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Chapter 3 of Eugene Peterson’s book The Jesus Way($) is different. It is very cerebral and, honestly, rather hard to understand. He moves from the way of Abraham to the way of Moses, a way of language, of words. God could have chosen many ways to create the world and to later reveal Himself to us, but He chose words. Any words we speak are derivative from the language of God because He is the beginning. Peterson says that words are inherently holy regardless of how we use them because they came from God. He goes on to say that “Christian followers of Jesus have an urgent mandate to care for language… as a means by which God reveals himself to us, by which we express the truth and allegiance of our lives, and by which we give witness to the Word made flesh.”
But how does God use words to reveal Himself to us? How are words involved in the way of Jesus? Do we read the Bible the way we read any book? Are its words the same as other words? God used Moses to begin to answer these questions for us. Peterson talks about two ways that we approach reading – reading for information and reading for revelation. When we read for information, we are in charge, looking for information we can use, fixing its place and use in history. This is the primary way our culture uses language and, as such, is the primary way we are taught to read in our schools. But there is another way – reading for revelation. When we read for revelation, we submit to the authority of the language and let the language use and change us. These ways are not necessarily at odds with each other; they should be used in partnership. And God’s Word will never be understood if it is approached only for information. The reader will come away frustrated and bored, much like I always did from assigned novel reading in school! I never could understand how I, a ridiculously avid reader, could hate reading novels for school so very much, but this dichotomy explains why. In my school we were approaching novels in an information-gathering, analytical way when they are intended to be surrendered to and lived.
Such is the writing of the Bible. “Moses gives us a feel for the biblical pulse and rhythm, biblical reverence as well as biblical meaning.” We will only enjoy and understand the Bible by “submitting to the revelation as provided for us by these marvelous writers with their riveting prose, their scintillating poetry, their dancing metaphors and syntax.”
Peterson asserts that “the words that are ascribed to Moses and the way he used them, more than those of any other person, Jesus alone excepted, have given us a vocabulary and syntax for the way God reveals himself to us and how we in our turn respond to him…. Three elements stand out in the language of revelation used by this community of souls-in-congregation: names, stories, and signposts.”
He goes on to say, “What numbers are to a mathematician and what colors are to a landscape artist, names are to Christian language,” – yes, even (especially!) the genealogies! – because they help us to understand the personal way that God works among us. It’s easy for us to forget how profound this is because, for many of us, a personal God is all we’ve ever known. But for ancient people from Moses’ day and following, and for tribal peoples of the modern era, this is revolutionary! Their worldview includes impersonal gods who don’t care about them and who act based only on their own whims. For there to be a God who is all-powerful that wants to know them and be known by them is unfathomable! For an example of how this very idea was instrumental in winning a whole people group to faith, read And the Word Came with Power($) by Joanne Shetler! It really is amazing! I like what Peterson says in this section, “Some complain about the long lists of names that they encounter in their reading of Scripture, and impatiently treat them as deadfalls in the forest impeding their passage. But if I found my name in the list, would I be offended or bored?” I must admit, I have been one of those who reads over them impatiently in the past. Next time, I’ll read them a little more carefully and be reminded how very much God cares to know us each by name!
Peterson goes on to talk about stories, saying, “In our Holy Scriptures, story is the primary verbal means for bringing God’s word to us.” This is a wonderful thing for which we should be very thankful. God could have chosen many more inaccessible ways to reveal Himself to us, but instead He chose a way that reaches everyone – young and old, literate and illiterate, tribal and modern – everyone loves a good story! And thus God reveals Himself. God does give principles and laws, which Peterson refers to as “signposting.” But these are always given in the context of a story. They gave the people a foundation for all aspects of behaving and believing. He also gave more detailed signposts to deal with all the messiness of everyday life in community. These show the love of God by showing His painstaking attention to the minuscule details of our lives.
My takeaway from this chapter is that we, as God’s people, must be careful not to be conformed to our culture’s love for information and change the way we share God’s revelation into a list of bullet points or principles. We need to protect His choice of story, keep the words that we use to portray Him personal, small, and maybe even unimpressive because that is the way of Moses, and ultimately, the way of Jesus.