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Spring 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 1 · pp. 71–84 

Hearing and Living the Shalom Kingdom Melody: A Mennonite Brethren Discipleship Hermeneutic

Ken Esau

For much of my childhood and youth in church, I had the impression that the Bible was absolutely clear on everything. If you simply knew the Bible well enough and could find the right verses, it would always line up and be like a light in the darkness, clarifying your path (Psalm 119:105). All the sermons preached to us in church presented the Bible as a collection of sixty-six books with one consistent author (viz., God), speaking one clear message through human authors who seemed to do little more than write down the divine message.

A dynamic MB hermeneutical model does not expect the Bible to reflect a uniform simplicity, but neither does it expect the chaos of herding cats.

As I started reading and studying the Bible for myself, I quickly discovered that the Bible was far more complex. At times it felt like trying to find guidance on ethical issues was like herding cats. I thought I knew all the verses about a topic, but then someone would throw in this or that and clear answers would escape me. The cats were running in different directions. {72}

Reading the Bible for ethical guidance in today’s world has produced countless books, including the “Four Views” or “Three Views” books that have proliferated on almost every imaginable issue. For Christians seeking God’s wisdom for living, no rhyme or reason seems to dictate where the cats will run. Many Christians simply throw up their hands and complain, “The Bible can say anything you want it to say.”

Nevertheless, Mennonite Brethren (MBs) have expressed confidence that the entire Bible is the principal means through which Jesus speaks to us to provide us with authoritative guidance for theology and life. The MB Confession of Faith asserts that the Bible is the “infallible Word of God, and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.” 1 This claim means that when we want to “hear Jesus,” we turn our listening ears to Scripture. When we want to see what true love and true justice look like, we turn our eyes to Scripture. When we need Holy Spirit wisdom to address complex and puzzling ethical issues, we turn our minds to Scripture. This claim also means that we do not believe that the Bible is simply a collection of what ancient humans thought about wisdom, theology, love, justice, and discipleship. A diverse collection of merely ancient human thinking can never be our authoritative guide to hearing Jesus, understanding our true identity, or learning what sacrificial discipleship looks like in our day. 2

What kind of hermeneutical model 3 is needed to allow the Bible to function as this “authoritative guide”? We need a model that won’t just patch together a few verses taken out of context. But we also need to avoid turning away from the Bible and, after throwing up our arms, saying, “Let’s just do what seems right [loving or just] in our own eyes” (cf. Judg 21:25). The patching together of verses out of context is less a temptation today than seeking our own wisdom and then claiming it comes from Jesus and the Spirit because it is faithful to what we think is loving or just. Ignoring the Bible, going around the Bible, or redefining the Bible are the most seductive temptations for us.

A hermeneutical model in line with the MB convictions about the Bible tries to understand our complex collection of sixty-six biblical books composed over many centuries by many different authors, and determine how this can somehow be heard as God speaking to us today. A key place to start is to recognize that the entire Bible contains the authoritative and grand God-story pointing toward the Shalom Kingdom of God. 4

To change the analogy, the Bible sings a song 5 that moves through stages, like variations on a theme, as it crescendos toward the Shalom Kingdom of God. The goal of all Scripture is the fullness of the Shalom Kingdom love song where God in Jesus reigns supreme over all heaven {73} and earth; where humans worldwide joyfully worship and obey God while faithfully imaging the triune God’s character (viz., love, justice, holiness, community, righteousness) in every area of life; and where creation abundantly sustains all life and reflects the beauty, majesty, and power of the Creator in its creational act of worship. It is this melodic theme of the flourishing of all creation with God fully present at the center, that guides our hermeneutical process. We want to hear this melody and sing it anew and clearly in our contexts. Every biblical text has a role to play in our hearing of the fullness of the song and in our imitation of the song, empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit.

An MB hermeneutical model assumes that those who use it are already disciples of Jesus. The MB Confession of Faith is clear that any faithful hermeneutical model must be centered on Jesus, reliant upon the Holy Spirit at every step, practiced in the context of community, and oriented to practical discipleship. 6 In addition, the Confession declares the primacy of Scripture, insisting that although God can be revealed in other ways, all purported revelations must be tested for their consistency with the Scriptures, which in the end remain the “authoritative guide.” 7 I suggest that the following Shalom Kingdom model meets these criteria and is consistent with the MB conviction that God speaks infallibly and authoritatively through these Scriptures.


