An Overview of the Whole Bible
Happy Friday everyone. This special episode of the Ask Pastor John podcast comes to you in partnership with The Gospel Coalition. Today, guest Dr. Don Carson joins us. He is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition. He is also the editor of the new NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible which focuses on biblical-theological themes as they develop in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Nobody does this better than Carson, so we are launching an occasional series of longer episodes where I’ll call Dr. Carson, and he riffs on a theme in biblical theology. In the future, we will cover topics like the doctrine of creation or the doctrine of kingship or atonement or kingdom, and so on. Episodes will release on Fridays every three weeks or so. It should be wonderful — if he’s home.
Dr. Carson, hello and thank you for joining us to record a little series of episodes on various prominent themes in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Today we jump in and start with a historical overview of the Bible — the whole Bible. Tell us the story of the Bible in one shot. Are you ready? Yes. Of course you are. All right, take it away.
Canon and Chronology
To talk about the overview of the Bible is to conjure up two rather distinct things.
Diving the Books
On the one hand, there is the Bible as we have it with Old Testament and New Testament and its division into various categories. And those categories are, themselves, sometimes a bit different in English than in the study of the Hebrew Old Testament for example.
We speak of the major and minor prophets, but those are not the categories in which the Hebrew Bible speaks. Nevertheless, we can break things down usefully into the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), and historical books, and wisdom literature (books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and so forth), and prophets (major and minor, even though those are not standard categories).
And in the New Testament one can think of the Gospels, the book of Acts, all the letters, and the Apocalypse. And even the letters can be broken down into letters to churches versus letters to individuals, like 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. All of these are useful categories.
What they don’t get across is the sequence in which things are written, and they don’t get across the chronology of the Bible storyline. And that is what we are interested in on this brief podcast — that is to say, what is the Bible’s storyline that links these various books with their different literary forms and different structures and different languages and so on together?
Tracing the Story
The next thing to observe is that you can lay out that storyline in very brief sentences, or you could tease it out in many hours. In briefest form you have: creation, fall, redemption, consummation. That is the beginning and the end and in between the two you have the fall — the problem that is addressed — and then redemption — the solution that God provides. So that is laying out the Bible storyline in very brief compass. And then one can fill it out just a wee bit so that one could summarize it in two minutes or three minutes. Or one could lay out the details in many, many hours of discussion with charts and tie-ins to all the biblical books so that you can see exactly where they fit in on the storyline and so on.
Moreover, some books are reflective of a particular incident or a particular time or a particular kingly reign, a particular period. One thinks of the book of Esther, for example. It is tied to the time of one queen and one emperor and only part of their lives. Whereas, books like 1 and 2 Samuel and then 1 and 2 Kings or 1 and 2 Chronicles, and so on, cover multi-reigns. Which means they have been brought together at the end of that period of reigns, but it covers literally hundreds of years. When you go from 1 Samuel to the end of 2 Kings, you are covering the period from before King Saul — so you are back in the eleventh century BC — all the way to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586–587. It is almost half a millennium. And that means that documents have been put together and so forth. But the storyline is built out of the bits and pieces that you find there.
And then part of trying to understand the storyline is the fact that the last bit of narrative material in the Old Testament, the book of Nehemiah, still presents what is taking place about four hundred years before Christ comes. So to fill in the whole historical storyline brings you into filling out bits and pieces of what is often called the intertestamental period — that is, the period between the testaments; hence, the intertestamental period, or it is sometimes called the period of second temple Judaism — that is, the period during which the second temple (not the temple built by Solomon, but the rebuilt temple, after the return from the exile) was standing, all the way until the time it was destroyed in about AD 70, which then overlaps, of course, with the onset of the Christian era.
The Bible’s Storyline
So one could flesh things out along those lines. What I propose to do for the next few minutes is to take an in-between step: to fill out the Bible’s storyline and indicate some of the ways the biblical books get locked in, because the more of that storyline that you know, that you memorize, that you have understood, the easier it is to tie in particular books to that storyline and see where they fit.
