What I want to set forth here, for all the differences within various traditions and denominations of orthodox expressions of Christianity, is what it means to read the Bible as Christian Scripture. This is surprisingly straightforward even though it will require some patience and unpacking. By definition, Christians believe that Christ is the key to understanding Scripture. This means that to read the Bible as Christian Scripture is to read the Bible like Jesus Christ did. This raises the question: How did Jesus read the Bible?
The Scriptures Are All About Jesus
In a famous scene in Luke, Jesus’s first resurrection appearance is to two men, one named Cleopas, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They do not recognize that this stranger who is walking and talking with them is Jesus until the very end when Jesus disappears. The two men had heard reports from Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James and John that an angel told them Jesus had been resurrected (24:3-12, 22-24), but they just couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea of a crucified and resurrected Messiah.
Jesus then responded: “'Was it not necessary that the Messiah  should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?' Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:26-27).
Jesus read the Scriptures as not only all about him, but especially as all about his suffering and glory. In fact, Jesus repeatedly tells us that all the Scriptures point to him (John 5:39–47) and to his sufferings and glorification as the Messiah (Mark 9:12; Luke 18:31–33; 24:13–49). We see apostles saying the same thing (Acts 3:18; 17:2–3; 26:22–23; 2 Cor 1:20; 3:14–17; 1 Pet 1:10–12; John 2:22; 12:16). However, saying “the Scriptures are all about Jesus, the Messiah” means a lot more than referencing a string of random, isolated prophecies that “predict” a crucified Christ.
Jesus’s Own Engagement with Scripture Transcends Literalism
Over and over again in the Gospels we see that Jesus himself often transcends a flat and rigid reading of the written word (i.e., literalism). Only a brief survey is possible here, but these suffice to show how Jesus reads Scripture by discerning its core vision for a flourishing humanity and derives ethical instruction apart from the “plain” sense of certain commands.
Just because something may be permitted in the Bible (e.g., slavery), does not mean that one ought to continue to do so now. Jesus teaches and shows us another way.
In Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount, for instance, he says repeatedly, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . . ” (Matt 5:21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 33–34, 38–39, 43–44). In each of these, Jesus quotes from Scripture in the “You have heard that it was said'' portion and then shows how a literal interpretation is insufficient. Just because only murder is prohibited, for example, does not mean bitterness and grudges are permissible (5:21–26). Or just because the Bible had a law against excessive punishments for crimes (“eye for an eye”) does not mean that one ought to engage in a tit-for-tat justice system. Rather, Jesus says, “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also . . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:39, 44). Yes, Moses gave a law to limit extreme punishments and thus stop an endless cycle of violent and escalating reprisals and this is in the Bible. But, Jesus says, just because it's in the Bible does not automatically mean it is what’s best. Jesus uses this principle when talking about divorce both here (5:31–32) and elsewhere (19:3–9; Mark 10:2–12). Just because something may be permitted in the Bible (e.g., slavery), does not mean that one ought to continue to do so now. Jesus teaches and shows us another way.
Ironically, many Christians read Jesus’s commands and reverse Jesus’s way of interpreting the Bible. For instance, some say, “I know Jesus says to turn the other cheek and love our enemies, but the Bible also says in the Old Testament that we can take an eye for an eye and kill those who kill us.” By definition, this is not a Christlike way of reading the Bible because it reverses who/what has final authority and who/what frames and norms the other. For Christians, this should not be taken for granted: Jesus is the Word of God and thus teaches and shows us how to properly understand the written word of God.
Jesus Says the Scriptures Are to Be Understood through Love
How does Jesus decide when and how to transcend literalism? At several points, Jesus gives us explicit statements about how we are to comprehend the overall pattern and point of the Scriptures. For instance, Jesus points out that life triumphs over all. This is why Jesus says it was ok that David broke the command in the Torah to not eat the consecrated bread that only priests were permitted to eat (Lev 24:9) when he was hungry (Matt 12:3-4). Thus, “working” to restore someone’s life (i.e., their health, their hunger, their bodily ailments; Mark 3:4; Matt 12:1; Luke 13:15-16) are all permissible forms of work even on the Sabbath, which would prohibit any work if interpreted literally, precisely because they enable the one on the receiving end to participate in the restfulness of the Sabbath, anticipating the fullness of rest and an everlasting Sabbath in the World to Come (Heb. 4:1–11; 2:5–9) when all brokenness is healed and all get to simply be and enjoy the life God has given to all (Rev 21:4–5).
