September - October 2017

Written by Daron Brown
From his column Pressing On

Big-Picture_article

When my mind stretches back to grade school, and I sift through memories of clapping erasers and clicking film strips, I recall a magazine that regularly made its way onto our desks. I usually bypassed the articles and activities, flipping straight to the back page. There I found a zoomed-in photo, cropped so closely that the actual subject was indiscernible. I studied and stared at the picture to let it sink in. I scratched my head and made guesses. Is it the wing of a fly or a stitch on a baseball? Is it a groove in the sole of a shoe or the vein of a leaf? Fortunately, the following issue would provide a complete photo of the subject, putting the question to rest, and proving that most of my guesses had been wrong. I am sure those photos had important teaching purposes, but what I mainly learned from them is that things become clearer when you back up and look at the big picture.

The same is true for Scripture. Every week preachers and teachers focus on specific Bible verses, studying them carefully and prayerfully. They ponder questions about content and context. This is good faithful work, and the Holy Spirit uses it to accomplish God’s purposes. But confining our attention to a single passage is akin to staring at a zoomed picture and may cause us to miss the broader message God wants to convey. Bible passages are not standalone units offering self-contained moral lessons; they are part of a larger, connected tapestry.

Things become clearer when you back up and look at the big picture.

John Wesley cared deeply about how Scripture functions within the community of faith. He often wrote about “the general tenor” or “the whole scope” of Scripture. He believed solitary passages should be interpreted as part of the overarching story of God as illustrated in the Bible. Salvation, Wesley stated, is the “marrow… of the whole scripture” (The Scripture Way of Salvation). For Wesley, the thread that runs through all of scripture is God's relentless operation to bring full restoration to a broken creation, which includes humanity.

Interpreting individual texts as part of the big picture did not originate with Wesley. Ancient Fathers and Reformers before him supported such a reading, and many since have done the same. In recent decades no one has done more to call us to this exercise than biblical theologian and retired Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright. With his consistent emphasis on the storyline that runs from creation to new creation, Wright traces the grand scriptural theme of the God who seeks to fully restore and renew God’s creation. In doing so, he helps us see single passages as texts that find greater definition in light of the overarching story.

When this is done, fresh connections are made. New possibilities are imagined. Obscure texts are illuminated. And more faithful interpretations are realized. Whether it’s the story of God’s covenant with Abram (Gen. 15), Micah’s “mountain of the Lord” (ch. 4), Jesus walking on the water (Mt. 14), or Paul’s language of reconciliation (Col. 1), specific passages are best interpreted within the broader context of the 66 books of the Bible as they illustrate God’s unending desire for restored relationship with humanity.

As a preaching pastor in a local church, a different text lands on my desk every week. I study and stare at the verses to let them sink in. I scratch my head and make some guesses that could easily be wrong. Then the Spirit calls me to take a few steps back—to zoom out and redirect my focus on their meaning in light of the greater context of God’s Word. The result is better clarity and understanding that can only be found as I keep in mind the big picture.

Daron Brown lives and pastors in Waverly, Tennessee.

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