Exegesis vs. Eisegesis vs. Superficial Reading of the Bible

Exegesis is the illumination / interpretation of the full and precise meaning of any passage in the Bible in its historical and literary context. Exegesis comes from the (very picturesque) Greek word meaning to draw out. Therefore, with exegesis you dig out the full meaning of the passage; you unpack and illumine what Scripture means. For instance, what do the gospels say within their literary, historical context? Exegesis helps us read the text in it proper context in order to really understand what the author intended to say. Exegesis is a scholarly and historical discipline which seeks to properly interpret the meaning within the gospel’s historical and literary context.
We do exegesis by looking at the text’s literary context. How does the text fit into that book of which it is a part?
We do exegesis by looking at the text’s historical context. What did author mean to convey in the original, historical context?

Exegesis has two great enemies: 1. eisegesis and 2. superficial reading of the Bible. When you rightly study the Bible, you use exegesis. Our Bible comes to us in the Greek and I’d be a rather poor tour guide for the Bible if I were not able to read it in the Greek. Still, we have some very good English translations of the Bible so it’s accessible to all. Thus, anyone can become a wonderful student of the Bible even without a knowledge of the ancient Greek.

Therefore, we exegete the Bible; we draw out of the Bible what it has to say to us rather than reading into the Bible what you expect it to say. We draw out in order to get the full meaning of the author. The Bible has some incredible things to say that are different from the way we sometimes think. Thus, exegesis draws out that meaning.

1. Eisegesis is enemy “Number One” of exegesis. Eisegesis comes from the Greek word meaning to lead in, to take passages out-of-context, to purposely read an unintended meaning into the text. We are to avoid eisegesis which is reading into the text what we want the text to mean. We are not to read our own thoughts into scripture. Leading in presupposes bringing in our own ideas of what we think the Bible is going to be saying instead of drawing out what it is actually saying.

2. The other great enemy of exegesis is superficial reading of the Bible in which circumstance by not reading the Bible carefully enough, we come away with a bare bones, superficial reading that will ultimately lead us astray from the full meaning of the text. Superficial readings fail to approach scripture in a scholarly and academic manner. An example of a superficial reading would be to read Mk 1 1 and not understand the depth of the meaning of the various words there such as Christ.

How then should one approach the Bible? The question of hermeneutics

All exegesis, all interpretation takes place within a proper theological context. “What, then, is the proper context for interpretation?” Before even beginning exegesis, in what context should I approach it? What is the authority of scripture for me or the church and how does that authority function? With what attitude of heart and mind should I approach the Bible? This is the question of exegesis – what the scripture means within the proper context. The authority of scripture is expressed by the theological term hermeneutics – the science of interpretation and how one does exegesis.

Hermeneutics asks the questions:
How should one approach the Bible? How should I read the Bible?
In what context should we approach and interpret scripture? What is the proper context for exegesis?
What is the theological authority of the Bible in one’s life and why?
With what attitude of heart and mind should I approach the reading of scripture?
What does it mean for me?

This whole question of how one approaches the Bible is the big question of hermeneutics. For example, the use of the word Scripture says hermeneutically that these writings are inspired by God. And as another example, the use of the word canon says the Bible is this authoritative guide for Christian teaching, faith and life. Hermeneutics is sort of catch-all term term saying everything we’ve just said in this paragraph.

Hermeneutics is crucial as we see in the following two examples.

All the fun is in actually interacting with the Bible and doing this exegesis of scripture. So also in marriage. All the joy and pleasure of marriage is actually living marriage each day, not contemplating the context in which you took your marriage vows. It’s living the marriage. But, the context in which you took and understood your marriage vows, that is the hermeneutical context for your marriage, is going to absolutely determine how you live your marriage every single day. On a sit-com of a few years ago when you got married the vows they exchanged were as long as we both shall love which is different from the traditional vows of as long as we both shall live. Depending on which of these two vows you took will determine how you live with your spouse. That’s the hermeneutics of marriage.

As another example you’ve been sleeping and you hear a voice that says, “Follow me, now!!!”
Exegesis tells you what that command means. Exegesis, proper interpretation, your knowledge of the English language and the idioms of the English language tell you three things. First, that’s a command. Two, you are supposed to follow that person. Three, it’s very imperative. You have to make a decision. It’s now or never. That’s the exegesis portion of the equation.
On the other hand, the hermeneutics involves the context of that utterance. Have you just awaken after being hit on the head by a fallen beam in a fire, and those words are being said by a rescuing fireman? Or, have you just awaken from a nap in a park and the words are being said by a rather seedy looking guy opening the door of a van? Or, have you just awakened from a nap in a park from a megaphone announcement calling everyone in the park interested to a certain event in the park?
Notice, that you cannot opt out of hermeneutics. Well, in the third example you can opt out because it really doesn’t crucially matter in your life whether or not you go to the event. That won’t be a life or death matter. However, in the first two cases it may well be life or death. In each case it depends on whether or not you follow the command.
So, hermeneutics is important. It’s important in everyday life to know the context of the utterance and how we are to approach what is being said to us and, on the basis of who is saying it, how much more important it is for something as crucial as scripture. The context is very important for interpretation. Hence, before even discussing exegesis, we have to discuss the question of hermeneutics.

There are three major hermeneutical approaches that we have for the proper context for interpretation of scripture.
Christian (Catholic / Orthodox) theological paradigm;
Christian (Protestant / Reformation) theological paradigm; and the
post-Enlightenment (Liberal) paradigm.

