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When I first started reading the Bible I did what many people do—I started in the beginning and tried to read to the end. For a while, it went pretty well. From Genesis 1, through Exodus 19, I read a collection of stories that were both interesting and strange. But once I got to Exodus 20, it all changed. It started talking about the laws and how to build a tent. In Leviticus, it went on and on about the sacrificial system, whatever that is. Then it counted a lot in Numbers, finally ending with the law AGAIN in Deuteronomy. My stories were gone and so was my will. This happened on several occasions. Each time, I either stopped reading the Bible or skipped the rest of the Old Testament, and just focused on the New.
Why do I tell you this? The Bible is an important book, but it is a long book with lots of complexity. Many Christians are told they are supposed to read, love, and apply the Bible to their lives, but when they try, many get lost in confusion and miss the overall meaning. I believe one of the keys to studying the Bible is understanding its overall story.
While the Bible contains two testaments and 66 books, it tells one unified story centered around Jesus.
In our second part of how to study the Bible series, I want to help provide a foundation for you, so wherever you are in the Bible, you will know how what you are reading fits into the overall message of the Bible. These four words succinctly summarize the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, re-creation.
- Creation (Genesis 1-2)
The Bible begins with these significant words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” First, it introduces us to the central character of the Bible, God. The Bible will introduce us to other characters along the way, like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Ruth, Peter, Paul, but don’t be fooled. More than the Bible is a book about humanity, it is a book about God—who He is and who we are in light of Him.
Second, we see God as creator. God takes what is formless and void and creates a beautiful world out of nothing. We see God’s power, wisdom, and beauty on display, as He simply speaks and creates a good world. He creates light, separates the sky and sea, and creates land and vegetation. He creates the sun, moon, and stars. He fills the land, sky, and sea with animals, and then He speaks into existence the pinnacle of His creation, humanity. God intimately makes man by breathing into him the breath of life, makes humanity in his image, and gives them the mandate to rule and reign on the earth.
God places earth's first humans, Adam and Eve, in the garden of Eden where they live in peace, and the presence of God dwells among them. Genesis, chapters 1 and 2, are a picture of what life is supposed to be like.
- Fall (Genesis 3-11)
In order to understand the beauty of the biblical story, we must first understand the devastation. The tragedy of this story is humanity chooses to depart from this good, kind, and beautiful Creator.
God gives Adam and Eve abundant blessings by putting them in a fruitful garden and giving them the freedom to use its resources and the authority to rule on His behalf. But God also gives them one rule: use everything, but do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This command is tested when a mysterious creature described as a serpent enters the story in Genesis 3. Later in the Bible, we learn the tempter is Satan, the powerful fallen angel who opposes God. The serpent challenges Adam’s and Eve’s allegiance to God and presents opposition to God as more lovely than obedience to God. Adam and Eve choose to trust this lie rather than the command of God, and the results are devastating. Sin enters the world and chaos follows. They are removed from the garden, their intimacy with God is severed, and their hearts fundamentally become prideful, greedy, and selfish. Genesis 4-11, describe how wicked earth gets with sinful humans dwelling on it. The wickedness of mankind so grieves the heart of God, He judges their sin by wiping them away in a flood. Yet in grace, God preserves one man, Noah, and his family, but even the flood can’t wash away the stain of sin. Even after the fresh start, sin causes ruin on the earth, which culminates in God confusing the languages of humanity at the tower of Babel, and distributing the people throughout the earth.
- Redemption (Genesis 3-Jude)
Despite humanity’s rejection of God, in His grace, God is not giving up on them. Immediately after the fall, as God is pronouncing judgement, He also speaks of redemption. God says to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” While it is unlikely that Adam and Eve would have understood the full implications of this statement, the progressive revelation of Scripture clues us into what God was saying. One day someone is coming who will deal with the sins of the world. He will destroy the works of the serpent, but in doing so, He will be wounded. This blow is fatal, but not final. No more is said. We don’t hear anything again until Genesis 12.
