I remember seeing the movie The Game, starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn on an airplane during a business trip in the late 1990s. Michael Douglas plays a financier named Nicholas, who, having experienced the trauma of witnessing his father’s suicide, throws himself into his work, in the process estranging his brother Conrad, played by Sean Penn, and his wife. On his 48th birthday, Conrad gifts him a ticket for a game, a game he promises will change Douglas’s life.
The game is run by a company called Consumer Recreation Services, CRS, but once it begins, it turns into a nightmare. They began the game by giving Nicholas all sorts of psychological tests; and the company uses those to guess his passwords, drain his bank accounts, and sap his entire fortune. Conrad appears and confides in Nicholas that CRS tricked him, that it is actually a criminal enterprise, now trying to hunt them down and kill them. Nicholas’s life unravels as he becomes a fugitive, finally cornered on a roof, holding a pistol with CRS employees closing in. As they’re closing in for the kill, a door opens and Nicholas reflexively shoots — only to find that he’s just killed his brother, Conrad, having come to save him.
In despair, Nicholas leaps off the roof to his death, crashes through a glass ceiling below, and lands directly on the X in a big, inflated air cushion, immediately greeted by a very much alive Conrad. The Game is nothing more than, well, a game. Conrad and Nicholas are both alive—Conrad orchestrated the entire thing to prevent Nicholas from ending up like his father. If we miss the last scene of the film, we wouldn’t realize that this was a story of redemption, not disaster. If we miss the ending, the whole thing won’t make sense – we’ll miss the point.
There was a huge spate of these movies back in the 1990s, from The Sixth Sense to The Usual Suspects and many more, movies that sucked us into one view of the world, one way of understanding things, only to reveal at the last minute that our grid for understanding everything we had seen was wrong, movies that suddenly made us reconsider everything we had come to think and believe. In fact, there were so many of these movies that they eventually lost their punch because we started looking for the gotcha; we became less gullible and therefore, less cooperative viewers.
Let’s relate this to how we learn and think more broadly. If you read the theorists, they say we learn by having a structure – a grid – into which we slot everything we learn. Our brains have a remarkable capacity to remember things, but we typically remember by having a structure, a narrative, a grid, that helps relate all the facts we learn. That said, real advances in human knowledge often come not from slotting more facts into the grid, but when someone suggests a new and better grid.
One of the most important books, at least on many lists, in the last century was Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.* Here was Kuhn’s point. He says, in essence (not an exact quotation), “Most people think science advances linearly, that we just learn more and more things and scientific knowledge grows slowly and inexorably, by gradual means. And there can be some advance that way, for sure.” But Kuhn says, and this is his key point, the real big leaps in scientific knowledge don’t happen that way. Because everyone is just slotting all that new knowledge into their current grid. But over time, little pieces of data build up that don’t fit the grid. Now when one or two things like that crop up, people typically ignore the contrary data. The grid is just too strong. Kuhn shows that this can go on for quite a long time. Contrary data show up, and they just get put in the side, in a pile of “Well, that’s weird.” But eventually that pile gets bigger and bigger. And Kuhn says that real advances come when someone looks at that whole pile of exceptions and realizes that the entire grid – the way that everyone was making sense of reality – was wrong. And when that person proposes a new grid, then suddenly everything makes sense, and there’s been a revolution in scientific knowledge.
The obvious example of this is Copernicus and Galileo. Before the Copernican revolution, everyone’s grid said that the earth was the stationary center of the universe. And that assumption worked with the data. More precisely, the data were slotted into that grid as a way to make them make sense. After all, to human senses, the earth is solid and stable and unmoving. And the stars and constellations seem to rotate. The sun and moon go up and then go back down. All the data fit the grid, and everyone was happy. But then astronomers started noting various inconvenient facts, things that didn’t work quite right. Those were mainly shunted aside, but as time went by there were more and more observations that just didn’t make sense. Until one day, someone said, “Wait, what if the earth itself is moving?” And then suddenly that whole pile of inconvenient facts, observations that didn’t make sense, all fell into place in the new grid, and you had a scientific revolution, a true leap forward in knowledge.
