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Reading the Bible Through the Jesus Lens (Book Review)

Michael Williams, Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary recently published How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens (Zondervan, 2012). The book is a basic and accessible reference work (in the line of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth), offering a several-page overview of each book of the Bible including the book’s theme, suggestions for finding the “Jesus Lens,” and contemporary implications for readers and churches.

Williams points out, for each book of the Bible, what he calls the “Jesus Lens” – how that book points to the life and/or work of Christ and the salvation found through it. Finding meaning and significance in portions of the Bible can be difficult, particularly in sections of the Hebrew Bible like Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In these specific areas, I appreciated the insight Williams’ offers, particularly in the narrative overview of each of these often-dreaded (or more often just ignored!) books.

What he offers as the “Jesus Lens” for these books largely focuses on the saving work of Christ on the cross (using parallels from the book of Hebrews to talk about Christ’s priestly work on our behalf) and the corresponding need for us to believe and rest in that saving work. As Williams writes, “All that remains for us is to believe in the gracious provision God has made for us” (27). I was left wondering, though, if more remains when reading these books through a “Jesus Lens.”

Specifically, I wonder if it’s necessary to talk about how we, today, as followers of Jesus, should understand the law (specifically the legal codes in the Old Testament and, more generally, “the law” on which Paul and many since have spent much ink). After all, Jesus frequently engaged his culture’s understanding of the law, going back and forth with Pharisees about what it means to live in light of the law. I think a “Jesus Lens” could take more of these factors into account when guiding readers through these difficult Old Testament sections.

The limitation of this type of resource (outlining and synthesizing all of the Bible book by book, a few pages at a time) is certainly a factor in this – it’s just not possible to go into great detail about complicated topics like how we understand the law, covenant, etc. But it felt a bit like Williams, at least in these sections, shows how we can read Jesus into the text – a kind of pointer or homing device to find Jesus and ideas about Jesus – seeing Jesus as the destination of all the texts.

This could be contrasted with a method that encourages reading the text with Jesus – a kind of lens or filter by which the Scriptures are illuminated through our relationship with Jesus – seeing Jesus as the starting point for reading the text.

I don’t think that the first option (Destination: Jesus) is always unhelpful or wrong. At times, thought, it can oversimplify or over-systematize some of the more difficult portions of the Bible. I think the second option (Jesus, Starting Point) can prove to be more helpful and fruitful for readers, even if it takes more time and energy to wade through the wider and deeper narrative of the Scriptures.

I agree with and appreciate Williams’ desire to see good and engaged readers of the Scriptures, and I think this book can be a helpful guide to move readers towards more robust and christocentric Bible reading. Like any “all in one” reference work, the strengths and weaknesses of How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens go hand in hand: it’s short, accessible, and narrow in focus. It provides quick helps and launches a conversation about seeing the Bible as an integrated collection, rather than a divided and contradictory assortment. When used alongside other resources that can provide additional insight in some of the stickier and more confusing parts of the Bible, this will be a good and helpful resource.

Disclosure of material connection in compliance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: I received a copy of this book for review, though the opinions I have expressed are my own.

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