This hermeneutical method is for disciples who have, by means of the Holy Spirit, glimpsed something of Jesus and his beautiful Shalom Kingdom, repented, and through forgiveness been given new primary identities as children of God (1 John 3:1) and Kingdom citizens (Phil 3:20). Joining the Shalom Kingdom story means that these disciples are committed to bowing down in worship to Jesus, joining God’s Shalom Kingdom community (viz., the church/body of Christ), living out God’s Shalom Kingdom ethics, and pursuing God’s Shalom Kingdom mission in the world. Bowing down in worship is the posture that the text expects. It is the best posture for hearing the Shalom Kingdom melody because it opens our ears to hear (Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8). If you want to hear a train coming before it is visible, you kneel down and put your ear to the tracks. Kneeling is the appropriate posture. It orients our hearts to hear the full-orbed meaning of the biblical text. The Bible is a discipleship book for disciples. It was not written to convince outsiders but to guide followers of God to live out God’s Shalom Kingdom vision wherever they are. Joining the story positions us best to hear well, welcomes the Holy Spirit as our constant travel guide, and puts us into a discerning community. {74}

While this joining-the-story worship posture is best for a hermeneutic of discipleship, we recognize that even as we are trying to hear God speak in Scripture we all live with the noise of our cultural assumptions ringing in our ears. Some of these assumptions are consonant with the Shalom Kingdom love song, but many scream against what the Bible presents as the Kingdom melody. We must acknowledge the noise and recognize how difficult it is to hear the Shalom Kingdom melody when it jars with this noise. The posture of worship, praying for Holy Spirit wisdom, and listening together with other disciples of Jesus will function like noise-canceling earphones, allowing us to be more attuned to the melody of the Shalom Kingdom.


The entire Bible, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, is the story of God’s Shalom Kingdom. Every chapter carries its melody, sometimes so loudly that our ears hear nothing else, sometimes so quietly that we strain to hear it. Yet it is there. It is the melody that will overcome. It is God’s melody that will one day be the only melody (Rom 8:18-25; Rev 7:22). The Bible is not some massive ethical rule book (although in places it has that quality) but a musical piece that belts out the song of the Shalom Kingdom. Reading the Bible well means listening for this Shalom Kingdom melody and singing along in a way that faithfully fits our context.


The Old Testament begins with a brief prelude of the Shalom Kingdom (Gen 1-2). But this is only a “good” or “very good” hint of the full song yet to come. The Shalom Kingdom song points not to a return to the Garden of Eden but rather to the fullness of what this prelude introduced—if sin, brokenness, and death had not interrupted it.

The prelude ends abruptly and the Shalom Kingdom faces conflicting melodies in Genesis 3-11. We learn what disrupts the Shalom Kingdom melody—failure to worship and trust God, failure to image God as priests in the world, failure to take responsibility for the well-being of others, failure to steward and guard creation. Then in Genesis 12, God invites an unlikely couple to sing the Shalom Kingdom song in the world, promising that God would bless the whole world through them (Gen 12:2-3; 18:18; 22:18). This couple became a family, who became a people, who became a free nation in the promised land. The Old Testament is a record of the successes and failures of this people who inherited the call to sing the Shalom Kingdom song and bless the whole world. Sometimes as we read the story, the Shalom Kingdom {75} song comes through clearly (e.g., Isa 2:1-4; 11; 61), but many times it is almost completely drowned out. We need discerning ears to hear the melody in those confusing, often morally ambiguous passages.

But with the coming of Jesus, the melody becomes clear and loud in ways that are both beautiful and profoundly challenging. We are able, because of Jesus, to look back and hear in new ways how the melody was in the Old Testament all along, even when we couldn’t hear it. At times, we might feel that the Old Testament and New Testament sing two separate and clashing songs. Jesus, however, declares that they are the same song (Luke 24:27; Matt 5:17; John 5:39-46). The Shalom Kingdom song was there from the beginning.