Kuhn’s thesis is not, of course, unassailable. Not only can real advances happen linearly, but it eventually occurs to us that Kuhn himself has just given us the very thing he critiqued – a grid – in this case a grid to understand how scientific progress occurs. In other words, at some point his thesis will have to become self-refuting. Yet there is much obvious truth to his point, even if it can’t be completely absolute. We do learn this way; we slot things into our grid. Most of us never question our assumptions and our basic way of understanding reality, our grid. But sometimes we have to ask “What if my grid is wrong?”
The four gospels in the Bible are somewhat like The Game, at least in this: if we cut off the last chapter of any of them (or in the case of the gospel of John, which has a “post-credits scene,” the last two chapters), we will completely misunderstand who Jesus is. Even Jesus’ disciples don’t “get it” until the very end. The end of the Gospel of Luke is instructive. We’re right at the end of the movie. Jesus has been tried, crucified, and hastily buried – dead – in a tomb. But on the third day, three women have gone to the tomb to give Jesus a more proper burial, and they’ve found that tomb open and empty, with an angel appearing to tell them that Jesus has risen. Peter has seen the empty tomb and the eleven apostles have been told, but they haven’t believed it yet. And there are these two men, taking a couple-hour journey to a village called Emmaus. They clearly have known much about Jesus and started following him. And like everyone else they were crestfallen and crushed when he was crucified. They have also heard the reports of his resurrection, but they haven’t believed it. All they know and believe of Jesus is his life, ministry, teaching, and crucifixion. And now they’re challenged to believe that he’s more.
 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.  But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”  And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened.  Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning,  and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”  And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther,  but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them.  When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them.  And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”  And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together,  saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:13–35 ESV)
We often miss the comedy in Luke 24. These two are walking along, talking about everything that had happened, how Jesus had lived, taught, healed, even raised the dead – how they had finally just come to believe that he was everything – the hope of the ages. And then their hope had been crushed when he was hung on the cross. All their finally-aroused hopes and dreams had crashed into the tomb with Jesus. Ancient people knew what death was, and Roman soldiers were experts in both delivering death and confirming it. Jesus was dead and in the tomb. But now they were hearing these outlandish reports – several women who said the stone in front of the tomb was moved, the body gone, and angels saying he was risen. That was both too crazy and too good to believe.
So, they are chatting about it all, and somebody starts walking with them. The reader knows it is Jesus, but they don’t. So, he says, “Whatcha talking about?” And then one of them, Cleopas by name, says “Are you the only guy who has had your head in the sand that you don’t know what’s going on? Don’t you realize what’s been going on in Jerusalem? What do you think we’re talking about? The things that have been happening!” Well, you know, yes, Jesus knows! But he says, “What things?” And they tell the story – Jesus’ life, that they’d come to hope in him, but then his death, burial, and these reports of the resurrection. They know the whole story, except the last chapter. They haven’t seen that yet. They’ve only heard of it, and they haven’t believed. So, they’ve seen the movie, but they left right before the end, that last, key scene. And the result is that they have blind eyes. They know all sorts of stuff about Jesus, but they can’t see him right there in front of them.
It is remarkably easy to know a whole lot about Jesus without really seeing him. We can read the Bible, we can know a lot of facts, we could be a historian, scholar, even a minister. We can have tons of facts or information at our disposal and miss what’s right there in front of our faces, just like these two on the road, talking to Jesus but somehow not seeing.
What is our grid for Jesus? Who do we think we’re reading about when we read the gospels? As we learn things about him, what understanding of Jesus do we use to place those things into our brains and hearts?
First, it’s really common to hear people treat Jesus like a myth – that he’s Paul Bunyan or a Greek god or something of the like, not someone who ever existed. And if we accept that grid, then we’ll see the amazing things reported that Jesus did – healing the sick, making the blind see, raising the dead — and we’ll dismiss those things as just myth. Because that’s what happens in myths – incredible things that don’t actually correspond to real life. But we should first be aware that pretty much any reputable historian accepts that there was a person named Jesus. He really existed. And myths develop in very predictable ways, over long periods of time, far longer than it took for these books we call the gospels to reach their current form. If our grid for Jesus is myth, that he never existed, then it’s worth looking again, because it may not fit the facts as well as we think.
