt and undeserving people.

The Bible concerns the grace of Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant, with its rules and regulations, is the backdrop. It’s the ice and freezing water of the Delaware River. It’s the ominous skies. It’s the obstacle that is meant to be broken through. The Old Covenant takes up much of the surface area of the Bible but it makes what Jesus did meaningful.

If Jesus is the centerpiece, the challenge is determining how the rest of scripture points to Him. It’s not hard to make connections with broad strokes. But it’s much tougher when you dig down into the details. Yet we rest assured, for in all our study, we know how the story ends and who the centerpiece is.

So the next time you’re reading the Bible and you're lost in some ice floe in Leviticus or the clouds of Lamentations, remember the point of the picture. Examine the text carefully but don’t lose sight of how the story ends and who the backdrop is pointing to.

Comments

  1. Hi Fred! I love this post! I was thinking about the idea of the OT as an elaborate build-up for Jesus on Good Friday. Because I was reading through Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and all the parts describing the tabernacle and the measurements and everything. God devotes a LOT of text to constructing this image of who He is. And in Matthew's account of Jesus' death, there's that one phrase, where it says the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. I read that before Easter, and I got the sense of God's theatricality with it all. He spent hundreds of years building layers of meaning behind that curtain--just so that He could tear it in half.

    I hope everything is going well at SV! I read the youth group emails every week still, and I wish I could be there to join in the fun :D

    Elanor

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  2. Elanor, I appreciate the encouragement! I also wonder if the law and the curtain is also more than a backdrop - that somehow it must reflect something about the nature of God. That's kind of a reformed perspective but it seems kinda lame to build something up only to tear it down - unless the former was meant to point us towards the latter.

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