1. What is the Bible all about?

Could you summarise the message of the Bible in a single sentence?
What do you think is the most significant event recorded in the Bible?
Which verse or passage do you think best sums up the message of the Bible as a whole?
Questions like these prompt us to ask:-
  • What is the Bible all about?
  • What is the Big Picture?
  • What is the shape of its story?
A Christian approach to understanding the Bible
is                            critical & confessional
thinks                    analytically & holistically
expects                 diversity & unity
looks for               narrative & metanarrative

2. Why does it matter?

Have you heard people say,
  • “That’s just your interpretation.”
  • “You can make the Bible teach anything you want it to.”
  • “How can we tell if what the Bible teaches on, say, slavery, adultery or homosexuality applies to us today?”
  • “It’s pointless claiming that ‘The Bible teaches that…’ because the Bible’s message is self-contradictory.”
Seeing the shape of the Bible’s story can help us to
  • find our way through the Bible as a whole
  • interpret individual parts the Bible as God’s word to us
  • avoid common errors in interpreting the Bible, such as allegorising, prooftexting, moralising, and spiritualising
  • deal with difficult passages by relating them to the overall message of the Bible
  • relate the story of the people of God to our own personal stories.
  • show the relationship of the Old Testament to the person and work of Jesus
  • work out what is of local or temporary relevance in the Bible and what is of universal or permanent relevance
  • decide between different opinions and practices, each of which may claim to have ‘what the Bible teaches’ on its side

3. Stories

God has given us a book full of stories
which was made for his people of old.
It begins with the tale of a garden,
and ends with the city of gold.

…so runs an old children’s hymn.  Of course, the Bible has many other types of literature, too.  But it’s not too wide of the mark to say that God’s book is ‘full of stories’.
Of course, a story may be factual, or fictional.  Does that matter?
Any story contains three main elements: characters, setting, and storyline (or plot).
Consider the story of Ruth
Characters Settings Plot
Naomi

Ruth
Boaz
Bethlehem

Moab
Famine

Flight to Moab
Death of Naomi’s husband and sons
Return of Naomi and Ruth
Ruth gleans in Boaz’ field
Boaz’ kindness
Boaz acts as kinsman-redeemer in marrying Ruth
Birth of Obed and subsequent genealogy
In what ways does the story of Ruth link with the story of the Bible as a whole?

4. The Story

But does the Bible contain a Story, as well as stories?  Is there such a thing as ‘the Bible story’?  If so, who are the main characters, what are the principal settings, and what are the main elements in the plot?  What do you think?

5. Promise and Fulfilment

We can detect a number of unifying themes in the Bible Story.
  • God and the people of God
  • ruin and redemption
  • covenant and the new covenant
Vaughan Roberts outlines the Bible’s story-line in terms of the unifying concept of God’s kingdom:
See, for example
1. The Pattern of the Kingdom Genesis 1-2
2. The Perished Kingdom Genesis 3
3. The Promised Kingdom Genesis 17:1-8; Galatians 3:6-14
4. The Partial Kingdom God’s people Genesis 12-Exodus 18
God’s rule & blessing Exodus 19:1-13; 20:1-17
God’s king 2 Samuel 7:1-17
5. The Prophesied Kingdom Hosea 1-3
6. The Present Kingdom Luke 1:39-80; 2:25-32
7. The Proclaimed Kingdom 2 Corinthians 4
8. The Perfected Kingdom Revelation 21:1-8; 21:22-22:5
Let’s pursue the unifying theme of ‘fulfilment of the messianic promise in Christ’
(a) There was a sense of expectancy, of hoping, of waiting, amongst some at the time of Christ
Simeon ‘was waiting for the consolation of Israel’, Luke 2:25.
Anna ‘spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’, Luke 2:38
Joseph of Arimathea ‘was himself waiting for the kingdom of God,’ Mk 15:43
(b) Consider what is written at or near the beginning of each of the four gospels:-
Matthew 1:1  A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham…
Mark 1:1-2  The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  It is written in Isaiah the prophet…
Luke 3:23-38  Jesus…was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph…the son of Adam, the son of God.
John 1:1,14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
(c) Note the emphatic words of Jesus:-
Matthew 5:17 “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.”
And yet it seems that Jesus did indeed ‘abolish’ some of the Old Testament’s most distinctive teachings – on the Sabbath, for example, and on food laws.  What do you make of that?
Does Jesus himself help us to understand?-
Mark 2:27-28 “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Or how does the Epistle to the Hebrews shed light on the question of the continuity/discontinuity of the two testaments?
(d) The New Testament spells out in a variety of ways how Christ fulfils the promise of the Old Testament:-
Old Testament Christ
Prophetic word Completed Hebrews 1:1-2  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…
Promise Fulfilled Acts 13:32f  “We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.  As it is written…”
David’s line Ended Romans 1:3  [God’s] Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David…
Old Testament tells of salvation In Christ 2 Timothy 3:15  …the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
Whole Old Testament Concerns Christ Luke 24:27  Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
(e) The Gospel is proclaimed both by Peter and by Paul in terms of ‘fulfilment’:-
Gospel Peter (Acts 2) Paul (Acts 13)
The Old Testament is fulfilled 16-21; 25-31; 34-36 16-23; 32-39
in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth 22 23-26
who died 23 27-29
and rose again 24,32 30-31, 34-37
and is now exalted 33,36 34
Through him is forgiveness of sins 38 38-39
Therefore… 38-40 40-41

6. Consummation

But the story is not finished yet.
Matthew 25:31  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…”
Acts 1:11  “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
1 Thessalonians 4:16  The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God.
2 Peter 3:11-13  In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.

7. Now/Not Yet

So, where are we in the Story?
Hebrews 2:8  In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.
This now/not yet aspect can be seen in the metaphors that are used in the New Testament for the gift of the Holy Spirit:-
Metaphor The gift of the Spirit is like… See, for example,
Commercial the down-payment in a purchase.  He is both the first instalment and the guarantee that the full payment will follow 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:14
Agricultural the harvesting of the first-fruits.  It is both the beginning of the harvest and the guarantee that the rest will follow Romans 8:23
Social the first course of a banquet.  It is both the foretaste and the guarantee of the meal that will follow Hebrews 6:4-5

Further Reading

John Drane, Journey into the Bible.  Scripture Union, 2001.
Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom: a Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament.  Paternoster Press, 1981.
Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: the unfolding revelation of God in the Bible.  IVP, 1991.
Vaughan Roberts, God’s big picture.  IVP, 2002.
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