Growing up my dad always used the old Wendy’s commercial line, “Where’s the beef?” when coaching basketball (balance, eyes, elbows, follow-through). Now, Dave Thomas was thinking economically (not theologically) when he came up with that world-famous slogan. But that’s the phrase that came to mind Sunday night as I watched the fifth and final installment of The History Channel’s The Bible. That little question, “Where’s the beef?” not only works well on squirrely junior high boys at basketball camp or for selling people a greasy hamburger (and don’t forget that Frosty!). But “Where’s the beef?” is actually a profound theological question.
In other words, where’s the substance, the content, the 200 proof theology, the solid food of doctrine and the meat-and-potatoes-teaching? For man does not live by bread alone but by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. As Chris Rosebrough said at the beginning of his excellent critique of The Bible on Monday’s episode of Fighting for the Faith, “It’s not so much what was said as what wasn’t said that was the most glaring problem with episode five of The Bible.” Agreed. If God’s Word is food, I found myself still stuck in a food line starving after Sunday dinner was served up. The solid food of Scriptural doctrine was missing at key points and the main course of Christianity – Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins – wasn’t on the table after the actual account of Holy Week was over.
To be sure, Sunday’s episode had some good appetizers: The disciples prayed the Lord’s Prayer just as Jesus had taught them as they sat in Jerusalem prior to Pentecost. Considering the overall miniseries was ten episodes long, they spent an appropriate amount of time on the events of Holy Week. Positively speaking, another thing that stood out was the attempt to show what was going on with the disciples after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. There was even a Trinitarian baptism.
However, when it comes to the main course, the overall meal amounted to little more than empty calories. It wasn’t so much what was on the plate as what was left in the kitchen, that was the problem for this viewer. At the end of the evening, I couldn’t help but ask, “Where’s the beef?” So, here are four courses I found missing from the table on Sunday evening.
First Course: Thomas’ confession
The disciples were gathered in the upper room on the first day of the week just like the Biblical record teaches us. However, there were a few unexpected guests around the dinner table, Regina for one (the woman disciple never mentioned in Scripture). And Thomas, who wasn’t actually there when Jesus first appeared to the disciples. I understand the need for cinematic compression of time. But when contrasted to the Biblical record, the missing dialog between Jesus and Thomas in The Bible is all the more tasteless.
Thomas’ big confession wasn’t simply that Jesus had risen. All of the other disciples, and the women, had already known that and come to believe that fact. Thomas’ big confession was all about who Jesus was in view of His death and resurrection. But perhaps the cooks never intended it to be on the menu in the first place. Here’s what you missed from John 20 if you tuned in to The Bible:
24 Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
26 And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
28 And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Where was Thomas’ confession that Jesus is both God and Lord? It’s important because he used the New Testament Greek word, kyrios (meaning Lord, which was also used for the Old Testament designation of God as YHWH). Thomas is saying Jesus is YHWH in human flesh. And it was this God who died and rose again for him and for the disciples and for the world. Instead, we hear how Jesus “is back” and we hear that Thomas say, “It is you,” without any explanation or rationale as to why he believes Jesus is risen from the dead or who he believes Jesus is. In other words, Christology was entirely missing from this event. So, where’s the beef?
Second Course: Jesus’ teaching before His ascension
The next major scene zeroes in on the disciples gathered around Jesus at Bethany just prior to His ascension to the right hand of the Father. But does Jesus say anything about the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations? Do we hear anything about teaching Jesus’ doctrine and baptizing all nations in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? Do the disciples receive a promise that Jesus will be with them always to the end of the age? No, none of these things are taught. Rather, we hear Jesus say, “Ask for the Holy Spirit and I will send it to you.” Here’s what the disciples heard at Bethany and what was tragically missing from The Bible mini-series account of Jesus’ ascension:
Matthew 28: 16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
Luke 24: 50 And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. 51 Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen.
Acts 1: 4 And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; 5 for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. 8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Mein Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Not only are Jesus’ words and promises absent from His ascension sermon to the disciples, but the work of the Holy Spirit is reduced to some kind of bargain and deal between the disciples and God, “if you ask I will send it to you.” Jesus didn’t say, “Ask for the Spirit and I will sent it,” but rather, “Wait…I will send Him to you.” Also, the Biblical record states that the Holy Spirit is a “He”, the third person of the Trinity and not some kind of “it,” as if the Holy Spirit were some sort of midichlorian based force. What’s missing? The Holy Spirit and the means of grace through which He brings faith in the Crucified and Risen Christ to all believers. Again, where’s the beef?
Third Course: Peter’s sermon at Pentecost
Fast forward to the Pentecost scene; the disciples are gathered together; they’re praying the Lord’s Prayer (which was a nice touch I thought); and the Holy Spirit rushes in like a mighty wind. The disciples also spoke in languages known at the time (Latin, Greek, etc.) instead of the aimless, nonsensical babble that is passed off as the speaking of tongues in Pentecostal churches (kudos for that idea too). But then the whole buffet line of God’s Word got lost somewhere between the kitchen and the public preaching. No tongues of flame and fire on the disciples’ foreheads. No Gospel preaching. No sermon from Peter:
22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know— 23 Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have takenby lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; 24 whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it… 32 This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. 33 Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. 34 “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, 35 Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”’ 36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” 37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” 38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”
What’s missing? The Gospel, which is the entire reason for Pentecost. Peter’s Pentecost proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins is skipped over with laughter and excitement over the disciples’ new-found language skills. The entire substance and center of the Christian faith is lacking from Pentecost in The Bible. The mini-series has presented us with the base facts of the story and the surrounding context but has given us no meat to chew on. Instead of the rich Scriptural food we are given theological rice-cakes. To be clear, I never expected the writers and producers to include this much detail or exact quotations but a sentence or two would’ve sufficed and made the point.
