Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Story of the Bible

I taught the women's Bible study this morning at Village Seven. I tried to give an overview of the Bible in less than 30 minutes. I am not sure how successful I was. So, I thought I might post some of the ideas from it here. Since my teaching notes are too disorganized to post here, I will simply post some related articles that I have written on the subject. Unfortunately, these articles do not contain the creation-fall-redemption-consummation outline I used. Still, they communicate the main idea that the Bible is a single story with many sub-stories.

Why Read the Old Testament?

For many Christians, the Old Testament is a collection of interesting stories, enigmatic proverbs, and bewildering prophecies that have little application to daily life. Parts may be inspirational, but as a whole, the Old Testament remains a closed book of hidden mysteries and confounding tales. Yet, this clearly is not God’s intent. In writing to Timothy, the Apostle Paul said,

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV)

The Old Testament, therefore, is useful for the believer. It is not merely a collection of archaic tales and mysterious prophecies, but an essential tool in equipping believers to fulfill their mission of glorifying God.

While there are many stories in the Bible, it is essentially one story—the story of Jesus. Jesus said that all the Scriptures are about Him (Luke 24:27). The Old Testament is not just an archaic precursor to the New Testament. Rather, together with the New Testament, it tells the story of God’s grace. In the words of one writer, the Old and New Testament form a two-act play. “If we only had Act Two, we would have to ask, ‘But where has it come from? Who are these people?’ . . . And if we only had Act One, we would say, “Yes, but where is it going? How will it develop? Will the hinted climax come and in what form? Without the New Testament, the Old is going nowhere, it is only a might-have-been, an unsubstantiated longing. And without the Old, the New lacks explanation. Its very words require Old Testament definition, and its central event, the cross, is inexplicable.”(Motyer, Alec, The Story of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), p. 10)

Therefore, to understand the Old Testament, one cannot read it in isolation from the New (nor can one read the New Testament in isolation from the Old). Together, the two testaments tell one story.

There are several themes that one can observe throughout the Bible that illustrates this story line. Two of these are the Promised Redeemer and the Covenants. These are not two separate themes, but two different threads woven in the tapestry Scripture. A third theme is the theme of Kingdom, but I will not cover that one here.

The Promised Redeemer

The Bible, while it contains many different stories that transcend thousands of years, is a book about a single story. All of the great stories of the Bible—Noah and the flood, David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Daniel and the Lions’ Den—are merely subplots in the Great Story. They are all part of the unfolding drama of redemption.

Like all great stories, the Bible begins with a crisis, moves to a climax, and concludes with resolution. The crisis happens quite early in the story, shortly after creation. Here we find Adam and Eve living in a world that God has proclaimed “very good.” They enjoy perfect intimacy with God and with one another. They also enjoy a world that God has made for them filled with delights. Nothing could be better.

Then, in Genesis 3, the Serpent slithers into Eden. In a single act of cosmic rebellion, Adam and Eve reject God’s blessings, turn their noses up at His provision, and make a grab for divine power by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

That could have been the end of the story. Yet, God is a merciful and gracious God. Rather than immediately giving Adam and Eve the punishment they deserved, He gives them a promise of hope. In Genesis 3:15, God pronounces His judgment on the Serpent, Eve, and Adam for their rebellion. In His curse to the Serpent, He gives hope to humanity. God said to the Serpent:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15)

In this curse, God promises that one day, the Offspring of the woman will rise up and crush the head of the Serpent. The Serpent, of course, is no ordinary snake, but is Satan disguised. So, by crushing the Serpent’s head, the Offspring of the woman will put an end to the tyranny of evil and restore the world to its proper order. The rest of the Bible is the unfolding of this oracle. It is the story of conflict between the Serpent and his offspring and the offspring of the woman. It is also the story of hope and expectation as the faithful look to the day when the Offspring of the woman will come who will crush the Serpent’s head.

So, the conflict that has been raging since the fall is between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of Satan. It is not the story of physical conflict, but of the great spiritual war of which all other wars and conflicts are but faint echoes.

When God speaks of the offspring of the woman and the offspring of Satan, He is distinguishing between the godly descendents of Adam and Eve, who will be influenced by God, and the ungodly descendents, who will be influenced by Satan. This idea is reinforce throughout the rest of Genesis, particularly chapters 4 and 5. In chapter 4, Adam and Eve have two sons—Cain and Abel. Abel follows God. Cain does not. Cain murders Abel. There we see the conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman illustrated.