Paradigm means the overall world view, the overall approach / context with which you come to things, your circle of reference with which you come to the Bible, how everything fits together. For example, we have social paradigms, scientific paradigms, and we have these theological paradigms. All people operate out of one of these paradigms listed above – whether or not they even know they do.
How one approaches scripture is distinct between these three paradigms. The first two paradigms operate out of the Christian theological paradigm which has been used throughout the history of the church in Christian theology.
Note that the designation “Christian” has been left off the third listed paradigm (the post-Enlightenment paradigm) even though most proponents within the post-Enlightenment paradigm consider themselves Christian in some way. That, however, is a controversial matter. Most proponents of the first two paradigms above would say that the those of the third paradigm, the post-Enlightenment paradigm, have gone beyond the bounds of Christianity. That is, those of the first two paradigms would say that the proponents of the post-Enlightenment paradigm are not authentically Christian.

All would agree that the historic Christian theological paradigm is found in the first two paradigms above. Also, and again, proponents of the post-Enlightenment paradigm would say theirs is a Christian paradigm. It’s just not the historical one. Instead, it’s a different one that has arisen since the Enlightenment.

The designation of liberal with respect to the post-Enlightenment paradigm has nothing to do with politics. Many of those within the Christian and Protestant paradigms would be liberal politically. On the other hand, a liberal in theology are those who adopt things like the post-Enlightenment paradigm. Those of the Christian and Protestant theological paradigms are conservative when it comes to their core Christian teachings regarding the Creeds, the Incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and so on. Those of the liberal variety don’t hold to such conservative understandings of Scripture. Those operating out of a liberal theology would say, “You don’t really need to believe in this or that.” They usually have a different core of which they are adamant.

Ethical monotheism: exclusive devotion to YHWH

God’s grace and mercy discussed above within the context of the covenant and within the sacrificial system, however, is not to be compared with that of an indulgent grandparent who allows their grandchildren to do whatever they might want to do.  God does care about how his people live, and in the Torah we are told of the ways that God demands how we are to live our lives.  Remember the distinction made within creational monotheism in which the Creator God who brought Creation into being is distinct from all Creation.  Creational monotheism is very much not like Deism in which the Creator God simply created and then had no concern with people or how they lived.  Within creational monotheism Torah is a very important concept.

 

But another revolutionary aspect of this covenant which was also unique in the ancient world was the concept of ethical monotheism.  Ethical monotheism was not a competing worldview but part of the biblical worldview.  Ethical monotheism said that one’s ethics had to be a part of one’s faith in God.  Ethics had to be tied to how you lived your life.  In other words, you were God’s people; you had the Ten Commandments.  Since the Torah was part of ethical monotheism so you were to live a certain way.

 

So Israel had this concept of ethical monotheism in which you had this one, true God who was holy and, therefore, that meant the people had to live in such a way that they were holy as God was holy.  God’s people were to be holy too.  This one, true creator God had become their God through the Exodus event.  Since there was but one, true Creator God who had entered into this covenantal relationship with his people and who had delivered them from Egypt, therefore this marriage relationship between God and Israel would not work unless the Israelites did what they must in order to be blessed and fulfilled and remain exclusively devoted to this one, true God and not devoted to other (false) gods.

 

As such, the Ten Commandments – the Mosaic covenant, the law – are all about what had to follow.  The people had to be exclusively devoted to this God and not turn to other gods.  Therefore God demanded that when you were exclusively devoted to him, God had a lot to say about how you should live your life.  If you were going to be God’s people, you had to live a certain way.  This is called ethical monotheism.

 

So Israel was called to this ethical life which was a part of their exclusive devotion to this one, true God, the God of Israel.  Hence, when the people had exclusive devotion to YHWH and followed YHWH’s ways, they were doing what scholars call ethical monotheism.  We see ethical monotheism being expressed, for example, in Le 11 44 and in Le 19 1-2 where it reads:  You shall be holy for I YHWH your God am holy.  See notes there.  This was a totally revolutionary concept found only in the Bible.  This is where the Ten Words fit in.  These are not only commandments concerning your relationship with God but they also concerning your relationship with others.  That’s ethical monotheism.  It was found no where else in the ancient world but in Judaism and in Christianity.

 

As another example of ethical monotheism, remember how things went wrong between God and humanity in Ge 3 in the garden.  In Ge 3 the people became disconnected from God, and subsequently evil and wickedness entered the picture.  Abraham was called by God, and then in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant the nation Israel was called to be God’s people.  Part of the picture was turning that evil around so that God’s people would be holy like God was holy.  If you were going to be God’s people, you had to live a certain way.  This is called ethical monotheism.

 

Some people will not be surprised by this because they feel that religion includes ethics.  That’s how we were raised in our Christian ethic of today’s world.  As Christians ethical monotheism is part of this framework that we take for granted as part of what we think of as religion.  That’s another surprising part of the Bible.  Whether we are devotees of the Bible or reject the Bible, the Bible’s way of thinking has become so much a part of everyone’s thinking that the Bible is still the way everyone thinks.  We think that ethics and religion are connected because that’s what we see in the Bible.

 

Therefore, one more part of this is that following this first commandment (you shall have no other gods except me) are all of these other commandments, many of which are moral in nature:  You shall not commit adulteryyou shall not killyou shall not steal and so on.  Notice that your exclusive devotion to God is expressed in how you live.  This was unique in the ancient world.  This way of arriving at one’s ethics was actually revolutionary in the ancient world.

 

In the ancient world religion and ethics did not go together.  When one looks to the religions of Israel’s neighbors, the Canaanites and others, we find there was no connection between their worship of the various gods and how they lived their lives. Israel’s neighbors did not have directives from their gods for how to live.  No where else in the ancient world (other than within Judaism and later Christianity) did you have this concept because other ancient people saw no clear connection between their religion and how they lived.  The God of Israel told his people very specifically how they were to live.  The Ten Commandments!

