From Sinai to Chile to Zion: Why Visual Aids Do and Do Not Help Us See Christ in the Bible

I am not a big fan of visual aids.  So, when I preach or teach, I do not use powerpoint and rarely use other forms of multimedia to explicate the biblical text.  There is much to debate here, but as a personal conviction, I aim at–i.e. pray for and work at– letting the Word of God speak in and through the words that I speak.  Why?  Because the word of God is effective and the Spirit is able.  Likewise, visual imagery has a way of overshadowing the text and effectively dulling us from the power and precision of God’s Word (Heb. 4:12-13). 

Yet, with that said, there are still times when visual imagery helps us discern Scriptural truth, where without the “visual aid” we would not understand the biblical text as well.  For instance, in 2005, as I stood on the Mount of Olives overlooking the temple mount, the Kidron Valley, and the Valley of Hinnom, the drama of Jesus’ last supper, arrest, and trials before Pilate and Herod took shape in my mind as I imagined him walking with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane and then back through the City of David to encounter the unrighteous judgments of his accusers.  All told, passages of Scripture like Matthew 26-28 and John 13-19 were illumined by the geographical imagery of Jerusalem

Still, coming back from Israel, I realized that a “holy land experience” is not necessary for understanding the Bible, even if it provides visual images for biblical texts.  Thus, I learned in a fresh way, that the word of God is sufficient for everything I need to know and love God.  As 2 Peter 1:4 says, through our knowledge of Christ (as found in Scripture), God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Deut. 29:29). So while my travels in Israel were profitable for visualizing the Bible, such a pilgrimmage is not necessary for salvation and sanctification. 

With that grid in place–namely that visual aids can be selectively helpful for understanding the Bible– I introduce a ‘visual aid’ that I ran across today, and which prompted thoughts of Exodus 19-24 and Hebrews 12.


Lightning bolts appear above and around the Chaiten volcano as seen from Chana, some 30 kms (19 miles) north of the volcano, as it began its first eruption in thousands of years, in southern Chile May 2, 2008. Picture taken May 2, 2008. (Carlos Gutierrez)

As you ponder the picture, consider Moses words in front of Mount Sinai:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (Ex. 19:16-20).

This electrifying image of a thunderstorm on top of a volcano in Chile provokes images of  what it must have been like to encounter the living God at Sinai.  Yet, that historical event, which may have looked something like this, is not spectacular because of its atmospheric power,  as much as its redemptive-historical significance.  Consequently, as terrifying as such an image is, Scripture tells us that the people did not fear the cosmological occurence, nearly as much as the One who stood behind the smoking curtain and SPOKE (cf. Deut. 4:33).  What terrified the people was not just the smoke on the mountain, but the Word of God itself.  Listen to their plea:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was (Ex. 20:18-21).

What this picture and these texts remind us is that God’s world is frightening, and he is present in the world; but his word is even more fear-producing and his presence to save and to judge is mediated through his Word.  Accordingly, the people of God begged Moses for a mediator, and God was pleased to speak to them through Moses (Deut. 5:28-33).  The people’s fears were both incited by God’s Holy Word, and allayed by God’s merciful mediator.

The same is and should be true for us.  In the fullness of time, God sent another mediator, a greater Word, His own Son, Jesus Christ to confirm the words spoken at Sinai and to speak to God’s people as a sympathetic mediator.  Hebrews 12, in fact, says this very thing recalling the temptuous events at Sinai to beckon us to believe in Jesus Christ with greater fear and faith.  Consider these fearful words

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven (Heb. 12:18-25).

While we can picture Sinai, we have no way to preview Zion, but here is where the sufficiency and severity of God’s word is most powerful: The truth of the matter is that Zion is more awesome–terrible and glorious–than anything visible today.  Visual aids cannot helps us discern Zion, only God’s word can do that.   We can only apprehend Zion’s reality by faith in God’s word.  Thus we prepare ourselves for the kingdom’s arrival by meditating on God’s Word and prayerfully anticipating the coming of Jesus Christ, the final Word and the perfect mediator.

