This article shows how group Bible study can be done in such a way that it is Christ-centred.

Source: Clarion, 2012. 4 pages.

Needed at Bible Study: More “Cross-Referencing”

Beyond the Minutiae🔗

Are you going to Bible study this year? In our churches this activity is about to swing into gear again. And if you asked one of the study groups about their plans, they'd reply with something like: "We're studying the book of Esther" or "Our focus is the letter of James." People will be getting into a book, discovering new things from the Word.

Along the way many questions will be asked: "Why does Paul say it like this?" or "What exactly does that phrase in Isaiah 14:12 mean?" Some questions may be minor. Some may seem insignificant. Even these are worthwhile, to ponder why the Spirit led someone to choose this word or take this emphasis.

Yet we sometimes lose sight of the big picture. So enamoured by the trees, we forget it's a forest we're admiring. At the end of some study sessions, all are agreed that we gained a better knowledge of some point of doctrine, and are satisfied that our agile minds were able to dissect some passage. We might even say the more minute the question, the better. But then what's the purpose of Bible study? Is it merely about facts and details? Alternately, is it only about finding "what this text says to me today"?

Take a Stroll through the Forest!🔗

When we study Scripture, we need to put a wide-angled lens on our vision. We need to have a second focus, one wider than the particular book we're studying. This helps us admire the grand forest, made up of all those individual trees. It helps make sense of all the little facts and minute details put together.

What's that new concentration? When we study, our ultimate focus must be on the Lord Jesus Christ. For he's the very centre and heart of the Bible, the greatest truth revealed on its pages. God has given Christ as the Redeemer of the lost and the mighty King of his people. Without Christ, we've got no salvation from our sins and the death we deserve. And if there's no salvation, why study the Bible? Is it only a nice read, some "Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul"? Or do we study it because there's nothing better to do on Wednesday and Sunday evenings? We study because the Scriptures are all about our one hope, our new life, our only comfort. The most important thing they could ever tell us is the good news about our Saviour!

Taking this focus agrees with the Bible's whole purpose. Think of what Jesus says in John 5:39-40. He was rebuking the Jews for not believing in him, though they knew the Bible very well: "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." When he says "Scriptures," Jesus refers to the Bible of the time, what we know as the Old Testament. He says it all points in one direction: to the coming Messiah. The Jews knew the plot and the setting of the Scriptures, but they'd overlooked the main character!

Jesus says a similar thing in Luke 24, right after his resurrection. He was walking to Emmaus with two disciples who didn't recognize him. These two disciples were dismayed about the events of Jesus' death and the disappearance of his body. Yet there was no need for disappointment; as Jesus says, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" And then Luke tells us, "Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (vv. 25-27).

If already the Old Testament is all about Christ, the New Testament is even more! So the gospel of Mark, probably the first New Testament book to be written, begins with our Saviour, front and centre: "The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (1:1). Paul also says Christ is the focus of all New Testament ministry: "We preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor 1:23). It's only fitting then, that he's at the heart of any study of Scripture. Every time we stroll through the Bible, our thoughts should turn to the Saviour. But how is this to be done?

Progressing and Fulfilling🔗

When we study an Old Testament book it's undeniably harder to focus on Jesus Christ. There, he doesn't preach or heal or teach or debate. So how can Jesus say in all seriousness that "the Scriptures" testify about him? Consider the Heidelberg Catechism's Question and Answer 19. Notice all the communication­-themed words: in the Old Testament the gospel of Jesus Christ was "revealed ... proclaimed ... foreshadowed ... (and finally) fulfilled."

So one excellent way to focus on Christ is to see Old and New Testament together on one, unbroken timeline. More than paying lip service to it, we have to be deliberate in thinking about this unity. Someone once suggested ripping out that blank page between the Old and New in our Bibles, so we never think that Matthew 1 begins a completely new story. It's one book, with a certain progression from the first gospel promise in Genesis 3 to the time of its fulfillment, the entrance and coronation of our Saviour.

Which means we can read any Old Testament passage and legitimately ask, "How does this echo in the New Testament? How does this event, this person, this announcement, relate to the coming of Christ? Is this God working out his salvation promise, or is it perhaps Satan futilely trying to prevent his own destruction?" Deborah defeating the Canaanites is God preserving his people, even by a most unlikely saviour, for the eventual arrival of another unlikely Saviour. Ahab marrying Jezebel is Satan trying to hinder the Messiah's birth by breaking down the difference between the church and the world. For every moment of the Old Testament, important things are at stake.

We can also see how God gives specific promises in the Old and brings them about in the New. Think of the prophecies of the virgin conception, the place of Christ's birth, the style of his ministry, and so on. Especially in the days around his crucifixion, almost every moment seems to be the fulfillment of some different promise or saying. Then after his ascension, the apostles say how also these results of Christ's work were prophesied long ago: the giving of the Holy Spirit in fullness, the spreading of the gospel to all nations, the end-times and Judgment Day. With the 20/20 hindsight of New Testament vision, we can read from Genesis to Malachi.

Foreshadowing and Contrasting🔗

The Catechism teaches us to look for the foreshadows of Christ. There are Old Testament events repeated in the New according to basically the same pattern; the event is replicated, but in a fuller way in the Lord Jesus. For example, all of the sacrifices are one vast collection of foreshadows. And everything from the altar of incense to the structure of the tabernacle pointed ahead to aspects of our Saviour's work. As the Belgic Confession states in Article 25, "The ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ, and (in him) all shadows have been fulfilled."

