When our ocean-loving son Andrew from Costa Rica came to visit, Virginia picked up a one thousand piece puzzle entitled “Reef Rush Hour.” Andrew has actually seen this kind of wonder-world in real life; I haven’t. However, ocean experience is not necessary to do the puzzle. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a harder puzzle in my life. If the pandemic doesn’t drive you crazy, maybe this puzzle will. Even so puzzles are great for conversation and for wasting tons of time.
And one more thing: “Reef Rush Hour” triggered my pastoral imagination. All analogies are limited, and I’d hate for anyone to think that understanding the Bible is like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle, but working on this puzzle came at the same time that I’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach and preach the whole counsel of God. I really want to grasp the big picture of God’s story of redemption, and I want my Beeson students to see themselves in this intricate, beautiful picture of redemption. I want everyone to find their place in God’s wonderful story of redemption. Everyone has a story, but only one story redeems our story.
On my first mission trip to northern Ghana, I went prepared to study the Pastoral Epistles for a week with thirty pastors. But on the flight over I was beset by a growing feeling that my material was too geared to my cultural setting. On our first day, tribal protocol involved greeting the Muslim chief of a nearby village. In the course of the ceremony we met the “tribal linguist,” a wiry, energetic octogenarian who was responsible for telling the oral history of the tribe. The providential encounter changed the course of the week. I challenged the thirty pastors that they were God’s linguists telling the great story of redemption. We spent the entire week studying the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. For six hours a day we went through the Bible. Our aim was to grasp the key meaning of each individual biblical book, the DNA, if you will. We wanted the big picture of God’s plan of redemption. The Old Testament came alive in the tribal setting of village life with these farmers, shepherds and fishermen. By the time we got to the New Testament, I felt like I was experiencing the First Church of Acts in a fresh way in the company of these first generation Christians.
I was so inspired by the whole experience that when I came home I preached a Stay in the Story series from Genesis to Malachi. It took several years, and we broke it up with New Testament sermons during Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. In the process I became doubly convinced of the importance of grasping the whole counsel of God in a meaningful and organic way.
The process of synthesising the various aspects of the Bible, the individual books and different genres, can be called biblical fusion. My aim is to think the Bible together, to fuse the Pentateuch with the Gospels and the Prophets with the Epistles. I want to see the interrelationship between the first five books of the Old Testament and the first five books of the New Testament. The apostles were first and foremost preachers of the Old Testament, showing us how to preach the gospel of the Old Testament today. They give us the freedom to preach the Gospel according to Job or the Gospel according to Ruth. They inspire me to preach on Jeremiah: The Parable of Jesus. In Ghana our goal was to do what Jesus did on the road to Emmaus: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Working on “Reef Rush Hour” caused me to look at the big picture over and over again. I couldn’t place a single piece of this thousand piece puzzle without examining the picture on the box. Similarly, if we don’t see the central truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of the canonical shape and scope of the Bible it is impossible to interpret the individual pieces of the story.
I found myself looking so intently at the shape and coloring of these postage size pieces that it actually changed the way I was looking at life. On my morning run I was picking up shades of green and blue and noticing details that I’d normally ignore. The longer I study the Bible the more I see the deep hues of Leviticus in the Book of Hebrews and the bright colors of the Psalms in the apostle Paul’s opening praise and prayer in Ephesians. Like “Reef Rush Hour” there is a vast array of life and color in God’s story of redemption. I may question why this or that species is in the picture, but that’s really not how it works. The picture is full the way the artist designed it to be full, and that’s how it is with salvation history. Everything included is by God’s design and deserves study and understanding in the light of Christ.
I can’t tell you how many times I have concluded that there must be a puzzle piece missing, only to find it the next day with fresh eyes. I realize the reputation of Buffalo Games, in Buffalo, New York (my hometown), is on the line, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying that somebody messed up. I can assure you that when we study the Bible we don’t have to worry. The whole story is there; the big picture is complete in the mind of God.
Dr. Douglas D. Webster is professor of Christian preaching and pastoral theology at Beeson Divinity School.