How understanding the big picture of the Bible can help to bring it to life
When it comes to reading the Bible, we need to always remember to zoom out and take in the big picture before we start to zoom in and try to find meaning in individual words, verses, chapters, and books. As the author Tom Wright writes: ‘Each word must be understood within its own verse, each verse within its on chapter, each chapter within its own book, and each book within its own historical, cultural, and indeed canonical setting.’
Though reading the Bible without any of the contextualisation can still bear some fruit, we will miss out on so many insights on what the passages mean if we don’t do this. And it dramatically increases the chances that we’ll make some significant misunderstandings about what the passages actually mean, and almost certainly end up with a distorted image of God. Sadly, this is much more common amongst Christ-followers than we’d care to admit.
One helpful starting point for this zoomed out, big picture approach to reading the Bible is to have a clear sense of the over-arching narrative that the holds the sixty-six books together. Even if this simple framework is the only tool we carry with us when reading the Bible, it will make a dramatic difference in how we think about the specific words, verses, chapter, and books we’re reading. Grasping where they fit in the larger narrative immediately helps to better frame how they fit into the larger story God is telling.
When it comes to holding the overall narrative arc of the Bible in my head, I find it helpful to think of the Bible as a six act play:
- Act One
— Creation: In the beginning
- Act Two
— The Fall: Human rebellion
- Act Three
— Israel: A chosen people
- Act Four
— Jesus: The faithful Israelite
- Act Five
— Church: The new Israel
- Act Six
— New Creation: A new heaven and a new earth
What follows below is a sketch of what each of these Acts look like. But it is very much just that: a sketch. Inevitibly there is much that I’ve had to leave out. What I hope though is that it will give enough of an overview of the narrative arc of the Bible to help when reading specific sections of the Bible. But I hope too it may nudge some to go an explore this narrative shape further.
Act One is told in first two chapters of Genesis at the start of the Old Testament. This is where the story begins and we get a sense of God’s purpose for humanity and his desires for our world. We see a beautiful creation; a world made for humans to both enjoy and to look after. Humans are a unique part of God’s creation; bearers of his image and called to reflect his character.
Act Two captures the reality of everything going wrong. Represented by Adam and Eve’s disobedience, we see sin infect the human condition. Told in Genesis 3 to 11, we discover humans going it alone, rejecting God, and failing in their mission to reflect God’s holiness and not lovingly ruling the earth as he intended us to. Suddenly evil spreads throughout the world; people start murdering, selfishness explodes, and idolatry takes root. God begins to wish he’d never made humans at all.
Act Three, stemming from Genesis chapter 12 and carrying on through to Malachi at the end of the Old Testament, tells the story of God looking to make things right. He calls Abram (later named Abraham) and makes a covenant with him, promising him he’ll become the father of many nations. From Abram’s lineage, God establishes the nation of Israel as his chosen people. They are not God’s chosen people because they are more worthy; they’re chosen simply to represent him, to carry his blessing, and to be a light to all other nations. They are chosen by God for the benefit of others. But, like the rest of humanity, Israel falls short. Though God gives them the law through Moses, they too are under the reign of sin, unleashed by the fall. The law, though good, merely served to highlight their own sinfulness in even greater clarity. They fail in their mission to be a light to the world. They don’t carry the blessing of God to the other nations. Their purpose was to serve as a missional community that embodied the character and ethos of God for all the others nations. But they were unfaithful to that purpose. God, however, wasn’t about to be unfaithful to his promise.
Act Four sees God sending Jesus to do what Israel had failed to do. Recorded in the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jesus comes, fulfilling the law, acting as the one and only faithful Israelite, being a light to all nations. His faithfulness means God’s original covenant promise to Abram can be fulfilled. Jesus’ ministry begins with the announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand. God, through Jesus, is bringing the future (see Act Six) into the present. His ministry of healing, deliverance, and forgiveness was the start of God putting the world right again. Evil was being overcome, the effects of sin were being reversed. This was then fulfilled through Jesus’ faithfulness and his obedience to the point of death on the cross. His sacrifice opened the door to for humanity to completely break free from the tyranny of sin. When we put our faith in the faithful Israelite we find ourselves to be declared by God to be righteous, or ‘in the right’. Our sins are no longer held against us; we’re included in God’s covenant family—just like he promised we would be to Abram in Genesis 12.
Act Five sees Jesus commission a new Israel—the church, encompassing both Jews and Gentiles—to carry on the work that he has started. The church is sent out to fulfil the mission originally given to Abraham and the children of Israel. The church, by preaching the Good News of Jesus, the faithful Israelite, is to be the vehicle of blessing and light that God promised to all nations in Genesis 12 at the start of Act Three. And this Act is where we live now. We are in the middle of this Act, empowered by God’s Spirit, part of God’s plans to restore and redeem all of creation to its original glory. Though this Act is ongoing, we see the start of it in the book of Acts and in the subsequent letters that make up the New Testament. Those letters served as guidance an instruction for the church in the first century and carry much wisdom as we, two thousand years later, continue to live out Act Five, while still eagerly awaiting the return of Christ to complete what he has begun.
Act Six is what awaits us. It is when what God has started doing in and through Jesus comes to fulfilment. God will complete the full restoration of all humanity and creation. A newly restored earth will become one with heaven and we’ll live, on this renewed earth with God forever. This is pictured at the end of the book of Revelation in chapters 20 — 22 and in chapter 8 of Romans too. They’ll be no more sickness, no more pain, no more sin. Evil will have been banished once and for all. And every moment of healing and restoration and justice we taste in our lives and world today are a foretaste of what lies ahead. The world God imagined, the world we all long for, will become the reality.