From all these examples here and above we can see that taking the trope “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is actually just bankrupt rhetoric. Rather, as Christians patterning ourselves on Jesus Christ’s own example and teachings, we can be more self-aware and explicitly Christ-centered in how we apply the principle of “Let Scripture interpret Scripture.” What we are really doing is letting Jesus teach us which Scriptures help us interpret the rest of the Scriptures.
Jesus not only says that this is the lens by which to interpret the Old Testament Scriptures (through love of God and love of neighbor), he also goes out of his way to make clear that “neighbor” ought to be understood in the most inclusive possible way.Importantly, Jesus teaches that all the Law and prophets hang on two commands, to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:34–40; Mark 12:28-24; see also Matt 7:12). When asked “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matt 22:36), Jesus responds: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Lev 19:18] On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:37-39). The principle of life is just another way of talking about the principle of love. But notice that Jesus is going to passages outside of the Ten Commandments in order to make clear what the Ten Commandments (and all the rest) are all about: loving God (commands 1-4) and loving our neighbors (commands 5-10). But this observation is why Christians need to look to Jesus for how to understand the Bible; he often surprises us and does something rather different than what we expect.
Jesus’s emphasis on these two commands is actually not unique to Jesus. Other Jewish sources say much the same things. For instance, in Luke’s narrative it is actually a Jewish teacher of the Law who offers these two as the primary commands and Jesus simply affirms his answer (Luke 10:25–28). Also, according to Jewish sources, two notable rabbis, one who lived before Jesus (Rabbi Hillel) and one who lived after (Rabbi Akiva) said very similar things. Rabbi Hillel is reported to have said: “What is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). And, when referring to Lev 19:18 (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”) Rabbi Akiva is recounted as saying, “This is an all-embracing principle in the Torah” (Sifra Leviticus 19.18; cf. Genesis Rabbah 24.7; Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9.4). There are other Early Jewish sources that express similar notions as well (Testament of Dan 5:3; Testament of Issachar 5:2; Jubilees 7:20; 20:2; 36:4, 8). It is not important whether Jesus was the first person to frame the Scriptures in this way; what is important is that Jesus affirms this way of approaching the written word.
Jesus not only says that this is the lens by which to interpret the OT Scriptures (through love of God and love of neighbor), he also goes out of his way to make clear that “neighbor” ought to be understood in the most inclusive possible way. In Leviticus 19:18 it only refers to a fellow Israelite, but in 19:34 this same injunction to “love them as yourself” is applied to the immigrant resident. Jesus follows this trajectory and expands “neighbor” even further and clearly says that we are to embrace our enemies who are oppressing us as “neighbors” (Matt 5:43–48; Luke 6:27, 35; 23:34). In fact, a teacher of the Law was trying to be conservative and “literal” with his understanding of “neighbor” so that it is restricted only to those in his own “in group” as Leviticus says. And it is to this conservative impulse that Jesus tells the Good Samaritan parable to argue that a wooden understanding of the “plain sense” of “neighbor” in Leviticus 19 is wrong (Luke 10:25–37). To drive home his point more, Jesus’s parable was not “you, as a Jew, ought to even love Samaritans,” but rather it was even more inflammatory: “Be like this loving Samaritan, this outsider whom you disdain simply for being different, but who nevertheless loved across boundaries and recognized a Jew as his ‘neighbor.’”
Pulling the Threads Together: Character Matters
How do these two points come together—that the Scriptures are to be interpreted through the lens of love (of both God and others) and that they are all about the suffering and glorification of Jesus Messiah?
If Jesus is correct on both fronts, then this means that Jesus is the embodiment of what it looks like to live a life of love of God through loving one’s neighbor, which includes all kinds of enemies. This is why Jesus is the key to reading the Bible as Christian Scripture. Jesus shows us what it looks like to live and die “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3–4). The fact that Jesus says that the entire Bible points to him means that he is not simply talking about a few scattered, detached, and discrete prophecies about a Messiah who will die and rise again (spoiler alert: there are none of these), but rather that the entire plotline of the Bible is a coherent story that climaxes in Jesus. 
Jesus implies that only by engaging the Scriptures with his self-humbling and self-emptying attitude and mindset will we be able to read the Bible as Christian Scripture and “see” God therein as he is revealed in the suffering and glorification of Jesus Christ.