 

Christians today think, “Well, of course, if your are religious, you live an ethical life” but that was not the case to those people in antiquity who were not Jewish or Christian.  In fact, when you read about the various divinities of Israel’s neighbors, like Ba’al and so on, you would not want to live like they lived – well, you might want to – but you couldn’t want to do it and still live an ethical life because these gods were the worst of murderers and adulterers filled with envies, lusts, and so on.  (These other gods lived extremely disreputable lives!)

 

So if these other ancient peoples wanted to know how to live, they went to philosophy or to ancient wisdom traditions or to those who spun proverbs.  You went hither and yon but never to the gods for heaven’s sake.  They were the last ones who would tell you how to live because of how they themselves lived.  The gods of the peoples surrounding Israel were anything but holy.  Therefore, you didn’t have any call to holiness for the worshiper coming from those other gods outside Israel because they were not holy themselves.  Israel’s neighbors believed worship and one’s moral life had nothing to do with one another.  To Israel’s neighbors worship was some sort of magical transaction you undertook with the gods, and then you lived however you wanted to live.

 

Of course within the biblical framework it was and is very different.  You have this one, holy good God and you were to be like that holy good God.  Worship and one’s moral life had everything to do with one another.  Hence, within Judaism the Ten Commandments said you had to be exclusively devoted to God and that was expressed in how you lived your life.  Therefore, in the Bible your worship of God and how you lived and behaved toward others were intimately connected.  Within the biblical world view God was holy and, therefore, God’s people had to be holy too.  This is the Bible’s unique feature of ethical monotheism.

 

Scholars describe what is going on here in the Bible as this multi-faceted monotheism previously discussed:  creational monotheism; providential monotheism; covenantal monotheism; and now ethical monotheism.  Further, as we’ll soon see, there’s also eschatological monotheism.  Just as creational monotheism was revolutionary; so also was ethical monotheism.

 

To see how ethical monotheism is expressed in the Ten Commandments, see Ex 20 1-3 and notes.

To see the ethical monotheism debate of Kant and Kierkegaard, see Ge 22 9-16, Ps 1 1-6 and notes.

end of ethical monotheism discussion

 

 

Again, there are those (the “less than wise”) who don’t know the Bible very well at all.  They see the Bible as this legalistic book, a story about people earning favor by following the law of Moses and getting all involved in legalistic things like keeping the Sabbath.  However, within the Jewish mindset the Torah was not understood as some form of legalism given to them so that they could earn merit, favor or brownie points with God.  Instead, from the very get-go the story here tells us they kept the Torah not to get redeemed because before God had even given them the Torah, God had already saved them in the Exodus from Egypt!  It was only following the Exodus that the Ten Commandments and all the other commandments were given in the context of the Abrahamic covenant.

 

So how were the Ten Commandments related to the Abrahamic covenant?  They were an extension and reinforcement of the Abrahamic covenant.  The Abrahamic covenant said ‘I am taking you to be my people.  We’re going to be in a covenantal relationship, and here’s how you should live in response to that.’

Now in the Exodus God had redeemed his people with a mighty hand and brought them out of Egypt.  How was the Mosaic covenant and the Ten Commandments related to that?  Here is how you are to live in response.  Here is how you are to live as the people of God.  Therefore, the Torah was given after the Exodus in the gracious context of the covenant made with Abraham, and the Torah was given the context of that gracious covenant.  The concept here is one of grace and mercy and forgiveness which is the total opposite of legalism.  They were the covenant people of the Creator God and here was how they were to live.  ‘I have redeemed you from Egypt; here is how you should live.’  Therefore, it was through the Abrahamic covenant that they were first delivered from bondage through the Red Sea on dry ground.

 

That is, following the Exodus, God’s people were wandering in the desert.  They were still God’s people but they had to know  how to live as God’s people were supposed to live.  So God gave the Mosaic covenant as an add-on to the Abrahamic covenant, an add-on which provided the proper, needed information to the people, which showed them how there were to live as the redeemed children of God.  God gave them the Torah to know how to live as God’s people.  God had redeemed his people from Egypt not so that they could steal, lie, kill, commit adultery and worship other gods.  Instead, God had delivered them from Egypt so that they might live as God’s holy people!  Hence, the Mosaic covenant was given in the gracious context of the Abrahamic covenant and the Exodus.

 

Hence, there was nothing legalistic about the law.  Instead, following the Torah was to be their response to God’s covenant love.  Further, it was in the context of that covenant love that they were to respond.  Their response to Torah was to be their (our) response to their (our) redemption, something they did, and we do, in thanksgiving to God because God had redeemed them (us).  It’s something they did, and we do, in praise of God because God was their (our) deliverer.  It’s  why they (we) were to worship God.

 

sacrificial system 

 

Next, since the Torah was given in the context of the covenant, this helps us to understand that this covenantal relationship with God presupposed God’s grace and forgiveness.  Remember the covenant formula within the Abrahamic covenant:  I will be your God and you will be my people.  We will see that unfold as the story behind the Story proceeds.  For example, in God’s covenant with Moses (the Mosaic covenant) God gave Moses this sacrificial system – this whole complex system with all these different sacrifices.  This sacrificial system allowed for a means of forgiveness when you fell and sinned.  This sacrificial system which God had given to the people only worked because God’s people were in covenantal relationship with God.

