Everything in the Bible Isn’t about Jesus

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563

If you’ve been a Christian for very long or were raised in a Christian church, chances are that you’ve heard that the Bible is really all about Jesus. That cliché has some truth to it, but it’s misleading.

The truth is that there’s a lot in the Bible that isn’t about Jesus. Procedures for diagnosing and treating leprosy (Lev 13:1–14:57) aren’t about Jesus. Laws forbidding people who’ve had sex or lost blood (Lev 15) from entering sacred space aren’t about Jesus. The spiritual, social, and moral corruption in the days of the judges (Judg 17–21) wasn’t put in the Bible to tell us about Jesus. The Tower of Babel incident (Gen 11:1–9) doesn’t point to Jesus. When Ezra commanded Jews who’d returned from exile to divorce the gentile women they’d married (Ezra 9–10), he wasn’t foreshadowing anything about Jesus.

The point is straightforward: No Israelite would have thought of a messianic deliverer when reading these or many other passages. No New Testament writer alludes to them and many other portions of Scripture to explain who Jesus was or what he said.

Why is this idea so prevalent?

In my experience, the prevailing motivation seems to be to encourage people to read their Bible. That’s a good incentive. But I’ve also come across other factors, namely that it serves as an excuse to avoid the hard work of figuring out what’s really going on in many passages. People are taught to extrapolate what they read to some point of connection with the life and ministry of Jesus—no matter how foreign to Jesus the passage appears. Imagination isn’t a sound hermeneutic. Not only does it lack boundaries that prevent very flawed interpretations (and even heresies), but it makes Scripture serve our ability to be clever. Recognizing the inaccuracy of this assumption is important for some simple but important reasons.

First, if we filter passages that aren’t about Jesus through something Jesus did and said, we won’t have any hope of understanding what those passages were actually about. Nothing in Scripture is there accidentally. The Bible is an intelligent creation. Our task as those with a high view of Scripture is to discern why God wanted a given passage in the Bible in the first place.

Second, the assumption can lead to minimizing or ignoring passages in which we can’t clearly see Jesus. Since Jesus is central to God’s sovereign plan of salvation, passages that don’t add some detail about his teachings or the gospel story are considered peripheral or optional. Why bother spending serious time in a passage that “doesn’t matter” for having eternal life? Giving us the Bible as we have it was a providential, intentional decision on God’s part. We either believe that’s true and act accordingly (i.e., studying the whole counsel of God), or we’ll act as though God’s decision was random and unintelligent.

Third, becoming skilled at seeing Jesus in places where he isn’t can discourage others from Bible study or lead others under one’s spiritual charge to believe we have special (even authoritative) insight. When “Jesus stuff” isn’t obvious in a given passage and we’ve been taught that it’s somehow all about him, it’s easy to just give up and let pastors and others tell us what they “see.” People shut off their brains when they are led to believe they can’t think well about Scripture.

The bottom line is that we can talk about the inspiration and authority of the Bible all day long and still fall prey to marginalizing its content with familiar clichés that let us off the hook from doing the hard work of interpretation. While the drama of the biblical epic ultimately leads to Jesus, he isn’t the ultimate focal point of every passage. That’s homiletical flair, not the reality of the text.

***

why is the bible hard to understandThis article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.

Dr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.

His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.

He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

Comments

  1. one, two, three, four. four words in, and it’s talking about Jesus.

  2. Randy Beumer says:

    Dr. Heiser,
    Thank you for your insights and calling preaching to account for clarity and precision in this article. Sometimes acrobatic skill manages a sermon, with the preacher looking like a well trained gymnast. I know that I’ve been guilty of such intellectual attempts to make myself look skilled and learned. It does nothing for spiritual growth in a congregation.

    That being said, I think that looking for the Gospel in every page of Scripture should be the task of every sermon. Otherwise we are teaching Old Testament through a legalist lens or merely lecturing on ancient history. When Jesus was with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus he told them that the writing of “Moses, and all the Prophets” were all about him. If we define prophets as one who speaks (writes) for God, then “Moses and all the prophets”, sound like an all Scripture inclusive statement.
    Here are some of my responsive thoughts to this idea that Jesus himself is teaching. Dietrich Bonnhoeffer saysn “Life Together”, that every Psalm is to be read as though Jesus were reading it through his people. I’d find it impossible to read many of the difficult imprecatory Psalms if they weren’t about the only one who could take my place in representing my prayer, and who could truly ask God for justice by his own holiness and worthiness. As Jesus prays “destroy my enemies”, I begin to understand how Jesus answers that prayer on the cross. I can read and pray that pray only if that prayer is about Jesus as Bonnhoeffer concludes. I don’t think I’d understand the Gospel fully in the Psalms otherwise.
    I’d have to agree that divorce in Ezra isn’t specifically a messianic prophecy. But what then comes to mind is this very difficult issue of hating divorce but then commanding it. Even the negative issues we find in these passages, point to a need for social purity and the high calling of holy living for God’s people. It points to complicated and broken issues that sin causes, and the need for righteousness that is impossible for us to attain. Jesus points out on the sermon on the mount the impossible road to holiness and the need for the messiah. But we see also a messiah that cleanses us of all unrighteousness in 1st John.

