Have you ever seen the episode of Veggie Tales in which the main characters are martyred by anti-Christian terrorists? You know, the one in which Bell Z. Bulb, the giant garlic demon, and Nero Caesar Salad, the tyrannical vegetable dictator, take on the heroes for their faith in Christ. Remember how it ends? Remember the cold dead eyes of Larry the cucumber behind glass, pickled for the sake of the Gospel? Remember Bob the tomato, all that remained was ketchup and seeds?
No, of course you don’t remember this episode. It doesn’t exist–and it never will. Such a concept would be rejected out of hand by the creative minds behind the popular children’s program, and the evangelical video-buying public wouldn’t hand over the cash to buy such a product. It would be considered too disturbing, too dark, for children. Instead, the Veggie Tales episodes we’ve all seen are bloodless. They take biblical stories, and biblical characters, but they mine the narrative for abstractions–timeless moral truths that can help children to be kinder, gentler, and more honest. There’s almost nothing in any episode that isn’t true. But what’s missing is Jesus.
There’s plenty of Veggie Tales preaching out there, and it’s not all for children. As a matter of fact, the way we teach children the Bible grows from what we believe the Bible is about–what’s really important in the Christian life. There’s also such a thing as Veggie Tales discipleship, Veggie Tales evangelism, even erudite and complicated Veggie Tales theology and biblical scholarship. Whenever we approach the Bible without focusing in on what the Bible is about–Christ Jesus and His Gospel–we are going to wind up with a kind of golden-rule Christianity that doesn’t last a generation, indeed rarely lasts an hour after it is delivered.
Preaching Christ doesn’t simply mean giving a gospel invitation at the end of a sermon–although it certainly does entail that. It means seeing all of reality as being summed up in Christ, and showing believers how to find themselves in the story of Jesus, a story that is Alpha and Omega, from the spoken Word that calls the universe together to the Last Man who governs the universe as its heir and King.
I have never seen the film, The Sixth Sense, and I doubt I ever will. It’s not only because my movie picks don’t typically extend to horror pictures (although that’s true). It is also because the movie’s been ruined for me. Long ago, a friend explained to me the premise of the film. A detective, played by Bruce Willis, investigates a young boy who “sees dead people,” ghosts who can only be seen by him. At the end of the movie–at least according to my friend–the Bruce Willis character is himself seen to be a “dead person,” a ghost, who can only be seen by the troubled little boy. “When you see the movie the second time, you’ll notice that Bruce Willis is never seen interacting with anyone of the other characters,” my friend said. “He is just shown talking directly to the boy.” If I were to see the movie now, I would see the same film that everyone else saw at its release, but I would be seeing it with the mystery decoded. I would notice patterns and themes. I would see where the story was going.
The same is true of the storyline of Scripture. The apostles announce that a great mystery has been revealed in the gospel of Christ Jesus–a mystery that explains the “whys” of everything from the creation itself to the existence of the nation of Israel to the one-flesh union of marriage. What God has been doing in His universe for all these millennia, Paul tells the church at Ephesus, is not accidental or haphazard. It is part of a blueprint, a purpose “which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). Paul tells the church at Colossae of Jesus that “all things were created through Him and for Him” and that “in Him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17).
Every text of Scripture–Old or New Testaments–is thus about Jesus, precisely because, at the end of the day, everything in reality is about Jesus. Why is there something instead of nothing? Why are human beings religious? Why do people want food and water and sex and community? Why are there galaxies and quasars and blue whales and local churches? God is creating all that is for His heir, for the glory of Jesus Christ. When you see through Jesus, you see the interpretive grid through which all of reality makes sense.
With this in mind, the Scripture tells us that all of Scripture tells us the story of Jesus. The Gospel writers show us how Jesus fulfills the Scripture, but, interestingly enough, He doesn’t simply fulfill direct and obvious messianic prophecies. He also relives the story of Israel itself–exiled in Egypt, crossing the Jordan, being tempted with food and power in the wilderness during a forty-day sojourn there. Jesus applies to Himself language previously applied to Israel and its story–He is the vine of God, the temple, the tabernacle, the Spirit-anointed kingship, the wisdom of God Himself.
