The Bible can be an imposing book, filled with strange stories and wonderful moments. It’s laced with confusing practices and shrouded in ancient customs that are strange to modern readers. Yet it speaks the arc of a story that, when understood, cannot help but resonate.
Still, how do we approach a book that is actually a collection of sixty-six separate books, written and edited over a millennium in different times, places, and contexts? In order to enter into Scripture, we need to understand how all of its unique parts ultimately come together to tell a single story.
The Bible is a story in four acts, each of which uniquely reveals a stage in the journey of transformation and also reflects our own journey. Transformation, after all, is what really matters. As Paul says, "What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation.” In other words, religious ritual is not our goal; inner transformation is. Scripture is ultimately the story of this transformation—of all things being made new—and howthis comes to pass within us, in and through Jesus.
There are different classifications of Scripture out there, and what follows is far from definitive. Nevertheless, I’ve found it a helpful rubric for approaching the Bible and for making sense of a story that, otherwise, might be a bit overwhelming.
Act I: Creation
Act I is Creation, which we read about in Genesis 1 and 2, and then again and again throughout the Bible. The idea takes various forms: in Ezekiel 36 it’s a new heart; in John 3 it’s being born again; in Romans 8 it’s becoming new creations; in Revelation 22 it’s a new heaven and a new earth; and on and on. Jesus is clearly about making everything new.
The point of the creation narrative in Genesis 1-3 is that God is good and full of life—that He’s far better than we can imagine—and He desires union and communion with us and with all of Creation. Perhaps the lynchpin of Act I comes right at the beginning, when God avows that creation is “good.” We have to see this original goodness, this original blessing, because it reflects the heart of God. That originalintent and pervading reality gives us hope, despite the corruption of creation that follows. You have to see this original blessing, because Genesis 1 is actually the start of the Gospel. The good news starts with the reality that God desires communion and union with us.
If your Gospel only starts in Genesis 3, with God’s rescue mission to save the world, you may not see how thatpart of the story happens within a bigger context. Your Gospel will probably deal with the sin issue at the heart of the world’s corruption, but you will miss the underlying story of God’s deep desire for relationship with us and the restoration of all of creation.
We all share this “DNA” of desire. In Genesis 1:26, God creates us (me and you and every other human being) in His image. This means that we are made in the image of the God of Love; we share the divine longing for intimacy and connectedness. Our hearts yearn to be loved and to love, to be known and to know, to be accepted and to accept, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. The entire story of Scripture is God and humankind dealing with our deep desire for relationship and union.
But of course,we can try to fulfill that need for love in other ways. We can abandon self-emptying love and choose the path of power, which leads to devastating results. This is essentially the tragic story that unfolds immediately after Creation.
Act II: Exodus
Humankind, rather than trusting love to be enough (because love requires trust and trust always feels vulnerable), resists the whole creation enterprise and rebels against God. This is what Genesis 3 is all about, as Adam and Eve look for some way to be powerful on their own terms. They are a picture of us, we who also try to get our desire for love met through other means. We can feel powerful by having enough money or being smart enough or by being successful enough, and by proving ourselves in whatever way wecan, we won’t have to be dependent on God or anyone else. This is what our ego—what Paul calls our flesh—with its self-obsessed focus on being independent and powerful, wants most. And this quest to get our desire for love met through other means always leads to slavery, as we are held captive not only by our failures but also by successes which never satisfy. Indeed, Act II culminates in the story of the Exodus, as God seeks to rescue His people from slavery.
Here’s a brief summation of Act II: Genesis 3-11 is about mankind’s frustration outside of union and communion with God, and about our ensuing attempt to find power, outside of relationship with the Divine, to subdue this frustration. And it introduces God’s desire to redeem us from our state of agony and futility. This desire takes specific action in Genesis 12, as God calls Abraham to follow and trust Him. Abraham’s call begins a long process of Divine revelation. The true character of God is slowly revealed to those who have been blinded by selfishness and self-absorption and have lost their ability to see or hear clearly. Abraham represents the beginning of a rescue mission, God’s plan to redeem all creation from the bondage and decay to which it has fallen because of humanity’s rebellion. God calls a nation (and ultimately, all nations) to know Him.
