The purpose of this Bible study is probably a little different than what you have previously experienced. Rather than delving into one book of the Bible or even just one passage of Scripture, the purpose of this study is to ask the question, what’s the whole book about? It’s an important question. Without a sense of the larger story of the Bible, it’s more difficult for us to understand individual passages.
This study was spawned by an experience I had on an airplane. I was coming out of the Middle East and connecting through Paris on my way back to the United States. As it happened, my original flight left late. That delayed my arrival into Paris. Since this had been an emergency trip, there had not been time to confirm a seat on the return flight from Paris to the US. In other words, I had no actual seat assignment. I eventually got to the gate after getting lost in the airport twice, and I think it would be fair to say that I was not “walking in the spirit” by that point. Upon my arrival, there was no one there except the person working at the little counter next to the gate. Thankfully, when I walked up, she said, “Are you Mr. Young?” That’s a good sign, right? She said, “We don’t have a seat available in coach, but we do have a seat for you in business class.” Now, I was a missionary. I didn’t do business class. I had walked through business class on many previous flights trying not to violate the tenth commandment – You shall not covet – but there I was in business class.
Struggling with my attitude, I thought to myself, how could I possibly avoid conversation for the next eight hours? I just wanted to sink into this luxury given to me by the grace of God and soak it all in, reveling in all my glorious selfishness. So I decided that I would take out my Bible and open it on my lap. No one in their right mind would want to talk to me, right? But as we took off, the young fellow seated next to me pointed at my Bible and asked with a French accent, “What’s that book about?”
It was an interesting question. A startling question actually. The truth is, by this point, I already had two graduate degrees from theological seminaries. I could read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew. I could dive deeply into Scripture passages that some people would consider difficult. But when he asked me the question, “What’s that book about?” meaning the Bible as a whole, I blanked out. I didn’t know what to say. What could you say that would encompass the whole of Scripture, and yet not be a four-hour dissertation on the sovereignty of God and everything from Genesis to the end of Revelation?
So I ask you the same question. What’s that book about? How would you respond if someone with very little knowledge of Scripture asked you what the Bible was about? Could you give them an answer? Let’s say you’re teaching a third-grade Sunday school class and one of your students asks you. Or perhaps a colleague at work who has a general awareness of Christianity but never has studied the Bible. If they were to ask you, could you and would you answer that question?
The Bible as a Story
That encounter on the airplane led me to begin to formulate an understanding of the Bible as a whole. It is how this study came to fruition. As I reflected on my own reading of Scripture and on hearing other people teach Scripture, I found two different viewpoints of what the Bible actually is. On the one hand, I hear people talk about the Bible as a collection of ideas about God. We read the Bible and we see that God is all powerful or all wise or that God is loving. Truly, the Bible does give us lots of truth about who God is and what He’s accomplishing in the world.
On the other hand, I see people reading the Bible as kind of a handbook for happy living. They see it as a collection of wise tips about how to be married, how to raise kids, how to manage their money, or how to lead an organization. Indeed, the Bible does give us some clear ideas about how to lead a life that is not only pleasing to God, but ultimately pleasing to ourselves as well.
Yet I think there is an even bigger answer to the question of what the Bible actually is. Let’s start by seeing the Bible as a story: with a beginning and an end, with an arc of narrative that flows through all its pages. In fact, the very first phrase in the Bible, “In the beginning, God…”, implies a set period of time. The very first words of the Bible indicate that there is already a foreseen end. It’s not just randomly put together, even if it was written over several hundred years by many different authors. The Bible is a whole and should be read as a whole. As previously stated, we might argue that the Bible gives us the privilege of understanding who God is and gives us direction by which we should live. However, the Bible is far more than that. The Bible makes the claim to be THE story: the one true story about the one true God.