Thus as we look on the image of this Chilean mountain we are helped to imagine what it must have been like for the people of Israel to stand before God, but our hearts must not be contented to only look backwards.  By the revelation of God’s word, we are beckoned to look forward to the coming, unshakeable kingdom of God, remembering this fact: Our God is a Consuming Fire!  What happened at Sinai is only a foreshadowing of things to come.  In this respect, the visual aid above both furthers our understanding of Exodus 19-24, but fails to do the same for us and our impending encounter with God.  It is only God’s Word, written and incarnate (cf. John 1:14), that enables us to envision Zion and the reality of entering God’s presence.  Thus with fear and faith, may we respond in faith to the Holy Word of God (cf. Heb. 4:2).

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

The Veracity and Violence of God’s Word

I ran across a one-sentence commentary on the sometimes delayed, but always effective power of God’s Word (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9; Hebrews 4:12).  Consider it a word of hope about the veracity and violence of God’s Word.  Charles Scobie quotes E. Jacob saying,

“God’s word, ‘is like a projectile shot into the enemy camp whose explosion must sometimes be awaited but which is always inevitable.'”  Jacob continues to relate God’s word to God’s governance of history, and these explosions are the events of history [i.e. the exodus and the cross of Jesus Christ] (E. Jacob, The Theology of the Old Testament [New York: Harper & Row, 1958], 131; quoted in Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], 370).

May we pray for God’s word to explode in our world, and may our preaching, like the prophets of old, launch an arsenal of sin-defeating, Satan-assailing, captive-freeing, gospel missiles into enemy-occupied territory, until Christ returns as king.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

The iBible (2): Divine Inspiration and Information Transmission

Neither the illuminating power of God in creation, nor the intervening work of God in history is sufficient to save. It must be coupled with divinely inspired interpretations that explain the saving plans of God in humanity. Thus inspiration, inscripturation, and the transmission of information are necessary to unveil the promise of redemption to every generation.

Inspiration & Inscripuration: The God who defines history (cf. Isa. 46:9-11) is the same God who also inspires his word authoritatively. Just as He has made Himself known through mighty deeds in the world (cf. Ps. 103:7), He has also inspired a deposit of writing that rightly interprets his works on the earth (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21). Without this divine revelation, God’s people and humanity at large would be blind to the intentions of His redemptive plans and purposes. Indeed, fallen sinners would be unable to know or love Jesus Christ, because our sin disallows us from seeing, let alone knowing by faith, the immortal, invisible, infinitely holy God (1 Tim 1:16). In short, man’s ability to know God is dependent entirely on his gracious revelation. Mercifully, God has at many times and in many ways disclosed Himself and his gracious offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are replete with this attestation. Consider:

Concerning the content of the inspiration, Jesus explains that all the Scriptures bear witness about one thing–Himself. He says, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44ff; cf. John 5:39).

Concerning the veracity of the witness, Psalm 12:6 says, “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times;” and Proverbs 30:5 agrees, “Every word of God proves true.” Moreover, the New Testament concurs when Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in your truth; Your Word is truth” (John 17:17); and when the writer of Hebrews says that God has sworn an oath to his covenant people and “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18).

Concerning the scope and the manner of the revelation, Paul writes, “All Scriptures is God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), and Peter affirms that God’s word is more sure his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration when he says, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).

Concerning the unity of the Bible, Jesus said in his sermon on the mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18); and later John records Jesus saying that “the Scriptures cannot be broken” (John 10:35).

And finally, concerning the earnestness of the message and necessity for receiving it as God’s Word: Moses exhorts, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Deut. 32:46-47). Likewise, John at the end of his apocalypse and at the close of the canon, reminds Christians that blessing is dependent on our adherence to the Word of Christ. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19).

Information Transmission: The route from inspired authors and original manuscripts to twenty-first century translations and paraphrases is long and circuitous, but one that is incredibly well documented and faith-insuring. Under the sovereignty of God, contemporary Bibles contain Scripture that is confirmed by extra-biblical history, archaeological evidence, and voluminous extant documents—first century fragments, second century manuscripts totaling in the thousands. So that there is no doctrine left hanging by a paucity of textual evidence. An excellent treatment of this matter is found in Peter Wegner’s The Journey From Text to Translation.

Even with all of these informative measures in place, God’s Holy Spirit is still requisite for opening darkened minds. Man-made, human-generated understanding is not enough. A plethora of unbelieving Bible scholars throughout the centuries proves this point. So tomorrow we will conclude our brief bibliology survey by considering how God’s illuminating Spirit makes plain the wisdom of God for salvation for those dead in their trespasses and sins.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss.