I’ve been coaching third-/fourth-grade soccer along with another dad this fall. (No, I don’t know what I’m doing — though thankfully, my friend does!) We drill the kids. We scrimmage with the kids. We run out there and wave our hands and try to get them to play as a team. It’s wild.
Last week, the other coach gave the kids some advice. He said, “You have to think!”
There are rules and muscle memory and luck, but what we most want for our team is that they learn how to think like soccer players. Anticipate the ball’s rebound. Understand where the other players will be. Intuit a way through to the goal. They have to think.
I’m struck that Jesus’ kingdom project is something like this. More than giving laws and rules, Jesus gave a way of thinking. He made disciples, men and women who actively sought to model their lives on his. They were people who desired to live out the Jesus way — but in their own shoes. Jesus’ project was to teach his disciples how to think. Thus the Sermon on the Mount. Thus the parables. Thus those pithy, puzzling sayings, like “the eye is the lamp of the body” (6:22). The gospels aren’t case law. They’re signs and examples of a Jesus-way of thinking. Kingdom thinking.
The whole of Scripture moves us in this direction: the source code for the believing mind. Jesus was rooted in the law and story and song of the old covenant. He flung words like seed (Luke 8:11). Like sparks (Luke 24:32). Like dynamite, maybe. His words will never pass away (Luke 21:33). The created order is upheld by his word (Hebrews 1:3). He is the Word, God’s eternal speaking of life into being (John 1:1-4). All of Scripture is in some way wrapped up in Jesus — pointing to him and passing through him and bound to him. No doubt this is why St. Jerome, that ancient translator of the Bible, wrote that “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
So to follow Jesus is to become a people who dive into the Good Book, a people learning our way around the page. But above all, we’re a people learning to think. This may be why so many of Jesus’ words are opaque — or at least translucent: they’re parabolic words, words coming alongside our own thoughts and lives and forcing us to chisel and root and work our way down into their truth. Parable comes from parabalo, which means “throw alongside.” Not on top of. Not in front of. Alongside. Jesus’ teaching invites us to come alongside him and listen to him. Honestly, his words invite us to struggle — and in that struggle, to think.
The book of Revelation, that beloved and beautiful and terrifyingly tricksome book capping off the Scriptures with a cone of mystery and sign, continues Jesus’ thought-teaching project. It’s the “revelation of Jesus Christ” after all, and its cascade of lamb and dragon, seals and trumpets and bowls, are true to Jesus’ parabolic form (Rev. 1:1). Something about its obscurity, the sheer challenge of the book, the un-perspicacity of this scripture, invites us to wrestle with the book’s meaning. Revelation schools us in the art of looking below the surface.
All of this is why we have to read and study and love our Bible. (That’s my soapbox, and I’m sticking to it). But it’s also why we have to come to the word with a willingness to meditate and masticate, with the humility to be tied in a knot or two. Loving the Scripture is not just about getting the word settled within us. It’s about the word transmuting to thought, and thought coalescing as deed — and word again. It’s beginning to think like Jesus, our lives typeset in his cruciform font.
Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan. He blogs at The Doxology Project, where this post first appeared. His book, God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church, was released in September by Herald Press.