How Luther Taught Me to Read the Bible

BY DONAVON RILEY

I’ve always been more at home in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. When I first came to believe that there was a God, I purchased and read the Koran. I had watched the movie, Malcolm X, a couple months before and thought, “If the Koran helped him straighten out his life, maybe it can help me too.” It didn’t. There were too many rules. Too many things I had to do to show my faithfulness. There was too much of it that seemed to put the responsibility on me to prove my worthiness to God. Then I picked up the Bhagavad Gita and read that. It seemed to say, “If you want to gain enlightenment you’ve got to do all these things.” Then the Tao Te Ching, which I liked but it didn’t offer any answers as to why God was after me, then parts of the Mishnah and Talmud—still no help. And finally, I bought an edition of the Oxford English Bible.

I sat on the floor in my apartment, searching it as I’d done with the other ‘holy’ books. It was months before I read anything that offered an answer as to why I now believed there was a God, and why He was personally involved in my life. I tried to read Matthew’s Gospel but I gave up as soon as I read, “And some will come to me on that day, saying ‘Lord, Lord,’ and I will say to them, ‘I never knew you.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

I tried to read RomansEphesiansPhilemonJude, and Revelation. At the time, they seemed to say the same as the other ‘holy’ books. “God expects you to do something if you don’t want to be judged or damned or end up in hell.” But when I turned to the Old Testament, to the Psalms and Jonah in particular, it was like drinking from a fire hose. Here were people who struggled to believe, who suffered, who were angry at God, who had hurt themselves, who cried out for help, and didn’t seem to get along with religious people. These were my people!

 
The testimony of men moved by God’s Spirit to write about the faithful, loving, kindness of God toward His chosen people.
 

Later, when I was introduced to Martin Luther, I discovered a spiritual brother. Here was an Old Testament Professor. A man who’d been awakened to the faithful, loving, kindness of God in the midst of his spiritual struggles, while he was lecturing on the Psalms. At last I’d found someone who could teach me how to read the Bible. A Christian brother who could point me to the answer I was looking for in the Bible: “Why did God choose me?”

Luther showed me that the book of Genesis is essentially a Gospel book. He led me, in his introductions to the books of the Old Testament, through the Old Testament. He taught me to distinguish between God’s word of Law (that judges and condemns sin), and God’s word of Gospel (that gives grace and forgives sinners). He taught me to distinguish between God’s two words of Law and Gospel that run throughout all of Scripture.

He also taught me to read the Old Testament as God’s published will about the history of His saving work for His people. The Old Testament wasn’t a history of God doing terrible things to punish terrible people. It was a library of books. The testimony of men moved by God’s Spirit to write about the faithful, loving, kindness of God toward His chosen people. A people that were, like me, so twisted up by doubt and pain and selfishness, that when God called them “my people, my children,” they rebelled. They treated God as an enemy. They ignored and killed his preachers. They treated his gifts as payment due. And they heard His promises of Salvation as commands to save themselves. God sent Martin Luther to show me that:

“Here [in the OT] you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies.” (Luther, AE 35:236)

Most important of all, Luther taught me the key that unlocks the Old Testament is the first chapter of John’s Gospel.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

John’s Gospel revealed that the Word of God, God’s Word made flesh in Mary’s womb—Jesus Himself is running loose in the Old Testament. Wherever God speaks, that’s the second Person of the Trinity, the pre-incarnate Jesus. When God said, “Let there be light,” that Word was Jesus. In the Garden of Eden, when God calls Adam out of hiding, that was Jesus. When God promised Sarah she would give birth to a son, that promising Word was Jesus. When God spoke to Moses at Sinai; that was Jesus. When the prophet’s spoke, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” the Word that exploded out of their mouths was Jesus. When the Psalmist prayed in the Spirit of God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” that was Jesus praying. Everywhere I read in the Old Testament, wherever God spoke, there the pre-incarnate Word—Jesus, revealed Himself to me.

That opened up the New Testament too. The New Testament was (and is) a commentary on the Old Testament. Gospel books and apostolic letters that point back to the Old Testament. More men inspired by God’s Spirit, who pointed back to the history of Israel. And what they pointed to was the history of God’s Word promising His faithfulness even when His people were faithless. Every word in the New Testament now said to me, “What you read in the Old Testament, all the works and promises of God, they all came true in Jesus.”

Luther taught me what he’d learned as a young Old Testament Professor at the University of Wittenberg: I wasn’t reading the Bible the right way. What I imagined the Bible was about was all turned around, upside down, and backwards. @@I wasn’t interpreting Scripture—Scripture was interpreting me.@@ It was translating me. I was being translated from my way of understanding Scripture into God’s way, His Jesus way of doing the words to me.

Jesus, it turns out, exegetes Himself. In the Old Testament he says it. In the New Testament he explains it. Then he sends his chosen people out to proclaim it. It’s all about Jesus. The Word of God in the flesh, the second Person of the Trinity. Our Savior, who reveals Himself to his people; in His own words, in His own way. “All the Scriptures point to Christ alone.” (Luther, AE 35:132) And in this way, He gives Himself to us so that we have all received grace upon grace.


Luther quotes are from the American Edition (AE) of Luther's Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I.

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.
Twitter @DonavonRiley