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How To Read Scripture Like Jesus And The Apostles


We don't need to be ancient language scholars in order to read Scripture as Jesus and the apostles did; we need only a good translation and an ear for the four-fold sense.

"We need to read Scripture the way God intended it to be read," said one of my friends from amid piles of concordances, grammar books, and Greek and Hebrew dictionaries. "Hey, why are you laughing?"

He didn't see the incongruity. While the tools he has at his disposal are useful, they weren't at Augustine's elbow, or at Paul's. Scripture does not describe Jesus whipping out a grammar book on the road to Emmaus. We don't need to be ancient language scholars in order to read Scripture as Jesus and the apostles did; we need only a good translation and an ear for the four-fold sense.

Before you read any further, get out your copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and read (or, hopefully, re-read) 115-118. The concept of Scripture's two-fold meaning presented here is grounded in a solid understanding of Jesus' dual natures and in how he came to have those dual natures. Because Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God incarnate, and Scripture is the word of God written, there is a correspondence between Who Jesus is and what Scripture is. Jesus Christ has two natures, a fully human nature and the fully divine nature. His human nature is a conduit for his divine nature - that is, everything he did as a man reflects or portrays some aspect of the invisible God.

Scripture works in a similar way. The Catechism speaks of two senses in Scripture: the literal sense and the spiritual sense. The spiritual sense, in turn, is made up of three kinds: the allegorical (or "typological" sense), the moral (or "tropological" sense), and the anagogical (or "heavenly") sense. Thus Scripture, the book that tells us about Jesus, also has two "natures": a literal meaning and a spiritual meaning. We might summarize things this way:

  • The literal sense of Scripture is the meaning conveyed by the words, discovered through sound interpretation. All other senses of Scripture are based on the literal. This literal sense accurately describes what took place. It also points us to deeper spiritual meanings.
  • The allegorical sense, especially of the Old 'Testament, signifies a foreshadowing or "type" that will be fulfilled by Christ in the New Testament. That is, the Old Testament event points us to something Jesus did or made clear in the New Testament.
  • The moral sense of Scripture is recorded for our instruction. It moves the Christian to act justly in the life of the Church by indicating to us what ought to he done.
  • The heavenly sense of Scripture leads us towards heaven and our fulfillment in heaven in the way that it tells us about the coming of Jesus.

These senses apply most clearly in the Old Testament but may be used in the New Testament as well. How doesthis work in practice? We begin by observing certain similarities between Old Testament and New Testament passages.

In Genesis 1:1-2 and Matthew 3:16 the Spirit of God descends on water - the seas of the formless earth in the first case and the waters of the Jordan River at Christ's baptism in the second. At first glance, that is the only correspondence between the two passages. However, further reading and reflection reveal that these are the only two places in Scripture that describe the Spirit of God moving over water. Because the Old Testament points to the New, and we have found a unique correspondence between these two passages, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Genesis passage is meant to help us interpret the passage in Matthew.

We can see the correspondences in each sense of Scripture. The literal sense: Each passage describes something that actually occurred- the Spirit of God moved over the waters. The allegorical sense: The description of the original creation of the world foreshadows the new creation we become through the sacrament of baptism. The moral sense: Just as creation was "baptized" into existence, so we must be baptized in order to become a new creation in Jesus Christ. The heavenly sense: In this baptismal (re)generation, God adopts us as his child, a beloved son or daughter in whom he is well-pleased, and brings us into union with him. Thus the story of creation in Genesis tells us that, from the very beginning, even before God formed man, God always intended created man to be in unity with him, and that he accomplishes this unity through baptism.

If this is a valid way to read Scripture, we should find evidence for such readings within Scripture itself; and so we do.

Look at 1 Kings 18:20-40. Elijah forces th people of Israel to choose either Baal or Yahweh as their god by proposing a test: The prophets of Baal should each slay a bull and set it on dry wood, and Elijah would do the same. They should call on the name of Baal and Elijah on the name of God, and "who answers by fire, he is God" (1 Kings 18:24). Baal's prophets prayed to him all morning to no avail, though they cried aloud and slashed themselves with swords. Then Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down by replacing the twelve stones on which it was built (one for each tribe of Israel). After he had people fill four jars with water and douse the slain bull and the wood three times, Elijah called on the name of the Lord. "Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust" (1 Kings 18:38). The people believed and Elijah had the prophets of aal seized and killed.

In this rich scriptural passage, Elijah stands for Christ. He builds the altar upon the foundation of the twelve tribes (apostles). The wood on the altar represents the wood of the Cross; the bull represents the sacrificial offering Christ made of himself. The four jars of water represent the four Gospels, and the water itself represents the washing of baptism. The fire of the Lord is the consuming fire of God's love, which transforms the very substance of the elements offered on the altar until all is taken up in God. This complete acceptance of the sacrifice, together with the punishment meted out to the prophets of Baal, is a foretaste of the end-times, when Jesus will return to judge each according to his works. The passage foreshadows both the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist and demonstrates the importance of the priesthood. For another passagerelated to the priesthood, think about the correspondences between what happens to Jesus in his passion, death, and Resurrection and what happens to Peter in Acts 12.

