Check out the other topics for this quarter:
What is sin?
Overview of the Books of History
Conquering of Canaan
The Story of the Bible
Major Character: Joshua
Memory Verse: Joshua 1:7-9
We want to take complex subjects and break them down into digestible amounts. My dad always told me that you have to “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” To this day I have never been forced to or even wanted to eat an elephant, but consuming big stuff in small quantities still makes a lot of sense.
Understanding the narrative arc of the Bible is key to putting all of its individual pieces in the proper context and perspective. Indeed, many of us try to understand or study of the Bible without taking a step back to view it as a unified work. Unfortunately, there is no preface, afterward, or handy outline from the authors or an inspired editor to clearly identify the narrative arc of the Bible. In spite of this shortfall, though, we can determine the overall narrative arc by examining the story of the Bible itself.
The beginning, middle, and end of stories
One way to analyze a story is by identifying its characteristics. Complete stories all follow the same pattern; they have a beginning, middle, and end.
The beginning of a story is characterized by the author providing the background, setting, and character introductions. Biblical accounts are notoriously sparse in their details. When an author does provide a detail, it will almost always be critical to understanding the story. The beginning usually ends with an introduction of the plot conflict.
The middle of stories develop the problem and the characters until the problem reaches a climax. Obstacles force the characters to take action. Conflict reveals the true nature of the characters. Good stories also change and develop characters over time. A climax occurs when the problem is brought to a critical moment. The climax is the beginning of the end of the story.
The ends of stories bring everything to a conclusion. Stories set out to resolve the conflict they introduced. Often details are brought in to help the reader understand how the resolution really did achieve a solution to the problem.
Why might this ‘big-picture’ story be missing from the way we tell the story of the Bible?
Could you imagine a story without a beginning, middle, or end? Why are each of these pieces critical?
Humans are storytellers. We are fascinated by stories. Stories surround our lives. Think about the movies, books, video games, and TV Shows you love.
How do you adopt or reject stories in your life? Are there stories that you love so much that you act as though you are that hero or heroine in real life?
Everyone exists at the center of a story they are telling about themselves. If you ask someone to tell you their story, they won’t be confused, because they intuitively know that they are the starring role in the story named after them.
Headings are not real
You may be aware that the headings you see in your Bibles are added by translators. Therefore, the division of the books of the Bible into chapters and verses and smaller stories was done well after the fact. There is very little evidence of this type of what we might call “editorial” work for the Bible.
This means that we have to be clever about how we understand the plot and narrative arc of the Bible. No one will hand it to us on a silver platter. We must be students of the word and diligently study what the authors are doing to understand how all the pieces fit together.
Christians believe that the Bible is a single, unified work. We believe that dozens of authors penned the individual works, over hundreds of years, but one Holy Spirit inspired all of these scriptures to point toward a single truth. The New Testament authors are very clear that Jesus is the truth to which all Scriptures are pointing towards (John 5:39-40, Luke 24:27, Acts 8:35, Acts 17:11, 2 Timothy 3:14-17).
Have you ever had to work backward from the solution to figure out the answer to a math problem? This is what we will do here. We know that the Bible is a story that points to Jesus. Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection bring the story to a climax, so we can then examine scriptures to see how the rest of the Bible fits into our paradigm.
We are going to take the pieces that are common to all stories (beginning, middle, and end), and map them on to the Bible until we can determine how different parts align well or poorly with these characteristics.
The Bible gives us a lot of contextual clues about where the beginning of the story is located (Genesis 1:1). Figuring out where the conflict is introduced is not incredibly difficult either (Genesis 3:1). Interestingly, though, the stories that follow the account in Genesis 3 follow the similar patterns and have corresponding characteristics until Genesis chapter 12.
In Genesis 12, we see the story take a very different turn. Instead of continuing a whirlwind overview of humanity as a whole, with dozens of generations and civilizations whipping by, we slow way down. We zoom in until we are focused on a single character, named Abram.
Genesis 3-11 describes the plot conflict. God’s good world has been devastated by sin. Humans were given free will and they chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Through these chapters, we can see humanity elevating their own definition of what is good over God’s. These stories culminate in a story about humanity working together to oppose God’s will and create the Tower of Babel (or Babylon - same word in Hebrew).
Interestingly, when we take this view, one can notice that humans are not the main character in this story. That is one of the reasons we say that “the Bible is the story of God and what he has done for us.” God’s conflict is that he desires to be in a relationship with his good creation, but they continue to sin and wreak havoc on his creation. If he was to be near them, they would be destroyed in their sin.