    The Levite priest at the end of Judges who treats his concubine with cruelty points to a savior who is like a husband who would never leave or forsake us. Christ is the husband loving and sacrificing for the church in Ephesians. Christ is the husband preparing for his bride that is made spotless and pure by his blood. She is prepared in white garments for her bridegroom in Revelation.
    One last example is the book of Hebrews pointing to Jesus as the Old Covenant is unfolded down to the shew bread on the table in the tabernacle.
    None of this is acrobatics or showing how smart we are to our people. We need to approach this with a humble heart, revealing the gospel with intimidation towards it. Scriptural connectivity needs to be available to the congregation. The challenge we face is training and equipping the saints to see how Christ connects the Word. We need to define the gospel against all the heretical teaching that tries to disconnect the Old and New Covenants.
    So I think that we can at least say that the Gospel, our need for a savior, and his fulfilling work of saving grace is in every page of Scripture.
    I think it is the task of every preacher to point every single story in scripture to the gospel of Jesus.
    Thanks for listening.

    Randy

  3. Felipe Moreira Eler says:

    I understand Dr. Heiser’s point, but I would like to watch him discussing it with Dr. Bryan Chapell…
    Dr. Chapell doesn’t appeal to an allegorical method to make Jesus appear in texts that “isn’t about him”, but he uses his famous FCF and grace allover the Scripture to show that from Genesis to Revelation it is all about grace and that the pinnacle of the grace was on Calvary.

  4. I have to disagree. Not that I am trying to dumb down scripture but it really about right/wrong, truth/falsehood, righteousness/wickedness and so on. The revelation of Jesus to the world is the Word. I do agree that not everything can be portrayed as Jesus but it’s his world in which he has revealed himself. The boat that floats carried the creator in his creation.

  5. Gene Long says:

    Thank you for a concise, thought-provoking article!

    “The point is straightforward: No Israelite would have thought of a messianic deliverer when reading these or many other passages.”

    The point is even MORE straightforward than that: The Israelites (Jews) did not even recognize the messianic deliverer when they SAW him, even when they had heard the words of the prophets read every sabbath day:

    For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him. Acts 13.27

    I fully agree with your observation that “imagination isn’t a sound hermeneutic.” Sermons preached on fanciful interpretations and far-fetched applications are a hindrance, not a help, to spiritual life.

    Nevertheless, I would caution against the use of sweeping terminology that might leave readers with the impression that some parts of the Bible have nothing to do with the story of redemption. Indeed, seeing those passages where Jesus is not the ultimate focal point as unrelated to redemption can as easily lead to error as can the other hermeneutic.

    Doth God take care for oxen?

  6. Joel H. Nadel says:

    Honestly, pure, unadulterated rubbish. A truly apostate view of the Word of God that is designed to promote apostasy. Simply bad, postmodern hermeneutics leads to Heiser’s conclusions.

  7. So, you want people to see more “gods” in the OT and less Jesus?

  8. Matt Rees says:

    Jesus’ attitude to scripture (Luke 24:27) suggests that Christocentric interpretation is legitimate.

    To address your examples from Judges – the passage shows the need for a godly king (Judges 21:25), a king that finds final fulfillment in Christ.

  9. Homer Russell says:

    Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Jesus is the image of the Invisible God. The Bible being the Word of God (I know the difference between written and spoken, Logos and graphe) yes, the Bible is all about Jesus, and Jesus shows us who God is.

    You show a picture of the tower of Babel. Jesus said “In the world you have tribulation, but I have overcome the world.” Babel, or Babylon is mentioned from Genesis to Revelation. Genesis shows us how it was started, Revelation shows us the destruction thereof. Culminating with the return of who? Jesus Christ! Babel seemed a way to reach heaven. Jesus is the only way to Heaven. Even Balaam’s mule glorifies Jesus, being able to see Him (remember, God has never been seen by anyone), for who do you think was about to cleave Balaam with His sword, and spare the mule? Jesus, the Image of the Invisible God, before He became flesh.

  10. If this is just a warning about the dangers of reading the bible all about Jesus then fair play. But these warnings against a simplistic misuse of a Christological hermeneutic seem to me unpersuasive as arguments against it.

  11. Wrong.

    The entirety of scripture is about Jesus, points to Jesus, or is circles back around to Jesus.

  12. James Carter says:

    Michael alludes to sightings that no one would ever consider being about Jesus. I wonder what his motive was for writing this blog. Unfortunately it reflects the waywardness of his ethnicity as Paul’s inspired word speaks of in the book of Romans. Jesus was not received by his own and Michael is one of them. He knows his personal motive and what he finds offensive about the church as the fulfillment of the Jewish Torah. Mike you should re-read Matthew 21: 33-45 and be aware of your Pharasitical pronouncement in this blog and what Jesus has in mind for those who espouse your beliefs.