Blessing through a family (Genesis 12-Joshua)
In Genesis 12, the attention narrows from God dealing with the whole world to His dealings with one family by His choosing a man named Abram—calling him to leave his family and his country and follow God to a land He will later reveal. Abram’s name is later changed to Abraham. God promises Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great...and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” What does this mean? This means God’s snake crusher who will redeem humanity will come from the family of Abraham. The rest of Genesis and Exodus explains how the family grows, finds itself enslaved in Egypt, gets rescued from slavery, becomes established as God’s chosen nation, and is promised a land in Canaan. God gives them a law, tells them they are to be a kingdom of priests that should lead other nations to the goodness of God, and gives them instructions to build a tent where His personal presence will dwell among them.
Right after God gives them the law and tells them to follow this law to live, He gives them the book of Leviticus. Essentially He is saying, “Since you won’t be able to follow this law, I’m giving you a way for your sins to be covered and for you to live in the proximity of a Holy God.”
Despite God’s personal presence, Israel fails to trust God’s command to enter into the Promised Land and is sent into a 40-year period of wandering in the wilderness. After that generation dies in the desert, God gives the new generation the law again—the book of the Bible called Deuteronomy. This generation follows God’s commands, enters into the Promised Land, and experiences a season of blessing.
Kings and their failure (Judges-2 Chronicles)
While this is good news, it is short-lived. Unfortunately, the root of the problem still exists. The stain of sin still lurks deeply within humans, and the blood of animals does not rid humanity of evil. After the season of blessing during Joshua’s leadership, Israel is reminded how deeply the real problem lies. Israel enters into the time of the Judges when they have no leader and everyone does what is right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).
God then establishes the time of the monarchy. One might hope the kings of God’s chosen people will guide the nation to love, adore, and walk in His commands. Unfortunately, this never happens. The first three kings of Israel are Saul, David, and Solomon; each reigns for 40 years. David is known as a man after God’s own heart, but even David fails to obey God fully. In spite of the king’s failures, God promises He will send a future king from the family of David who will not fail—His kingdom will reign forever.
As time goes on, David’s sons fall woefully short. After the reign of David’s son Solomon, the kingdom goes into civil war and splits: north and south. The kings that follow lead Israel further and further away from God and eventually into exile.
The Prophets and a future hope (Isaiah-Malachi)
Because of Israel’s disobedience, God sends nations like Assyria and Babylon to judge them. Some of the prophets write to communicate God’s pending judgement for the nation’s sins, and that is exactly what happens. Israel is conquered and exiled from the land, but the story is not over. Within these prophetic writings lay glimmers of hope.
Ezekiel identifies the source of the problem. It is not that Israel makes bad choices; something is fundamentally wrong with the human heart. Ezekiel says Israel has hearts of stone. No matter how obvious God’s activity is in their lives, something within them causes them to turn their backs on Him. But Ezekiel prophesies one day God will give them a new heart, and He will put His Spirit within them, which will give them the ability to obey God (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Jeremiah prophesies one day God will make a new covenant with the people of Israel, in which the LORD says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jeremiah 31:33).”
Isaiah prophesies a boy will be born who will be called Emmanuel, God with us (Isaiah 9). He also prophesies the LORD’s servant is coming to free the people from their sin and shame. But He will bring freedom not by conquering as a king, but by being led as a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53). God’s servant will free the people by suffering and dying for them.
After 70 years in exile, God’s people are released, and they go back into the land to rebuild the wall and the temple. The voices of the prophets end with Malachi, and God remains silent for 400 years. All of these hopes are left hanging.