The point, however, to be made here is not what was present, but what was missing that is the problem. To quote Chris Rosebrough, “The big deal at Pentecost was not that the disciples could speak in foreign languages. The big deal at Pentecost was the Gospel being proclaimed to all nations.” Where’s the beef?
Fourth Course: Paul and Justification
Finally, a significant amount of time in the closing segment of The Bible dealt with the Saul’s conversion, his subsequent work as an apostle, and the growth of the Christian church as a result of Paul’s teaching. But before we get to Paul and Justification, there are two statements made by Peter and Stephen respectively that directly relate to the problems with Paul in The Bible. Namely, Peter saying that Jesus didn’t die and Stephen’s quotation that, “They tried to kill him but they failed.” The problem with both of these statements is that they are the exact opposite of what Peter and Stephen actually preached. Both men (Peter in particular) preached that Jesus, whom you (speaking to the Jews) crucified is now risen from the dead. These two misquotes expose the lack of Christ-centered, cross-focused teaching and preaching when it comes to the time spent on St. Paul.
Again, I think it was a good thing that the producers chose to spend some time on the life of the first Christians after Jesus’ ascension. However, they would’ve done well to read Paul Maier’s The Very First Christians in addition to the Biblical text in order to include the center of the Christian message. This became painfully obvious when we the viewer was introduced to Paul’s life and ministry. Instead of focusing on Paul’s teaching (which is what he wanted the people in the churches he ministered to focus on), the writers and producers of The Bible chose to focus on Paul. Instead of focusing on the Gospel and the justification of the sinner by Christ Crucified, we heard all about Paul’s struggles to fit in with his new-found Christian brothers. Yes, some of his writings were quoted here and there, especially 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. But if all we preach is love and have not Christ, we are a noisy gong and a clanging symbol, a dinner bell to come and get it, only to find a shiny, empty plate in front of them. What was missing from the segment on Paul? Here are a few suggestions:
Romans 1: 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
Galatians 3: 13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”, 14 that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
1 Timothy 1: 15 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. 16 However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.
The Lutheran reformers rightly taught that the article of Justification is the article upon which the church stands or falls. And that Justification by grace through faith is the center of the Scriptures, indeed the very purpose for Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The fact that this teaching is lacking in The Bible by extension also means that the Gospel is lacking. Yes, there are “moments”, hints and implicit or brief accounts of the Gospel, but again, what was there wasn’t as problematic as what was missing. What’s missing? The central article of the Christian faith: Justification by grace through faith in Christ Crucified. Where’s the beef?
Conclusion: Serving Up a Meal for Non-Christians
All along many of the critics of the critics of The Bible have leveled the charge that we’re being overly harsh in regards to reviewing this mini-series. “At least the Gospel is getting out there,” I’ve heard. “It’s a good tool for evangelism,” “This show will be a good introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the Bible,” or “The Bible is good for non-Christians who might not be as open to picking up a Bible.”
All of these arguments are flawed in a few ways. First of all, I would argue that The Bible doesn’t serve the evangelistic purpose many claim it does. For one thing, the actual evangel, i.e. the Gospel is at best hard to find or absent altogether, or at worst, The Bible presents the viewer with another gospel (Galatians 1). Is it really all that good to put medicine out into the public that a doctor claims will provide healing but in actuality makes people sick?
Secondly, if The Bible is supposed to be an introduction to the Scriptures for those who are unfamiliar with the text, wouldn’t it be a good idea to get the facts right? Doesn’t it actually do more harm than good to have misinformation out in the public, especially when it might confuse the non-Christian, when they do end up reading a Bible for the first time. It will appear completely different from the story they were fed on the History Channel. Now, I don’t consider myself a Ph.D. in exegetical theology, but I do consider myself fairly Biblically literate. At times I was confused at the characters and where the plot of the mini-series was going. What does that say to the non-Christian who picks up this film hoping it will make sense?
Finally, the overall problem from my perspective, is that the real Gospel is absent from The Bible precisely because it isn’t nearly as palatable as what was broadcasted in The Bible. Leaving the Gospel off the menu makes Christianity marketable to a wider audience. But what kind of Christianity are we serving up if we take the solid meat of Christ, the Gospel and Justification, the work of the Holy Spirit and the means of grace, and the promises and Words of Jesus for His Church? We are left with a counterfeit and Christ-less Christianity.
I’m not saying Christians should avoid watching, The Bible. On the contrary, Christians should watch it. They’re neighbors, family and friends are watching it. It’s good to be informed. But we should watch it as good Bereans, being discerning about what we put on their spiritual plates. Also, and I think this is the most important benefit of The Bible, it may be a good conversation starter, both in terms of the positive and negative aspects of the mini-series. And if that conversation leads to a proclamation of the Gospel, then I think The Bible will have served a worthwhile purpose.
Although The Bible may be more like spiritual candy to be eaten sparingly and with caution, it is no substitute for the daily bread Christ dishes up for His people at the Lord’s Table and in His holy Word. Where’s the beef? Don’t look for it in The Bible, rather, search the Scriptures (the book is way better than the movie anyhow) and find a faithful church where the regular meal being served up is a feast of Christ’s body and blood, His Word and water, and His forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.