Second, it’s equally if not more common to say something like this: Jesus was a great rabbi, a moral teacher and example, a good man tragically crucified…but still dead. What’s wrong with that is not saying that he is a great teacher, though it’s worth considering that he claimed to be God. If he falsely claimed to be God, it isn’t so clear that we can call him a great teacher. Even if we did, though, that’s not enough. If our grid is that Jesus is a great moral teacher, then it’s worth looking again, because the Bible claims that he’s more. Saying he’s a great moral teacher is again like stopping the movie before the last scene. We’re standing there on the road to Emmaus, staring at Jesus but not really seeing him.
It’s easy for us to have blind eyes – to have the wrong grid – to think we know who Jesus is and to therefore miss seeing him, even though he’s right in front of us. What we need are open minds, minds to question our assumptions about Jesus and see him anew as he really is. That’s what Cleopas and his friend needed on the road to Emmaus. They needed someone to open them up to the fact that Jesus was more than they realized, that they were blinded by what seemed to them like totally reasonable assumptions, like the assumption that dead people stay dead.
But how do we open our minds when we’re trapped in our own grid? After all, Cleopas and his friend thought their minds were open, just like you and I do. They thought they were viewing all the facts correctly. What was it that they needed to see for their grid to fall apart, so that they could see Jesus more clearly, as he really is? What they needed was someone else to open their minds for them, which is what we see in v.28-32. Jesus shows himself to them. But isn’t it fascinating how he does it? He could have done what he did with Thomas, saying “Here, put your fingers in the nail marks on my hands, put your hand into my side.” He did that for Thomas, but that’s not what he does for these two. He opens their minds by showing them himself in two things.
First, they needed to understand the Bible. In v.25 and 26, Jesus takes them on a tour of their bibles as they walk towards Emmaus. The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” for them mean the whole of their sacred scriptures. We see the figures of Moses and Elijah loom large when the New testament reflects on the Old, and that’s because they stood, respectively, for the Law and the Prophets, and together that phrase was a way of summarizing the bible of the time. And Jesus says that all of that – v. 27 – points to him. And “all” is a very categorical word. The whole of the Old Testament points to Jesus. And they ought to be able to see it. There’s even a bit of a rebuke in the way Jesus says this, isn’t there? They ought to be reading their Old Testaments and realizing a few key facts – there will be a redeemer, and that redeemer would suffer, then enter his glory. They needed to read the Old Testament and see that it pointed to Jesus in his cross, in his resurrection, and in his glory.
Our church does an Old Testament sermon series every year. It’s part of our preaching rhythm, and it’s – sadly – not typical for many churches. Why do we do this? Some Christians might think this is odd – why worry about things that happened hundreds of thousands of years before Jesus? Why does that stuff matter now that Jesus is here? Some go even further, thinking there’s a radical difference between the Old Testament God – maybe we think he’s mean and judgmental and angry – and the New Testament God, Jesus who died for us.
Here’s why we regularly preach the Old Testament – Jesus won’t mean much to us if we don’t know the Old Testament. If we want to see the wonder of this baby born in a manger, then we need to know the world into which he came: their customs, their hopes and dreams and crushing disappointments, the promises that were made to them and how they understood them. We need to know all of that.
And if that’s not enough, there’s something more. There’s one God, the same God in the Old and New Testaments, and Jesus himself just won’t let us act like there’s a disconnect. He prays to God the Father, and he means exactly the God of the Old Testament. He says, “The Father and I are one,” so what we believe of Jesus is what we believe of God the Father, the God in that Old Testament. Even the famous John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” – and “God” in that verse is God the Father, the God of the Old Testament. Jesus, himself won’t let us divorce the Old and the New, and Luke 24 is a particularly important passage in building those connections.