So we begin with creation. God makes everything good. We will have a separate session just on creation and how it functions in Scripture. And then comes the fall: rebellion against the Creator and, with it, death and decay and destruction. Then eventually that leads to judgment. The sin is so severe and God is so righteously angry that he sends the flood. That is Genesis 6–9, roughly. But God, in his mercy, allows Noah and his family to escape — eight people. And then, sadly, evil is still no better. It breaks out again and results in the Tower of Babel as a sign of rebellion against God. That is Genesis 11.
So Genesis 1–11 are sometimes referred to as the prehistoric chapters, which is not meant that they take place before history, but before history writing. We have a kind of demonstration of materials being recorded from Abraham on, from about 2,000 BC. And it is quite possible that some documents came down from earlier times, but we don’t have access to them.
Then from Genesis 12–50 — that is, the rest of the book of Genesis — you have what is sometimes called the patriarchal cycles. You have Abraham and then Isaac, then Jacob, then his sons, especially Joseph. And what you have then is the rise of the Jewish people as a race. There is still no experience of nationhood at this point. They are still a large extended family. And here there is a huge emphasis on the promises of God, the covenant of God with Abraham. One can argue that God made a covenant with Adam in the garden, but we will come to that briefly when we consider creation more closely.
So here you have the Abrahamic covenant, which is picked up in the New Testament. We will return to that. And by the time you come to the end of the book of Genesis, then, the people of God, the Israelites, are about seventy strong, plus some further children as they are born down in Egypt, with one of the brothers, Joseph, being, a prime minister, as we might call him. That sets the stage for what takes place hundreds of years later with an Egyptian Pharaoh who rises, who has no personal knowledge or even particular recollection of Joseph. Too much time has passed. The Israelites have multiplied, and they are viewed as a threat, and so gradually imposed servitude is demanded, and eventually that leads to outright slavery.
And that sets the stage for the second book of the Pentateuch — that is, the book of the Exodus. And here the first half of the book is the account of the birth of Moses and then his becoming a young, trained man in the courts of Pharaoh, brought up by Pharaoh’s daughter, but still racially feeling loyal to fellow Israelites and loyal to God. He behaves foolishly as a young man and finds himself fleeing for his life into the back side of the Midianite desert where he is a shepherd until about the age of eighty.
And then God calls him and through what we call the ten plagues, and God’s repeated self-disclosure to the people, and in miracles and in word and so on, eventually God leads the people of Israel out across the Red Sea under the leadership of Moses.
That leads people down, then, to Sinai and the giving of the law. And the high point of that is the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. And immediately after Exodus 20, you have the stipulations that come with the giving of the Ten Commandments. Some parts of holiness and the building of the tabernacle, the stipulations and so on for the priesthood, and all kinds of interesting little tidbits — what an ephod is that the priest uses, and so forth.
And that goes on until you have the account of Moses coming down from the mountain where he has met with God (Exodus 32–34) and finds the people already in an act of graven idolatry, acting as if a calf that they made of pieces of gold represents Yahweh and debauched forms of religion. Judgment falls and so forth.
And that brings you ultimately to the sad reality that the people of that generation don’t get into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, because when they approach that land in Kadesh Barnea, then most of the spies who go and seek out the land come back just afraid to go any further, even though they have seen God do such wonderful things for them in the preceding release. And so that generation, from twenty and up, dies off through forty years of wilderness wandering. And Moses himself doesn’t get into the Promised Land because of some acts of bad temper and want of faith. So he dies at the end of the Pentateuch. He doesn’t get into the Promised Land.
Then Exodus is followed by Leviticus with a lot of laws, many of them ceremonial, some of them highly memorable moral laws like, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). But now you are introduced to the heart of the priestly sacrificial ritual system with lots of emphasis on the Day of Atonement, especially in Leviticus 16, and the Passover laws and the holiness code and so forth.
Numbers lays out the numbering of the people and what will be the distribution of land once they get into the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy is a kind of review — Moses calling everybody back to faithfulness as they get ready to enter the Promised Land after all kinds of little historical vignettes of what has taken place in the forty-year gap. And then Moses himself dies in the last book of Deuteronomy, and is buried by God himself in a place that nobody knows about on Mount Nebo.
