Do you want to know an inside secret about sermons? You may have noticed it already. If you haven’t, you probably will from now on. Here’s the secret: Preachers often like to begin with an image, story, word, phrase, or Bible passage, and then return to it at the end of the sermon. Those bookends emphasize the preacher’s point, pushing it deeper into the hearts and minds of a congregation.
The biblical authors understood this. King David begins Psalm 103 with an exhortation to himself: “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Psalm 103:1). He ends the psalm in exactly the same way: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (Psalm 103:22). This bracketing (the technical term is inclusion) underscores the point of the whole psalm. David urges his own soul to praise the Lord. Everything in between provides reasons for praising the Lord, as well as exhortations for all of heaven and earth to join in praise.
If the borders of a psalm may point toward its main emphasis, what about the beginning and end of the Bible as a whole? When we examine the bookends of Scripture, what do we find?
The End from the Beginning
Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God . . .” Before anything else existed — sunsets, seaweed, giraffes, algebra, lightning, tomatoes, laughter, supernovas, bubblegum, coffee — there was only the triune God, eternally happy within his triune self. Everything and everyone else came later.
At the other end of the canon, the close of Revelation describes an eternal future in which “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). Notice three truths about these bookends. First, God bestrides the Bible, vibrantly present at both the beginning and end. He’s the Alpha and Omega of the Scriptures, the first and the last. He never began to exist, nor will he ever cease to do so. He is absolute, unchanging reality. Of no one and nothing else is this true. Only God is present at both the beginning and end of the Bible.
Second, something important has changed from Genesis 1 to Revelation 21. At the very beginning of the Bible, God exists within the happy community of himself. At the very end of the Bible, he dwells with his people in a new creation. Where did those people and that place come from? God himself created and redeemed both the people and the place.
“The cry of God’s people is always for more of God.”
Third, it turns out that the story doesn’t end when the Bible does. It goes on and on and on, for eternity. The Bible’s penultimate verse is a cry from the heart: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20), which means that the Scriptures conclude on tiptoe, yearning toward a deeper, fuller, richer experience of the presence of Christ. God’s story is an eternal one. The cry of God’s people is always for more of God.
Story Beneath Every Story
The implication of all this is that the Bible is not ultimately our story but God’s. God himself is the main character — and also the author who dictates the action. The Bible tells primarily of God’s works, ways, and words.
Yes, there are lots of secondary characters and interesting subplots. We learn about the material creation, including the abundance and variety of plant and animal life that fills the world. We read fascinating accounts of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Nehemiah, Peter, Paul, and hundreds of others, who make big mistakes and accomplish great things. The Bible bursts with stories of human frailty, rebellion, intrigue, love, courage, and tragedy. But none of those stories is the main one. None of those characters is the hero.
The overarching story line of the Bible is the story of God — the only one present at both the beginning and the end. Everyone (and everything) else is there in the story as an invited guest, beyond their deserving. All the complexities of human existence, and the vast lifespans of galaxies, exist within the eternal story of God.
Overlooking the Lead Role
It may seem blindingly obvious to claim that the Bible is mainly the story of God, but how easy it is to miss. Years ago, a famous Bible scholar wrote an article called “The Neglected Factor in New Testament Theology.” In it, he argued that God himself was the neglected factor! God’s presence was so often assumed by those committed to studying the Scriptures with care and rigor that it was largely overlooked. Yes, this actually happens.
On a more everyday level, many of us could honestly admit that we commonly place ourselves at the center of the stories we inhabit. When we grant God a place (all too often we forget him entirely), it’s to notice how he fits in around our own story. We may be mystified or angry or sad that he hasn’t intervened more frequently. Or we may be genuinely grateful for what he’s done. But at the deepest level, we’ve flipped the script: God inhabits our stories, rather than the other way around. Maybe God-centeredness isn’t so obvious as we thought.
Our tendency to minimize and marginalize God is sometimes evident in our approach to the great Bible bookends of Genesis and Revelation. Both are battlegrounds for fights about how and when exactly God created, as well as the timetable of events for his return. These questions are not unimportant. But sadly, they’ve sometimes overshadowed God himself. Our fascination with how God has acted (or will act) has too often led to gross neglect of the central truth that he has acted at all — and what that says about him.
Even a brief look at Genesis and Revelation (which is all we have space for here) shows that these two great books tell the story of God.