But even Jesus and the Gospels that record his life, death, resurrection, and ascension tell us that the Shalom Kingdom song does not end with those events. The song points us toward the future and final return of Jesus where, as described in the book of Revelation, the Shalom Kingdom song will be unhindered. All Christians today are called to sing this song as Jesus has taught us (cf. Matt 28:19-20) in anticipation of the full future chorus of a redeemed heaven and earth (Rev 5:11-14; 7:9-12; 11:16-18).

Since the Bible is God’s unfolding Shalom Kingdom story from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, it is best read backwards. 8 This is a major hermeneutical principle for followers of Christ. Every biblical passage should be read and studied from the perspective of the apex of the Shalom Kingdom song when worship, righteousness, love, justice, and holiness are fully present. This pinnacle is the telos or end goal toward which the entire biblical narrative is moving. All earlier stages foreshadow and move toward this pinnacle and are best examined in its light.


The key hermeneutical question is, What does the original author intend to communicate to the ancient audience that relates to the Shalom Kingdom of God? Answering this question will not be possible unless we slow down and listen. Biblical texts often do not sing the Shalom Kingdom melody in a way we can easily recognize. We need to listen carefully to hear the melody. Careful listening is an important and challenging discipline in human relationships. It is no less important and challenging when we desire to hear Scripture well. Just as nonverbal communication (tone, posture, facial expression) is a vital conveyer of meaning in human conversations, many cues in biblical texts are not immediately obvious.

Listening well to Scripture begins by asking, and trying to answer, key questions: What is the genre of a given text (is it historical {76} narrative, legal material, parable, poetry, wisdom, epistle, apocalyptic, or something else)? 9 What is its context? (Exploring a text’s context involves understanding how a given text fits into its immediate context (chapter or section), the larger context within the biblical book, the even larger context of the story-stage it is part of, and then, finally, the God-story that spans the entire Bible.) Who is the likely audience? What is the date of composition? (How do our answers here affect understanding the text?)

We should assume that biblical texts are artistic; thus, details, patterns, repeated words, and allusions to earlier texts are often intentional. We will need to read slowly and carefully to notice them. While Scripture is not deliberately ambiguous, it is always richer and deeper than what we presently see. When we want to listen well to a complex musical composition, we will listen to it carefully many times. Only by paying close attention will we eventually notice details that eluded us thus far. We should notice metaphors, literary structures, historical characters, geographical markers, and cultural practices. We will want to test our reading by inviting others who can see things we cannot.

Close reading of any text will necessarily be provisional. We hope to read well, but later, new clues might emerge that lead us to see new things. Frustration is inevitable, but it is part of the excitement of reading and studying Scripture. It should also encourage us to be humble about our conclusions.

Our question continues to be, What is the author communicating about the Shalom Kingdom of God that is the culmination of all Scripture? We expect to hear the Shalom Kingdom melody in different keys according to the stage of the story documented by the text. With some key exceptions (e.g., Gen 1-12; Isa 40-66), biblical texts sing a clearer Shalom Kingdom melody the closer they are to the climax of the biblical story—the full and final coming of the Shalom Kingdom. So if a text prohibits moving boundary stones or marrying Canaanites, or commands the building of twelve stone memorials, we must look for the melody that is deeper than the surface prohibition or command. We must ask how these texts are also about the Shalom Kingdom at that stage of God’s big story. Close reading is key to answering this question.

Close reading is therefore about listening for the four key relational dynamics that are essential to God’s Shalom Kingdom.


The Shalom Kingdom melody is a love song calling us to worship and obey God. Biblical texts that explain who God is, and how we best worship and obey him by living into what we truly were created to be are {77} singing the Shalom Kingdom melody. Whenever we read biblical texts, we need to ask, What does this text tell us about the character, nature, and power of God? How do misunderstandings of God’s character and nature affect human behavior in the text? What does this text say about what it means to worship, obey, and image this kind of God?