So that is the Pentateuch. And in one sense, it ends with discouragement. God promises blessings and cursing, the blessings upon those who obey, curses upon those who disobey, and guess which way it is going to go? It is indicated even by the fact that Moses himself, called the meekest man who ever lived, doesn’t get into the Promised Land. And so the promises of grace that are scattered through the book have to be taken seriously, to speak as many do of a kind of Deuteronomic theology as if it is all merit, blessing, and curses, depending on how you do. That’s too reductionistic because those blessings and curses issue in constant picture where, in fact, the curses come to the fore and people fail again and again and again driving you to grace.
Joshua and Judges
Then Joshua and Judges: Joshua brings the people into the Promised Land, but Judges shows that, in the following years, there are cycles of depravity that bring the people down again and again and again. And when the people get desperate enough, crushed by local peoples, then God raises up a judge, and the people are spared again, and a couple of generations later, they have slunk into the same sort of idolatry and immorality until the book ends, again, with bleakest despair: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was s right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). And so you begin to say: What we really need is a king, a king who is just and right and true. And so during that period of the judges you also get the story of Ruth, for example, and other little snippets.
Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles
Then what you have in 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and then reviewed again in 1 and 2 Chronicles, is the movement from the period of the judges — the last great one being Samuel — to the onset of kingship.
Saul Who Falls
And the first king of what is called the united monarchy — all the tribes together — is King Saul. He starts off well, but the people want him for the wrong reasons. They want to be like the pagans around them, and Saul himself is, despite his height and his gallantry and his initial meekness, insecure and lashes out and angry at anybody that threatens his position. Eventually he becomes barbaric in his cruelty and his insecurity and his rebellion against God. So he wants to take on both priestly and kingly functions. And the result is he is killed and so is his son. There is never a Saul dynasty.
And God appoints, as king, a man after his own heart, we are told, which is the beginning of the Davidic dynasty, which is highlighted in 2 Kings 7. In fact, 2 Kings 6–7 need to be read together, because when David first becomes king, he initially becomes king of only two tribes in the south, and the northern ten tribes remain under independent governments. David’s capital is in Hebron. But after seven years he takes Jerusalem and becomes king of the entire twelve tribes and then reigns for thirty-three more years in Jerusalem.
In 2 Kings 6–7 you find is the confluence of several themes. You have now the rise of Jerusalem as the capital city, and that sets an entire trajectory that finally ends in the New Jerusalem. This is the city of the great king, the Davidic dynasty. It is the city now also of what will become the temple. The tabernacle is moved into Jerusalem, and it is never moved out. Instead of being in Shiloh or some other place, moved around a bit within the tribes, now Jerusalem, what will be the temple and the Davidic kingship, are all in one place. That sets trajectories that run right through the rest of the Old Testament and find various forms and fulfillments in Jesus.
So 2 Samuel 6 is the movement of the tabernacle to Jerusalem. Chapter 7 is the establishment of the Jerusalem Davidic kingship, a moving thing. And the promise, the groundwork for collecting the materials and the money needed to build the Jerusalem temple, which is undertaken eventually by Solomon in the next generation. Some of these materials are celebrated in Psalms and in other ways. Psalm 2 is a reflection of the establishment of the Davidic dynasty looking forward to a faithful, powerful Davidic king. We can track out more of those bits and pieces, how the Davidic kingship develops in other podcasts. But right now we need to focus on the storyline itself.
Solomon and Subsequent Kings
Solomon then follows David, and when he dies his son Rehoboam wants to act powerful, but succeeds only in dividing the kingdom between the northern tribes, Israel, and the southern tribes based in Jerusalem. So Rehoboam now is king in Jerusalem, but of only two tribes; that is all. And the northern tribes develop their own king dominion, first of all under Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and he picks up the tag: “Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 22:52). And in order to prevent these people from going regularly to the temple in Jerusalem and, thus, maybe having a divided political allegiance, he establishes two temples, one way up north in Dan and one in the area that is eventually called Samaria just north of Jerusalem, but within the ten tribes. And so there is idolatry and more and more multiplication of gods as the people maintain some kind of loose allegiance to Yahweh, to God, even while multiplying gods on every side.