At the Center of the Beginning
In Genesis, all things are from and for God. He’s the originator of all, and he’s the first enjoyer of all. He creates by speaking everything into existence. That means all else is derivative and has its source in him. Even as he creates, he observes and appreciates what he makes. Over and over, he sees that his creation is good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), even “very good” (1:31). We get the sense that he’s really enjoying this. All things are from him and for him.
Moreover, humankind, the pinnacle of this “very good” creation, exists to display his worth. God’s creation of men and women in his image, after his likeness (Genesis 1:26), suggests that their vocation is to image him forth to the rest of the world, serving as agents of his rule. His command to be “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) demonstrates that their display of his worth isn’t meant to be merely local but rather global. And God is doggedly persistent in his project of blessing all mankind and displaying his worth everywhere. He doesn’t allow the rebellion of Adam and Eve to derail his project but persists in working with humanity. After the catastrophic judgment of the flood, he starts over with Noah’s family. Following the proud self-assertion of the nations (Genesis 11), he calls Abram to serve as a conduit of divine blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).
Throughout Genesis, God is the sovereign planner, the persistent initiator, and the main actor. He’s the one who sends the flood, calls Abram, blesses Abram, renews his covenant promises to Isaac and Jacob, and sends Joseph ahead into Egypt to preserve his people (Genesis 45:7; 50:20). He writes the story and moves it forward at every step.
God is also the sweetest blessing, the ultimate treasure, of his people. After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, their greatest punishment is exile from God’s presence (Genesis 3:22–24). More precious even than the blessing of land and offspring is God’s promise to Abram “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” and his promise regarding Abram’s descendants that “I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7–8).
Genesis is a profoundly God-centered book. In it, all things are from, through, and to God.
At the Center of the End
The seven blessings scattered throughout Revelation (the first in 1:3 and the last in 22:14) show that the main purpose of this book is not to satisfy end-time curiosity or to solve apocalyptic puzzles, but to bring divine blessing to God’s suffering people. God means to give grace, as is evident in 1:4 (“Grace to you”) and 22:21 (“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all”).
“God’s blessing is not a gift that is separable from himself. Rather, the blessing of God is God.”
Importantly, God’s blessing is not a gift that is separable from himself. Rather, the blessing of God is God. In the new creation, he will “dwell” with his people (Revelation 21:3), a promise that recalls his presence among Israel in the tabernacle. In fact, the description of the new Jerusalem as a perfect golden cube (Revelation 21:15–21) nods to the Most Holy Place in the temple, suggesting that in the new creation God’s people will enjoy his immediate presence, as only the high priest was permitted to do (and that only once a year).
In the new world, his people will see his face (Revelation 22:4), a staggering privilege not even Moses was permitted. The long and painful story of exile from God’s presence that began after Adam and Eve’s sin and banishment from the garden, and continued through Israel’s exile from the promised land, will finally end. God’s people will enjoy his perfect presence in the new creation and will never again be sent away.
Meanwhile, as God’s people await this promised future, Revelation steadies them by insisting that nothing happens by chance, but rather all things occur by God’s sovereign plan. The book is “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1). That key word must expresses divine necessity. The book ends with the reminder that “the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place” (Revelation 22:6). It must take place because God has willed it. His sovereign control brings steady comfort and strength in the present.
Revelation is radically God-centered. The sovereign God ordains the ways of the world. The glorious, triune God is the aim and treasure of his people. His throne is set in the midst of worshiping angels and humans (Revelation 4–5).
Joys of a God-Centered World
The God-centeredness of the Bible’s bookends suggests that the whole Bible is, in fact, focused on God and meant to tell his story. And this is very good news for us. When we live for ourselves, life doesn’t go well. But when we live for him, we’re living along the grain of the universe, as he designed things to function. We therefore experience true, deep, lasting joy. When John the Baptist heard that Jesus was growing in prominence, he said, “This joy of mine is now complete” (John 3:29). John was happiest serving as the spotlight operator, shining his light on the one true star of the show.
The biographer Arnold Dallimore records a story about Charles Spurgeon, in whose day streetlights were gas-lit. Each had to be lit individually. One night, Spurgeon observed a line of streetlights being lit that went right up a hill, from its foot to the summit. He later described that moment:
I did not see the lamplighter. I do not know his name, nor his age, nor his residence; but I saw the lights which he had kindled, and these remained when he himself had gone his way. As I rode along I thought to myself, “How earnestly do I wish that my life may be spent in lighting one soul after another with the sacred flame of eternal life! I would myself be as much as possible unseen while at my work, and would vanish into eternal brilliance above when my work is done.” (Spurgeon, 162)
Let’s allow our joy to swell as we live within the one great story of the one true God.