 

So God gave them these sacrifices so that the sins of the people of God could be forgiven.  As such, even when God’s people sinned against God, they simply had to return to God, offer sacrifices and their sins were forgiven.  In fact, the people of Israel did not feel burdened by all of these “seemingly legalistic” laws.  To the true Israelites who actually worshiped YHWH it was a delight to do God’s will as expressed in Torah. [For instance, this is why Paul can say in Pp 3 6  …  as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  Any devout Jew (one who knew and believed their Scriptures) could have said the same.]

 

 

Next, God’s grace and mercy were provided within the context of the Abrahamic covenant;  grace and mercy did not come from the law.  God’s law says “Do this; do that.  Don’t do this; don’t do that.”  But, when the people sinned, the sacrificial system offered grace and mercy to the people from within the gracious context of this Abrahamic covenant.  That’s right.  It was God’s grace and it’s found all through the OT!  It’s not that they had to keep the Torah perfectly to stay in covenant with God.  Instead, they were already in covenant with God so even when they didn’t keep the Torah perfectly, God had already provided them with a sacrificial system to make amends, a sacrificial system that offered forgiveness when Israel went astray, a sacrificial system which offered the means by which they could be restored to God.  So if they sinned, forgiveness was built into this law of Moses.  They could be forgiven through various animal sacrifices, animal sacrifices which always served as the type, the partial reality, the foreshadowing of the antitype, the full reality, the fulfillment to come, the ultimate sacrifice of the perfect lamb, once and for all, in Jesus of Nazareth, the sacrificial Lamb without blemish.  Typology.

 

The law (Torah) itself contained all of these sacrifices whereby Israel’s relationship could be restored with God when they sinned.  With the animal sacrifices the people were brought new to their God in forgiveness and mercy.  This sacrificial system itself was ultimately built on the mercy and goodness of God.  As such the animal sacrifices provided a means of being restored to God.  All through the OT we have example after example of God’s law at work.  See, for instance, Ps 1 and Ps 119 97.  See notes there.

Thus, notice how this law therefore belonged in this gracious covenantal context.  From this we can conclude that in the ancient Jewish view the law fit and functioned within the gracious covenantal context of the Abrahamic covenant – this unconditional covenant of love that God had made with his people of Israel through Abraham.

 

Additionally, behind God’s sacrificial system stood, and stands, God’s covenantal love.  It all fits very nicely together.  On occasion you may hear someone say that God’s grace and love are not shown until the NT with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but God’s grace and love were with us from the very beginning of the story in the OT.  Sure, at this point in this story the Torah was central, but the Torah was to be understood as the means by which God’s people were to respond to God for what God had done in redeeming his Creation – then, in the Exodus, but also throughout time until the consummation of the kingdom of God when Jesus would return to judge and reign forever.  Keeping the Torah was to be the people’s response to redemption; it was to be their a response to God’s grace.  The Torah had been given in the gracious context of the Abrahamic covenant.  That’s how this all fits together.

Summary statement on the Word

It is very common and standard in Christian theological works to refer to Jesus as the Word. This comes to us from Jn 1 where we read 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus was called the Word because he was the ultimate revelation of God; he was God’s true Word to humanity. In Jn 1 John was describing the Word, Jesus, Son of God, as being with God from everlasting and also being God from everlasting. That is, before the Incarnation the Word was the everlasting, eternal Son of God with the Father and the Spirit. John put it very mysteriously in his gospel in order to provoke his readers to really focus on what he was saying. This Son of God was both with the Father and he was God just like the Father was God – this mystery of the Trinity.

Then, in v 14 John said And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. Jesus in the gospel of Jn was called the Word because Jesus was the one who revealed God. {Remember as a side note that we sometimes call the Bible “the Word” because the Bible is also the revelation of God, but Jn was not talking about Word in that sense in Jn 1.} Instead, in Jn 1 John was saying that Jesus was the ultimate revelation of God. He was also saying that even the Bible was simply the story about Jesus who was the real revelation of God. Following in the footsteps of Jn 1 1, Christian theologians, like Athanasius, therefore, ever after constantly called Jesus the Word.

In fact, the “Word” became a way to talk about the Son of the Father, the Son of God, Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity. Therefore, notice that for Athanasius in his On the Incarnation, this link between Creation and Creation’s renewal was to be found very solidly in the Incarnation – this event where heaven and earth were joined, this event in which the Creator was joined to the Creation in order to renew, restore and redeem the Creation. The Redemption of Creation and humanity. That’s where everything was heading in this plan of God’s salvation for his Creation including humanity. {The Incarnation is what Athanasius’ work was all about which is why his treatise was called On the Incarnation.}

In the catholic (universal), orthodox (right thinking) fourfold story of Creation, Incarnation, Redemption and Resurrection, the renewal and restoration of all Creation was what God’s plan of salvation history that we see throughout the Bible was all about. That was, and is, where it was all heading. That was thee true Christian hope, that of the renewal and restoration of all Creation and the resurrection of the body. So we have this wonderful symmetry that began with Creation and which will climax with the renewal of that Creation.

Further, in his On the Incarnation Athanasius told us the Creation and the re-Creation were inexorably linked together, and he told us they were linked through the Incarnation of Jesus, this Incarnation of the Lord, this Incarnation of God, the Son. You see, Jesus was the Son of God and together with the Father and the Holy Spirit he had brought all Creation into being in the first place. All the Persons of the Trinity were there in the Creation. All were involved in creating. We see that being told all through Scripture. Now, the Son had been sent by the Father for the resurrection and the redemption of God’s fallen Creation. In other words, the same one who made Creation was the same one who, through his Incarnation, would renew and restore the whole created order. The Son of God, Jesus, the Word, was the Creator, and he was the one who would redeem his Creation. So there is this symmetry between the Creation and the re-Creation, between Creation and Redemption. It would be the same Son of God, the same Jesus who had been the Creator in the beginning and who would be the Redeemer and Renewer of Creation in the climax of the Story itself.