At this stage, we should acknowledge all the theological themes that come from a text, even those we don’t like. A text could well be saying, “God rewards faithful people with wealth, long life, and many children” (Deut 30), or “God wants his people to have no interaction with their neighbors in order to avoid corruption” (Ezra 10), or even “God will defend his people and help them kill their enemies” (Josh 8). It is not up to us to “sanitize” these conclusions; we should acknowledge all the themes that seem deliberately there. Virtually any biblical text of any length will include a number of theological and ethical themes. Some of these will be limited and specific to the people of God in the Old Testament Shalom Kingdom stage, and others will have ongoing relevance. It is precisely when we encounter portrayals of God that anger, surprise, or confound us that we most need to discern the enduring Shalom Kingdom melody. 10

Old Testament rituals addressing sacred space, sacrificial procedures, holy days, and holy people all sing the Shalom Kingdom melody that God wants to dwell among his created image bearers in a reconciled and beautiful relationship as a restoration of the temple garden in Genesis 2. The New Testament describes Jesus’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection as God’s Shalom Kingdom work of restoration and healing of humanity’s relationship with God and the defeat of the enslaving powers of Satan, sin, and death. This divine-human relationship is the primary Shalom Kingdom relationship upon which all the other dynamic relationships are predicated. The Bible is not a self-improvement guide for married couples, families, communities, or ourselves—unless one first responds to God’s invitation for reconciliation and healing. The Bible is not a guide for creation care—unless one first responds to the Creator. Any reading of the Bible is missing the key melody if it fails to hear clearly both the invitation to a restored divine-human relationship and the pronouncement that rejection of this invitation is a rejection of our true humanity, our true life, and our true identity.


The second dynamic Shalom Kingdom relationship is between people. The Shalom Kingdom melody is a love song that calls the people of God to bless the whole world. This care for the other compels us toward evangelism, interpersonal righteousness, holiness, forgiveness, {78} peacemaking, justice, and protection of the vulnerable. Part of being God’s image bearers means that every human is born with a God connection stronger than God’s connection to anything else in creation. While all God’s creation is sacred space, our human interpersonal interactions have heightened meaning because of the image bearing status of all humans. That is the second part of the Shalom Kingdom melody.

When we read biblical texts that involve horrific violence, we need to explore their authors’ intentions in writing about them. Are they describing what life is like when people reject their human calling (to worship God and bear his image) for a life of doing what is right in their own eyes (Judg 21:25)? Some biblical narratives are meant to encourage readers to imitate good behaviors; some are meant to warn people of what can happen when they fail to follow the Shalom Kingdom path. Even the most godly Old Testament saints (e.g., Abraham, Moses, David, Esther) are portrayed as suffering significant failures in their relationships with God and their fellow humans. The Bible is a book that shows us real people of great faith and (only moments later) overwhelming fear; inspirational righteousness is followed (only moments later) by acts of horrific violence.

We also encounter strange cultural institutions (e.g., kinsman redeemer, Levirate marriage, sabbath days and years, cities of refuge, and jubilee years) that seem to come from a different world entirely. We need to listen not to the strange instrument playing the song but to the melody demonstrating the importance of community obligations involved in interpersonal shalom.


The third dynamic relationship of the Shalom Kingdom is between humans and creation. Humans were created to “have dominion” over the earth (Gen 1:26, 28) and “to work [the garden] and keep it” (Gen 2:15 ESV). The Hebrew word for “keep” (shamar) also means guard or protect. Humans have a responsibility as image bearers of the ultimate King to rule by working and guarding the earth as representatives of the Creator. This image-bearing, working, and guarding does not end when the Shalom Kingdom finally arrives; it will be perfected. Biblical texts that deal with farming, shepherding, Sabbath years, and jubilee are all speaking of Shalom with creation.


Finally, there is the dynamic of Shalom with oneself, coming to accept our true identity in Jesus (“children of God” John 1:12; 1 John 3:1) {79} and our true purpose as image bearers. While the Old Testament sets this melody in place (Gen 1-2), the New Testament spends much of its energy describing who redeemed humans really are (cf. 1 Cor 6).

A discipleship hermeneutic involves exploring which of the Shalom Kingdom relationships (i.e., our relationship with God, others, creation, or ourselves) is being addressed in the text, and then exploring what it means to sing that part of the Shalom Kingdom melody more clearly in our day. Every chapter in Scripture relates to at least one (but likely more than one) of these four Shalom Kingdom dynamic relationships. These texts may seem obscure or even irrelevant, but the Shalom Kingdom melody is there, inviting us to hear it and learn how we can be more faithful singers of that melody in our own world. The New Testament sings a much clearer Shalom Kingdom melody since it was written after Jesus’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Disciples of Jesus will be drawn to this section of the God story because it addresses Christians who share our stage (post-resurrection and pre-final return). Our MB Confession affirms that “God revealed Himself supremely in Jesus Christ, as recorded in the New Testament” (Article 2). We have a Christocentric hermeneutic which recognizes that the Shalom Kingdom melody is heard most clearly in Jesus.


