With Easter approaching, many of us will spend time in the Gospels reading about the events leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this post, I wanted to share two ‘principles’ that been helpful in my own personal reading. I hope they can serve you well as you prepare for Easter.
- Seeing the Story – Read to Understand Structure
The best stories have compelling plots. They sweep us up into the world of the story. They introduce conflict and build tension as they inch toward the dramatic climax. Those are the books and movies that we rave about to our friends. “You have to read this book!” “That movie blew my mind!”
Recently I reread the Harry Potter series and found that I was often more excited to return to J.K. Rowling’s world of magic than to spend time in devotions. Why was it that I had an easier time absorbing myself in a secular fiction than in the story of the King?
One reason is that I struggle to see structure in the Gospels in the same way I do in modern storytelling. In a story like Harry Potter the way various events combine to form a coherent plot that builds toward a climax is pretty clear. In the Gospels, I’ve found I need to do more work if I want to understand how everything fits together.
On a surface reading, the Gospels might seem like a series of meandering and disconnected events: Jesus goes here and heals this person. Then, he goes somewhere else and performs a miracle. Then, he argues with some Pharisees and teaches about random topics, etc.
But we must make sense of the beginning and middle of a Gospel – exposition, rising action, conflict – because they play a pivotal role in setting up the eventual climax. Without them, the climax will seem forced and implausible. When I fail to make sense how the Gospel unfolds, it undercuts my appreciation of the ending.
I’m much more excited about Scripture when I can see the structure of the book. Structure helps me to experience a coherent and compelling plot line. I can pinpoint exactly where Jesus is in his ministry. I can observe how Jesus’ relationships are evolving with different groups of people. Structure helps me to make connections between different events and see the bigger picture of what the author is trying to convey.
If you’re interested in reading for structure, I’d recommend opening up a good study Bible and finding the outline for the book you’re reading (I use the ESV online website). Or, if you feel comfortable, you can create an outline from scratch from your own study. You could also adopt a hybrid approach: start with a study Bible outline and compare it with your own outline, or vice versa.
If you haven’t heard of it, I’d also recommend you check out the Bible Project.They create animated visuals which show the structure of different books with easy-to-understand explanations. Here’s an example from the book of Matthew:
- Seeing the Story of the King – Read to Understand Jesus’ Character
Recently, I read an interesting article about emotional manipulation and storytelling. The author writes:
Emotional manipulation basically comes about when a show shortcuts to a sense of drama, sadness, or basically any other emotion that it hasn’t earned through the narrative itself. Normally, empathizing with a character requires first understanding that character as a valid human being – when you employ emotional manipulation, you use other dramatic tricks to avoid the need to fully characterize people and explain the stakes of their feelings. This generally involves something like introducing a simple character and then immediately providing them with a tragic backstory, in an attempt to get the audience to care purely out of human empathy and projection without doing the work to make the audience believe in that character on their own merits
We’ve all seen stories where an author tries to evoke emotion without doing proper character work and it falls flat. There might be spectacular action,tragedy, or even death in the story, but we’re not moved because there’s no reason to care about any of the characters.
If we’re not careful, I think something similar can happen when we read the Gospels. In an effort to make the cross central, we can divorce Jesus’ climactic sacrifice from his character. The cross becomes less about a real person, and more a series of propositions. But just as stories don’t affect us when we don’t care about the characters, the cross becomes less moving when we lose sight of who it is about.
J.I. Packer writes this about holding the person and the work of Christ together:
“It is not biblical thus to isolate the work from the Worker…What the New Testament calls for is faith in or into or upon Christ himself–the placing of our trust in the living Savior, who died for sins. The object of saving faith is thus not, strictly speaking, the atonement, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who made atonement. We must not, in presenting the gospel, isolate the cross and its benefits from the Christ whose cross it was”
I feel most dull to the sacrifice of Christ when I lose sight of his character. When I feel distant from him, the Gospel story feels no different from any of the countless deaths in others stories in novels or on screen. Reminders about the cross begin to feel almost like that author who shortcuts his way to my emotions. I know this should be emotionally moving, yet what makes this man so special?
On the other hand, Jesus’ sacrifice feels fresh and exciting when I understand his character; when I feel I know him as a person. When I see his personality as he interacts with others; how he responds when he is sinned against or encounters difficulty. All those things help deepen my appreciation for the Gospel. Then, when I see Jesus nailed to the cross, it moves me. Here is the greatest, the kindest, the most selfless and strong man I have ever met. The perfect Son of God who humbled himself and became a servant. Why is he on that tree? How could this happen? Who put him there? What grace that he should die for all of my sins!
What are some practical ways to see the character of Christ? I find that seeing structure helps me. When I see the Gospel as disconnected stories, it’s hard to form a coherent picture of who Jesus is. But when we understand the unfolding plot, we can begins to see patterns in the way Jesus acts.
Something that has been helpful for me is to know the different groups that show up frequently in the various stories: the disciples, the hostile religious leaders, the crowds, and the many individuals responding in faith. What are each of these groups like? How do they act?
Once I’ve answered that, I ask myself how am I like these characters? Over the years, I’ve seen my slowness and pride in the disciples and my hypocrisy in the Pharisees. I’ve seen my shallow faith in the crowds and my neediness in those who came to Jesus in faith. Then, when I see how Jesus responds to each of these groups, I feel I know him in a very personal way. I can see how he responds in particular situations and apply that to my relationship in Him.
When I do this, I remember that there really is no one like Jesus. I see that the cross is no piece of emotional manipulation, but the highest expression of the love that Jesus had showed throughout the Gospels.
I’ve always feared Easter a little. I know it is a special day, but when I don’t prepare well Easter Sunday feels like coming in two-thirds of the way through a movie and seeing the climax without the set up. It’s hard to be properly affected even if I want to be. I pray that in the weeks leading up to Easter, we would ready our hearts and minds to approach the cross, and then – praise God! – the empty grave.