You may have noticed that, in contrast to many modern authors, the biblical writers use words very economically. The biblical narratives, for example, do not contain exhaustive reports of the events they describe. Instead, the author has made a very deliberate decision about what to include (and what to leave out) and how to tell the story. Many things that we would really be interested in (what people or places looked like, what people’s feelings were, etc.) are often not mentioned in the text. It seems that the author includes only those things that are relevant for his telling of the story and for the point he is trying to make. Thus the things he does mention and the way he mentions them become very important. Nothing is just written down because it looks or sounds good. Everything has significance, even those details that do not appear to have any importance. That’s why we have to read very attentively and notice very carefully which details the author has chosen to reveal to us and how he has shaped his text. (This is also the main reason why it’s so important to either read the text in its original language or use a translation that is very faithful to the original language.)
Let me illustrate using an example from the gospel of John.
In John 18 Jesus is taken captive and brought before Annas. Peter and another disciple follow Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest. Beginning in v 16 the narrative focuses on Peter:
But Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought in Peter. The slave-girl therefore who kept the door said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the officers were standing there, having made a fire of coals, for it was cold and they were warming themselves; and Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself. (vv 16-18)
There are a lot of interesting things we could focus on in these three verses, but I will limit myself only to one interesting detail the author mentions, namely that there was a fire of coals in that courtyard. This detail is often taken for granted. But as attentive readers we have to ask ourselves the question: why did the author choose to mention this detail? After all, the story would work just as well without the fire of coals. The author could have simply told us that the slaves and officers were standing in the courtyard and that Peter was standing with them. Why is the fire important? Chapter 18 does not seem to provide an answer to this question. Neither do chapters 19 and 20. It is only when we get to John 21 that we begin to understand why the fire of coals was mentioned in John 18.
In John 21 several disciples go back to their former job as fishermen. In the morning Jesus appears on the shore, tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat, whereupon they catch a lot of fish.
Verse 9 tells us what happened when they got to shore:
And so when they got out upon the land, they saw a fire of coals laid, and fish placed on it, and bread.
The attentive reader of John 21:9 will immediately notice that the author again mentions a fire of coals. In fact, John 18:18 and 21:9 are the only two places in the entire gospel of John where a fire of coals is mentioned. This is certainly not accidental! Instead, the author has intentionally mentioned the fire of coals in these verses in order to connect the two scenes. In John 18 Peter betrays Jesus three times at a fire of coals. In John 21 Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him – at a fire of coals. In other words, Jesus takes Peter back to the scene of chapter 18, back to the place where Peter betrayed him and there in effect asks him: how do you really feel about me? And thus he gives him the opportunity to relive the scene in the courtyard and to make a different decision.
That’s how God is: he takes us back to the point where we fell and gives us a chance to start over. And he does something even better. He becomes a human himself, goes back to where we fell, faces the same temptations we face and remains victorious, lives the same life we live but without sinning and then dies the death that we deserve so that we may receive back the life we once had. What a God!