In a world full of other stories, the Bible makes an audacious claim. It does not just tell a story about human history. Instead, it tells the story of the one true God. We have to remember that when the Bible was composed both in the ancient Near East and in first century Greco-Roman society, the world was already full of other stories. The world of the Bible, of the biblical authors, was just as pluralistic as the world you and I live in now. Every nation, every people group had its own gods. Those gods had contrary claims of how human life was formed and differing stories on how human history was unfolding. When we hear the claim that the Bible tells the one story, the one true story, of all of human history and human destiny, that claim is not only audacious, it is offensive in a pluralistic context. Yet that claim is no more audacious or offensive today than it was when the Bible was written.
When we talk about this idea of the Bible as a story, we’re talking about a narrative that addresses foundational questions that people often intuitively ask, but may not explicitly talk about. Is there a God? If so, what is He like? Where did I come from? Who am I in the midst of all that’s happening around me? Is life random? Is history itself moving towards some type of a conclusion?
Most of us fell asleep when we took philosophy in college. Sometimes the ways philosophical language is used and the questions that are asked by philosophers can seem confusing and futile to me. However, the questions that are considered by the world’s great philosophies cause us to ponder who we are, what kind of world we live in, and whether there is a God who is part of it all. The Bible makes a very clear claim: it is the story of the one true God. He oversees all of human history from the very beginning to the very end. Any other stories are, at best, only partial narratives that must be understood within the framework of the biblical story.
A Story of Redemption
The story is dramatic, it’s powerful. God’s response to Adam and Eve when they rebelled is shocking. Because of depravity, because of rebellion, the curse fell on humanity and on the creation itself. God had to do something to restore creation and restore humanity to the way He had originally created it. That’s what we mean by redemption. The bridge between the fallen creation and the new heavens and the new earth is God’s redemptive act to rescue and restore.
The pattern whereby God responds to Adam and Eve’s sin sets the pattern for how God responds to human rebellion throughout all of Scripture: the mission of redemption. It’s what must happen to accomplish His desire to be known and worshipped by all. God’s mission to redeem creation and redeem humanity is to rescue them from the curse of their rebellion and restore them to fellowship with Him. Christopher J.H. Wright says mission is what the Bible is all about.1 It’s the story of God’s mission to redeem His creation and restore it to what He had originally intended.
To fulfill this purpose, God creates for Himself a people through whom He will accomplish His mission. If you think back to the creation narrative, God creates humanity in His image and gives them a mission: to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and to rule over it. Scripture never tells us why God delegates His rule over creation to people. The same is true when God establishes a special people unto Himself and delegates the execution of His mission to them through His sovereign empowerment. In the Old Testament, God’s people were called Israel. They start out as the descendants of Abraham and then become the nation of Israel. In the New Testament, God’s people are described as the Church.
How will God accomplish His redemptive mission through His people – through both Israel and the Church? The Bible reveals two ways. First, ultimate redemption is accomplished by the eternal son of God and His death on the cross. Jesus Christ is a descendant of Abraham, through the line of David. From God’s people Israel, a redeemer comes. Second, God accomplishes His mission through His people as they live in ways that communicate who God is and reveal His character to all around them. Through God’s people, all nations may come to know the one true God. God’s people reveal the person of God and therefore play an integral role in ultimately accomplishing the mission of God.
Everything God does for, in, and among His people is never just for their own personal benefit. It is for the benefit of all peoples, whom God desires would know and worship Him alone. Thinking of myself as a part, as a member of God’s mission, changes the way I view my own life, my own salvation, and my own participation in the Body of Christ. Therefore, if the Bible is the book of God’s mission, then shouldn’t we identify ourselves as the people of God’s mission?
In the segments that follow, we will take a journey to explore the different parts of this great story. We will see the story in the creation narrative of Genesis and unpack what it means for humanity to be the image of God in the earth. We will come to grips with the impact of humanity’s rebellion and need for God’s rescue. We will then follow the story’s arc as God recreates a people for His purposes in the world. Finally, we will see the entire Bible fit together as we come to understand God’s mission and our place in His amazing and true story.