However, the nation God calls—the Hebrew people—end up in slavery and captivity in Egypt. If you read the story of Joseph and the Hebrew people in Egypt, you’ll see that it’s really through no fault of their own that they come into slavery. The text doesn’t fix blame anywhere, and this is part of its wisdom (a wisdom surely beyond human accounting, as we who follow Jesus believe that the Spirit of God speaks through the text). The Exodus Narrative, very simply, represents the realitythatin life, things happen to us beyond our control. Sin is done to us, and it’s not fair. This is the terrible reality of living in a beautiful but definitively broken, death-touched world. In the early history of Israel, we see a story that serves as a picture of our own humanity.
And yet, God sends Moses to free His people from slavery. The story of the Exodus—of Israel coming out of slavery and into the land God promised to Abraham—is a meta-story that runs from Genesis 3 to the end of The Book of Deuteronomy. Indeed, God alwaysseeks to lead His people out of slavery and into a good land. This is what we constantly see in Scripture: God is trying to bring His people out of darkness and into light, out of death and into life.
But the people grumble, making God’s work difficult. Once again, God’s people, like Adam and Eve, have difficulty trusting and instead choose power and control. Scripture often rhymes and repeats, the same themes returning again and again, and this is one of the clearest themes in the Bible. At many points, the nation prefers to go back to Egypt rather than living in the tension of trust. Humankind prefers certainty over tension, even if the certainty makes us miserable.
Nevertheless, God seeks to formalize His relationship with Israel, cementing the promise made to Abraham by making a covenant, sealed by the giving of the Law of God. At the heart of this covenant is a promise: if the people obey God’s Law and follow Him, blessing will reign down; if they ignore the Law and go their own way, they will release not blessing but curses. Thus, God says, “Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendantsmight live!”
The Law thus reflects the reality that we have freedom and choice and that choices have consequences. This simple truth is fundamental for the development of a human being or of a nation.
Unfortunately, Israel could not keep the covenant, and they could not release the blessings promised in the Law.
Act III: Exile
Act III begins with the story of Israel in a land of their own. After forty years wandering in the desert, they come to a well-watered and fruitful land (which is another metaphor for God’s heart toward us). The story picks up in the books of Joshua and Judges, ultimately inaugurating an era of kings and prophets, of great names like David and Solomon, Elijah and Esther. But the story of the nation of Israel, for all its moments of glory, is one of decline, as the nation decays from within. Yet again, God’speople ultimately choose power; they worship idols in order to escape the tension that trusting God requires and the character that it demands. Israel, once again, serves as a picture of our own selves. Choosing some means of feeling powerful over the vulnerability of trusting, self-giving love is the perpetual temptation of all human hearts, so the story of Israel remains our story, even as it is theirs.
Ultimately, this process leads to the Kingdom of Israel being overthrown by foreign armies and carried into exile. The Northern Kingdom is captured by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The act ends with the Hebrew people torn from their soil and scattered in foreign lands, far from the plans of the God who promised abundance back in the days of Abraham. Ultimately, a foreign king allows the nation to return from exile, but they come home to a war-reduced land. The last prophetic book, Malachi, ends as the people have returned from captivity to a barren homeland,with a call to repentance and a new opportunity to turn back to God, lest the people remain under the curses of the Law because of their unfaithfulness.
The exile is about the reality that not only are things done to us, there are also things that we do that lead us into captivity. Not only are we sinned against; we also sin.Act III, then, is a story of failure, aptly summarized by God through the prophet Isaiah: “In returning [to Me] and in rest is your salvation, but you would have none of it.” Israel refused to trust God and to become like Him. This captures the heart of the Third Act, the failure of Israel to keep the Law and thus release the blessings it promised.
Act IV: Adoption and New Creation
Things have not gone well for Israel. They have not released the blessings promised to Abraham. The story in the first three acts is that God desires communion and union with us, but we can (and do) choose to pursue other things. Furthermore, things are done to us which hamper our willingness to trust, and of course we often choose power and control over trust without any prodding. Thus, the story ends with a succession of failures: what we call “the Fall” in Genesis 3, the grumbling in the wilderness within the Exodus story, and the captivity of the nation of Israel within the Exile Narrative. Following the Exile, we get centuries of silence, at least in terms of Scripture being written.
