I Can Only Imagine
I recently watched the movie, I Can Only Imagine, which tells the heart-wrenching story of Bart Millard, the lead singer of the Christian band, MercyMe. The movie poignantly narrates the story of the writer and composer of the top selling Christian song, I Can Only Imagine. With 2.5 million copies sold, it is the highest-selling Christian single of all time.
If you haven’t seen this movie, I’d highly recommend it. If you haven’t listened to the song, watch the movie first, then listen to the song. Knowing the context in which the song was written makes all the difference.
As I was reflecting on this movie, I wanted to share with you some thoughts on the role of story, and how it relates to the Old Testament. This movie illustrates why context is so important.
I had vaguely heard this song prior to watching the movie, but since I learned about Bart’s story, I’ve had this song playing in my head, along with this moving story of redemption, reflecting not only on what God did in Bart’s life, but also in his father’s life as well.
In recent days I’ve also been listening to Andy Stanley’s sermons, where he advocates that we need to “unhitch” the Old Testament from the Christian faith. I don’t usually comment or respond to sermons on social media, but I’ve been troubled by what I’ve been hearing, and I’ve felt a response was needed. I’m going to write a few blog posts on this, but I wanted to start here by illustrating the importance of context.
For those familiar with Casket Empty, you’re aware that we are committed to helping people understand the redemptive story of the whole Bible—the Old and New Testaments. The underlying premise of the Casket Empty series is that the Bible is not simply a collection of separate and unrelated books, but it recounts the story of God’s people and even more so, it reveals who God is, his character, and his plan of redemption that sets the scene for the coming Messiah. It’s about God’s plan to restore his creation, which will be accomplished through Jesus, Son of David, Son of Abraham.
When I watched the movie, I Can Only Imagine, it reminded me yet again how important it is to know the context. This song has impacted me because I understand the story of Bart’s life. I’ve seen what God did in his life, and in his father’s life. The song is a celebration of who God is and all that he has done. I wouldn’t have understood this without knowing his story.
Andy Stanley is preaching a “stand alone” Christianity. What he means by this is Christianity without the Old Testament. He’s advocating that we set aside the Old Testament now that we have the New. But he’s missing the story. The Old Testament is not simply a book about rules or law-codes. It’s not even all about covenants, as important as they are. It’s about God.
It’s about God’s character. His grace and mercy, his holiness. It’s about his love for the world and his plan to redeem it through Abraham’s descendants, Israel. It is this story that comes to a climax in the coming of Jesus.
We will fail to grasp what God is doing in sending his Son into the world if we don’t know the context, which we learn from the Old Testament. The Old Testament reveals to us who God is. He is the gracious and compassionate God who relentlessly pursues a stubborn and rebellious people. It shows us what human beings are like. It gives us the sober picture of what we are like, and why we need a Savior. In the Old Testament we learn that the solution to the human plight of sin and death will be realized through God’s promises to Abraham and to David, promises that are made to their “seed.”
With these promises firmly etched in our mind, and after many years of waiting for God to act on behalf of his people, we are prepared to hear the opening words of the New Testament when Jesus, the Messiah, is identified as “Son of David, Son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). We understand the significance of this moment because we are familiar with the stories of Abraham and David, and we, like Israel, remember the promises God made to them concerning their “seed.”
Understanding the context for the song, I Can Only Imagine, makes all the difference now when I listen to it. The story of God’s work in Bart’s life reverberates through his music—not only in this song, but I now have ears to hear what his music is all about. It is not simply enjoyable music, but rather, his songs are a testimony to God’s grace and redemption.
There are many reasons why the Old Testament is essential for the Christian Church. One of these reasons is that it sets the context for the coming Messiah. When we read the stories of Jesus and his followers, the story of God’s redemptive work in the Old Testament ought to reverberate in our hearts and minds, as we read with fresh insight about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, our Savior. The Old Testament tells us why we need a Savior, and what we need saving from.
Our faith does not rest on a story, but on Jesus, the resurrected and reigning Messiah. Yet he is the fulfillment of Israel’s story, and thus his arrival is already anticipated some 2,000 years before his birth. When Jesus teaches about himself, it is not surprising that he goes back to the Old Testament, to Moses and the Prophets, for they spoke about him. Jesus is firmly rooted in Israel’s story; he is not unhitched from it. We need to reclaim this story for the church.
If we find the Old Testament difficult to understand, the answer is not to set it aside. Let’s devote ourselves to studying it and teaching it.
Jesus is the climax of the biblical narrative, but we understand him in the context of Israel’s story in the Old Testament. Knowing the story makes all the difference.
No unhitching. It’s all God’s word, and the church needs all of it.
If you’re interested, you can watch the trailer for I Can Only Imagine here.
Dr. Carol M. Kaminski