Overview of the Bible
Outline of the Biblical Story
The stories within the Bible are found within this greater story. Say you hear about a particular battle that took place during World War 2. There are particular soldiers and generals involved from particular nationalities. The individual battle has a particular goal- to destroy a certain air strip, or to take control of a certain piece of land. Unless we know the larger story of WW2 regarding Hitler and Nazism and their actions in Europe and their allies elsewhere in the world we might be confused as to what that particular battle was about and why it was important. Reading the Bible can be a little like this. If we flip open the Bible and read about the prophet Elijah we can be confused about what we should be learning unless we know the bigger story. The following is an attempt to briefly summarize the story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
This is when and where the universe begins. Before this, only God exists. God intends to create and then the universe is, … but this is no ordinary creation. It is a creation that grows and shapes and forms. It is not so much made, as it is born. God gives birth to His creation. You may understand this as the “Big Bang”. The singularity explodes into the universe, but the universe didn’t explode into being and then stop. No, it continues to expand. Creatures continue to grow and change. From chaos comes order. Planets form. Nebula clouds catch fire and form stars. Neutron stars implode and make black holes. We give birth to children. We grow gardens. We paint pictures. We write poems. We invent games and sports. God has created beings in His image who themselves create and love.
God created and saw that it was good. Everything was created with purpose and love. Every spec of the creation has God’s fingerprints on it. It all deserves respect and admiration. The animals and fellow humans are here as our companions. We are supposed to enjoy each other’s company. We actually need each other’s company.
The most precious part of human beings is their ability to love. But, for a being to truly love, they need to have the freedom to do so. You cannot make someone love you. They need to have the choice. You can force someone to say they love you, but true love must exist beside the option of rejection. For humans to truly love God, each other, and the creation, they need to have the possibility of turning away from God and their fellow creatures. This turning away might not be hate, it may merely be apathy.
The biblical book of Genesis tells this story. First, it tells the story about the creation of the universe and the world, and then it tells about the creation of plants and animals and humans. The Bible begins big, but eventually it speaks about a specific human couple (Adam and Eve) living in harmony with the world around them.
We all feel a deep sense that the world is not as it should be- people are not as they should be. We human beings have lost our calling. We can no longer hear our purpose. We let ourselves be fooled by selfishness, which expresses itself as sin. It is not only individuals that are guilty of these things; it is societies, businesses, families, schools, and whole cultures.
We destroy the world. We pollute it. Through our greed and selfishness we cause beautiful animals to become extinct. We burn the rainforests to make money. We consume too much because of our gluttony. We destroy our fellow human beings. We destroy them physically with war, or by denying them resources we are capable of providing but don’t- like food, clean water, and medicine. We destroy them emotionally with our cruel actions and mean words. We destroy them by not accepting them and by not loving them.
In Genesis we read about Adam and Eve and their temptation by the serpent. The serpent says that if they eat the fruit that God told them not to eat they will become like God. Really this is an invitation to reject God’s place in their life as their creator and king, and to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. They decide to essentially de-throne God in their lives. They were refusing God’s guidance and playing God. This is a lie from the start. This is the sin of pride. We cannot pretend to be something we are not and will never be. Yes, we are made in the image of God, but we must also be humble enough to remember that we are made from mud. Lies produce more lies. God asks Adam if he ate the forbidden fruit. Adam doesn’t ask for forgiveness. Instead he blames Eve. Eve doesn’t ask forgiveness, but blames the snake. These lies compound and eventually paradise is no longer possible for them. They are ashamed of their nakedness. They are afraid of being naked in front of each other- of being honest, and fully-exposed to each other. The land produces thorns and the earth is no longer paradise. One of the effects of eating the fruit was knowing Good and Bad. Well, in a world of suffering, they get their chance to know “Bad”.
Genesis has many stories about people wanting to be their own gods. People go bad destroying all that is around them and the slate must be wiped clean with a flood. The tower of Babel story speaks about people using technology to feed their egos (again, wanting to become God), so the people are stricken with confusion so they would humble themselves again. (Often human technology seems to develop faster than their moral capacity to use the technology wisely). Human beings continually use their freedom to turn from God and to turn from each other. The creation is still good, but broken- always waiting for humanity to stop making bad choices. Wherever we go and whatever we do, we don’t respect the limits and boundaries. We disrupt the balance, which brings chaos.
