The Great Commission
Perhaps the most enlightening tool to understanding how to read the Bible is the concept of self-referentialism. Unfortunately, many people might take this to mean “relate everything in the Bible to yourself.”
Nope, that is definitely not what I mean by “self-referentialism.”
Self-referentialism is actually quite the opposite of the modern Biblical hermeneutic of “This is what the Bible means to me.” Ultimately, self-referentialism means that the Bible is filled with references to itself. Over and over again, the Bible refers to itself. Understanding this is one of the best ways to understand what the Bible is speaking about.
It is because many people do not understand self-referentialism that we have such a terrible understanding of the book of Revelation. Rather than looking at their cross references, most people assume that everything in the book of Revelation is brand new. Quite to the contrary, almost every single passage from John’s letter is taken verbatim from the Old Testament prophets.
Once you begin to understand the ways in which the Bible refers to itself, you begin to peel back layers to passages that before were seemingly shrouded in mystery and hid their glory from you. In short, the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. Nine times out of ten the passage you’re reading has roots spreading to other parts of God’s Word that can shine light on it.
I recently had one such illuminating experience as I was reading Peter Leithart’s book The Four. If you’re a regular reader at this blog (are there any out there???), then you’ll know that Leithart is perhaps one of the most perceptive writers when it comes to the Bible’s self-referentiality. Whenever I read a book by Leithart, I am always astounded at the Biblical connections that he is able to make. However, once he reveals them, their clarity is evident!
In his chapter on Matthew’s gospel, Leithart points out a connection with the Great Commission that I had never heard of before. Leithart notes how Jesus’ commission to his disciples is tied with his assumption of all power and all authority in heaven and on earth. Leithart notes how this is not the first time that a Biblical figure has issued a command after having received authority from God:
Matthew begins where Israel’s history begins, with creation and exodus. He ends his gospel where Israel’s history ends. At the conclusion of his gospel, Jesus gives the “great commission” to His disciples. Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth and commands His disciples to “Go” to the Gentiles. This is similar to the decree of Cyrus, recorded in 2 Chronicles and Ezra...Cyrus has received “all the kingdoms of the earth” from Yahweh, God of heaven [v. 23]. With this authority, he commissions Israel to “go up” to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.
What we can learn from this connection is that, in some ways, Jesus is a new type of Cyrus. Cyrus was a world ruler who submitted to God and commissioned God’s people to build God’s kingdom. Like Cyrus, Jesus is a greater world ruler who submits to His Father in all things and commissions His people (who are God’s people) to begin the work of building God’s kingdom.
This is just one example of how the Bible is self-referential. Moreover, most passages refer to other parts of the Bible in more than one way, they have multiple layers. For example, the great commission does not just connect Jesus to Cyrus, it also connects Jesus with Adam and the original creational commission from the first chapters of Genesis.
Food for thought.