And once you start looking, you find lots of them! Consider how the priest-king Melchizedek (Gen 14) foreshadows Christ our high priest and Lord (Heb 7); how Jonah in the fish for three days prefigures Christ in the tomb (Matt 12); how the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16) connects to the teaching about Jesus as the Bread of Life in John 6. Or marvel at 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul's speaking about how Israel fared in the wilderness journeys: "They drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ" (v. 4). The Rock was Christ! Jesus wasn't with them physically, but the reason God's presence went with the Israelites was the merits of the Saviour, as-yet unborn.

There are also revealing contrasts between the Old and New. There are positive contrasts: Moses was a great prophet, but Christ was greater (Acts 3). Solomon was wise, Jesus even wiser (Matt 12). And then we can think of many negative contrasts: Saul was disobedient in his office as king, but Christ is faithful, the perfect king.

Tracing Scripture's Themes🔗

Numerous themes can be found in Scripture. They are long arcs, traced out over many centuries and many Bible books, but all culminating in Jesus Christ. For example:

  • The theme of sin and its judgment, evident in various ways (such as in the law, the days of the judges, the major and minor prophets), cries out for a Saviour.
  • The theme of deliverance in the Old Testament (such as from Egypt under Moses, from the Philistines through David, from Babylon under Zerubbabel, from Haman under Esther and Mordecai) anticipates our salvation from sin in Christ.
  • The theme of God's covenant faithfulness (such as keeping his promise of land and descendants to Abraham) parallels how God still keeps his promise today in Christ.

Other themes too, presage the richness of what Christ does for us and gives to us: themes of temple, sacrifice, and priesthood; war and victory; inheritance and blessing; prophets and prophecy, and more. Undergirding all these lines is the essential truth that our God is the same today as he was back then. His power and grace are the same. His people are the same: sinful, stubborn, saints. And his desire to save them is the same. Paul speaks of this continuity in Romans 15, "Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (v. 4).

Know when to Draw the Line🔗

Students of the Bible are rightly eager to find Christ in the Old Testament, and suggested connections to the Saviour can be pretty imaginative. As just one example, it's been said that the wood of Noah's ark points ahead to the wood of Jesus' cross. Like the wood of the ark provided deliverance from the flood, so the wood of the cross saves us from God's curse on sin. Does this suggestion hold water? Well, a necessary check on our imagination here is that the Bible itself needs to give reasonable grounds for seeing a correspondence to Christ. There is a "bridge" from the Flood to the cross, but it's not made of wood (1 Pet 3:20-21). Not everyone is Paul, who can say so boldly, "That Rock was Christ!" Nor do we need to make countless Old Testament objects or details into direct indicators of our Saviour, but we can look for him in the ideas of progression and fulfillment, foreshadowing and contrast, or through tracing Scripture's themes.

The "New Beetle" Effect🔗

When your Bible study group chooses a New Testament book, it seems natural to focus on Christ. Easy, even. Because when we open the four gospels, they're all about Jesus. Acts is about Christ building his church. The apostles wrote constantly about the Lord Jesus, and he's central in Revelation. It seems it'd be simple to have a Christ-focus, but that's not necessarily the case.

This neglect may be because we've read a passage so often, we feel we know what it's all about. Take John 3:16, "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." Sounds good let's move on to the next verse! But do we really know how Christ fits here? Think about it: how could God give up his own Son? What does it mean that he was given for "the world?" Why is believing in the Son so important? And what does that snake in the desert have to do with all of this? (v. 14)

We also might stop noticing Christ because he occurs on every page of the New Testament. Call it the "New Beetle" effect. Do you remember when Volkswagen starting making the Bug (or Beetle) again with that distinctive round shape, back in the late 90s or so? Everyone was excited when they saw one: "Look, there's a new Bug!" But after a while, everyone had one. They were ubiquitous: purple ones, green ones, pink and yellow ones. And so the excitement about the new Bug faded. Perhaps the same is true for Jesus Christ: it's a wonderful name, occurring hundreds of times in the New Testament. It's everywhere, so we may read over it quickly, like at the beginning of all Paul's letters: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph 1:2). But this is when it's good to ask: Why does Paul greet us in Christ? Why not just in the Father? And how does Christ afford us grace and peace?

What then to do with Christ in the New Testament? When he's mentioned, even dozens of times in a short chapter, ask why. Why bring him in here? What's his place in the teaching? In this verse, what exactly do we learn about him? And when he's not mentioned as often, like in James, ask how Christ still has everything to do with what you read.

Building on the Cornerstone🔗

Making more "cross-references" doesn't mean the main topic of every Bible study has to be Jesus' work at Golgotha, or his victory over the grave. Scripture is far too diverse for us to speak only and all the time about Jesus Christ. But it means recognizing how all of Scripture does point to him. Some texts teach us about ourselves and our desperate need for a Saviour. Other texts reveal what preparations the Father made for his Son's coming. More texts teach what our Messiah did in life and death, and what he's doing in heaven right now. Still more texts instruct us about serving the King today, and what he'll do in the glorious future.

In the study of Scripture, we place our hands not just on details and facts, but on a living and saving truth. So we too, have to heed Jesus' warning and not overlook the Bible's main character, or leap too quickly to "what this passage says to us today." But whenever we study Scripture, be able to answer, as individuals and groups, "What has this passage taught us about the glories of God our Saviour?"

The Bible is a diverse book about many things, but it's about especially one thing: God's redemption of his people through Jesus Christ. With that gospel fixed in the centre of our minds and hearts, let's faithfully search the Scriptures!

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