Why are some critical Bible passages overlooked? Let’s start with identifying the reasons before considering some of the girders in the architecture of the Bible.
1. Sunday School Teaching
Naturally Sunday School teachers tend to focus on narratives that are accessible to children. Perhaps less wisely, they can also tend toward narratives that offer moralistic “lessons” (this can serve to obscure the gospel, but that is a post for another day). So for those growing up going to Sunday school, there will be a bank of familiar stories.
2. Preacher Passage Picks
Whether it is selection of passages for preaching, or choice of biblical allusions and illustrations, preachers also can do the same as Sunday school teachers (perhaps justifiably so in many cases — no point referring to something people don’t know). So for an example, the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in Genesis 22 will be reinforced repeatedly, while the Genesis 15 account of the covenant ceremony remains largely unknown.
3. Devotional Reading
Whether people use guiding notes or read the Bible for themselves, they will tend to be directed toward the familiar passages. So there is a reinforcing of passages that may or may not be as “load-bearing” as others. Isaiah 6:1-8 is well known; the rest of the chapter is often overlooked. But which part functions as a girder for the building of the biblical macro-structure?
I’m sure there are other reasons to add to this list, but hopefully this gives a sense of the situation. People are more familiar with Psalm 23 than Psalms 2 or 110, even though the biblical reliance on the latter examples is greater than on the more familiar 23rd Psalm. This is not about diminishing the wonderful passages that are more familiar. A large part of why they are taught and preached and read and known is because they have made such a difference in peoples’ lives. But perhaps we do need to think about helping folks know some other critical passages more than they typically do.
While not seeking to diminish the well-known passages, let’s consider whether we can help people know their Bibles better by bringing to their attention the existence and importance of some of the biblical girder passages.
Biblical Covenant Passages
A strong case can be made for seeing the biblical covenants as a skeleton on which the Bible is built. God’s promise and subsequent covenant with Abram/Abraham in Genesis 12, then 13, 15, 17 is critical. Then there’s the Mosaic content in Deuteronomy 27-30. (How often do we stumble across “Who will ascend?” or “Who has descended?” allusions in the New Testament?) Then God’s covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. And, of course, the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36 and the latter part of Isaiah. Being unaware of these covenants is crippling if someone wants to grasp the Old Testament or the development in the New Testament.
Biblically Quoted Passages
Some passages are quoted with a significant frequency. Sometimes the quote is actually just an allusion, but that doesn’t diminish its significance. Sometimes it proves the writer assumed hearers would spot it more easily. God’s spoken self-revelation in Exodus 34 runs like a refrain through the Old Testament. Psalms 2, 69 and 110 get their fair share of airtime once you get to the New Testament, as does Psalm 118 in reference to Jesus and Psalm 8 plays a key role in Hebrews. Genesis 15:6 comes out three significant times, as does Habakkuk 2:4. The lesser known part of Isaiah 6 does some heavy lifting, as does the allusion to Daniel 7. And in the passion of Christ, where you might expect lots of references to Genesis 22 (Abraham and Isaac), instead you find lots of Davidic Psalms and Zechariah quotes.
Structurally Significant Passages
Some passages seem to serve a key purpose in the structure of a book or a section. Joshua 1 serves a key transitional function between the Torah and the Kethubim. Psalm 73 seems to provide the hinge for the turn in the flow of the whole collection. John 11-12 offers a significant transition in John’s Gospel.
There are many more that could be listed. The point is that many of these are less familiar to most people in the church than David’s slaying Goliath, or Naaman dipping in the Jordan, or Daniel in the den of lions, or Jesus calming the storm, or Paul in prison in Philippi. All important, but in terms of grasping the flow and message of the whole Bible, perhaps there are too many gaps at critical points.
As well as key passages, we could well add a list of key themes that weave through the canon like ribbons. So what do we do if we recognize that people in our churches are foggy on the biblical superstructure? How can we help folk without turning the church into a lecture hall and losing the devotional and spiritual emphasis in our preaching? Some ideas:
1. Periodically Be Overtly Educational
Perhaps a seminar or evening class or group session in which you trace through the superstructure. You will find that there are people in every church who have a genuine appetite to know the Bible better and will want to attend this kind of training if it is done well. You will also find that a false dichotomy between education and devotional spirituality need not be imposed. Take every opportunity, even in a “lecture,” to woo people by the gracious work of God in biblical history.
2. Be Alert to the Girders
If you are preaching Genesis 22, Abraham offering up Isaac, be alert to the place of that story in the flow of the narrative. Take the opportunity to help people see it not as a stand-alone incident, but as the culmination of a journey over many decades for Abraham. Include and highlight the importance of Genesis 15 as you preach Genesis 22. When you preach about David and Bathsheba, don’t just look ahead to the fallout in his family life, but also look back to 2 Samuel 7 and the amazing covenant God had made with him — highlight the importance of that to your listeners.
3. Preach the Girders
Take a miniseries and help people see the big picture of the Bible. Too many Christians make too many “surprised and helped” comments when they hear a Bible overview. This implies that it is not being offered enough.
4. Preach Through Books Without Being “Flat”
When we preach through a book, it is easy to flatten it out into so many segments of equal length and apparently equal value. Instead, look for ways to point toward and back to passages in the book that have a “superstructure status” for the book and the Bible as a whole. Preaching through Habakkuk, don’t let 2:4 get lost in the mix.