Within this world of accumulating chaos God calls people to bring His vision back to the earth. These people are supposed to work to help God’s dream for the world come true. People are not born to live in chaos; they are born to live in paradise. People will always be unhappy in chaos. These chosen people are supposed to help bring humanity back to paradise. These special people are blessed by God with a special mission to be a blessing to the rest of humanity and to the world. They are the Special Forces team sent by God into the crisis situation. We are all called to be part of this team. We are all called, and if we respond, we will be blessed so that we can be a blessing to those around us.
One of the people God calls is Abraham (also from Genesis). He is called out of his homeland to start a nomadic family that would be a blessing to the world. Abraham’s family eventually ends up in Egypt. In time, one of Abraham’s ancestors becomes an important person in Egypt. God’s chosen people continually find themselves in dire chaotic situations, but always (with God’s help) find a way make the situation work out better than can be imagined. Eventually, Abraham’s ancestors (many generations later) become enslaved in Egypt. Moses (also one of Abraham’s ancestors) is then called out to help save his people and continue in the work of becoming a blessing to humanity (this is in the book of Exodus). Moses is sent by God to free his people from their slavery in Egypt and call them out as a special people- a chosen people. These people were to be formed by God into a continual blessing- a people that would bless the world. These are the Israelites (another name for them is the ‘Hebrews’). They are brought from the land of slavery into a special land where they can be formed- Israel (this is also the beginning of the book of Joshua).
The formation of God’s chosen people is through various methods. A child will often lose focus when being taught an important lesson. So do the chosen people. They turn their backs on God then they need to be reminded and taught some more. They get it right, and then they get it wrong. They sin, and then they repent and turn back to God. They rebel, and then they follow. They forget about God’s dream, and then they remember. Through this all, God never gives up on them. He is always by their side teaching and calling, even if they aren’t listening. (See Exodus to Joshua)
There were leaders called ‘Judges’, which helped lead the Israelites (the book of Judges). Eventually, kings replaced the judges. Some kings were good (like King David, from the books of Samuel) and many were bad. Eventually the kingdom fell into civil war- between the Northern kingdom and the Southern kingdom. The northern kingdom (which became named ‘Israel’) was destroyed by an empire during that time- Assyria (which existed in the Iran/Iraq area). Eventually, another empire arose- Babylonia. This new empire overtook the southern part of the Promised Land (called ‘Judah’). They kidnapped the leaders and other key people and brought them to their own cities (in modern Iraq). Again Abraham’s ancestors were living as prisoners and slaves- this time in Babylon. Eventually, they were allowed to return, but their country was in ruins. They rebuilt and started over again.
God’s main tools during this time are the priests, prophets, poets, and philosophers. God inspires people to fulfill these roles. Priests were the day-to-day spiritual educators and guardians of the people. They took care of worship rituals, and holy days. The prophets were very different. They weren’t “official”. They were unpredictable. They were fascinating and courageous. They shocked people and angered people. ‘The truth hurts’- applies to the prophets. They spoke the things that were difficult to hear. Sometimes it was about a possibility in the future- a warning. Most often they were revealing how God was feeling about His people and His world. The prophets could not be ignored. The prophets spoke about justice, reality, and hypocrisy. The poets captured the experiences and emotions of the people. They spoke what everyone was feeling, but might not know how to express (the Psalms are examples of this). They spoke for the people to God. They spoke for God to the people- through song and story. The philosophers pursued wisdom (they are best shown in the books of Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs). Often the Bible is more interested with exploring mystery, than explaining everything in a scientific manner. The Bible is more interested in meaning and spiritual maturity.
Jesus (the Christ)
In the midst of these people, who were being formed, and who had been called, and who had written the texts that became the Bible, was born a very special child.
The Jewish people around the time Jesus was born were waiting for a figure to come, who they called ‘messiah’. The messiah was supposed to be someone who would come and bring justice and freedom. This person would speak God’s words, and do God’s actions. The messiah would be God person acting on earth in a very specific and powerful way.