And in the north, the accounts that are told in 1 and 2 Kings and in 1 and 2 Chronicles and so on are really pathetic. Each dynasty lasts only one, two, three generations and then gets bumped off by somebody, and there is a murderous rage, and all their kids are killed because there is a fear that somebody from the old dynasty will take over again and so forth. And eventually under the press of horrible idolatry God, sends in the Assyrian army, and the Assyrians capture the leadership and transport it off to the ends of the earth to Assyria, in the far north, in about 721 BC.
Jerusalem, though it is attacked, is spared. And eventually by the time Jerusalem’s sins have been multiplied and multiplied, by that time the regional superpower is no longer Assyria; it is Babylon. So Jerusalem is sacked in 586 BC and the temple is destroyed, and under Nebuchadnezzar their leaders are transported in three successive waves culminating in 586 BC.
Now it is within that framework that it is helpful to read the opening lines of the prophets so that you start reading Isaiah, for example, and the opening verses tell you that what takes place in Isaiah’s prophetic ministry is under the reigns of so and so, and so and so, and so and so, and so and so.
And Isaiah himself lives during the time of the Assyrian power, but prophetically he looks forward to what is going to take place under the Babylonian reign as well, so that his vision covers something like one hundred fifty years of what will take place, and he foresees not only the destruction of Jerusalem, not only the exile, but the return from the exile when God will bring salvation to his people. And in the far, far, far distance, like the distant mountains peeking over the near mountains, he foresees ultimately a new heaven and a new earth that is going to change the rules of the game entirely.
So in prophetic words, then, now Isaiah envisages a time when a Davidic Son is born: A son is born, a child is born. He will reign on the throne of his father David. Of the increase of his kingdom there will be no end (Isaiah 9:6–7). There is a promise of the Davidic dynasty. Yet at the same time, he will be called the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). We need to track out that Davidic dynasty theme in the Old Testament.
Meanwhile, then, the people of God go into exile, and around the years before the Jerusalem people are carted off to the Babylonian empire, Jeremiah is preaching in Jerusalem and Ezekiel is preaching in Babylon, carted off by an earlier wave. And they are both saying the same thing. They are both saying the people must not rebel against Babylon. If they do, they are going to be destroyed. But they rebel against God, and they are destroyed. And the huge messages of Jeremiah and of Ezekiel are that the people are so wicked that destruction and exile are inevitable, and the only hope at the end of the period of exile is that God himself brings them back and provides a Redeemer for them.
So when the people start returning, then you have the ministry of the so-called postexilic prophets, people like Haggai, who preaches to tell the people who are returning that they really need to build the temple right away. That is the center of the meeting place between God and human beings that God himself has ordained. And so a small temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, and here is when you also find the ministry of Ezra, and then a little later the ministry of Nehemiah, who is brought back by God himself to build the wall around the city.
The temple is built before Jerusalem is rebuilt. Hardly anybody lives there. They are poor, dirt-poor, living in farms around the area. But the temple is there and is operating in a low-key, unfaithful, miserable sort of way, until Nehemiah, strengthened by God, rebuilds the city wall despite a lot of opposition, and invests in a repopulation program to get people inside and build up the city again. And that is when you find the final storyline of the Old Testament under the ministry of Nehemiah.
So you have a number of postexilic prophets writing and preaching at that time — that is, prophets preaching to the people of God after, post, the exile. So you have the preexilic prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Isaiah, and then the postexilic prophets. Right at the turn of the period is Daniel himself. And then post-exile people like Haggai and Zechariah and Malachi.