Then Adam and Eve have another son named Seth. In chapter 4, we read the story of Cain’s ungodly line. In chapter 5, we see the account of Adam’s line as it goes through Seth. In these chapters, the writer is contrasting for us the godly line with the ungodly line, the descendents of the serpent through Cain with the descendents of the woman through Seth. In those chapters, you will see that each line creates its own cities and its own cultures.

The book of Revelation explains this further. In Revelation, we have the same image of the Serpent-Dragon and the Woman. In Revelation 12:17, we read, “Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”

Later in the book of Revelation, we are told explicitly that the dragon is that great serpent of old, which is Satan (Revelation 20:2). So, it is Satan the Serpent who is making war against the offspring of the woman. The offspring of the woman are those who hold to the testimony of Jesus.

Here we see the theme of the Bible from Beginning to end. In the first three chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-3), we read about: A) Creation, B) Life in Paradise, and C) The Fall, and D) The prophecy of hope. In the last chapters of the Bible (Revelation 20-22), we read: D) the prophecy of Genesis 3:15 is fulfilled, C) the effects of the fall are undone, B) Paradise is restored, and A) the New Creation.

In between Genesis 3 and Revelation 20, the Bible tells the story of this conflict and the One who will finally put an end to it by crushing the serpent’s head. So, throughout the story, the hero is the Offspring of the Woman. Essentially, it is His story—the story of Jesus. While it may seem that Jesus does not show up in the story until the New Testament, the truth is that He is the central character on every page.

The Covenants

The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books written over a period of nearly 2000 years by 35 different human authors in three different languages. As a result, it is a marvelously diverse book. Yet, in spite of its remarkable diversity, the Bible is still a single book with a single theme woven throughout. While the Bible contains many stories, essentially it is about one story—the story of Jesus Christ redeeming the world from sin. One of the threads woven throughout the Bible that points to this central storyline is the covenants.

A covenant is like a contract in that it stipulates what happens if the contract is kept (blessings) and it stipulates what happens if the contract is broken (curses). We learn about covenants at a very early age. When a child says, “Cross my heart and hope to die,” she is making a covenant and is saying that she would rather die than fail to keep her promise or the terms of the covenant.

As we grow older, we enter into many covenants that are binding to us. There is the marriage covenant, business covenants, and neighborhood covenants. In all of these covenants, promises are made. For example, when you enter into a neighborhood covenant, you promise to follow the rules of the neighborhood association. If you follow the rules, you receive the blessing of living in a nice neighborhood. If you disobey the rules, the covenant contains penalties (or curses) that may include things such as putting a lien on your house.

Biblical covenants are the same in that they too contain blessings and curses. Just as in modern covenants, all parties have certain obligations.

The Covenant of Works

The Bible begins (Genesis 1-2) with God’s creation of the world, and all very good. At creation, God made a covenant with humanity. God gave humanity complete reign over the Garden of Eden and all the earth. The only stipulation that God gave to Adam and Eve was that they were not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they ate of this tree, they would break the covenant with God and bring upon themselves the curse of the covenant, which was death. We often refer to this covenant as the Covenant of Works.

As you know, Adam and Eve broke the covenant (Genesis 3, Hosea 6:7). As a result, they fell under its curse. Since Adam was representative of all humanity, all who are born to Adam are born into the curse of this covenant (Romans 5:12-19). Not only did the Fall of Adam affect humanity, but all creation suffered. Everything in this world is suffering because of sin. It is all under the curse (Genesis 3:14-19, Romans 8:18-21).

This is how the Bible begins. In doing so, it sets up the story of God restoring a fallen world. Even in the curse, one can detect a hint of a new covenant. This New Covenant, rather than being based on the work of Adam’s obedience, is based on God’s grace.

Adam and the Covenant of Grace

In Genesis 3:15, in pronouncing the curse upon the Serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to sin, God says,

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

Here, God promises that one day a man would come who would be struck by the Serpent, but would also destroy the Serpent. God, of course, is not talking about snakes. He is not explaining why people and snakes don’t get along. The Serpent is not just any old snake. He is the Devil himself. The promise is that a Son one day would be wounded by Satan, but would also destroy Satan and His reign of evil.

The Bible, which begins with this prophesy about the Offspring of the woman and the Serpent, ends with the fulfillment of the prophesy. In Revelation 20, we read that Jesus takes “that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan” and destroys him, just as was promised in Genesis 3:15.

The whole Bible, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation is this story. It is the story of one born of a woman, Jesus Christ Himself, who comes and destroys Satan and the tyranny of evil.