The Old Testament in particular has passages in which it is hard to hear the Shalom Kingdom melody amid all the cacophonous sounds they emit. But devaluing earlier stages because they sound muddled is a failure to appreciate the many deep melodic connections that are part of the beautiful Kingdom song. However, trying to sing the song in exactly the same way it was sung in an earlier stage is also a failure to see the direction the song is going. Disciples today should not attempt to go back to this earlier stage and embrace Old Testament feasts, Saturday Sabbath practices, or food laws. This is not what “living biblically” looks like.

The New Testament declares that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). And for Paul, “all Scripture” meant the Old Testament. If the Old Testament “bears witness to Christ” (Article 2), there is a theological and ethical consistency throughout the story, so that even the Old Testament should provide us with theological and ethical guidance. The story of Jesus demonstrates a deep continuity with the Old Testament story (cf. John 5:39-47; Luke 24:44-45) and at the same time clarifies some of its theological and ethical conclusions (Matt 5-7; John 14:9). {80}

Here are some options for how to read the Old Testament’s ethical guidance in light of the New Testament:

1. Old Testament Previews of the Shalom Kingdom. Some Old Testament texts have profound significance throughout the entire Kingdom story, providing anchor points and direction setting (e.g., Gen 1-2; Gen 12; Isa 40-66; etc.). Genesis 1-12 takes pride of place as it declares God’s Shalom intentions in ways that affect everything that follows. Its characterization of humanity, community, work, marriage, sexuality, family, creation, and mission reverberate into every subsequent stage as a sort of Shalom Kingdom tuning fork. It describes both the Shalom Kingdom and the idolatrous forces that seek to destroy it.

2. Unison Ethic. There are times when the Old and the New Testaments speak in a unified voice about what a Kingdom ethic looks like for us living in the nearly final stanza of the song. The Old Testament affirms that we are to love God (Deut 6:5) and neighbor (Lev 19:18). It then legislates against idolatry (Exod 20:4-6) and the dishonest practice of moving boundary stones to make one’s property larger at the expense of one’s neighbor’s (Deut 27:17). The New Testament clearly opposes idols (1 John 5:21; Rom 1:23) and affirms that the Kingdom of God has no place for theft (Eph 4:28; Luke 18:20).

3. Clarification Ethic. The Old Testament will sometimes describe an ethical imperative and the New Testament will clarify that ethic for life in the nearly final Kingdom stage. The clarification makes it more challenging but does not renounce the earlier ethic (cf. Rom 15:4; 1 Cor 10:11). Disciples of Jesus should live into the New Testament clarification while appreciating the value of the Old Testament ethic in its world. Jesus’s words about anger and lust clarify the prohibitions against murder and adultery (Matt 5:22, 27). His words about divorce (Matt 5:31-32) clarify Old Testament legislation limiting divorce and minimizing its harmful effects.

4. Fulfillment Ethic. There are many times when Old Testament ethical imperatives (e.g., food laws, clothing legislation, circumcision, Saturday Sabbath, sacrificial laws) are not clarified but abandoned. Fulfilled in Jesus and the Kingdom stage he inaugurated (2 Cor 1:20; cf. Mark 7:19), they are no longer part of our path to life and faithful image bearing.

5. Arc or Trajectory Ethic. There are times when the Old Testament sets an ethical bar (which could well be moving in the Shalom Kingdom direction in its world) and the New Testament raises the bar but hints that this ethic is still a compromise that will one day be raised even higher in the fullness of the Kingdom. In this case, the New Testament ethic is pointing forward to the Revelation 22 future. Today’s disciples of {81} Jesus are not to live the Old Testament ethic or even the New Testament compromise ethic but live into the direction to which these two are pointing. The Bible’s developmental ethic on slavery might be the best example of this (1 Cor 7:21; Eph 6:5; Gal 3:28; Phlm 1:15-16).

