Reading the last chapter of a mystery novel first may sound like a bad idea to those who love the suspense of a good story. But some people enjoy reading a book more if they know how it ends.
In Reading Backwards, author Richard Hays shows how important the practice is for our understanding of the Bible. By illustrating how the unfolding words and events of Scripture anticipate, echo, and throw light on one another, Professor Hays gives us reason to read our Bibles forward and backward.
Hays reminds readers that it was only after Jesus’ resurrection that His disciples understood His claim to rebuild a destroyed temple in three days. The apostle John tells us, “The temple he had spoken of was his body” (2:21). Only then could they understand a meaning of their Passover celebration never before understood (see Matthew 26:17–29). Only in retrospect could they reflect on how Jesus gave fullness of meaning to an ancient king’s deep feelings for the house of God (Psalm 69:9; John 2:16–17). Only by rereading their Scriptures in light of the true temple of God (Jesus Himself) could the disciples grasp how the ritual of Israel’s religion and Messiah would throw light on one another.
And now, only by reading these same Scriptures backward and forward, can we see in Jesus everything that any of us has ever needed or longed for.
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) is one of the church’s most celebrated defenders of the faith. Yet just three months before his death something caused him to leave unfinished his Summa Theologica, the massive legacy of his life’s work. While reflecting on the broken body and shed blood of his Savior, Aquinas claimed to see a vision that left him without words. He said, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings seem like straw.”
Before Aquinas, Paul too had a vision. In 2 Corinthians, he describes the experience: “This man [Paul himself]—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and hear inexpressible things” (12:3–4).
Paul and Aquinas left us to reflect on an ocean of goodness that neither words nor reason can express. The implications of what Aquinas saw left him without hope of finishing his work in a way that would do justice to a God crucified for us. By contrast, Paul continued to write. But he did so in the awareness of what he couldn’t express or finish in his own strength.
In all of the troubles Paul encountered in service to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:16–33; 12:8–9), he could look back and see, in his weakness, a grace and goodness beyond words and wonder.
A commercial jingle of the 1970s inspired a generation. Created as part of Coca Cola’s “The Real Thing” ad campaign, a British group called The New Seekers eventually sang it as a full-length song that climbed to the top of music charts around the world. But many will never forget the original television version sung by young people on a hilltop outside of Rome. Whimsical as it was, with visions of honeybees and fruit trees, we resonated with a songwriter’s desire to teach the world to sing with the heart and harmony of love.
The apostle John describes something like that idealized dream, only vastly greater. He envisioned a song sung by “every creature in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and on the sea, and all that is in them” (Revelation 5:13). There’s nothing whimsical about this anthem. Nothing could be more realistic than the price paid by the One to whom this song is sung. Neither could there be anything more foreboding than the visions of war, death, and consequence that His sacrifice of love would have to overcome.
Yet this is what it took for the Lamb of God to bear our sin and defeat death. Yet this is what it took for the Lamb of God to bear our sin, overcome our fear of death, and teach all heaven and earth to sing—in perfect harmony.
Something so cordial can happen in first introductions when two persons discover that they have a friend in common. In what may be its most memorable form, a big-hearted host welcomes a guest with something like, “So nice to meet you. Any friend of Sam’s, or Samantha’s, is a friend of mine.”
Jesus said something similar. He’d been attracting crowds by healing many. But He’d also been making enemies of local religious leaders by disagreeing with the way they were commercializing the temple and misusing their influence. In the middle of a growing conflict, He made a move to multiply the joy, cost, and wonder of His presence. He gave His disciples the ability to heal others and sent them out to announce that the Kingdom of God was at hand. He assured the disciples, “who welcomes you welcomes me” and in turn His Father who sent Him as well (10:40).
It’s hard to imagine a more life-changing offer of friendship. For anyone who would open their house, or even give a cup of cold water to one of His disciples, Jesus assured a place in the heart of God. While that moment happened a long time ago, His words remind us that in big and little acts of kindness and hospitality there are still ways of welcoming, and being welcomed, as a friend of the friends of God.
Caesar Augustus (63 BC–AD 14), the first emperor of Rome, wanted to be known as a law-and-order ruler. Even though he built his empire on the back of slave labor, military conquest, and financial bribery, he restored a measure of legal due process and gave his citizens Iustitia, a goddess our justice system today refers to as Lady Justice. He also called for a census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of a long-awaited ruler whose greatness would reach to the ends of the earth (Micah 5:2–4).
What neither Augustus nor the rest of the world could have anticipated is how a far greater King would live and die to show what real justice looks like. Centuries earlier, in the prophet Micah’s day, the people of God had once again lapsed into a culture of lies, violence, and “ill-gotten treasures” (6:10–12). God’s dearly loved nation had lost sight of Him. He longed for them to show their world what it meant to do right by each other and walk humbly with Him (v. 8).