In his On the Incarnation Athanasius pointed out this wonderful symmetry of Creation and re-Creation within the story. All of this, in fact, perfectly fits within the larger biblical framework in which God was the Creator and therefore God was the only one who could be the Redeemer. John therefore linked Creation and new Creation together forever – in the Incarnation – because it was the one Creator who would do both – both Creation and re-Creation, both Creation and Redemption. And in God’s plan all of this would come about through the ultimate revelation of God himself in the Incarnation. And that ultimate revelation of God himself was the Word who was, further, Jesus of Nazareth, who himself was the human Son of Mary and Joseph, who was the divine Son of God himself, born through the power of the Holy Spirit, both fully human and fully divine, then, now and forever. The Incarnation!

So we see that Creation and the renewal of Creation brought by Christ were wonderfully linked together. Through the Incarnation the renewal and restoration of all Creation would be brought about by the same God who created it in the first place, and this was a very important fulcrum in the thought of the early church fathers including Athanasius. The renewal and restoration of all Creation is very clearly stated throughout the Bible. Further, and notably, ancient Christians didn’t tune out this renewal as all too often modern day Christians do. And we know this because the renewal and restoration of all Creation was a constant theme within the writings of the classical theologians.

Imagine

Imagine with me for a few minutes.  Imagine you are at this party, this “family” get-together that you and your “family” have each year.  Not only that but every 365 days your “family” gets together at the same time of year to celebrate your “family” situation.  Every evening of the fourteenth day of the first full moon your “family” comes together as no “family” had ever before come together.

Now imagine with me that it’s a little bit more than even that.  In fact, your “family” has been getting together not just in your lifetime or in the lifetime of your parents or, for that matter, in the lifetime of your grandparents and great-grandparents, but they’ve been doing this same celebration in your family for centuries, for many centuries.  In fact, they’ve been coming together for this celebration, every year with your “family”, for over a thousand years.  Imagine that when you “do the math” and look back over your heritage to when this “family” celebration first began, you find out that by the time you come together for this particular year’s celebration, your “family’s” ancestors have actually been coming together for as many as one thousand, three hundred years.  One thousand, three hundred years!  Wow!  That’s impressive!

Imagine for a moment that this celebration must be as special as it seems to be, given that your “family” has been coming together for as long as it has in order to celebrate this occasion.  Imagine what must be so important that you, your siblings, your parents, your aunts, uncles and cousins, your grandparents and great-grandparents and every distant cousin you can think of – family members going back centuries who you never knew in person – imagine your family coming together yet one more time again this year, at this time of year.  Imagine what it must be that could bring you together year after year after year like this.  Imagine what could be so important that your “family” members have been doing this for well-over a thousand years.  Imagine what it must be that would cause so many people over so many centuries to remain so faithful to the “family” tradition that they would continue coming together for this celebration, this party, so faithfully and for so long.

Imagine also for a moment how your “family” could have even pulled off such a feat in the first place.  Just think of the teaching, the education of the “family” that would have been required and dutifully accomplished over all those centuries so that all of your “family” would keep the celebration – so they could keep the party going.  Celebrations like this just don’t happen year after year after year by accident.  A celebration like this takes planning.  A celebration like this takes understanding.  A celebration like this takes teaching.  A celebration like this takes faith.  A celebration like this must have phenomenal meaning for your “family” to have so faithfully accomplished it for so many centuries.  For a celebration like this to have come off year after year after year would say to everybody that there was a very serious meaning to this celebration.  So we have to ask ourselves the question, “What could possibly be so important that your ‘family’ would have come together like this for so many years?  What on earth could that be?”

We’ve now come to the point in Luther’s Small Catechism that addresses the Lord’s Supper, the same Lord’s Supper that Jesus instituted on Maundy Thursday, that first Maundy Thursday of our Holy Week that happened one thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine years ago.  That’s almost two thousand years ago!  Of course, that was a long time ago.  In fact it’s even more time than the one thousand, three hundred year celebration we just discussed above.  One has to wonder if there just might be some connection between these two events, between that celebration that has been going on for one thousand, three hundred years and this Lord’s Supper that has now been going on for almost two thousand years.  Well, of course, there is a connection so let’s talk about that for a few minutes.

Remember first that we’ve previously discussed how our Lutheran Christianity grew out of our Roman Catholic heritage which itself grew out of gentile Christianity which, in turn, grew out of the early Jewish-Christian church, a Christianity itself whose heritage was the very Judaism that Jesus and his followers believed and lived during their earthly lives.

But first, imagine again for a moment, that at your “family” celebration you did the same things during the course of that celebration that your “family” had been doing for all those one thousand, three hundred years.  Imagine at that celebration that you performed the same rituals, you ate the same foods, you read the same scriptural texts, you asked the same questions and you told the same story – year after year after year.  What on earth could possess a “family” to so diligently keep the “family” tradition going.  What on earth could be so important?  And why on earth had there never been a time when this celebration never took place that same time every year?  What on earth could be so important that your “family” would never ever consider not coming together for this celebration?

Now, to be complete, from the beginning of time as we know it, all human societies and groups have developed ways of saying and doing things, ways which were, of course, shared with the others in their group.  For time immemorial people of any given group have found themselves “on the same page” as the others in their group.  That’s just what various “people groups” do.  They do and say certain things that tie them together with the others in their group.  Another way to look at this phenomenon is to say that all groups mean certain, specific things by what they say and do.  For example, a military salute honors our national flag, the uniform.  A handshake sealing a business deal carries with it a trust as well as a certain amount of integrity and honesty.  All these are symbolic actions that have a message.  All of these things mean what they mean within a particular world view.

