It’s a long commute across a hot dessert. The man biding his time as he travels is also searching. He wants to know the deepest answers for the most profound questions of life. He’s searching for God. Today he finds himself looking at the scroll of Isaiah as he leans against the side of the chariot. He’s reading, but honestly doesn’t understand. It’s just words. “Maybe plowing through,” he thinks, “I’ll finally piece things together a bit and figure out what’s going on.” But what he needs is the rest of the story. He needs to understand the big picture.
Try this as a thought experiment. Think of the last time you read a book that was really fun—something you enjoyed and couldn’t stop because it was so engaging. What if you had decided to spice it up by opening to random places and arbitrarily picking a couple of 5-10 pages. Do that every day for a year and then measure (1) how much you enjoyed reading and (2) how much you actually understood the story.
That’s what we do with our Bibles. Where reading random excerpts obviously makes no sense for a novel, we do that to Scripture as though all of those sage aphorisms and inspiring stories got slapped together between two pieces of leather and we call it the Bible. We grab a chapter or two from the gospels, jump over for a few Psalms and pick up a few practical examples from Exodus, forgetting that we just blithely jumped across more than a thousand years. Instead, we ought to study them as part of the grand story.
Scene 1: The Tragic Beginning
It’s possible to summarize the Bible’s storyline in three acts. In the very beginning of all things, the world was completely different than the one we think we know. Without sin, tears, suffering or death, a good God placed a good world under the dominion and stewardship of man. But man failed, conspicuously and catastrophically. The results spread like a cancer across the beautiful world God had made until the hills sprouted weeds and thorns to match the ravaging depravity and death sprouting from the heart of man himself. God’s blessing on man had turned into a curse.
Scene 3: The Grand Conclusion
That was scene one. And no, I didn’t get my numbers wrong. Skip ahead to the end and scene three is a return to the original peace. To use the words of Isaiah,
The lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:7-9).
The curse has been set aside. The world has changed. Death has given way to life. The curse has turned to hope. Those sent out of the garden now walk in the light of the glory of God.
Scene 2: The Turning Point
But if that’s the beginning and the end, it’s what stands at the middle that Scripture exults in the most. Because God did not merely chose to annihilate one creation and start again with a replacement. He chose to redeem it; to restore the reality that was broken. That far more complicated choice of grace required a far more complicated method. It meant that God Himself entered into the suffering, swallowed the horror of sin’s results and offers restoration by drawing all things to Himself. The center of the story, its climax and even its genius is Jesus Christ Himself. With Him, the entire story turns.
And the rest of the biblical drama organizes itself around Him. The Old Testament is the story of waiting for His coming. Little by little, the reader learns more about who this coming One will be. He’ll be born (Gen. 3:15). He’ll be a descendant of Abraham (Gen 17:7), of the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10), and become a blessing to the entire planet (Gen 22:18). He’ll have kingly authority like David, and he’ll reign forever (Jer 23:5–6). He’ll be righteous, gentle, true, and utterly faithful to Yahweh (Is 42:3).
But there’s more. He’ll suffer and die somehow (Isa. 53), even though He will live forever (1 Chr 17:14). He’ll be born somehow, even though He has always been (Mic. 5:2). He will somehow both be distinct from Yahweh while He is also Himself God (Is 9:6–7). By the end of the OT, the picture is quite clear. You could have known when He would be born (Dan 9:25–26), where (Mic 5:2), some details about his life (Is 42:3; Is 35:5–6; 42:18; Zech 9:9), that He would die violently (Isa. 53), and even that He would rise again (Psa 16:10).
And that isn’t only hypothetical either. There were people that mysteriously showed up soon after Jesus’ birth with amazing expectations (Matt 2:1–12; Luke 2:25–38). Had they studiously put together these prophecies and figured out the time and place? For now we can’t know. But the rest of the NT reverberates with the news that this Messiah did come! In three years of ministry He faithfully proclaimed the truth, sinlessly died on behalf of the world, rose again to receive authority over all, and now He’s coming back soon.
The message spread quickly. Acts shows it rippling outward from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The epistles explain all the implications of this good news on every part of life, from daily personal choices to family life to the new community of redeemed people, the church. Revelation tells those churches to continue faithfully to the end because Jesus is certainly coming back as the great victor.
And together it tells the grandest story of all—the only way to understand the reality we call life on earth. Or more specifically, it’s the background we need to start reading our Bibles. Instead of piecing together stray verses pulled from their context, study each part of the picture where it fits and marvel at the grand story that spans all of human history.
That understanding continues in knowing how to study prophecy, narrative, poetry and the epistles—the subject of our upcoming posts.