Over the past few years Hotels.com put out a series of commercials with a character known as Captain Obvious. His purpose within the sketch was to point out the obvious items that customers missed when booking their room (which, of course, they were completely aware of once they arrive). Sometimes we miss the obvious as well. We employ a phrase to describe someone who misses what is right in front of them: “They missed the forest for the trees.” That is, someone was so focused on minor issues that they missed the larger picture; they couldn’t see the painting because they were too focused on the brushstrokes.
Jesus dealt with a similar issue with the Jews in John 5:37-39:
“And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
The Pharisees were convinced they were right. They were convinced they were saved. They had the letter of the law down to a science. They could quote scriptures about every type of food prohibiting, leper rejecting, animal sacrificing law you could imagine—but they missed the bigger picture. They failed to recognize what it was all about. They couldn’t see how all the sacrifices, all the laws, all the prophecies, everything with the tabernacle, pointed toward one, particular person: Jesus. The fact that he was standing right in front of them as he spoke these words proved his point. They were adamant they heard the voice of God within scripture, but they refused to accept the word of God right in front of their eyes. They missed the forest (Jesus) for the trees (scriptures).
Don’t misunderstand Jesus’ statement here. He isn’t rejecting the importance or authority of scripture and neither should we. Scripture is central to the practice of the church. In reality, he is legitimizing them by showing their true purpose. He reminds us that the sacred text isn’t an end in and of itself. Rather, the Bible is a bridge which leads us to the voice and form of God within the person of Jesus of Nazareth. If we fail to know Jesus better through our study and meditation of God’s word, then we fail to truly know the text as it is intended. Knowledge only benefits us when it leads us to know God more fully (John 17:3).
It’s easy for us to sit back and criticize 1st century Jews; it’s harder for us to recognize our own tendencies to focus on minor issues while neglecting the major picture. For example, it seems that our focus within the church of Christ can sometimes be misguided when we assume our major purpose as Christians is to be unlike denominations. While practicing New Testament Christianity in its simplicity is vitally important, it is not the primary goal of the church. Our central objective is to know Jesus and to glorify him through the church (Eph. 3:21). People can know the church of Christ without ever knowing or trusting the person of Christ. It does us no good if we can tell others how the church should be organized, but we have no inner faith, no zeal or love, for Jesus himself. It isn’t a matter of rejecting the church and choosing Jesus; rather, it is about focusing on Jesus so that we can truly find the church of scripture. Of this we must always be cautious and balanced—to not miss Jesus for anything else.