Second, they needed to understand the table. As they walk, with the Bible starting to make sense to them, they’re so close, but they don’t get to Jesus on their own. It’s late, so they stop in Emmaus, and as they’re starting the night’s meal, Jesus blesses the food, breaks bread, and gives it to them. Now this probably wasn’t a formal communion meal. But it’s impossible to read this phrase in Luke’s gospel and not see that it echoes Luke 22:7, only a couple chapters before, Jesus’ last supper, where he instituted the communion table. In that meal, Jesus said, “This is my body, broken for you.” He said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” So though this itself probably wasn’t a communion meal, it was enough for them to finally have the lights go on, to see that it all makes sense, to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection was to save them. They needed to see that Jesus was the center of all the Bible, the resurrected Lord, and they could see that in the Bible and in the sacrament.
We need the same thing – to see Jesus for who he really is. To have open minds. How could we do that? Well, we need someone to break through our false grids. And the great thing is that Jesus has given us the same two things: we have the Bible, the word of God – now no longer just the Law and the Prophets, but the New Testament – to help us see. And we have his table. Both declare to us that Jesus is real, the center of all history. The whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, points us to Jesus. The Bible gives us the grid to understand Jesus. It will do that for you if you read the whole of the Bible, not just the New Testament but the Old as well. And we ought to be able to see that – at some level – Jesus gives us a rebuke if we haven’t read the whole of the Bible and seen him in it.
Because the Bible is the grid by which we see all of reality. And it tells us Jesus isn’t a genie in a bottle, just there to satisfy our wishes. Nor is he simply a shoulder to cry on, just a cosmic therapist. Nor is he just a way to feel good about ourselves. The Old Testament tells us that the Jews were waiting for a conquering King who would set the entire world aright, who would take care of sin and suffering and would bring a world that ought to be in place of the world that is, and the New Testament tells us Jesus is that savior.
And once the Old Testament gives us the grid to understand Jesus, Jesus gives us the grid to understand ourselves. Here’s the Bible’s grid – we are sinners who need to be saved, men and women and children caught up in a much greater drama that we could possibly know. We live in a world created good, even perfect, but one marred beyond belief, and we’re the cause of the problem. That’s why this world can be so amazingly beautiful and good and so terrifyingly awful in almost the same breath, because this world – and we ourselves – are a glorious mess, a good creation marred and broken by human sinfulness.
But we are so loved by God that he came to redeem us, becoming incarnate, taking on a human body and dying for the sins of the world, then rising from the dead to redeem us. That’s the narrative of the world, and it’s the narrative of you and me. And the Bible – when we read it all – Old and New Testaments – presents that grid to us and says, “This is how you really interpret all of reality. This is the real grid, and it makes better sense of the world you live in than the one you’ve been following.”
This gets to the key point of all of this. It’s easy to think that all these grids are equal, that they’re just different ways of seeing the world, different angles on things, all equally flawed. But it’s not actually that way. Some grids are truer than others, and the Bible’s claim is that it gives us the true grid. And following a false grid makes us miss reality.
Here’s an amusing example. My neighbor’s dog hates the mailman. With a passion I’ve never seen. Now, please understand, my neighbor’s dog, on a good day, measures about 18 inches long. The mailman – mail lady in our case – could kick Grommit across the county. But that’s now how Grommit sees the world. Every day, this strange, menacing person approaches the house, and Grommit goes crazy inside the door, barking with fury of a Doberman – if not the pitch. And that mailman, in terror, retreats. Yet again, Grommit has saved the castle from an invader. Of course, Grommit doesn’t know the true grid, that Miss E has dropped the mail in the box and walked away. In Grommit’s frame of mind, he’s a hero. And it fits in his grid, but it’s the wrong grid. It’s fundamentally not true.
Here’s a more serious version of it. Check out this fascinating story in the New York Times magazine from New Year’s Eve 2019: What I Learned in Avalanche School. Happy Saturday morning reading, hum?! But here’s the main point: do you know what the main cause of avalanche deaths is? It’s not the snow; it’s people! The human error factor is the dominant cause. And even worse, once you take an avalanche preparedness course, you’re statistically more likely to be killed in an avalanche!