What David cries out about his own lament is fulfilled, the prophets tell us, in the crucifixion of Jesus–from the thirst He experiences, to the betrayal by a friend, to the casting of lots for His garments to the counting of all of His bones (Ps 22), and the final vindication David seeks is found in Jesus’ empty tomb (Acts 2). What the prophets testify will happen to righteous Israel–that the remnant will be raised from the dead, anointed with the Spirit, granted the promised land (Ezek 37:12-14)–is fulfilled in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
When the apostles Peter and Paul and the deacon Stephen recount the story of Israel in the Book of Acts, they show how the story of Israel culminates in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2; Acts 4; Acts 7; Acts 13). This is why when the apostle John sees the panorama of Israel’s story in his Patmos vision he sees one story, the story of a man-child and a dragon who seeks to destroy Him (Rev 12). All the enemies of God–from Cain to Pharaoh to Nebuchadnezzar to Herod to Caesar–behind all of them there stands a snake. The entire storyline of the Scripture–from Abraham to Rahab to David to Mary–coheres in God’s purpose in Christ (Matt 1). God chooses and protects and fights for Israel, not because of any inherent worth in the Israelites, but because, simply, “from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever” (Rom 9:5).
No human being can live without stories, without a central narrative explaining his existence and his place in the world. Most of these stories are self-justifying and false, perversions of the story of Christ. But no one can live without such a story, and so human beings in their rebellion make up narratives. For some, it is the story of the dawning of a classless society. For some, it is the story of a thousand year Reich. For some, it is the story of a feminist fight against the patriarchy. For some, it is the story of human progress from the evolutionary struggle of nature. We are all longing for a past, and a future, and a storyline that makes sense of it all.
According to the prophets and apostles, that story is the story of Christ. We will either find ourselves, as Paul puts it, “hidden in Christ”–so that his ancestors are our ancestors, His life is our life; His sacrificial crucifixion is our crucifixion, His resurrection is our resurrection–or we will stand before God with our own identity, our own history, our own “righteousness,” our own “justification.” The question is whether we stand before God on our own, or with a Mediator. That’s what the Gospel, and all of reality, is ultimately about.
This is why the apostle Paul was able to make the audacious claim that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Is this really true? Did not Paul speak of many things–the coming resurrection, sexual morality, divisions in the church, congregational discipline, baptism, spiritual gifts, the fruits of the Spirit? Yes. But he knew none of these things apart from the mediation of a crucified Christ. These things were all part of a big picture of what God is doing with the world through Jesus Christ. Paul knew, exactly what Abraham and Isaac and Moses and David saw dimly before them, that in Jesus “all the promises of God find their Yes in Him” (2 Cor 1:20).
Why is this so important? Why can’t I simply say true things from the Scripture without showing how it fits together in Christ? It is because, apart from Christ, there are no promises of God. In the temptations, Satan quotes Scripture to Jesus, and doesn’t misquote the promises. God wants to children to eat bread, not to starve before stones. God will protect His anointed One with the angels of heaven. God will give His Messiah all the kingdoms of the earth. All this is true. What is satanic about all of this, though, is that Satan wanted our Lord to grasp these things apart from the Cross and the empty tomb. These promises could not be abstracted from the Gospel.
When Lazarus dies, his sister Martha rebukes Jesus for not being there. When Jesus mentions the resurrection, Martha speaks of the resurrection as though it were a generic category, abstracted from Jesus Himself. Jesus’ response sums up the heart of God’s plan. “I am the resurrection, and the life,” our Lord tells her (John 11:21-25). The rich young ruler who visits Jesus is seeking the right thing, isn’t he (Luke 18:18-23)? He wants eternal life. He wants the inheritance. What he doesn’t want is Jesus. He wants his own self-justifying story, of a perfectly kept law. He clings to his lie, instead of finding Himself in the Truth.
