The Visible Expression of the Invisible God…

Circa 1973. God had drawn me into youth ministry through Young Life, a non-denominational outreach to teenagers. I was serving teenagers in my hometown, working full-time, and pursuing an engineering degree taking classes a couple nights a week. In the midst of it all, I tried to read scripture with some consistency and with some success. In the 70s, we didn’t have the availability of scripture translations and paraphrases as we do today, but we had a few – King James, Revised Standard, New American Standard, The Living Bible, The Good News Bible, and a favorite of Young Life staff, the J.B. Phillips New Testament.

Early into my Young Life experience, at a volunteer leader training, we were pointed to Colossians 1:15Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God (Phillips). The passage, it was explained, was a cornerstone to Young Life talks – we wanted kids to know the real God and the real God made himself visible through Jesus. Jesus revealed God’s character, compassion, and heart for people. In preparing Young Life talks, I diligently worked at helping kids see this Jesus, the visible expression of the God they could not see. A few months into the beginning of my Young Life tenure as a volunteer leader, a thought occurred to me: I didn’t know God or Jesus, save a few stories I learned in Sunday School*…..

In the midst of a fairly busy schedule, I embarked on a year-long quest to know God. It didn’t start as a year-long quest. It started as a one-time reading of the the Gospels in my brand new J.B. Phillips New Testament, underlining and highlighting with a red colored pencil as I progressed. After an initial read, I decided to read them again – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – marking the pages with a different color. I was amazed to discover how much I didn’t observe in the first go-around. So I read them again. I soon realized that my eyes were drawn to passages that were already highlighted. So I bought a new bible of a different translation and repeated the process, highlighting new discoveries about Jesus (and thus about God).

Seven translations and a year later I felt I was ready to adequately venture into other parts of the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. As I look back 45 years, I have to believe that year was one of the most transformative experiences of my faith journey. It’s what likely saved me from the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It set me up to know Jesus (not just about Jesus). It set me up to give decent Young Life talks. It set me up to be a better husband and father. It set me up to learn to read Scripture exegetically. IT SET ME UP FOR LIFE!

I am amazed how few people have actually read straight through the Gospels even one time, which is why I give everyone I mentor the exact same assignment – read through the Gospels. When done, I usually have them repeat the process. Invariably, I get the same response – it was a transformative experience (a common ‘practical theology’ theme, you’ll notice). If you happen to be one that has never done a read-through of the Gospels, then you know what I would suggest. I sincerely hope you would heed the suggestion. My heart aches when I realize how few Christians spend time in the Gospels, and thus with Jesus. How else will we ever know Him?

* I had the privilege of joining a group of people to hear George Barna give a researcher’s perspective of what is needed to develop our young people in today’s culture. He said research shows that most church children and youth teachings tend to focused only on about 20 basic Bible stories. (In one of these posts we will need to discuss “kindergarten faith.”)

How do we know…?

It was the mid-1980s, a couple years after discovering I wasn’t the Good Samaritan. I had taken some Young Life kids to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota for stress camping, hoping it would stretch their developing faith. It did just that, but I felt the experience was still a bit self-focused. So we decided in subsequent years to take kids out of their comfort zones into a serving capacity. What we did was a precursor to today’s mission trips. Our first trip was to Haiti. Our second trip was to Kansas City, MO, to work with Habitat for Humanity. The third trip was back to KC, helping a large, white, urban church re-purpose some underutilized space. They wanted to create a community ministry to their neighbors, including the construction of space for a food pantry.

To set up the trip, I visited the church to see what work needed to be done and to begin planning for the project (I convinced them, as an engineer, I could serve as the project foreman). During the trip, I spent much of my time with the pastor. He had a significantly different worldview than I did – enough that I knew I could/should learn from him. Still trying to figure out how to navigate and interpret scripture in an exegetical manner, I asked him, “How do we know how to interpret scripture properly? After all, we have been at this a lot of years, yet we seem to have a lot of differing opinions.” His response was transformative…

He reminded me that scripture should always be interpreted in context. (I knew this already, as did most people I suspected.) He went on to remind me that the broader the context, the better. (I think I knew this as well, but wasn’t sure how to do it practically.) The broadest possible context for interpretation, he suggested, is the entire Word of God – the whole Bible. (My first thought was, “Serious? How is that even practicable?”) Then he made a statement that sent chills through my body…

“And always remember,” he said, “the Word became became flesh (John 1, 14). If what you are reading doesn’t line up with Jesus’ words and deeds, then there is something else going on in the passage.” This resonated with me. This was such good news. I could wrap my head around the concept that all scripture needed to align with the Word that became flesh, with Jesus. This made scripture reading and honest attempts at interpretation possible and practical.

That was about 35 years ago. The adage that all scripture needs to align with Jesus has served me well all these years. Do I still have questions about the paradoxes presented in scripture? Absolutely! (Maybe even more questions as I get older.) But this I can rest on – with Jesus as my standard, I can live with the paradoxes. Why? The paradoxes drive me back to Jesus and the more time I spend with Him, the more I understand what God is up to. And the more time I spend with Jesus, the more my mind is shaped, allowing for transformation (Romans 12:2) – I actually start to become like him (Philippians 2:5-11).

The Opposite of Eisegesis…

Old habits are hard to break. After living in Red Wing, MN, for seven years we moved to Memphis, TN, at my company’s urging (meaning, my job moved to the corporate headquarters in Memphis). After moving, I still needed to return to Red Wing periodically for factory visits. It was a bit odd staying at the local Best Western located a mile from our old home.

During one visit, after a long day at the factory, I headed to the hotel in my rental car. I drove right past the Best Western to our old house, unaware of the mistake until I drove down the street and saw unfamiliar cars in the driveway. Old habits are hard to break.

Last week I introduced the term eisegesis (ˌī-sə-ˈjē-səs), which is the reading of a text through the lens of what we already believe to be true. The word eisegesis literally means “to lead into,” meaning we speak into the text our preconceptions. The opposite? Exegesis (ek-sə-ˈjē-səs). The word exegesis literally means “to lead out of,” meaning the reader allows the intent the text to “come out,” informing his or her beliefs.

I suspect we have been in the habit of reading scripture though the lens of our preconceptions for so long that we drive right by exegesis and end up at eisegesis. The Good Samaritan parable might be adequate proof of that reality. We have been flying upside down a long time as Dallas Willard would remind us. So, how do we get right-side up? First, we recognize we are at the wrong house, change our mind, and head the other direction (this is the definition of repent). Then we rethink how we approach Scripture. Here are a few simple questions to ask as we invite Scripture to speak into our lives:

  • What stands out to me? How might God be trying to grab my attention?
  • What is being said in this passage?*
  • What is NOT being said? (This is a biggie)*
  • What does this passage tell me about who God is?
  • What does this passage tell me about who I am?
  • So what? What am I to do with these thoughts? How might God be asking me to change my mind?

There are plenty of other questions we could address, but this is a good start. It takes practice. Anyone that has played a sport knows of what I speak. Changing a swing, serve, stroke, or stride takes time, effort, and thought until it becomes second nature. Same with the shift from eisegetical to exegetical Scripture reading. But when it does become second nature, Scripture comes to life, transforming our lives! (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Romans 12:2)

* Case is point: Several years ago I was meeting weekly with a group of college-age young people. We were working our way through the Gospel of John. When we arrived at the well-known John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life), I asked them to close their Bibles (or Bible Apps) and paraphrase the verse. They collectively thought the verse was about them going to heaven. None of them saw the word world. None! (And they were also a bit surprised to discover that heaven is not the same thing as eternal life, but we’ll save that topic for another time.)