As a kid, I loved getting the Saturday comics. Like most kids, I didn’t read them in order; the Magic Eye (a stereogram) was one of the first I looked at. I was one of those lucky kids who figured out how to see the 3D image or text buried inside. It’s a little tricky and counterintuitive if you’ve never been able to do it. Essentially, you need to look past what’s right in front of you. The image is there; it’s just not visible when we look at in the “normal” way.
So much of truth and life is buried right before us, hidden in plain sight. What if our understanding of spiritual things is hindering us from seeing the truth?
The other day, as I was reading my Bible, I came across this:
And taking the twelve [disciples, Jesus] said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said (Luke 18:31-34, emphasis mine).
I’ve always wondered how the twelve disciples could’ve been so stupid. This section has the heading, “Jesus Foretells His Death a Third Time,” in my Bible. You would think that by the third time, they would’ve gotten it. If someone told me three times that they were going to die, I think I would assume they were actually talking about dying. So what’s going on here? Were they all that thick, or is there something else at play? If all of Scripture is good for teaching (not just narrative), then what can I learn?
To see the image in a Magic Eye, I needed some instructions to show me how to do it. In the same way, getting some cultural context can be very helpful in understanding confusing parts of the Bible. And so, when I hit these parts, I try to put myself in my understanding of Jewish culture and history, in the shoes of those in the story. Doing this, I remembered that at this time, it was widely believed that the messiah (the Christ) would set up a powerful Jewish state that would bring peace to the Jews and put them in a place of influence over the rest of the world. In the midst of the Roman military occupying their country, this hope was strongly and widely felt. It was more than just sentiment; it was part of the Jewish religion and their cultural identity. It was part of their collective vision for the future. And if I’ve learned anything about religion and national identities, it’s that it can be hard (and dangerous) to shift these.
Because of their preconceived ideas of who God was and what God would do, the disciples were completely blind to what Jesus had to tell them.
The twelve disciples, who were mentored, taught, and counselled by Jesus, completely missed who Jesus was, what He was there to do, and what He was telling them, all because of their ideas of who the Christ would be, based on their religious and cultural upbringing. And it’s made me think about what I might be missing because of my religious and cultural upbringing. What lies do I subscribe to about God, the church, and what it means to be a Christian? Are there things that I can’t hear from Jesus because I’m so focused on what I want? Is there something that Jesus is going to do that I’m going to miss out on because I’m so committed to my own idea of what it means to follow and serve Him? How are our churches blind to what God wants because of our commitment to the way we like to do things or our idea of what God needs to do?
What if the church is wrong? What if I’m wrong? What if our religious fervour has deafened us to what Jesus is saying?
What I’m not advocating for is a total rejection of establishment and a historical understanding of the Bible. I’m not saying that we can derive our own “new” meanings from the Bible. But I have learned that there is a healthy level of skepticism that has accompanied my spiritual growth. This skepticism doesn’t reject God’s word, but it quietly, with meditation and counsel, says, “This is how I best understand it, but Jesus, show me how and where my understanding is wrong or incomplete.”
In the days of the prophet Habakkuk, God told him that He was going to do something no Jew would’ve expected: the destruction of the Jewish kingdom by the Babylonians. The God of the Bible has never liked staying in our boxes. He seems to refuse to be pinned down, explained, and fully understood. And so, I’ve come to see it as a healthy practice to ask Jesus to show me the lies I’m believing and ask Him if there is something new that He wants to do. I don’t want a life that misses out on what God has for me because of my commitment to religious and cultural norms. I don’t want to be deaf to what the Holy Spirit is saying to me because of what I tend to think He would say. And I don’t want to be a part of a church that plays it safe when Christ might be challenging our understanding of who He is and what He is doing in our city. I want to see the magical image hidden in the meaningless foreground. I want a life that looks beyond the mess of religion and culture and sees the wonderful and shocking things that Jesus is saying and doing.
Note: The title image IS a stereogram. Try to see what it says!