As a pastor, teacher, kid with an overactive imagination and an adult with ADD, I have always loved the narratives of the Bible. When I speak in churches or in camps, I love being able to preach the narratives whenever I can. There’s just something so raw about those stories, about seeing real people live out their lives in the tension of life — it’s hard for me not to get sucked in. Today we have “reality TV”, but there’s nothing “real” about it once you get directors yelling orders, producers trying to meet deadlines, money being given away, and cameras being placed in plain view — it changes how people respond and act.
The Bible stories aren’t like that — the people in them didn’t realize their stories were being “recorded”. In many cases, the stories weren’t written down until long after the individual was gone. That man or woman was just living the life God had given them to live, unaware of the fact that generations of people would read their story thousands of years after their lives were over. Now that’s reality TV!
If there’s a “problem” with the narratives, it’s this: It’s impossible to capture every moment of the story, so sometimes we have to use a sanctified imagination to add in emotion, dramatic pauses in a speech or try to guess a bit at the facial expressions. For example, Matthew 14 has the story that Overboard Ministries flows out of. In it, Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water towards Jesus. Here is how Matthew describes this unbelievable moment:
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” [Jesus] said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus — Matthew 14:28-29
When I read that I’m just blown away and that child-like imagination kicks-in and I can picture Peter on the water. According to verses 24 and 30, we know it was a stormy night on the Sea of Galilee, so I can totally picture the mist of the of water spraying on Peter as he walks towards Jesus. The wind is making Peter’s cloak flap loudly and in my mind, at least one fish jumps out of the water near him. I can “zoom in” and see the expressions of joy, excitement and sheer terror as he does what no human being (besides God’s son!) has ever done.
Even more, I can turn the camera towards the boat that Peter just got out of and see his eleven friends gasping in wonder, admiration, fear and awe as Peter walks with Jesus on top of the Sea of Galilee. Moments before Peter’s stroll the disciples were “terrified” of a ghost (14:26), now they are mesmerized by Peter’s faith. I am confident that not one of them was thinking about the storm or the ghost any more — they were all fixated on Peter’s water walking!
Suddenly this story takes on a whole new feeling to me by thinking through some of the extras that had to be there, but aren’t necessarily recorded for us in Scripture. Now I pause momentarily, and offer this significant warning: While I love to try and add in and offer some insights not specifically recorded in the Bible, I work extra hard to make sure I don’t teach or preach something that’s not in the Bible! God directed each Bible author to put in precisely what He wanted recorded, so the missing details aren’t oversights — they were left out for a divine reason. It could be practical (just not enough space to record everything), it could be unimportant (we don’t know, because we don’t need to know), or it could be because it would distract us from the central truth of the passage. Regardless, God is the author and we must be careful not to supersede his authority!
However, I am confident God teaches us through the narratives because He knows we would relate to real people living out real life in the pages of Scripture. When Matthew’s account continues by telling me about Peter’s lapse of faith and the ensuing rebuke from Jesus —
“But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, Save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out His hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ He said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (14:30-31) —
I don’t have to work particularly hard to imagine what Peter felt like. I know what it’s like to disappoint a friend and a mentor. I know what it’s like to try to step out enthusiastically — even if sometimes carelessly! — to do something for God and to end up sinking instead; needing to be bailed out! (This would be a good time for you not to ask me about the year I overdrew the youth budget by over $2,200 when a particular fundraiser totally fell apart!) I know the sickening feeling Peter had in the pit of his stomach when Jesus chastised him for losing his perspective. I immediately think about the time I ran the church van into the garage door at church. I put the door up to back the van in, but the door sank back down about four inches, just enough for me to smack it with the top of the van as I was parking it. I reported it to my Sr Pastor who graciously laughed and told me not to do it again which I promptly did just three days later; just hours after the door had been repaired. It was a thrill to have to go back to my Sr Pastor and tell him what happened. I know what Peter felt like being rightly rebuked for missing the mark!
That’s a huge part of what makes the narratives so powerful. They were written in such a way that you and I could relate. We know the feeling of loss when a widow watches her son die because we’ve suffered similar losses. We know the tension of two brothers fighting because we’ve fought with our brothers or had long-lasting family conflict. We know how sad the rich man was, because we know how much we love our stuff and money. We know how awesome the wedding party was because we’ve been to great (and bad!) wedding parties before.
So as you read your Bible, enjoy the narratives. Always read them for what’s there first — let the exact words of the Bible speak first. But as you do, also allow yourself to relate to the emotion(s) of the story. Let yourself feel what the characters would feel and let your own past experiences come into play — not in how you interpret the passage, but rather in how you apply the passage.
At Overboard Ministries, we love the narratives. We love encouraging people to live their God-designed life out of the comfort of the boat and out on the water where Jesus is building His kingdom by immersing them into God’s story. So take the plunge, life is better on the water!