(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the CSB).
The Bible is a long book. A very, very long book.
To be more precise, it’s actually a collection of books – 66 ancient documents, written and compiled over more than a thousand years, collected and meticulously preserved by people of faith down through the centuries. Scripture is somewhat like a mosaic – many different pieces brought together to form one intricate work of art.
But for many people, the Bible seems like little more than a haphazard patchwork of ancient stories. We read about epic events like the creation of the world, the great flood, and the Tower of Babel. We follow the exploits of famous characters like Adam & Eve, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Most of us know the familiar tales of Samson and his strength; David’s battle against Goliath; Daniel in the lion’s den.
But even though these are fascinating stories, what links them all together? Is the Bible just a collection of cool things God did, or of brave heroes we should imitate?
Complicating the matter is the fact that throughout the Old Testament we also get bombarded with tedious genealogies and weird tales about ancient kings warring over lands whose names we can’t pronounce. We read page after page of laws, instructions for sacrifices, and all the intricate architectural dimensions of the Jewish temple. These parts are great if you’re into historical minutiae, but not so much if you’re looking for some quick inspiration to post on Instagram.
Apparently, then, the Bible is more than just a collection of moral lessons. Otherwise, what’s the point of all these historical details? Not to mention the obvious fact that many of the Bible’s “heroes” are very flawed people (like all of us). Preachers say to “Be like David,” which is great advice when he’s trusting God and fighting evil giants, but what about that time he committed adultery and had the woman’s husband murdered to cover it up (see 2 Samuel 11)?
But then, the Bible also can’t be just a history textbook, for when we get to the middle of it we find songs and proverbs and philosophical treatises (that’s assuming you make it that far!). Then, after reading through several hundred pages of puzzling prophecies, we reach the New Testament – the accounts of Jesus and the early church – and maybe you breathe a sigh of relief.
But what’s the connection between it all?
Is there an overarching plot?
It turns out there is. It’s just easy to miss if you approach the Bible the wrong way.
Adjusting Our Approach
The Bible really does tell one big, interconnected story. But if you go into it with the wrong expectations you can easily lose the forest for the trees. Here are three “course-corrections” we need to make before we can understand what the biblical story is all about:
1. Realize That It Wasn’t Written Directly to You.
The Bible is not meant to be read like a fortune cookie or a magic 8-ball, where you can randomly jump in, pick out a verse, and apply it to your life. To do so can actually be quite dangerous – after all, what are you going to do if you randomly flip open to Ezekiel 16:38 for some life advice: “I will judge you the way adulteresses and those who shed blood are judged. Then I will bring about the shedding of your blood in jealous wrath”?
That verse might be just what you need if you’re looking for lyrics to put in your next heavy-metal song, but without any context how can you hope to know what Ezekiel was actually trying to say? You have to remember that Scripture wasn’t written to you directly – it was written by an ancient Israelite prophet to other ancient Israelites who were under God’s judgment for their sins.
We have to learn to read Scripture as a continuously-unfolding drama about God and his plans. To do otherwise would be like reading a random paragraph in an 800-page novel and expecting to understand what’s going on.
Only after we understand what the Bible meant “back then” can we start to interpret what it has to say to us here and now.
2. Recognize That God is the Main Character.
Every story has a protagonist – the main character, the hero. The figure whose actions shape the story. What about the Bible?
Turns out the hero of the Bible is God himself. From page one he’s the primary actor in the story: “In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1). And every book, every passage in the Bible is in some way about God, his character, his purposes, and his interactions with the world he’s created. Even in passages where God isn’t explicitly mentioned (the entire book of Esther, for example), it’s still all about his plans to overcome evil and rescue his people.
That’s not to say that people don’t also play important roles – they do. But the human figures in the Bible are merely supporting characters (or villains!). And – surprise! – that applies to us as well!
The Bible shows us that the story of the world involves much more than just us. You and I aren’t the stars of the story of reality, or even of our own lives, no matter how much we may want to believe otherwise. The history we find ourselves in is God’s unfolding story, and the Bible challenges us to decide what our place in that story will be – will we be on the side of the hero, or against him?
3. Remember That It All Points to Jesus.
As we read the Gospel accounts, we come across some startling claims from Jesus:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17, NIV)
“He said to them [his disciples], ‘How foolish and slow you are to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn’t it necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:25-27)
“You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.” – Jesus to the Jewish leaders (John 5:39-40)
In other words, everything in the Bible is in some way about Jesus. He is the center of the story. The Old Testament points forward in anticipation to him, and the New Testament reveals him as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to save his people, be their king, dwell with them, overcome sin and evil, and renew the world.
So what is the one story of the Bible? It’s all about Jesus – the Word of God, God the Son.It’s about God creating this world and people to live with him under his perfect rule as our loving King. And it’s about him saving the world after we messed it up through sin.
There are lots of ups and downs along the way. God’s people fail time and time again to obey God and stay under his rule. But God keeps promising to come and save them and be with them. And in Jesus, those promises come to fulfillment.
And they’re still coming to fulfillment! Because the Bible is a story that ends, in a sense, with a “To Be Continued…” It closes with the promise that Jesus’ story isn’t finished yet, because he is going to come into the world again and finish what he began.
And that’s where you come in – will you be part of his kingdom, or not?
(Be sure to check back Wednesday for a follow-up post, where I’ll cover some practical steps to reading the Bible with the big picture in mind.)