Read Individual Passages in Light of the Whole Bible
Another vital lesson that difficult biblical passages, such as genealogies, can teach us is that any biblical passage must be read in light of the entire Bible. The biblical writers understood themselves as recording part of a much larger story. The New Testament writers, in particular, looked back over the panorama of Old Testament history and saw a divine design in the events of their nation’s past. Consequently, New Testament writings are saturated with Old Testament references and make ample use of Old Testament imagery. New Testament teachings are constantly compared to and elaborate upon Old Testament themes and doctrines.
Matthew and Luke understood their Gospels to be part of a much larger story. For instance, Matthew records Jesus telling the crowds: “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Luke, for his part, recounts how Jesus, after his resurrection, encounters two of his disciples and rebukes them:
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
Matthew and Luke were convinced that Jesus was a fulfillment of the prophecies found in the Old Testament, and so it would be impossible to understand or follow the arguments they are making in their Gospels without a working understanding of the rest of the Bible.
If we are truly serious about understanding what the Bible really means, we must seek to grasp the intentions and arguments of the original human authors. And since we see the authors self-consciously connecting their writings to other Scriptures, this principle of seeking “authorial intent” in turn demands that we work to understand those other Scriptures. Luke and Matthew are not the only biblical authors to do this. In fact, Luke’s Gospel is itself explicitly cited as Scripture by another biblical author, Paul, in one of his own letters (1 Tim. 5:18, citing Luke 10:7).
This means that we cannot simply read biblical books in isolation. If we want to understand what Matthew or Luke is saying by, for instance, providing the genealogies of Jesus, or any other passage in any biblical book for that matter, we need to take the time necessary to understand the story of the Bible as a whole. This requires, as we discussed last week, a commitment to do even hard work—and understanding the scope of all of Scripture will take work. Even short passages can contain allusions and references to multiple other Scriptures. Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies, for instance, cover the time period of the entire Old Testament. The historical accounts preserved in the Old Testament furnish crucial context and background information for the names and events found in Christ’s ancestry. Think about it: just the historyalone of the names given in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 spans more than a dozen Old Testament books—and that’s before even getting into how the Old Testament prophets reflected on those stories!
Understanding the whole Bible as the larger context of any individual biblical passage is incredibly helpful for one seeking the meaning of one of those passages. We’ve already seen how a whole-Bible perspective can resolve biblical difficulties. If John Calvin had not taken the time to familiarize himself with the story of the kings of Judah in the Old Testament, he would never have noticed that crucial prophecy in Jeremiah 36:30 where Jehoiakim is told his line would be cut off. What’s more, Calvin found that key not in one of the “historical” books like Kings or Chronicles, but rather in one of the Prophets. Without that key, a coherent solution to the genealogies’ differences might not have been possible.
Take the time, then, to read all of Scripture. If you’ve never read the entire Bible from cover to cover, then do so! Maybe use a Bible reading plan, like RobertMurray M’Cheyne’s, that takes you through all the Scriptures over the course of a year. And for reading outside the Bible, consider reading a book that helps you fit the entire Bible together, such as Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan, or Wellum and Gentry’sGod’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenants. The Apostle Paul, over his three years in ministry to the Ephesians, “did not shrink from declaring…the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We who seek to learn from him and other inspired biblical authors should not shrink from learning it, either.