In 1 Samuel 16:1-12, the interpretation revolves around the fact that the word "Bethlehem" means "House of Bread." Samuel is told by God to go to Jesse's house in Bethlehem and anoint a new king. If anyone asks why he is going, Samuel is to tell him that he is offering a sacrifice that involves a banquet meal. Every attendee of the banquet had to be ritually clean. Upon entering the House of Bread, Samuel incorrectly identifies who is to be king. As a result, God warns him not to judge by appearances when looking for the King in the House of Bread but to rely on God, who judges what is in the heart. Seven of Jesse's sons appear, but none are suitable. It is only the eighth son who is suitable. It is useful o recall that Jesus rose one day after the seventh (Sabbath) day, that is, on the eighth day. Thus, when we go to the House of Bread looking for the King, we are not to judge by appearances but rather by what is in the heart - what is really there. When we do, we will find the Son of the eighth day, and we will know our King. The entire story points to the Eucharist.

Note that 1 Chronicles 11:16-19 and 2 Samuel 23:14-17, which also refer to Bethlehem, have similar Eucharistic overtones. In those passages, water is obtained from the cistern of Bethlehem through the work of three mighty persons. David connects Bethlehem's water with their blood and pours it out on the ground as the priests do the blood libations at the altar.

Proverbs 1:1-6 provides additional confirmation. In this passage, Solomon tells us that he is writing the book of Proverbs in order to teach us how to unerstand a proverb: That is, he will use proverbs to explain proverbs. Jesus was a wiser man than Solomon (cf. Matt. 12:42), and he taught constantly using parables (Matt. 13:34 - 35). Yet Scripture witnesses again and again how he had to explain every figure he used (e.g., John 10:6). This is important for two reasons.

First, it confirms what both Luke and Matthew were inspired to record about Jesus: "the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light" (Matt. 4:16; Luke 1:79). Many of the people of Christ's time, who lived under the Old Testament dispensation, were incapable of reading Scripture with the necessary New Testament understanding. Their minds needed to be enlightened to understand the parable they and their ancestors daily lived out.

Second, as Matthew 13:10 records, Jesus gave the apostles the ability to understand what the Old Testament "parables" pointed to. Indeed, Jesus promises exactly that in John 16:25 - there would come a time when he would speak to them plainly and not in any figure. However, he makes this promise, just scant hours before the Twelve break and run like water. The promise is fulfilled only after the Resurrection: "Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures" (Luke 24:45).

Unfortunately, not all new Christians shared this apostolic gift. The Thessalonians in Acts 17 who rejected apostolic guidance in how to read Scripture continued on in darkness, while the Bereans, who desired the full understanding of Scripture, were unable to attain it without the guidance first of Paul and then of Silas and Timothy. Scripture itself underscores the extent to which this apostolic guidance is necessary. No person or group of people in Scripture attained an accurate understanding of who Jesus wasor what he did without authorized guidance, despite the fact that knowledge of Jesus was widespread ("This thing was not done in a corner" [Acts 26:26]).

This apostolic gift: explains why the epistles are rich in the four-fold sense of Scripture. The whole letter to the Hebrews, especially passages like 8:4-5, 9:24, and 10:1, refer repeatedly to the Old Testament through the four-fold sense. And though Colossians 2:16-17, Galatians 4:24-30, 2 Peter 2:6, James 5:10, and Jude 7 all demonstrate the concept, 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 shows the principle at its clearest.

Here Paul talks of the Israelites being "baptized into Moses" when they crossed the Red Sea, yet Exodus never speaks of this. Similarly, Exodus does not describe any food or drink as "supernatural," nor does it describe a rock that followed the Israelites. Paul is seeing the Old Testament in a new way.This is why he lists several of the excesses of the Israelites and remarks, "Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:11).

The Old Testament is written for our instruction. It is a morality play in which every event really happened and at the same time points beyond itself to eternity. Peter, Paul, James, and Jude - each was inspired by God to demonstrate this new clarity of vision. Through the epistles, God shows us that the four-fold sense of Scripture is necessary for an accurate understanding of New Testament events. Indeed, even simple references to Jesus like "Lamb of God," "the Good Shepherd," and "the Paschal Victim" are shallow at best outside of the four-fold sense.

The apostles, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, were inspired to bgin unlocking Scripture. This process continued throughout the early Church. The great Christians of the first millennia knew the technique intimately and wielded it like a two-edged sword against heretical opponents. They saw the apostolic reading of the Old Testament as the beginning of a process they were to bring to fruition.

This is why we never see Jesus or the apostles whipping out a dictionary to check the gender of a noun or the aorist tense of a verb. Paul never diagrams a sentence. The task begun by Jesus and the apostles is not yet complete - indeed, it may never be complete. It is still necessary for us today to search out the four-fold sense of Scripture in order to grasp the fullness of the divinely intended meaning in the Old and New Testaments.



Kellmeyer, Steve "How To Read Scripture Like Jesus And The Apostles." This Rock (February 2000): 13-15.

Reprinted by permission of Catholic Answers.

The Author

Steven Kellmeyer writes from Steubenville, OH.

Copyright © 2000 Catholic Answers
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