More specifically, the New Testament authors, each in their own ways, show how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is “according to the Scriptures” because not only is Jesus the embodiment of Israel’s God, Jesus also recapitulates the story of Israel and Adam (and thus the world). Jesus’s life and works embody the prominent themes of creation and new creation, exodus and covenant, exile and return, judgment and restoration. Jesus is not only YHWH coming to dwell with Israel, he is also a new Moses, a new Joshua, a new David, a new Aaron, and a new Adam. Jesus brings the story of Israel to its climax and thus the story of the world to its climax and shows us how to engage the Biblical texts as Christian Scripture and exemplifies what a life looks like that is faithful to Scripture’s most basic principle of life: loving God fully so that we can only see “neighbors” rather than enemies.
We are called to participate in this same story ourselves and specifically in the story of the crucifixion. We are supposed to live in a “cross-shaped” way toward others, trusting God to raise us up in vindication in due course (culminating in our actual bodily resurrections). Living out the story of the cross is repeated in various ways all over the New Testament (Mark 8:34; 10:38-45; Rom 6:3–11; Phil 2:5-8; 3:10–11; 2 Cor 4:10–11; Gal 4:19; Col 1:24; 1 John 3:16-18; Heb 13:12-13; 1 Pet 2:21-24; 3:9).
This is why character matters for Christian interpretation of Scripture. Jesus says that only the pure in heart shall see God (Matt 5:8). How does this relate to reading and understanding the Bible? Jesus implies that only by engaging the Scriptures with his self-humbling and self-emptying attitude and mindset (Phil 2:5-8) will we be able to read the Bible as Christian Scripture and “see” God therein as he is revealed in the suffering and glorification of Jesus Christ.
To be “pure in heart” is not to be sinless or perfect. Rather, it means to sincerely desire God, to want to pattern our life and character on the cross-shaped, enemy-loving character of God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. Our character will always determine our interpretation and what and who we “see.” Apart from an honest commitment to be like the selfless, self-humbling, self-emptying, enemy-loving, truth-telling, cross-shaped Word of God, then when we engage the Bible we will just see a reflection of our damaged and/or oppressed selves. Those who wield the Bible as a tool of oppression do just this.
Jesus plainly says that it is possible to know the Bible really well and not see the Truth, not see him (John 5:39–47). In the Emmaus Road story, we see how the first Bible study Jesus led after being resurrected (Luke 24:13–27) was not sufficient for two of his disciples to recognize Jesus for who he really was. They only understood when they were gathered at the table and breaking bread (24:30-32).
Full understanding of the Bible does not come by a lecture (even by Jesus!) or an article (such as this one!) or by studying alone. It comes, rather, by participating in the life and practices of the church as a worshipping community of the Body of Christ. At the table, we not only retell the story of Jesus’s cross-shaped life, death, and resurrection, but we are supposed to be imitating Jesus’s practice of profligate hospitality with strangers and the “wrong” types of people (see 5:30–32; 7:36–50; 14:12–14; 15:1–2). Cleopas and his friend were still confused after their Bible study with the risen Jesus (whom they did not recognize) and they would have remained perplexed had they not extended hospitality to this “stranger” they just met and invited him to stay with them since it was getting dark (24:28–29). It was only because and after they extended Christlike hospitality that they understood their Bible study and thus came to recognize that it was Jesus himself they were talking to and eating with.
The differences in interpretation from different Christian traditions can actually help us in our effort to read the Bible well. Rather than being an obstacle to overcome, those from different traditions, and even different cultural, generational, and socioeconomic locations from us will have different sensibilities that attuned them to certain details and observations in the text that we might unwittingly overlook and vice versa.
Paradoxically, Jesus “plainly” communicates through the Bible itself that apart from all these things discussed (reading through the lens of love, reading with Jesus at the center, reading from a pure heart, and reading within the Body of Christ), it is impossible to understand the Bible rightly. This is what it means for Jesus to be the key to understanding Scripture. To read the Bible like Christ, to read the Bible as Christian Scripture, is to take seriously all these aspects we learn from Jesus himself.
The differences in interpretation from different Christian traditions can actually help us in our effort to read the Bible well. Rather than being an obstacle to overcome, those from different traditions, and even different cultural, generational, and socioeconomic locations from us will have different sensibilities that attuned them to certain details and observations in the text that we might unwittingly overlook and vice versa. This again, confirms the necessity of reading within the Body of Christ in its broadest possible sense.
May we all encourage one another to love and keep Christ at the center of all we do and especially in our reading of the Bible. And may God use Scripture to transform us all together into the likeness of Christ in ever greater degrees of glory (2 Cor 3:14-18).
1“Messiah” and “Christ” are the Hebrew words for “anointed” (by God) respectively. Kings, priests, and prophets were “anointed” figures in the Hebrew Bible.
2 This point is made by other NT scholars as well. E.g., Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 94, 107; N. T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 43.