Now of course, some of that is the trick of numbers, because people who take avalanche preparedness courses are usually people who will venture into avalanche territory. I don’t need that course! But even when we control for all that, people who have taken the courses mess up, regularly. The article details the various human factors that go into what become tragic mistakes, what it calls six “decision-making traps.” One of the most prominent is what it calls the “consistency heuristic.” By that it means that every moment you keep going makes it harder to return home. And, therefore, people who should know better rationalize away clear danger signs, venturing further and further into bad situations. The data are there, but people put those data into the wrong grid, and the trained folks, the ones who should know to avoid that snow on that slope, are the ones more likely to be killed, because they can’t get outside their own grid and see the facts as they really are. It can literally be a life and death decision.
The Bible’s claim is that the grid you bring to Jesus will determine the grid you bring to life, an eternal life and eternal death decision. With Jesus, following a false grid makes us miss his true identity and power. We domesticate him and make him safe. We turn him into a personal servant. But he’s more than that; he’s a conquering king who came to rescue us and save us and help us flourish. He’s wild and dangerous and changes everything. And we see that when we let the Bible define our grid. When we read the whole Bible and see the grand story that climaxes in Jesus, it redefines everything.
How do you tell if your grid about Jesus is wrong? After all, it’s the way you see the world, so how can you get outside it to test it?
What are some of the disquieting things that would tell us our grid about Jesus is wrong, that we’ve misunderstood him and our faith? Well, there are many potential signs. If we suffer and it blows up our faith, then we’ve probably adopted a grid of Jesus as solving all our problems. If we’re perplexed because life didn’t get easy when we started following Jesus, then we’ve probably adopted a grid of Jesus as a rich uncle who will just dote on us.
But from this text, here’s one– we’ve probably got the wrong grid for Jesus if our heart doesn’t burn when we read the Old Testament. Look again at v.32 – “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ What do they mean? Not an Alka-Seltzer burn, not a need for Prilosec, but an unstoppable excitement and longing. I doubt they meant all this when they composed the song, but here’s the definition from Survivor’s 1985 smash hit in “Rocky IV”:
In the burning heart
Just about to burst
There’s a quest for answers
An unquenchable thirst
In the darkest night
Rising like a spire
In the burning heart
The unmistakable fire
Don’t mistake a burning heart for emotionalism. It might be loud, but it might be quiet. It might be excited and bubbly, but it might be deep and powerful. But our hearts will burn. The Bible ought to make our hearts burn for Jesus. The whole Bible, not just the New Testament. The Old Testament ought to be amazing to read, and it ought to make our hearts burn to know the end of the story.
And if we have a burning heart, we naturally share it. Look what happens at the end of the passage in v.33-35. They go rushing off to tell others about it. A burning heart can’t be contained. They go back to Jerusalem in the dark to shout to the world that it’s all true, that Jesus really is that Lord and savior.
So, what do we do with this? What’s the practical take away? If we say Jesus is merely a great moral teacher, then we’re basically leaving ourselves on the road to Emmaus – we’ve caught some of who he is, but you’ve missed the most important part. All that was the prelude. We need the last scene of the movie – Jesus is the resurrected Lord, a dead man conquering death and coming back to life; He is God himself. And if that’s true, our grid for everything probably needs to change.
If we already believe that, does our heart burn? Do we share about Jesus? If not, that might be a tipoff that we’ve got the wrong grid about Jesus, too. Specifically, it means this: we should read the Old Testament, and we should refuse to get up from our Bibles until our hearts burn for seeing Jesus in it.
*Thanks for this example go to Dr. Tim Keller, who suggested it to me in an unrelated context. I had read Kuhn years before, and he brought this thesis back to mind. I am told Dr. Keller used this example in a sermon, but I have not heard that sermon. Any wisdom in the example, then, is likely his, and any fault is likely mine!