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Puzzle or picture?

Interpreting the Bible is not easy work --- no less of an authority than Peter said so in 2 Peter 3:15-16!

Often we employ a jigsaw puzzle approach to understanding the Scripture.  We gather up all of the pieces (verses) on a subject, spread them out on the table and then figure out how they fit with each other.  Our goal is to end up with a single, unified picture that uses all of the pieces. 

The difficulty with this approach is it assumes that there is just one picture we’re putting together and all of the pieces we have are part of that.  In other words, the jigsaw puzzle approach almost always treats the Scripture in a much too simplistic fashion.  It fails to recognize its multi-layered nature.   

For this reason, it seems to me that we are much better off approaching the Scripture like you would look at a picture album.  Pictures are different than puzzle pieces.  We don’t take them and see how they fit together with other pictures.  Furthermore, they are by nature limited.  They are images that were made in a certain time and place and reflect only that particular moment in time.  Furthermore, the borders of a picture are indicative of places beyond the picture that we can’t see --- places that could give us a bigger picture than the one we possess from our picture.  For these reasons (and more), pictures are not quantifiable or given to exact analysis.  You can put them all in the same album and scrapbook them, but they’ll never have the kind of cohesiveness as a jigsaw puzzle.  So what are we left with?  We are left with appreciating pictures for what they are rather than what they aren’t (puzzle pieces).   We look at each picture and see what it suggests.  They are meant to give us a sense of something --- what is it?  Then we take truth and work with it.

The parables provide easy examples for us because they are simple picture-stories.  When we look at the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), we catch a sense of what Jesus understood it meant to love your neighbor.  But what do we do with that?  Most of us aren’t Samaritans and we won’t be going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho anytime soon, so we need to put some thought into how we will take the truth this picture provides for us and apply it in our lives. 

If we follow this approach through, the Bible becomes something like a large album of a family reunion.  There are different sections for different parts of the family, but in the end, just as everyone at the family reunion relates in some fashion to everyone else, so everything in the Bible is related.  And while we might be tempted bring go back to thinking of puzzle pieces, unless we’re thinking of one with multiple layers, that would be a mistake.

In the end, it’s more than just a difference in degree of complexity; it’s also one of certainty.  When the jigsaw puzzle is completed, you know it and you know that you know it.  With few exceptions, it doesn’t work that way with a picture album.  While it’s usually not difficult to get the general sense of a picture, it’s harder to be certain that what you see in the picture is exactly what was intended (not more or less).  In the end, this is a good thing rather than bad, because it keeps us humble, hungry, and searching.

“For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel,” (Ezra 7:10).
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