The King has arrived (Matthew-John)
Silence breaks after 400 years with angelic appearances declaring both the forerunner and the Messiah are on their way. The gospel accounts clearly identify Jesus as the one who is going to carry Israel’s story forward. But you can tell pretty quickly He isn’t going to do it the way the people expect. Rather than leading a movement to overthrow the Romans and establish His kingdom, He will let the Romans overthrow Him in order to bring freedom to the whole world.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy revealing Jesus descends from the family of Abraham and the family of David. Matthew emphatically makes the point the ONE who is coming from the family of Abraham, who will be a blessing to the whole world, and the King from the family of David, who will reign forever is here—He is Jesus of Nazareth.
In the Gospel of Luke, Luke presents Jesus as the Messiah prophesied by Isaiah. In Luke 4:16-21, Luke describes Jesus walking into the synagogue in Nazareth and reading from the scroll of Isaiah. The text Jesus reads describes the servant of the LORD who will bring freedom and proclaim liberty. Then Jesus announces, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled.
The four Gospels tell the same story from different perspectives—Jesus is the one of whom the authors of the Old Testament prophecy, saying He will come and destroy evil at its source. These Gospels identify Jesus as the Messiah of the Old Testament promises, the King who reigns forever, the Suffering Servant who gives His life for others, and the God who takes on flesh and dwells among His creation.
All four Gospels end with the climax of this greatest story ever told. “. . .Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures….Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time…(1 Corinthians 15:3-6).” “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name…(Philippians 2:9).”
The Church is born (Acts-Jude)
The book of Acts begins with Jesus’ entrusting His followers with His mission to proclaim His message of freedom to the whole world. Afterward, Jesus ascends into heaven and fulfills His promise (John 14:16-17) to send the Holy Spirit to earth. Luke follows the story of a new humanity indwelt with the Spirit of God (Acts 2:1-4) taking Jesus’ message to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In this book, we find the establishment of the church, the first Christians, and practical examples of Spirit-filled lives.
During the time of the early church, some of the major leaders in this movement (Paul, Peter, John, and others) write letters to fellow Christians further explaining what it means to be a Christian.
One of the main truths these writers consistently teach is this—the work of Jesus transforms. They want the people to understand Christianity is not a movement based on a new moral code: do right, and don’t do wrong. Instead, because of God’s grace, Jesus came to transform hearts. To make hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. To bring people from death to life. To bring sight to the blind. To make slaves free. To cause enemies of God to be His sons and daughters.
A second truth these writers emphasize is salvation is for the whole world, not just for the nation of Israel. Jesus brings together Jew and Gentile and makes a new humanity through the power of His Spirit. Jesus sends the Spirit of God, Who gives believers power they couldn’t formerly possess. Those who are saved by God have his Spirit living inside them, enabling them to love God and love people. Many of the writers give practical instructions for believers on how their lives should be influenced by their new identity and the power of the Spirit.
The writers also communicate God’s people are to carry His Gospel message forward. His plan is to use imperfect people to show the reality of a perfect God .
- Re-creation (Revelation)
The Bible begins with a picture of heaven and earth united—humanity dwelling intimately with God without sin or shame. The Bible closes with the hope one day heaven and earth will be reunited once more, and all who trust in Jesus will live with Him with no more sin or shame. John states in Revelation 21:1-4,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
The hope we have as believers is Jesus is coming again to make all things right. While Christians have been declared righteous by God, effects of the fall still linger and are pervasive in our lives. While God promises Christians a future home with Him without sin or pain, our current home is far from that reality. We are stuck in an ‘already, but not yet’ situation. God initiated the re-establishment of the kingdom of God, but the culmination of this reality will not become complete until Jesus returns again. The timing and details of when and how that will take place have been argued for two thousand years. But this is clear—when Jesus comes, evil will be eradicated from our world, and all who believe in Jesus as their Savior will finally become their truest selves. There will be no more sin, no more pain, and we will dwell with God forever.
This is our beautiful story all about our beautiful God. Wherever you are in the Bible, I hope you see the beauty of God as His story unfolds.
Check back next week as we examine key differences between the Old Testament and New Testament.
This summary of the story of the Bible was inspired by The Bible Project. For more information and resources, check out thebibleproject.com.