What happens in the quiet is actually a rowdy time of international imbroglio, as the Promised Land is captured by the Greeks, whose monarchy devolves into battles for succession in which the Jews are caught and in which they take sides. Then come the Romans, who capture the Promised Land in 63 BC and begin the era of Romanoccupation. The Pax Romanaprovided calm across the Mediterranean, but in Judea, there was discontent and potential revolution brewing, as many longed for a Messiah to come boot out the Romans and restore the Kingdom to Israel. Many Jews concluded that Israel had been carried away into Exile because they had not kept the covenant, and so there was a push to live pure, religious life under the Law and also vigorous debate as to what that purity looked like. The rules of the Law were, in fact, greatly expanded, to ensure that the nation lived a holy life that would please God and curry His favor. The belief was that if Israel could get it right, God would be pleased and would once again bless the nation. A Messiah, sent by God, would come to deliver them, just like Moses of old. This general push for purity is the backdrop of the debates in the four Gospels between the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other religious groups, not to mention Jesus himself. When we read in the Gospels about the religiosity of the Scribes or the Pharisees, the context is their longing for the nation to be redeemed and the belief that they had to get things right for it to happen.
Then, in a startling flash of revelation that no one dreamed to hope for, God answers the failures of Acts IIand III in a manner beyond comprehension. He comes to humanity as one of us, in order to adopt us. Jesusleapfrogs us out of sin that has been done to us (represented by the Exodus Narrative) and sin we’ve done (represented by the Exile Narrative). We find the Father’s ultimate revelation of Himself and the answer for the failures of His people in the coming of Jesus. In other words, God sends Jesus as a member of Israel to be Israel’s representative. Jesus will do what Israel could not. He will keep not just the letterof the Law but the heartof the Law, thereby releasing the blessings promised in the Law. And more, he will fulfill the prophecy of Ezekiel and give the people new hearts.
God does it himself. Through Jesus, God makes us all children of God, not because we keep the Law but because we enter into God’s own love and faithfulness. This is what we had to learn: that we could not do it ourselves. And this is exactly Paul’s interpretation of Jewish history when he claims that the Law was just a babysitter, meant to teach us that we couldn’t get it all right and to be with us until we understood that. This was a scandal to any mind bent on “gettingit all right” to earn God’s love or favor.
Paul says that what God’s creation is waiting for is people who get the reality of God’s love and live in it. Who get the reality of our own powerlessness to transforms ourselves and humble themselves into the love of God, rather than bucking to be powerful on our own terms or finding some sort of numbing mechanism for our weakness (through money, sex, religion, or any other means). All creation is waiting for children of God who understand that they’ve been adopted in God while they were still unworthy of it, and can thereby release the power of God.
God’s answer to death and the spoiling of His creation is, in a word, adoption.
Despite all the things that have been done to us, despite all the things that we’vedone, the Father still sees us as His beloved creatures, whom He comes to restore as children. In Jesus, we can become children of God, fulfilling the promise of blessing made to Abraham all the way back in Genesis 12. We can receive the new reality—revealed in Jesus—that it’s faith in Jesus, not birth by blood into the nation of Israel, that saves us into our adoption.
And we can receive with joy the reality that what God does in us He will do for the whole world. New Creation is coming, because of who Jesus is and what he has done. The Scripture ends with the kingdom of God come to fullness on earth. We are not “going to heaven when we die.” We are to enjoy an ongoing relationship with God that is heaven, and we are going to participate in new creation. We enter into this life—life as an ambassador of the coming Kingdom of God—here and now, becoming a people who seek the wholeness and redemption of the world. We confront racism and anything that dehumanizes. We care for the forgotten and marginalized, forthe widow and the orphan. To be in relationship with God is to participate in God’s work in the world.
We discover, then, that Scripture—just like our lives—is not a linear story. Act IV, Adoption, is also a return to Act I, New Creation. Adoption takes us back to the Garden, to the place where, once again, we can enjoy union and communion with God our Creator, knowing—and by knowing, I mean experiencing—the lavish generosity of God. We can always choose to jump back into Act II or Act III at any point, blaming the things that have been done to us as reason enough for cursing God, or we can turn to idols (sex, money, power, religion) to save us, rather than the tension-filled path of trusting the God who adopts us. These are, in their own ways, easier paths, and the path following Jesus is narrow. It is hard, after all, to learn to surrender a life of control and to learn to trust. It is truly a “losing” of our life, as we’ve known it. Still, it is the best path, the road that leads to the fullness of eternal life in God.
Reading Scripture will always call us out of distrust and into trust, so that we can abide in Jesus, fully receiving our adoption in him. As Paul says: “So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’ For His Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are His children, we are His heirs.”
How’s thatfor a grounding point?
For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'