The people in our pews can go to hell clinging to Bible verses abstracted from Jesus. One can read the message of Psalm 24: “Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3-4). Perhaps the Pharisee that Jesus mentions had this verse in mind when he stood in the Temple, next to the repentant Publican. Perhaps the Pharisee–and his successor on the altar at First Baptist Church–can say, “Thank you God that I can approach you with clean hands and a pure heart.” That attitude is damning.
It is damning not because it is not true–it is. It is damning because there is only one Man who can stand before the holiness of God, only one Man with a pure heart and clean hands, only One who is the righteousness of God. If I pretend to come before God apart from Him–as though this text and a thousand more like it applies to me outside of Jesus Christ–I will only find condemnation. But, hidden in Christ, this promise is my promise. When I cry out with the Publican, “Have mercy!” and find myself in Christ, then everything that God has promised to Jesus now belongs to me.
The prosperity Gospel teacher on the airwaves attempts to bypass Jesus, pointing to promises of length of days and wealth beyond measure for those who are blessed of God. The grinning televangelist tells the cancer-stricken mother that if she is blessed by God, she’ll be healed. He tells the laid-off factory worker that if he is blessed by God, he will prosper. He cites verses from Deuteronomy, verses that are the inerrant Word of God, but verses that point to an inheritance that belong to the Blessed One, to Jesus of Nazareth, the One who receives the inheritance.
If I am in Christ, then a health and wealth prosperity Gospel is indeed what I receive, but more health and more prosperity than Joyce Meyer or Kenneth Copeland can ever conjure up. In Christ, I am raised from the dead–and will one day be resurrected in fact with Him. In Christ, I have the ends of the earth as my inheritance, with Him at the right hand of the Father. At His coming, those promises will be received by sight as well as by faith.
It is only when I see what God is doing with the world through Christ, and for the glory of Christ, that I am able to see where I fit in the big storyline of the universe or in the little storyline of my own life. The Apostle Paul’s words to the Romans are familiar passages of comfort for believers. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). This verse does not mean, however, simply a cheery “What doesn’t kill you’ll make you stronger; hang in there.” Instead, Paul says that the believer’s little story ultimately is a glorious one because it is part of a larger story, that I may be “conformed to the image of His Son, that He may be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29). How do I know that my story ends happily? I only know this if I am found in Christ.
But, if I am, then like all my forefathers and foremothers before me, I am free from condemnation, liberated from the curse, triumphant over death, the heir of the universe, the child of God in whom He is well pleased. How do I know this? I know it because I know the story of Jesus. I know that David may be dead and buried–but Jesus was raised. I know that Moses may never have walked in the Land of Promise–but Jesus has received it. I know that Abraham never saw with his eyes his descendants outnumber the stars–but Jesus stands before His Father, “Behold, I and the children God has given me” (Heb 2:13). I know that when the Accuser indicts me of sin, that I am worthy of sharing a lake of fire with him and his minions, I point to Jesus Christ, and announce, “I have already been to hell–and, in Christ, there is therefore now no condemnation.”
As we teach and preach and disciple and evangelize, let’s preach the whole Bible–every verse. And in every verse, let’s show how God keeps His promises, in Christ. Let’s not simply teach our people how to be moral, or how to be well-tempered, or how to be authentic or how to put the erotic energy back into their marriages. Let’s teach them how to find themselves in Christ, to conform to His life, and to follow His steps through His Spirit, looking always to His cross and His resurrection and His glory. Let’s put aside the cartoons–whether in our children’s programs or in our Sunday morning sermons–and proclaim Christ.
Ketchup and pickle juice is one thing. But we have more than a Veggie Tales Gospel. We have a gospel about bones and blood and mangled flesh. We have a Gospel of nail scarred hands and a table of bread and wine. We have a Gospel that propels us to suffer and even to die, because we have seen how God has kept His promise to the pioneer of our salvation, our firstborn Brother, our Lord Jesus.
Let’s reclaim the narrative of Scripture, all of it, and let’s remember what it–all of it–is about: not a set of ethereal doctrines or a compilation of ethical principles or a guidebook of psychological tips but a Person who was dead and is now alive. Let’s anchor our lives in that Story, and sing with our brothers and sisters around us, “I love to tell the Story….because I know it’s true.”