The Greek Sculpture The Spear Bearer and Michelangelo’s David
I read Scripture as a mountain with the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament building up to the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. Acts and the letters of Jesus’s disciples then grapple with the seismic, big bang revelation of Jesus Christ.
And so our traditional way of reading Scripture, the traditional reading plan, which gives equal weight to every verse and chapter is, ironically, a bit lop-sided. You know…every genealogy, every law, every description of temple worship given equal weight with the Sermon on the Mount and the Upper Room discourse which contains the secrets of the universe.
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However, we need a little bit of Jesus of the Gospels every day, or every week, because our eyes need His corrective vision. Without the continued brain- and heart-washing of the Gospels, we forget what He taught us about how to live.
And so in my reading of the Gospels, I come to Matthew 13, “every scribe who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
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Jesus calls the early revelations of God which culminated in Himself treasure. And it is treasure because the shimmering brilliance of Jesus’ teaching emerges from it.
Jesus is steeped in the Old Testament and continually quotes it, resisting the temptations of Satan with quotations from Deuteronomy, thereby validating that book. Some of his most memorable sayings, which sound startlingly original are, in fact, quotations from the Old Testament. When he reduces the Law and the Prophets to two commands, he draws on Leviticus 19:18 for “Love your neighbour as yourself” and quotes Psalm 37:11, “the meek inherit the earth” in the Beatitudes.
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Trying to understand Jesus without understanding the Old Testament is like trying to make sense of Michelangelo’s David without knowing who David the Giant-Killer was, or without knowing how Greco-Roman art inspired artists in the Renaissance (or how the Greek sculpture, “The Spear Bearer,” inspired David.)
Or admiring Raphael’s “School of Athens” without knowing that he depicted Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Diogenes, and that the surly fellow in boots in the foreground is Michelangelo.
Or reading T.S. Eliot’s beautiful allusive “The Waste Land,” without knowing the title of the long Fire Sermon section is taken from Buddha’s eponymous sermon of the same name in which he advises his followers to give up earthly passion, or that To Carthage then I came/Burning, burning, burning, is a reference to St. Augustine’s Confessions, when he comes to Carthage, burning with lust. The poem beats upon our pulses, speaks to our ganglia without the scholarship, but knowing its mass of literary allusion only enriches the poem for us.
So of course, the Gospels will speak to one who loves Jesus but has not taken the time to study the Old Testament so as to set him, his quotations, allusions and references in their rich context.
But the Gospels speak more richly and fully when you approach them with a mind and heart that loves Jesus, but is also steeped in the context of the Old Testament out of which He emerged, and when you understand the 18 Old Testament books which Jesus quoted, and when you understand the old thing to which He continually contrasts the new thing He was doing.