In fact, some of the most meaningful things these people groups do are the special meals that they share together. For example, we think here of a wedding reception or the family supper when the soldier comes home after several months on the other side of the world.  We think of the surprise party to celebrate someone’s birthday.  In fact, the birthday party says two things in particular.  First, the party joins together the past event and the present moment.  Think, for example, of the many “remember when” moments that come up in the course of the party.  Second, the party also looks into the future.  For example, we sing happy birthday and many more.  In this one birthday party somehow past, present and future are held together.

So we make these events special and meaningful.  It’s the way we’re hard-wired; it’s what we learned to do from growing up in our particular “family” system.  This is just how we celebrate things with our “family.”  In fact, we see examples of celebration all throughout our Hebrew scriptures, as well as in our NT, but we see one celebration in particular in the OT that applies directly to when and where Jesus found himself during Holy Week of the year 33.  When we read through our OT we see that there was one, particularly unique celebration that the people of Israel did every year.

But first let’s step back into the time before Jesus came.  Imagine, if you will, that you’re living outside of Palestine in the time before Jesus.  You’re a Jew, a faithful Jew.  You love YHWH and you know your story as the chosen people of God.  You know your traditions as a Jew, and you know what it means to be a Jew.  You know what it means to be part of God’s chosen people, the people of Israel.  You know all about circumcision, purity laws and Sabbath-keeping.  You know all about the centrality of the Temple and the Torah in your faith life as a Jew.  You were born into that “family” and you’ve lived your whole life as a devout Jew, a lover of God, a lover of YHWH.  Imagine now that you’ve come to that most particular of days – Pesach (meaning passing over) – that you and your fellow Jews have been celebrating for as long as you can remember in your life.  You’ve celebrated Passover every year at the same time each year.  That is you as a Jew.

Imagine next that you have together there with “family” in this room of your house and that you and your “family” are now celebrating the Passover, just like you do every year.  You are reclining at the low table, laying on your left side (they called it reclining) and the older man at the head of the table starts to read in a slightly sing-song voice the story of the Jewish people.  He tells a very old story of your “family”.  He tells of the time when they were slaves in Egypt.  As the old man reads the story everyone listening seems to know the story.  They nod and smile as the tale unfolds.  The old man reads aloud these words, “We, the people of Abraham, the people called by God to be the light of the world … we went down into Egypt, and were slaves there.  And our God brought us up from Egypt with a mighty hand and stretchedout arm.  He condemned the Egyptians, but he passed over us, and brought us through the Red Sea and into the wilderness; and he gave us his law, and brought us into our promised land.”

The story the old man tells goes on, and on, and on, through all the plagues in Egypt, all the dramatic details.  At one point, right on cue, a little boy asks the old man a question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

“Because,” says the old man as he continues reading from his text, “this is the night when our God, the Holy One, blessed be he, came down to Egypt and rescued us from the Egyptians …”  As a devout Jew you know, of course, that all of this happened a long time before but still, it happened on this very night a long time ago.  You know this happened to your people – your Jewish ancestors – all those years ago.  You know that all of this happened to the people of Israel,  the people God loved and “chose as his people” and whom he promised to rescue.

As you continue listening to the old man you remember being taught about your heritage as a child of YHWH.  You remember being taught that you were part of the whole of God’s chosen people, God’s “family.”  You remember being taught that you were part of that same “family” that came out of Egypt.  You were taught that this same “family” was, this very evening, hearing this same story and sharing this same meal in every Jewish home everywhere in the world that night.  You remember learning that this meal made you all one “family” of God, God’s chosen people.

Imagine the old man continuing to retell the story, the same story you’ve heard at the same time each year since you were a child.  Sure, everything happened centuries before but your story still has meaning to you.  It was the story about how God loved your “family” and about how God rescued your “family” from Egypt.  Things had never been easy for the Jews.  In fact, it wasn’t just the Egyptians who had oppressed your Jewish ancestors.  Following the Egyptians it was the Assyrians and the Babylonians and then the Persians and the Greeks.  And now you are living in a time of extreme worry because there’s a new emperor in the next country where you have Jewish relatives, and this emperor wants to conquer everything and make everyone his slaves.  Everybody knows this emperor specially hates us Jews.  So when you celebrate Pesach  Passover  you remind yourself that you are God’s freedompeople.  God made you and your people free, and he wants you to be free.  As you listen to the old man you know that what really matters is that everyone is here, that we all belong, that we know God loves us, that we know God rescued us long ago [in the Exodus] and that God will rescue us again [in the new Exodus].

Imagine that as the old man continues, he raises his voice, chanting now with strange, haunting music.  He is singing in a language like the one you are talking, only older, stronger, sweeter.  You continue eating.  The odd, flat bread that is on the menu for this occasion has no leaven in it because the people of Israel had to make their bread without leaven on the night they fled Egypt.  The bitter herbs you were eating reminded you of the sorrow your “family” had in Egypt.  Reclining at the table was supposed to say that all of you were God’s free people.  Slaves stand; free people recline.  The whole meal seemed to say, in a hundred different ways:  this is who we are; this is who we were; and this is who we will be.  And, coming through all of the story the old man was retelling was like the strange music of the story:  this is who God was, and is, and will be.  It’s very telling that this meal did and said all of these things for your “family” around the table.  Of course, you needed to hear the old man’s words but once you began to understand it all, you better understood how this meal somehow said it all.  And the whole while you were listening to the old man tell the story, you were sharing in the story – your story, God’s story, Israel’s story.  It’s no wonder that Jewish “family” life was so special.  It’s no wonder their meals meant so much.