6. Enduring or Temporary Old Testament Ethic? And then there are times when the Old Testament will speak to an issue on which Jesus and the New Testament writers are silent. The challenge is to determine whether New Testament writers are silent because they affirm the Old Testament teaching without question or because they have moved beyond the issue. Jesus’s silence on large sections of Old Testament ethical material should not be taken to mean that he deemed it unimportant. We should assume the same from New Testament writers.


Any careful reading of the Bible for ethical direction on contentious issues (e.g., sexuality, finances, marriage, divorce, creation care, peace and nonviolence, etc.) will lead us to conclusions that often seem wildly out of line with our own sense of what is loving, just, realistic, reasonable, or culturally acceptable. We will also face what appears to be conflicting ethical instruction, and we will need to decide which of those instructions reflect what Jesus calls us to. All our hermeneutical methods will be tested at precisely this moment. If we choose to reject the Bible’s hard teachings every time we don’t like it, if we think we know better what love or justice looks like, or think a teaching is unrealistic, we should question our convictions that the Bible is the “infallible Word of God” and the “authoritative guide for faith and practice” (Article 2). If we disagree with all hard teaching, we are likely repeating the actions of the first humans in the Garden.

We must acknowledge, however, that not all the “hard teaching” is directly applicable to us. The common wisdom that “the Bible was not written to us but for us” is instructive here. Many commands in both Old and New Testaments are profoundly challenging, and we need to ask if we’ve understood them correctly and whether they apply to us today. If, upon closer inspection, we find that we have misunderstood them or that they were not written for us, then obeying them anyway will damage our witness to Jesus. Jesus will not say “Well done!” to Christians living by hard teachings that were never intended for them.

Christians throughout history have tried to develop a hermeneutic of discernment to help differentiate hard teachings not meant for application today from hard teachings we must embrace because they are integral to ongoing Christian discipleship. However, we must also be aware that these same methods that help us apply a hermeneutic of discernment {82} can be utilized to avoid hard teachings simply because we don’t like them. These can easily become not a hermeneutic of discernment but a hermeneutic of evasion. The following are common methods that can be used both ways:

1. Deeper Meaning. The “it doesn’t mean what you think it means” approach defines biblical words and culture so that the hard teachings that seem impossible are redefined to fit the rest of Scripture. For example, we may hear someone declare that Jesus’s command, “Do not resist an evil person,” should be reworded as “Do not violently resist an evil person.” All appeals to a passage’s deeper meaning that make hard teaching less “hard” should be carefully tested to ensure that we are not moving from discernment to evasion.

2. Cultural or Time-Bound Commands. Some biblical hard teachings were given to address specific historical and cultural situations. Since our situation is very different, we may be justified in disregarding it today (e.g., head coverings for women in prayer but not for men [1 Cor 11:5-6]; the holy kiss greeting [Rom 16:16]; shaking the dust from your feet if people don’t show hospitality [Matt 10:14]). A hermeneutic of discernment asks whether the text can still address analogous situations in our world. But sometimes we may conclude that the command was fully limited to that day and location (“bring the cloak . . . and my scrolls,” 2 Tim 4:13). In these cases, no appropriate equivalent will be possible, and we can safely assume that it is not binding on us today.

3. Rhetorical Exaggeration. There are times when Jesus and biblical authors use exaggeration as a rhetorical device to get our attention (e.g., “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out” [Matt 5:29]; “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles [Matt 5:41]). We are bound by the intention of the command but not by the exaggeration.

4. Old Testament Fulfillments in Christ. Many parts of the Old Testament consist of commands from God that his people observe certain practices, laws, holy days, and celebrations. These commands teach us key things about the Shalom Kingdom, but because they have been fulfilled in Jesus, they are no longer obeyed by Jesus’s followers. Some of these imperatives are boundary markers for the Old Testament people of God (e.g., circumcision, Saturday Sabbath, food laws, Passover, Day of Atonement, etc.) while others involve worship and sacrificial regulations that allowed the Old Testament people of God to express thanksgiving to God and obtain repentance for sin. There are new boundary markers for the New Testament people of God (e.g., baptism, Lord’s Day, Lord’s Supper) and these are new ways of expressing thanksgiving and appropriating God’s forgiveness through Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice. {83}