The conflict that God must resolve, then, is how to bring his creatures back into a relationship with him.
The middle of our story describes God’s efforts to do that. God enters into a joint venture beginning with this character Abram and his descendants. We learn more about God and his nature throughout this story. God reveals that he could do things unilaterally (like the flood), but it turns out he is constantly seeking human partners (like Moses) to act on his behalf to rescue others. God desires to partner with us, not because he is weak, but because he loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us.
Throughout the Old Testament, God brings more and more people into his fold. He works through flawed humans just like you and me to eventually build his own Holy Nation. The story of Israel, his chosen nation, echoes the very first conflict, however. We see God’s people given the choice between honoring God’s commands and going their own way. His people choose poorly, and just like in the story of Eden, they are banished from God’s good land and sent into exile in the east.
From this state of exile, the people of Israel seem to wallow for hundreds of years. They mourn and regret their foolish ways. God no longer dwells as a cloud in their temple. They no longer enjoy his bountiful blessings but instead, suffer from the consequences of their own choices. Empire after empire moves in to control their own leaders and institutions.
Into this chaos and mire, arrives our hero in a new way. God again shows up at just the right time. But this time, God is among us as one of us. God becomes a human; the person of Jesus. He is not dropped out of heaven like a superhero from a strange planet. Instead, he is born as a helpless child. People are seeking to kill him from the moment of his birth.
God partners with humanity in a wholly unique way. He becomes the partner that we could never be. Not only does he live the life we were not able to live, but he manages to gather twelve partners around himself. These partners live with God for three years as he travels around the Holy Land talking about a Kingdom that has arrived. Jesus makes it clear that he has come to bring the problem we spoke of to a resolution.
The subversive nature of this kingdom surprises everyone, though. Many expected the Messiah to overturn another human empire, like Rome, but Jesus sets his sites on the problem of evil itself. Jesus inverts the human systems of power and control that we all carefully construct around our little groups. This type of talk makes him the target for basically anyone in power, as well.
His final act of love is to give up his own life in death. He turns allows evil Jewish leaders to turn him over to the evil state leaders. Jesus is executed and as the night falls, it seems like not even God can solve this problem of humans. But God’s timing is perfect and we find out three days later that God even beat death.
Jesus begins appearing to his followers again, showing how he is alive and made new. And then he leaves. But says he will send a helper.
Can we understand the overall story of the Bible? Or was the Bible written without this in mind?
If scriptures point at one thing, what would you say that thing is?
What does it mean that the story reaches a climax in Jesus?
How might you discuss this concept with someone who thinks that the Bible is not closed (that there are more books that we should add)?
What about someone who thinks that the New Testament should not be included in the Bible (like a modern-day Orthodox Jew)?
Why is Jesus the perfect climax to this story?
If Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection offer a solution to the problem that was introduced in Genesis 3, then we know that the only thing left in this story is to wrap up the loose ends. Jesus summarizes what needs to be wrapped up in Acts 1:8.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
The helper is God’s Holy Spirit. The rest of the story is God fulfilling his commitment to his creation. He wants to be in a relationship with his creatures and works through his storied partners to accomplish this goal.
We are brought into God’s story when we hear it and believe. Belief is not mental consent. Believing means that we confess our inability to understand and act like we know what is good. Believing means we turn from the things that we have elevated as gods in our hearts. Believing means we replace the idols in our hearts and confess Jesus Christ as our true Lord. Believing means we too die with Christ in baptism and are raised to new life. We take on this story as our own story. We partner with the Holy Spirit to accomplish bring others into the same story.
At the end of the book of Revelation, there is a ravishing vision of the New Creation. Read through this vision of God’s resolution to all the terror that has plagued God’s creatures. Keep hoping in God’s good plans and powerful spirit:
Chapter 21 1 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. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 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. 4 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.” 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” The New Jerusalem 9 Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. 15 And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16 The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. 17 He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel's measurement. 18 The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass. 22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. Chapter 22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Revelation Chapter 21:1-22:5
Interestingly, the story begins with God dwelling with man in a perfect garden. One of man’s first acts is to kill his own brother, flee from God, and start a city. God pursues Cain (pursues us) until here at the end we can again dwell with God, this time in a city-garden.
Are you a part of God’s story? If you aren’t, what do you need to do to become part of that story?
Why does the overall story we tell matter? Does this story in the Bible resonate with the story you tell about your own life?
Imagine you lost your most valuable possession. What would you do to get it back?
Finding Nemo describes a story about a father who goes to any lengths to rescue his son. Why do we have an even better story?