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When I first read that Eugene Peterson had just days left to live, I had mixed emotions. I was happy for him that he would soon be in the presence of Jesus, and yet, I also felt sad, because we were about to lose a great champion of the faith.
If you don’t know who Peterson is, you have probably at least heard of his most well-known project, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, a modern-day paraphrase of Scripture. If there’s one thing that Peterson’s life and work leaves us with, it is that Scripture is meant to be read, understood, and engaged with.
Peterson has written many other books that are considered classic works on discipleship, but it is perhaps his Five Conversations in Spiritual Theology series that has most resonated with me, specifically the second book in the series—Eat This Book. If you’ve never read the book, you should, for several reasons, but chief among them is that in it, he describes the purpose and process by which he went about his work of modernizing the language of Scripture to make it easy for everyone to understand.
In Eat This Book, Peterson brings us back to the time when the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah were trying to rebuild the nation of Israel after exile. They did so by rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, but they also reintroduced the Israelites to the Law of Moses. The problem is, this Law was written in Hebrew, and these Israelites, coming from a life of exile in Persia, spoke Aramaic. Nehemiah records that a group of Levites walked around the crowds of people, interpreting the text into Aramaic, answering questions, and helping them understand what the Law meant (Nehemiah 8:7-8).
According to Peterson, the Levites did this not just by providing “dictionary equivalents to the words that were being read”, but they interpreted it in a way that “engaged the lives, the hearts and souls, not just the minds, of the people.” So when Peterson worked on The Message, he believed that the intended end of true translation is to “bring about the kind of understanding that involves the whole person in tears and laughter, heart and soul, in what is written, what is said.”
Even though The Message is not without its flaws, I value Peterson’s intention of paraphrasing Scripture in language that is accessible and familiar to our modern ears. While it may have been written by one man, instead of a team of translator, and Peterson may have used some modern colloquialisms in order to “modernize” the text, I appreciate him for getting at the heart of what those did all those years ago in Israel—making God’s Word clear and relatable.
Scripture is meant to be understood, so that we can apply and live it out. And I’m thankful that with the aid of a paraphrase like The Message, many Christians can now read the Bible with greater understanding.
Personally, Peterson’s work has also helped me during spiritually dry seasons of my life. When stories or passages felt stale and too familiar in a regular translation, the fresh words of The Message offered me a perspective that helped to awaken the awe and excitement that Scripture should bring. Certain words or phrases from Peterson’s paraphrase have stayed with me over the years. I’ll never forget his translation of a phrase in the Sermon on the Mount: “You’re kingdom subjects; now live like it.” There have been multiple times when these simple words have kicked me into gear.
Peterson’s legacy has also helped me find creative ways to aid my students in understanding Scripture. Once, when we were studying the New Testament epistles, I tasked my students to write a modern-day epistle, to consider what needed to be said to the church today. About half of my students wrote their epistle in some convoluted version of Old English, using “thou,” “thee,” “shan’t,” and other similar words. Reading their epistles was a revolutionary moment for me. I sat there with a pile of essays and a heavy heart, realizing these students think this is what Scripture sounds like. It sounds like Shakespeare to them—written in language that is archaic, formal, and removed from their daily language.
I began wondering: How do I help them understand that Scripture is meant to change and form their very lives, not an irrelevant or foreign text? When I read Peterson’s heart behind The Message, I felt as if I found the answer.
So in memory of Peterson, I type these words, championing his work and his heart for people to understand Scripture, and to be formed by it. Challenge yourself to engage with Scripture in such a way that understanding is your goal. Look words up, read various translations along with a trusted commentary, read a paraphrase, maybe even try to paraphrase a few verses yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be unengaged with Scripture. Instead, “eat this book.” And then, go and live it out!
I didn’t know him personally, but reading his works make me feel as if he was my friend. And so, knowing that he’s now passed on, I can’t help but rejoice, because I know my friend is now in the presence of Jesus and because of that, he is living—truly living.