Imagine we now move forward in time, to the time of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus was a Jew.  This same celebration was a part of his life from his birth on.  Jesus was a Jew and he celebrated Passover every year with his “family” just like every other devout Jew did.  And this year it was no different.  Jesus had begun his ministry with his baptism in the Jordan, and it was now almost three and a half years later.   When Jesus’ public career reached its height, he had set his face to go to Jerusalem.  In fact, Jesus had planned a last great pilgrim journey so that he would arrive at the holy city at Passover time.  Lk 9 51  When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

So now we are now ready to look at a particular Passover meal which came to mean, for some Jews and then for lots of other people as well, more than any other meal in the whole world EVER!  Jesus had come into Jerusalem, and everyone had come along, thinking that this was The Time It Was Going To Happen.  Jesus seemed to think so too.  He seemed excited yet strangely troubled as well.  He had gone into the Temple and done something you would have never expected.  He had attacked the animalsellers and the moneychangers.  For a few minutes anyway, Jesus had shut down the whole system at work in the temple.  It was as if Jesus was saying this whole thing is out of line.  What had been happening in the temple was not what God intended and now God was going to get rid of it.  But how could Jesus have meant that and what on earth could he be thinking that God would put in the place of the temple?

Imagine now you have come to the time of the actual Passover meal itself, the same Passover meal you’d been celebrating for all of your life just as had all of your “family” for now one thousand, three hundred years.  Everyone knew the words.  Everyone knew what was said, how it was said, what it meant, and everyone knew what they ate at this Passover meal and what those foods represented.  Everyone knew these things.  You said certain things and only these certain things, and you ate certain things and only these certain things!  What you said and what you ate had not varied for one thousand, three hundred years.

No one at the meal knew what was going on except, of course, Jesus, the host of the meal, and, as we will see, Jesus was the host of the meal in more ways than just the one.  Because the authorities might have tried to stop him, or even arrest him, Jesus had arranged to celebrate this Passover meal in secret.  Still, Jesus would eventually be arrested that very evening but he still had things to do with his disciples.  In his person as the Messiah and as the now-having-finally-come YHWH in the flesh, Jesus yet had things to do for his “family” – and for us, for all believers of all times and places.  The evening was yet young.

Imagine you were there with Jesus.  After your arrival in Jerusalem you had been camping out in the cold spring air at Bethany.  Every day on awakening you had returned to Jerusalem where Jesus taught the people.  More and more people filled the city because it was Passover.  Your “family” was flocking to the holy city for Passover, for the feast.  Your “family” was the freedomparty, the kingdomparty – God’s chosen people.  God had set your “family” free from Egypt, and now was the time for God to set your “family” free from the oppression of Rome.  By this time Jesus’ followers thought Jesus was going to be the messianic king who would overthrow Rome.  They thought that Jesus would suddenly give the signal, and everyone – the thousands of people assembled there – would be ready to act.  Given all of your “family” who were going to be in the city at Passover, this would be the best of times to overthrow the oppressive Romans.  And now you even had this man of God, Jesus, to lead the way.  Or so they thought.

Still Passover was almost here, and yet nothing had happened.  You and the others were wondering what he would do.  There had been the secret preparations  a day early!  You could only imagine what Jesus had in mind.  You were worried this would lead to no good.  You’d always had a few doubts as to whether his plan would work out.  The authorities had eyes and ears everywhere.  But then, on that Thursday evening of Passover  … there you all were around the table, reclining in the timehonored fashion as God’s free people.  And the meal began.  The disciples talked amongst themselves, wondering what was going to happen this evening.  They knew what should happen backwards and forwards but in their bones they knew Jesus was acting differently this particular evening.  Something big, very big and different was going to happen that evening, but what?!  Was he going to bring the kingdom?  What was going to happen?

And then Jesus began speaking.  He was going to say the words which the head of the family always said at the Passover meal.  You knew them by heart; your father had said them year after year.  Everyone there knew them by heart.  The bread was the bread that our fathers ate when they came out of the land of Egypt.  The cup was the same cup to life, the cup to freedom.  But then Jesus said, “Take this bread and eat it  it is my body.  It’s given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  What had he said?!  What on earth was Jesus doing?!  Everybody was staring, stunned by Jesus’ words.  You were convinced that Jesus had gone over the top this time.  This was the Pesachmeal, the meal that told your “family’s” story.  It was about the Egypt stuff, the freedom stuff.   How could it now be about Jesus’ body as his words were clearly saying?  How?  And why should we do this in remembrance of him?  What could Jesus possibly mean by that?

You were still buzzing about this when the cup came round.  There are so many cups at a Pesach that none of you could remember afterwards which cup it was; but you never forgot what Jesus had said and done.  Again, the familiar words.  Again, Jesus had turned the normal words of the Passover meal inside out when he said, “Drink this, all of you:  this is my blood of the new covenant.  It is shed for you, and for many, so that sins may be forgiven.”  What on earth was Jesus saying now?!   This was too much.  His blood!?  Everybody knew that Jews didn’t drink blood and yet Jesus had said to do so.  And this new covenant talk.  What was this all about?  Sins forgiven?  What was going on?  Why was Jesus changing the Passover meal?

Of course, everybody knew that the prophets had promised that God would eventually make a new covenant with Israel, his people, just like God had done when he had brought them out of Egypt in the Exodus.  Everybody knew that with this new covenant, this final covenant yet to come, that would be when God finally forgave Israel’s sins once and for all, redeeming Israel from all their troubles, giving them their final, everlasting freedom.  Every Jew assembled there knew what their scriptures said in this regard.

