Book Review: How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens

How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens by Michael Williams

Zondervan ǀ WTS ǀ CBD ǀ

Thanks to the folks at Zondervan for this review copy!

This is my contribution to the book tour for which I received this copy of Michael Williams’ book. For my part, I chose Genesis and Romans for review (I’ve not read every page of this book as it was not required for the review).

The title of the book says it all—Williams writes to show how one can read the bible in such a way as to find Jesus in every book in the canon. This sort of Christocentric hermeneutic is certainly nothing new or novel, but Williams feels that “the fact that all of scripture testifies about Jesus” has been somewhat obscured by other details that tend to be the object of the bible reader’s study. His aim, then, is to provide a snapshot view of each biblical book, wherein he offers enough thematic ties to formulate a theme for that book and ultimately how each canonical book points to Jesus.

Each canonical book/chapter is comprised of several parts. First, he offers a quick introduction of the book in question. Bear in mind it’s not an introduction that you would find in a commentary or other more specialized work, but something much more generalized, at least in the chapter on Genesis. Other chapters throughout the book briefly summarize the story up to that point either chronologically or thematically and segue to the contents of the book itself. These brief glimpses at the landscape of the biblical story are helpful in that they are concise and show the reader how various books relate to others (the book of the twelve is a good example).

Each chapter has a graphic inserted just after the introductory paragraph that indicates what Williams’ believes to be the theme of the book. For Genesis, the theme is said to be “God separates out one through whom he would bless all nations” (13). This aspect of Williams’ book will likely serve as the spawning ground for most of readers’ disagreements. I will agree with Williams’ that the idea of separation is an important theme early on in Genesis, but I am not convinced that it is the theme. Williams’ notes the acts of separation in the first creation account (vv1:1-28) and the subsequent separation of people, i.e. Seth from Adam and Eve’s other children (5:3-32), the line of Abraham from all other people (12:1-3), etc, but does not discuss how the remainder of the story plays out except in a brief summary (clearly the nature of the book prevents such extended discussions). Each chapter also includes memory passages/verses that reinforce the proposed theme.

The subsequent sections are “The Jesus Lens”, “Contemporary Implications”, and “Hook Questions”. The “Jesus Lens” sections obviously tells how the canonical book in question points to Jesus, which in Genesis (acc. to Williams) is accomplished by showing “Jesus is the one to whom all God’s separating was always meant to lead, and Jesus is separate from all others in his ability to bring the promised divine blessing to the nations” (15). I must say that I was surprised that the so-called “proto-evangelium” of Gen 3:15 was not mentioned, given that many see in that verse the beginnings of what Christ would ultimately accomplish. The “Contemporary Implications” section is exactly what it sounds like—a brief attempt to show the contemporary relevance of these ancient texts and their pointing to Jesus. Williams maintains the theme of the canonical book here and ties it together by showing how God’s work of separation continues in the life of modern believers. The final part of each chapter is “Hook Questions,” questions provided for readers to engage personally and/or in a group setting, presumably for those who wish to pursue matters beyond the initial discussion of the chapter. These questions will be helpful to varying degrees depending on a number of factors, some being more helpful than others.

On the New Testament side, I chose to read and comment on Williams’ treatment of Romans. The theme proposed is “Through Christ, God brings his chosen ones from death to life”. While this is certainly a concept Paul discusses in Romans, I’m not convinced that it would serve as the theme of the book. This is due mostly to my own view of Romans, which is to say I see it as Paul’s explication of what the gospel is and how it is effected in the life of sinners and how they, upon regeneration, are to live the gospel. This is certainly not at odds with Williams’ proposed theme—much of what the gospel is in Romans concerns what God does to reconcile sinners to himself, i.e. bringing them from death to life, but one is hard pressed to condense the whole of Romans to this one idea.

And therein lies the main concern I have with this book and others like it—the attempt to condense canonical books to a singular theme is often difficult, if not sometimes impossible. Many books of the bible are quite complex and defiantly resist simplified categorization, thematic or otherwise. To do so concerns me because too often people (especially many modern bible readers) are more concerned with simplifying the scriptures so that they can make more expedient use of it. It’s a common approach in many churches today to hurry up and get to the application—what does this mean for me today? While I believe the scripture is certainly relevant for readers of all eras, we must not bypass the difficulties and complexities of scripture just to get to why it’s important today. Cart before the horse, anyone? This approach can easily lead to bad interpretations which inevitably leads to bad theology.

However, let me be clear in what I do not wish to suggest—that Williams’ book will lead to this end. Yes, it could for some, those who fit the mold I mentioned above, but for those whose desire is to read the scripture from a bird’s-eye perspective, to get a snapshot of the bible’s story, Williams’ book will help you in that. I agree with Williams and others who believe the whole of scripture finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ and that we should read the it accordingly, but I also believe the fullest and most faithful way to read the scripture Christocentrically (or through the Jesus lens) is to understand each book and each section of scripture as it was understood by its original hearers and readers, to whatever extent we are able. I am confident that Williams would agree with this and he does an admirable job of telling the greater story that all scripture, as a whole, is meant to tell. He has written a very readable book (at times even humorous) and it will serve well those who wish to see how the scripture tells of Jesus, whether by a whisper or a shout.

Αυτω η δοξα

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