The Four Hundred Years of Silence
And then what happens in the period between the testaments is hundreds of years when the people are really under one regional superpower or another. After the Assyrians, as we have said, come the Babylonians. After the Babylonians come the Persians. And it is under the Persian empire that the Jews are allowed back into the Promised Land. There was a reversal of imperial policy, and a lot of people who have been transported are allowed back into their own lands, including the Moabites, for example. It wasn’t just the Jews. And God faithfully, thus, brings his people back to the land.
But the Persians are eventually taken over by the Greeks. And then the Greek empire dies when Alexander the Great dies in the last third of the fourth century BC, and his land is broken up into four regions led by four former generals. None of this is found as history in the Old Testament, but some of it is predicted by the visions of Daniel.
And eventually Israel finds itself squashed between a general to the south in the land of Egypt and a general to the north in the land of Syria. And they are caught in no man’s land in endless struggles. And eventually a wicked general in the north in the second century BC, a man called Antiochus IV Epiphanes, decides to impose imperial paganism on Jerusalem. He makes sacrifice in the temple to Yahweh, to God, a capital crime. Owning any part of Torah is a capital crime. Observing the Sabbath is a capital crime. And he intends by terror to impose paganism on the people.
And what happens is he kicks off a bloody civil war that is characterized by endless guerilla struggles. People can read about that for themselves in the writings of Josephus, a first-century-AD historian. And the bloodiest part of that takes place 167–164 BC. And eventually the Jews become strong enough that there is a set piece of battle by the Orontes River, and the Syrians are beaten under Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
And for the first time in half a millennium, the Jews have a right to reestablish the Davidic kingship. But is that what they do? Nope. Rather, the guerilla leaders themselves take over, and so when they have a right to reestablish the Davidic kingship, they don’t do so. And a century later in 63 BC the Romans take over. And so the people are under the oppression of Rome now, the Roman empire. And that is the way it is with a regional, local puppet called Herod, who is operating under the aegis of the Roman empire when Jesus is born in Bethlehem of Judea in fulfillment of the prophecy of Micah.
The New Testament
So Jesus is born then under Roman imperial rule and lives, serves, dies, rises again, and the exact date of his resurrection some think is about AD 30 and others about AD 33. But certainly it happened in that period. And then the church explodes in numbers, first of all, in Jewish circles and then in Gentile circles until you have the ministry of Paul and others with the church expanding throughout the Roman world. And much of the book of Acts traces the spreading of the gospel through the ministries of Peter and Paul and a few others until the gospel is actually well established in Rome itself. Thus, although not politically threatening the Roman Empire at this stage, nevertheless demonstrating as Jesus puts it at the end of Matthew all authority is given to him in heaven and on earth in the wake of his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension (Matthew 28:18).
The rest of the New Testament fills out the interactions between New Testament writers and local or regional groups of Christians in churches or regions to address theological and pastoral issues until you get to the last book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse. Here Christians have divided over the years about how to interpret that book.
It is worth spending time to outline how Christians have understood the future at different periods of the church’s history. They have tended to one position or another. In the first half of the twentieth century, a vast number of Christians in America called themselves premillennial pretribulationists. But one must remember that in the period of the Puritans, for example, the overwhelming majority were postmillennialists and a few premillinnialists. There were no amillennialists. At the moment, amillennialism is on the rise.
If you don’t know what those terms are, don’t worry about it. Because my point in this survey is that all of these groups without exception do understand that the ultimate hope of the church is not some sort of millennial splendor. The ultimate hope of the church is the new heaven and the new earth, resurrection existence in a remade, reconstituted universe that includes resurrection existence where there is no more death, there is no more sorrow, there are no more tears or pain or suffering. The old order is passed away (Revelation 21).
It can be seen as a New Jerusalem. It can be seen as a bride finally consummated in union with Christ. It can be seen as a new heaven and a new earth, but spectacular, holy, resurrection existence, with the glory of glories being that they shall see God face to face in a way that even the angels of heaven cannot see God. The angels cover their faces with their wings and cry: holy, holy, holy (Revelation 4:8). But according to Revelation 22, God’s redeemed people actually gaze on God, and in vast picturesque descriptions of what this existence will look like. We are treated to visions of work and of song and of praise and of righteous living and God-centeredness and glory to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.