In fact, that’s what Passover had always pointed forward to.  But somehow the future redemption of Israel seemed to have somehow arrived in the present with Jesus’ words.  That’s what Jesus seemed to be talking about, that the new covenant his “family” had been awaiting for centuries was now somehow here!

Imagine how caught off guard you had been with Jesus’ words, with Jesus’ proclamation.  How on earth could all this have anything to do with Jesus’ body and with his blood?  Imagine how stunning all of this had been, centuries of tradition suddenly voiced by Jesus so differently than you had ever heard it said before.  Imagine how all of this would have been so absolutely mind-boggling.  Heads would have been spinning.  What in the world was going on?

The Story, of course, goes on.  There is much more to this Story.  We’ve just been looking into something very important that happened in our Jewish religious heritage.  We’ve been looking into the background of our Lord’s Supper celebration.  This is how matters unfolded over the course of centuries for our Jewish ancestors, a long time in human terms but a mere blip in God’s “time.”

In this discussion we’ve seen how the Lord’s Supper came to us.  The Lord’s Supper came to us in and out of this long-established Passover meal (what the Church calls the Last Supper), a meal  the Jewish people had been celebrating as an expression of their understanding of the Exodus from Egypt for then one thousand, three hundred years.  The Lord’s Supper came to us as this meal, a meal which the Church would eventually call a sacrament (the Lord’s Supper), this meal which Jesus began with us on that first Maundy Thursday.  The Lord’s Supper came to us with this inextricable yet central connection to the long-awaited covenant which the people had known of and had been longingly awaiting for literally centuries.  This covenant, this new covenant that only God could make, this covenant long-promised by God, this covenant which was yet to come had now come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, YHWH come in the flesh.  At long last, God had again kept God’s promise just as scripture repeatedly has shown us that God always does  …  but it all had happened in God’s way and in God’s time.

So the Jews had this Passover meal.  On the evening when Jesus was about to be arrested and handed over to the Romans, he held a Passover meal with his followers.  But he changed the meal.  He changed not only the menu for that long-established meal – what was to be served, but also what the meal was to now mean.  With the changes Jesus instituted in that Passover meal the meal became all about God doing what God had been promising all along – but God was now going to be doing things in that new way.  Somehow Jesus was going to die  he seems to have known that.  Jesus told them to repeat this meal in memory of him.  He took the bread and said, ‘This is my body.’  And he took the wine and said, ‘This is my blood.’  It’s rather clear he knew he was going to die.

Still, Jesus told us to celebrate this meal regularly until he would again return at the time of his final judgment, at the time when he would resurrect all the dead and renew and restore all of creation.  On his return the Lord’s Supper would then be celebrated in the great wedding banquet of the kingdom of God that we have already seen foretold in Is 25 6-9.  That’s what Jesus would be about when he at long last came back to earth from his heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father where he now sits enthroned as king in his heavenly kingdom.  Marana tha!

Thus it is that here in the meantime, in this time of the inaugurated kingdom of God in which we all live, Jesus left us with this Meal, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar.  And at the core of this Lord’s Supper which Jesus instituted on Maundy Thursday was this new covenant – the same new covenant long-promised and foretold in our Hebrew scriptures.  The new covenant was at long last here.  This covenant promised in the whole of our Old Testament scriptures, and which all devout Jews awaited, had now been made by Jesus in this Passover meal, a meal he was using to institute what we now call the Sacrament of the Altar.  Jesus had thus inaugurated the new covenant in this meal.  Further, Jesus made the covenant, and everybody knew that it was only God who made covenants like this.  Jesus was, therefore, God in the flesh – YHWH come in the flesh.  Although, to be sure, it would take another three days and then some for the disciples to finally “get it,” for them to finally begin to understand what had really happened in this Passover meal there in the year 33.  In the end his disciples would finally understand as they had never understood before, and in short order the rest would be history, and the course of history for the world would have been changed forever.

Unfortunately, in the larger sense, most Christians have neither the first clue from where comes the Lord’s Supper nor do they know how it comes to them.  As such, most Christians fail to understand and truly appreciate the historical basis for the Supper.  Neither do they understand its connection to the Passover meal, or the new covenant, that’s been reenacted for so many of the faithful through the centuries.  Taking everything a step further, neither do most Christians really understand what is going on in the mystery of the Supper and what it was, and is, that Jesus intended for them to receive when taking the bread and the wine – when taking his body and his blood.  The Passover heritage of the Jews is our heritage as well.  And, in part because of these things, I dare say most Christians fail to understand and fully appreciate just what it is that comes to us in the Supper.  That’s what we’ll address next in this catechism study of the Eucharist.

In closing out this section of our Lord’s Supper study, I only ask that the next time your approach the Table that, among the many other things, you reflect on the continuity we share with the Passover meal from antiquity, on not only what that Passover meal represented then but how that Passover meal came to fruition in Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus, the Christ, the incarnate Son of God, and how Jesus then changed it for his purposes.  I ask that you be mindful of how this meal is to – among other things – cause us to reflect on the whole  of Hebrew scriptures and in particular on the Abrahamic covenant, this covenant that later resulted one day in the Exodus and from which later the new Exodus was initiated.  I ask that you remember your OT heritage, your “people of God” status and everything that means and includes as you kneel at the rail to receive the true body and the true blood of Jesus, the Christ, and thereby experience his real presence there – no only spiritually and supernaturally but in this way also sacramentally, along with all the community of saints, both now and always.