Abraham and the Covenant of Grace

As the Bible progresses, we find that this covenant of grace and God’s plan to save His people through the work of Jesus becomes more and more clear. In Genesis 15, God establishes a covenant with Abraham.

In Genesis 15, God has Abraham cut several animals in half. What usually would follow is that the partakers of the covenant would then pass through the animals. This would symbolically say, “May I be cut in half if I do not fulfill the terms of the covenant.” What is interesting, though, in Genesis 15, Abraham does not walk through the animal carcasses—only God does. Here, God assumes the obligations of the contract both for Himself and for Abraham. He assumes the curse.

We find the fulfillment of this covenant in Jesus Christ. While He kept the covenant complete and was always faithful to His people, we have sinned against Him. We have broken the covenant. As a result, His body has been broken for us. He endured the penalty of the covenant on our behalf, just as God had promised Abraham in Genesis 15.

God’s covenant with Abraham was not a covenant for everyone. The only ones who receive the blessings of the covenant are Abraham and his descendants. Later, the Apostle Paul would point out that the true descendants of Abraham and the true heirs of the covenant are not the physical offspring of Abraham, but those who have the faith of Abraham—those who turn to Jesus in faith (Romans 4:16 and Romans 9:8).

In Galatians 3:16, Paul points out that God’s covenant with Abraham was not with all the physical descendants of Abraham, but with one, namely Jesus. That means to receive the blessings of the covenant, we must be found “in Christ”, that is, united to Him by faith.

Moses and the Covenant of Grace

The Covenant of Grace unfolds a bit more under Moses. Under Moses, God gave the Law, including the Ten Commandments, which were the words of the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 34:28). The purpose of the Law was not to show people how they could be good enough to deserve God’s favor. Rather, the purpose of the law was to show people that they could not be good enough to deserve God’s favor. It was not supposed to be a means of self-salvation but was supposed to drive us to God in faith. In Galatians 3:24, we find that the law had as its primary purpose to drive us to Christ. It shows God’s people that they need a Savior.
Even the Covenant of the Law, which was given under Moses, is part of the Covenant of Grace. That is because even the Covenant of the Law points us to Jesus. Jesus fulfills all of the demands of the law, keeping it at every point. Then, He takes the curses of the Law upon Himself. Where we broke the law, He endures the curse through our faith in Him. As a result, we are saved by grace.

David and the Covenant of Grace

Another place where we find the Covenant of Grace being expressed is to King David. In 2 Samuel 7, God promises David that His kingdom will endure forever and that one of his Offspring would sit upon the throne forever.

God has not forgotten this promise. Rather, He has fulfilled it in Jesus Christ. Both Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to prove that Jesus is the royal descendant from King David, that He is the true King David who will reign forever (Matthew 1:1-17, 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9-16, 22:41-45, Luke 1:69, 3:23-38, 18:38-39, 20:41-44, Acts 2:22-26, 13:34-37).

The Prophets and the Covenant of Grace

All of these covenants, from Adam through David, point to Jesus Christ. They are not all separate covenants but find their fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The prophets continue this forward look. The prophetic vision is for the New Covenant. This New Covenant is alluded to throughout the prophets but is summarized in Jeremiah 31.

31“The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Once again, this covenant points to Jesus Christ. Hebrews 10, quoting this text, points to its fulfillment through Jesus Christ because it is through Jesus Christ that we have the law of God on our hearts. It is through Jesus Christ that we have the Holy Spirit, and it is through Jesus Christ that we have forgiveness of sins.

Conclusion: Christ and the Covenant of Grace

What we have seen in all the covenants is that Christ is the covenant of grace. All point to Him and He fulfills them all. Therefore, the New Testament is not separated from the Old Testament, but is the fulfillment of it. All of the Bible, not just the New Testament, points us to faith in Christ.

Furthermore, since all of the Old Testament covenants are part of the larger Covenant of Grace, that means that the church is not a completely separate entity from Israel. Therefore, God did not have one plan for Israel and another for the church. Rather, the church and Israel are the same. The people of God in the Old Testament were the Israelites, because they had faith in God. In the New Testament, the ethnic boundaries between Jews and Gentiles are taken down so that Gentiles are now included among the people of God. So, in the New Testament, God’s people are called the church rather than the ethnically distinctive name of Israel.

Minus Seven

I was driving in to work today and my thermometer read -7 degrees. When we were considering moving here, we asked about the weather, one of our friends said, "There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing." I don't think they make appropriate clothing for minus 7 degrees (at least not for a person who spent the past 20 years in Florida).