This child was God. (One of Jesus’ names is “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”). Jesus was God with human flesh coming to live with us to teach us God’s dream for the world. He came to teach us how to live so that God’s dream would come true. During the time when Christ lived and taught he called 12 disciples from the many people that were following him (patterned after the 12 tribes of Israel). Eventually, Jesus was killed by the Romans and his own (Jewish) people. After 3 days he arose from the dead and then ascended into heaven.
We are alienated from God and we can’t fix it on our own. God needs to rescue us, and forgive us. One of Christ’s mysteries is His death. Somehow, Christ’s death heals the separation between humanity and God (and between the whole creation and God). Christ and his death removes everything that keeps us from God. How this works is less important than the fact that it does work. There are many theories. One of them may be true, or all of them working together may be the truth. This is like eating. There are many theories about why we have to eat and how eating helps to keep us alive, but regardless of how it works, you still need to eat. If you knew nothing about the theories of how the stomach works and how nutrition and stomach acid work, you would still need to eat.
Jesus, in vulnerability, suffering, sacrifice, love, forgiveness, and resurrection, (not conquest, power and violence) triumphs over the crisis the world finds itself in. The world was sick, and Jesus is the medicine. Jesus came to teach a new way of life and to show us what it looks like to live in God’s kingdom on earth. We can learn about Jesus through early biographies about him Matthew to John, and Paul also helps us understand more about the meaning of Jesus (Romans to Philemon) and what it means to follow him. Other early letters also help us understand Jesus and what it means to live as his people (Hebrews to Jude).
After Christ left the earth (in physical form) his followers continued to meet. Paul and the other letter writers help us understand what it means to be Jesus’ followers- the Church. As the first witnesses to Jesus’ ministry, particularly the Apostles, began to die it became very important to preserve their teachings about who Jesus is and how to follow him. Their teachings became the New Testament.
The book of Acts is about the beginning of the church. They began to be called “Christians”, and they continued to live in the way Jesus taught them and this way of living became called “Christianity”. The ‘Church’ (a word for all the people who follow Jesus) was meant to be open, so anyone who wanted to follow Jesus, regardless of ethnicity or social class, was welcomed into the Christian family through teaching and baptism. This group of people continued the work of God- to make God’s dream come true- for the world to become the place it was created to be. The church is the “body of Christ” and participates in Christ’s actions in the world. The world Christ desires is one of peace, joy, beauty, and (most of all) love. It will be a world without starvation, without hate, and without war. Christians are meant to be revolutionaries that are out to change the world for the better. This is the part of the Bible story that we find ourselves in right now.
This part of the story concerns the future. It is mentioned all over the Bible, but the book of Revelation deals with it specifically. Just as God created the world, God will also re-create the world. It is the acknowledgement of something old ending, and something new starting. The church is helping in this re-creating so that God’s dream can be realized in the world, a little at a time.
This part also means that there is a reckoning. There are consequences to every action. Someday we will have to give account for our words, actions, and for who we have become. Every moment of time through all history will be gathered and remembered in God’s mind. Every moment will be brought forward and presented in all honesty and truth. Every thought, feeling, dream, and action, in every moment of time will be brought together and brought forward. Nothing is lost. Even the rocks and trees and stars, and animals will be remembered- everything that ever was. Creation will stand in the presence of God- the loving, powerful, and just God that created it all and kept it all in existence since the beginning. All existence will stand in His presence, and what is not good cannot withstand God’s goodness. The wheat will be separated from the chaff, and our chaff will be burned. Like dipping a marshmallow stick into the fire, all that can’t stand the fire is burned away and the marshmallow stick is clean again. All in human life that is false, cruel, or dishonest will burn away. All that can stand God’s fire is goodness, love, joy, generosity, truth, and honesty. Just as darkness can’t exist in the light, badness can’t exist in the presence of God’s love. These wrongs are forgotten in the fire. Sins are forgiven. Now what remains? Is there enough to go on to exist in the new creation? Can what is left enjoy heaven? Do the remaining parts even want to be with God? Hopefully, yes! The whole creation is brought into goodness, beauty, maturity, completeness, freedom, and perfect relation to God. The universe has grown up and is now ready to enter a new stage of existence.
* The previous was an outline of the biblical story (mainly based on the work of Brian Mclaren with a sprinkling of CS Lewis and NT Wright).