  13. Not sure why what Dr. Heiser is saying is so controversial to so many people? I’ve heard hundreds of sermons that all end with the same punch line – “Jesus saves.” Obviously Jesus saves, but if that’s it then the Bible ends up being so boring and one dimensional. Dr. Heiser is encouraging us to see and explore the vast themes and messages within the Bible and stop being lazy exegetes of Scripture.

  14. I have enjoyed much of what Heiser’s written elsewhere. But I strongly disagree with this general argument and overall message here.

    I am surprised texts like Luke 24:13-49 (esp. vv.27 & 44) aren’t addressed at all.

    Of course it’s true that not everything in the Bible (old or new testament) is directly speaking about Jesus (e.g., Paul’s instructions to Timothy to drink wine for his stomach instead of just water in 1Timothy 5:23). But I think Dr. Heiser really overstates the matter when he writes:

    “Laws forbidding people who’ve had sex or lost blood (Lev 15) from entering sacred space aren’t about Jesus. The spiritual, social, and moral corruption in the days of the judges (Judg 17–21) wasn’t put in the Bible to tell us about Jesus. The Tower of Babel incident (Gen 11:1–9) doesn’t point to Jesus. When Ezra commanded Jews who’d returned from exile to divorce the gentile women they’d married (Ezra 9–10), he wasn’t foreshadowing anything about Jesus.”

    Defiled people entering sacred space and Jesus’ cross, it seems to me, are intimately related (see Mt.27:51). The corruption in the days of the judges pointed toward the need for a good and faithful king (see Judges 21:25), which found its fulfillment in the Davidic covenant (e.g., 2Samuel 7), and specifically, in the promise of an Anointed One to come from David’s line that would finally establish justice and righteousness in both Israel and the world (e.g., Isaiah 7; 11). Or the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations anticipates a coming re-union of the nations by God’s hand, no longer in a self-determined ascent to heaven, but heaven’s descent to men, inaugurated in the incarnation and vividly figured at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21), as a sort of reversal of the confusion of the world’s languages. Ezra’s rebuke of the Jews who married Gentile women, and command to them to marry their fellow Jews, served to protect the integrity of the nation, and specifically the Abrahamic line from which the Messiah emerges (cf. Gal.3:16), and, like Babel, sets the stage for the mystery of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles in Christ (cf. 1Cor.7:12-16).

    His concern, no doubt, is for those who would “short circuit” the OT text in order to jump to a preconceived “answer” in a formulaic gospel, or in a one-dimensional, “Sunday School, Jesus answer.” As he writes in closing:

    “The bottom line is that we can talk about the inspiration and authority of the Bible all day long and still fall prey to marginalizing its content with familiar clichés that let us off the hook from doing the hard work of interpretation.”

    I share his concern. But I also maintain that a detailed interpretation of every OT passage, in its immediate literary context, as well as its broader, canonical context, will always bring us to Christ. So I think I disagree with his final conclusion:

    “While the drama of the biblical epic ultimately leads to Jesus, he isn’t the ultimate focal point of every passage.”

    Depending on what he means by “[Jesus] isn’t the ultimate focal point of every passage,” I do think every passage, in context (for every text has a context, and cannot be finally understood apart from that context) finds its “fulfillment” in Christ – its fuller explanation, its final answer, its ultimate resolution, and its fullest meaning.

  15. Literally everything he lists does connect to Jesus; not always directly, but very much importantly. One wonders how he ties the testaments together, if not by Christ. This is the wrong axe to grind. Suddenly glad I use Accordance.

  16. I don’t mean to be “that guy,” but the title should read: “Not Everything in the Bible Is about Jesus.” The current wording effectively says, “nothing in the Bible is about Jesus,” but that’s not what Heiser meant. See “scope fallacy.”

    The post is spot on.

  17. Joshua Sommer says:

    Every example Dr. Heiser pointed out in the introductory paragraph points to Christ in some way. First, all interpretive sense arises out of the literal, but that doesn’t mean the literal text doesn’t have allegorical, tropological, and anagogical applications. Second, to use one of Heiser’s own examples, the “purity laws” in Leviticus point directly to the requirement of an imputed sort of righteousness by which people may be washed of their sins, being allowed to enter the Jerusalem that is above (Gal. 4:26). This fits with our Lord’s own claims to be the subject of the “law and the prophets” which is just a gloss of the entire OT (cf. Lk. 24).

    The moral corruption during the days of judges especially points to Jesus. For all earthly rulers are insufficient, and this points us to the need for the all-sufficient Davidic king.

    What, therefore could Heiser mean when he says, “The truth is that there’s a lot in the Bible that isn’t about Jesus”? Perhaps he is requiring explicit references to the Messiah; but this is just an arbitrary requirement. We use words to signify things; God uses things to signify things. The real historical David? A Christ type. The angel of the Lord? A theophany. The cleft of the rock? Definitely a Christ type. Therefore, a text does not have to explicitly reference the Messiah to be about the Messiah (think of the Rock who is Christ). Moreover, a text may not directly say something about the Messiah, but it’s certainly in service, in some way, to God’s redemptive plan and, therefore, corresponds to the Son of God in that indirect way.

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