It took a Servant King to personify the kind of justice that hurting, forgotten, and helpless people long for. It took the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy in Jesus to see right relationships established between God and people, and person-to-person. This would come not in the outward enforcement of Caesar-like law-and-order, but in the freedom of the mercy, goodness, and spirit of our servant King Jesus.
Beethoven was angry. He’d intended to name his Third Symphony “The Bonaparte.” In an age of religious and political tyranny, he saw Napoleon as a hero of the people and champion of freedom. But when the French general declared himself emperor, the celebrated composer changed his mind. Denouncing his former hero as a rascal and tyrant, he rubbed so hard to erase Bonaparte’s name that he left a hole in the original score.
Early believers in Jesus must have been disappointed when their hopes of political reform were dashed. He had stirred such hopes of life without the tyranny of Caesar’s heavy-handed taxes and military presence. Yet, decades later, Rome still ruled the world. Jesus’ messengers were left with fears and weakness. His disciples were marked by immaturity and infighting (1:11–12; 3:1–3.)
But there was a difference. Paul saw beyond what remained unchanged. His letters began, ended, and overflowed with the name of Christ. Christ resurrected. Christ with a promise to return in power. Christ in judgment of everything and everyone. First and foremost, however, Paul wanted believers in Jesus to be grounded in the meaning and implications of Him crucified (2:2; 13:1–13).
The love expressed in Jesus’ sacrifice made Him a different kind of leader. As Lord and Savior of the world, His cross changes everything. The Name of Jesus will forever be known and praised above every name.
During the Golden Age of radio, Fred Allen (1894–1956) used comedic pessimism to bring smiles to a generation living in the shadows of economic depression and a world at war. His sense of humor was born out of personal pain. Having lost his mother before he was three, he was later estranged from his father who struggled with addictions. He once rescued a young boy from the traffic of a busy New York City street with a memorable, “What’s the matter with you, kid? Don’t you want to grow up and have troubles?”
The life of Job unfolds in such troubled realism. When his early expressions of faith eventually gave way to despair, his friends multiplied his pain by adding insult to injury. With good sounding arguments they insisted that if he could admit his wrongs (4:7–8) and learn from the God’s correction, he would find strength to laugh in the face of his problems (5:22).
Job’s “comforters” meant well while being so wrong (1:6–12). Never could they have imagined that they would one day be invoked as examples of “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Never could they have imagined the relief of Job praying for them, or why they would need prayer at all (42:10–11). Never could they have imagined how they foreshadowed the accusers of the One who suffered so much misunderstanding to become the source of our greatest joys.
Ancient Rome had its own version of “the gospel”—the good news. According to the poet Virgil, Zeus, king of the gods, had decreed for the Romans a kingdom without end or boundaries. The gods had chosen Augustus as divine son and savior of the world by ushering in a golden age of peace and prosperity.
This, however, wasn’t everyone’s idea of good news. For many it was an unwelcome reality enforced by the heavy hand of the emperor’s army and executioners. The glory of the empire was built on the backs of enslaved people who served without legal personhood or property at the pleasure of masters who ruled over them.
This was the world in which Paul introduced himself as a servant of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1). Jesus—oh, how Paul had once hated that name. And how Jesus Himself had suffered for admitting to being the king of the Jews and Savior of the world.
This was the good news Paul would explain in the rest of his letter to the Romans. This gospel was “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (v. 16). Oh, how it was needed by those who suffered under Caesar! Here was the news of a crucified and resurrected Savior—the liberator who conquered His enemies by showing how much He loved them.
As you read Paul’s opening words to the Romans, what phrases describe the good news to you? (1:1–7). Why would someone (Paul) who had once hated Jesus so much now want everyone to believe in Him? (see Acts 26).
When BBC Music Magazine asked one hundred fifty-one of the world’s leading conductors to list twenty of what they believed to be the greatest symphonies ever written, Beethoven’s Third, Eroica, came out on top. The work, whose title means “heroic,” was written during the turmoil of the French revolution. But it also came out of Beethoven’s own struggle as he slowly lost his hearing. The music evokes extreme swings of emotion that express what it means to be human and alive while facing challenges. Through wild swings of happiness, sadness, and eventual triumph Beethoven’s Third Symphony is regarded as a timeless tribute to the human spirit.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians deserves our attention for similar reasons. Through inspired words rather than musical scores it rises in blessing (1:4–9), falls in the sadness of soul-crushing conflict (11:17–22), and rises again in the unison of gifted people working together for one another and for the glory of God (12:6–7).
The difference is that here we see the triumph of our human spirit as a tribute to the Spirit of God. As he urges us to experience together the inexpressible love of Christ, Paul helps us see ourselves as called together by our Father, led by his Son, and inspired by his Spirit—not for noise, but for our contribution to the greatest symphony of all.