5. Christocentrism. Few things are more sacred to Mennonite Brethren (and other Anabaptists) than what we call a Christocentric hermeneutic. This means that we read every Old Testament text in light of the full-orbed portrait of Jesus in the New Testament (Gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic). If someone asks, “Why don’t you kill Canaanites like it says in the Old Testament?”, we respond with our Christocentric hermeneutic. All Old Testament teaching is authoritative or “infallible” teaching from God, but when read through the spectacles of a Christocentric hermeneutic, not all is obligatory for us at our stage of the Shalom Kingdom story. 11

These five methods are part of a hermeneutic of discernment. But there is a shadow side to them if we employ them to evade hard teachings we see in Scripture. Because of our propensity to turn our hermeneutic of discernment into a hermeneutic of evasion, we need to recognize that true discipleship will often involve self-denial and picking up a cross. For this reason, we need a faithful discipleship community around us to discern together. It is precisely when we face hard teachings that this hermeneutical community is most important.


No discipleship hermeneutic is complete until disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, live out the melody of the Shalom Kingdom in their families, churches, and communities. If we have followed the model well, we should have ears to hear the ongoing Shalom Kingdom melody moving forward throughout Scripture toward its ultimate telos. We should embrace a humble confidence that God has invited us to join this story and live into this song in a way that reflects God’s character and mission. We should invite the divine composer of the song to continue to change us more and more into the character of Jesus as reflected in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). The biblical text should guide us into a greater love for God and neighbor (Matt 22:37-40). If we have followed the model well, our actions should be invitational to others because God’s Shalom Kingdom is invitational to people from every tribe and nation (Matt 28:18-20; Rev 7:9).

A dynamic MB hermeneutical model does not expect the Bible to reflect a uniform simplicity, but neither does it expect the chaos of herding cats. Instead, the Kingdom story is a harmonious melody emanating from both Testaments, increasing in clarity and volume throughout Scripture and in the church past, present, and future until the beautiful fulfillment when Jesus brings the completeness of the Shalom Kingdom to earth (Rev 22). Living out faithful discipleship means our church communities worldwide will demonstrate some culturally {84} appropriate differences as they seek first God’s Kingdom and await Jesus’s final return. 12 But each of their Shalom Kingdom songs must sing in harmony with Jesus and the biblical portrayal of the Shalom Kingdom. Such a Kingdom song is truly good news (i.e., gospel) for all creation. 13


  1. The MB Confession of Faith, Article 2,
  2. For a critique of this view of Scripture, see Ken Esau, review of How the Bible Actually Works, by Peter Enns, Direction 49 (Fall 2020), 202-5.
  3. I use the expression “hermeneutical model” for the combined steps of exegeting biblical texts and interpreting their theological and ethical guidance for life in the present.
  4. See the Kingdom of God articles in Direction 48 (Spring 2019).
  5. See Calvin Miller’s The Singer Trilogy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 1992) for a creative retelling of the New Testament using this song analogy.
  6. MB Confession of Faith, Article 2.
  7. MB Confession of Faith, Article 2.
  8. This expression was popularized by Richard B. Hays in Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014).
  9. For a discussion of the importance of genre in interpreting the Bible, see Ken Esau, “What Time Is It? Interpreting Genesis 1-3,” Direction 43 (Spring 2014): 4-19.
  10. For several articles exploring challenging portrayals of God in the Old Testament, see Ken Esau, “Divine Deception in the Exodus Event,” Direction 35 (Spring 2006): 4-17; and Ken Esau, “Disturbing Scholarly Behavior: Seibert’s Solution to the Problem of the Old Testament God,” Direction 40 (Fall 2011): 168-78.
  11. See Tim Geddert, “The Authoritative Function of Scripture,” Direction 49 (Fall 2020): 163.
  12. To borrow N. T. Wright’s language, we are to “live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story” but at the same time are called to “improvisation” since we are in “Act 5” of the larger story. “N. T. Wright on Scripture and the Authority of God,” See also Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).
  13. See Ken Esau, “The Gospel and the Kingdom,” Direction 48 (Spring 2019): 4-12.
Ken Esau is a Biblical Studies faculty member at Columbia Bible College where he has taught Old Testament and Theology since 1991. He and his wife, Karen, attend The Life Centre in Abbotsford, BC.

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