Understanding the Contour of the Scriptures
Every morning I look out my bedroom window and take in the beauty of my surroundings. Off in the distance are the Blue Ridge Mountains that make up the Shenandoah Valley; and, on a clear day I can see the layers of mountain range towards the edge of the horizon. On a gloomy morning, the fog drifts in at different heights, producing a foreboding yet equally comforting scene. The landscape is especially breathtaking after a winter snowstorm—the tree-lined ridges draped in white. Though I often take it for granted, in recent months the Lord has arrested my attention and reminded me that there is much beauty to behold in His creative work—we simply need to look closely and pay attention to the details. There’s something magnificent about the contour in creation that points us to the majesty of the Creator!
Every week I teach the Scriptures to a wide range of people—from children to senior adults. No matter the setting, my task is the same—to help God’s people engage with the Scriptures and connect to God in worship. While in seminary, I took multiple hermeneutics and homiletics courses, and my years in pastoral ministry have been a proving ground in expositing the Word. Early on in my ministry career, I was primarily concerned with explaining what the Scriptures say; and that hasn’t changed today. But, in recent years, I’ve become enamored with explaining how the Scriptures say what they say—what I call the contour of the Scriptures.
Too often, the most common reasons I hear for why people struggle to read the Scriptures is a. they’re difficult to understand (true), and b. they’re boring (false). Good preaching and teaching can help with both; but, before we put pen to paper, we should devote time to the reading of Scripture. This is where we survey the landscape of God’s Word and discover its beauty and grandeur. More than red and black words on a flat, white page, the Scriptures are multi-dimensional and offer the reader a glimpse into the mind and heart of God. When we meditate on the fullness of God’s Word, we find the words leap off the page and unfold in front of us. In our zeal to figure out the application of a text, we sometimes lose the beauty of the narrative. The best way to illustrate this is to look at the Scriptures themselves—consider:
The Emotional Contour of the Text Luke 15:11-32 (The Parable of the Prodigal Son)
There are many layers of emotion in this passage—the impulsivity of the younger son, the steadiness of the father, and the anger of the older son. A careful reading of these verses enhances our understanding and allows us to connect with the narrative itself. The younger son’s disdain for his father is clearly seen when he demands his inheritance (v.12). On the surface it seems benign; but the cultural context reveals the contempt in his request—an inheritance was given only after the death of the father. It’s as if the younger son wishes his father dead, but seeing as that hasn’t happened, he effectively says that his father is dead to him. The request is disrespectful, at best.
While living abroad and squandering his inheritance, a famine hits the land, and the younger son finds himself destitute and with great need. He takes a job tending swine but becomes so hungry that he fills his belly with their food. Don’t overlook the significance of Jesus talking to Jews about a presumed Jew (even a fictional one) tending swine and eating swine food—He is emphasizing the complete bankruptcy of the younger son. He has no family, no money, no dignity, and is unclean. This helps us understand his hopelessness and subsequent “coming to his senses” (v.17-19). When we understand the emotional contour in these verses, we can personally connect to the text—we know experientially what it’s like to hit rock-bottom! His pride and arrogance extinguished, he picks himself up and, in humility, goes back home to cast himself on the mercy of his father (v.20a).
We don’t know how long the journey took, but we do know that the father saw his son coming from a distance. Perhaps he watched and waited day after day for his wayward son to return home, until one day he saw a familiar figure on the horizon. The father’s emotion is palpable—he doesn’t wait for his son to come close; instead, he feels compassion for him and rushes out to meet him and covers him in hugs and kisses (v.20b). This is more than a “hey son, how are you”—the text says the father embraced his son; meaning, he fell upon him! We know the rest of this portion of the story—the son repents and is restored by his father, who throws a lavish party to celebrate his homecoming. The emotional contour allows us to connect with both the son and father—as those who have gone wayward in our sin and who have been forgiven and restored by a loving Father!
The older son, off working in the fields, hears the commotion and comes closer to find out what’s going on. When told, his anger is bubbling just beneath the surface and he lashes out at his father. Try reading v.28-30 the way its written, with anger and frustration. I remember preaching this a few months back, and when I came to these verses, I read it with anger in my voice, and the congregation was clearly caught off-guard. I wanted them to experience the depth of the text as it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. The older son’s anger helps us appreciate the steadiness of the father’s response—he is as calm with his oldest son as he was with his youngest. And that’s the point—the Father stands ready and willing to forgive and restore the unrighteous sinner (younger son) and the self-righteous sinner (older son). The emotional contour of the text allows us to appreciate the depth of the narrative.
Here are other passages where we see emotional contour:
1. Ruth 1
2. Mark 6
3. John 3
4. John 11
5. John 13
The Narrative Contour of the Text John 13 (Foot Washing, Lord’s Supper, and Betrayal)
I have been meditating on this chapter for a few months now and find it stunning and fascinating. For the purposes of emphasizing the contour of the passage, let’s focus on v.30:
So after receiving the piece of bread, he left immediately; and it was night.
This signals what I call a dual narrative, where you have two narratives running side-by-side. In our minds eye we can picture Jesus’ continued interaction with the disciples and Judas running into the night to betray Jesus. It’s as if v.30 starts a textual countdown, where each subsequent verse brings us closer to the climax of the narrative—the betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. Why does this seemingly insignificant detail matter, though? Because it forces us to go back into the narrative and explore the details that led us there.
A beneath-the-surface reading of John 13 reveals multiple attempts by Jesus to befriend Judas: the invitation to dinner, foot washing, dipping of the bread, and final confrontation just before Judas storms out of the Upper Room. These details are significant because they magnify Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and show the condition of Judas’ soul—he was a follower of Jesus in appearance only. Combined with the emotional contour, we can envision Jesus’ steadfastness and sorrow as he tells Judas to go quickly (v.27). The narrative contour enhances our understanding of the text.
Here are other passages where we see narrative contour:
1. Exodus 32
2. Mark 10
3. Luke 24
4. John 4
5. Acts 17
Looking out at a beautiful landscape is awe-inspiring—the juxtaposition of color, texture, and sound—leave us breathless. What is true of God’s handiwork in creation is also true of His Word. When we take the requisite time to read and meditate on the Scriptures, we find details that would otherwise escape our notice. My prayer is that we mine the treasures of God’s Word—digging deep to discover the gems it contains!