Jesus Out of Context
Imagine you are walking in the park one afternoon and you hear a shout. As you turn around to find the source, you see a young man running after an older man, pushing him to the ground and pulling a wallet out of the downed man's pocket. You'd probably think you had just witnessed a crime. No doubt stunned by what you had just seen, you would probably shout at the young man or perhaps call 911 to report the incident.
But what if I told you that a few moments earlier the older man, making his way through a crowd of people in the park, had picked the pocket of the younger man and stolen his wallet? Or what if he had taken the wallet from a mom walking through the park with her three kids? It changes the situation, doesn't it? Now, you realize you've seen an act of justice or at least a justifiable encounter.
The moral of the story: Context is crucial. It's dangerous to interpret anything outside of its context.
This lesson is especially applicable to the New Testament. If God has been working throughout human history with a redemptive plan and purpose—and he most certainly has—then understanding the entire arc of what he has done, and specifically, the context of Jesus' life and ministry is crucial to fully understand the gospel.
Consider some of the popular interpretations of Jesus – the prosperity gospel presents a Jesus who wants you to make more money, the feel-good gospel presents a Jesus who just wants you to love other people, the moralistic and therapeutic gospel presents a Jesus who has the key to a happy life on earth. Who is the real Jesus? The problem is all of these pictures of Jesus have more to do with modern sensibilities and desires than anything resembling the gospel. They all result from seeing Jesus in too narrow a light, divorced from the historical plan of God that led to the cross. They take Him out of context. God has shown us who Jesus is, what he came to do, and how we should respond, but we have to know the context.
Now, you might ask a really good question in response to this. Can someone become a follower of Christ without knowing the Old Testament? Of course! A commitment to follow Christ does not depend on how much you know. But think about this like a relationship. Can you imagine loving Christ and committing your life to him without wanting to truly know him? Would you settle for being willfully ignorant of the grandeur of his ministry? As in every relationship, you're more likely to want to know everything you can about the object of your love and devotion. You'll soak up every detail you can find.
As you pursue this relationship, you might have another really good question. The Old Testament is hard to understand; where should I start reading?
There are so many fruitful lessons to take the Old Testament, but in order to understand the gospel, I recommend starting with the books of Genesis and Exodus. These books provide the context necessary to understand Jesus' mission and purpose. Try not to get hung up on the endless debates surrounding Genesis 1 and 2! Read to get the big picture. Keep moving to get the story of the human condition and the way God dealt with the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. See what kind of God is calling us back into relationship with him. When you finish these two books, read one of the four gospels. I think light bulbs will start to go off in your head as you make connections. I think you will understand Jesus in a much deeper way. You'll grow in your relationship with him. You'll see him in context.
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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