The Bible’s Big Story

Seminar — 2014 National Conference

Look at the Book: Reading the Bible for Yourself

All right, we’re going to start this way. You have to do a little talking, okay? You’re going to turn to one person next to you, and I’m going to give you the title of a book. One of you is going to seek to, in one or two sentences, tell the person next to you what that book is about. Are you up for this? It’s easy, I promise. Here’s the first book. One of you turn to your neighbor and tell them, what is the book Charlotte’s Web about? Go. Now it’s the other person’s turn. You’re going to look at each other and I want the other person to tell, what is the book The Help about? Go ahead.

How’d it go? You don’t want that person writing the copy for, I can tell. Okay, now one more. You’re going to turn to each other and I want one of you to try to tell the other person, what is the story of the book the Bible? Go. Okay, you told the whole story right then, yes? Did you find that a little bit harder than these other books we’re so familiar with?

The Storyline of Scripture

What is the Bible all about? I mean, let’s face it. We say it is the most important book in our lives and we’ve spent years reading it and studying it. Now, we know lots of its stories, right? But we find it hard to tell the central story of the Bible that brings its 66 books into a coherent whole. Well, we could actually summarize the story of the Bible in four words. Ready? Creation, rebellion (fall), redemption, and consummation (re-creation, or restoration).

When we begin to grasp this big story, when this becomes the skeleton of our understanding of the Bible, and then when we begin to read the Bible in light of it, what it does is it keeps us from instantly trying to make the Bible all about us and about what we are supposed to do for God. Instead, we recognize that the Bible is really all about God and what he has done and what he is doing through Christ to accomplish the redemption of his people and the re-creation of all that he has made.

I want you to imagine that you got on the elevator, if you’re staying in a hotel here, and let’s say it was 10 stories high, and you were going to try to tell the story of the Bible to the person you were on the elevator with before you got to the 10th floor. How would you answer them in the time it took to get to the top floor? Well, there are numerous ways that we could tell the story of the Bible that include those four key elements (creation, rebellion, redemption, restoration) when we’re making our way from that first floor to the top of the building.

The Story of Three Trees

We’re going to consider three of those ways — the first two very briefly — and then we’ll spend a little bit more time on the third one, all right? We could tell the story of the Bible this way. We could tell it as the story of three trees. The first tree was in the Garden of Eden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We’ll call that tree the forbidden tree. This is the one Adam and Eve were not to eat from, but they did.

This act of rebellion by Adam and Eve led them and all of their descendants, not just to knowing about evil, but into experiencing evil’s pain and power, which now wasn’t just outside of them, but now it was in them. So they went from having spiritual life in communion with God to spiritual death, alienated from God — a spiritual death that would last forever if they stayed in the garden and if they ate of another tree in that garden, the tree of life, in that state. But you see, God didn’t intend for those who he created to be alienated from him forever. So he began working out a plan to bring his people back to the tree of life by sending a second Adam.

While Adam and Eve faced temptation about a tree in a sunny garden, a paradise with no pressure, Christ also faced temptation about a tree before him. It was in a dark garden, a garden that was given the name “oil press”, the Garden of Olives. Certainly, he felt squeezed on that night like an olive in a press, to the point that his sweat was like drops of blood. As Tim Keller has said, “If Adam and Eve obeyed God about the tree, they would live; if Jesus obeyed God about the tree, he would die.” Jesus obeyed, and through his obedience, this second Adam gained more for us than the first Adam lost for us through his disobedience.

When Jesus was crucified on the tree of Calvary, all of the evil of his people was laid upon him, so that you and I might experience all of the goodness of God. That has begun even now as the Holy Spirit, in grace, works that newness and goodness into our lives. And the day is coming when we, his people, will enter into the new heavens and the new earth and there we’ll discover the third tree. This will be the tree, the healing tree, and the fruit of that tree will bring healing to this broken world and resurrection life to our bodies that have been long buried — unending, abundant life. This is the story of the Bible in three trees — the forbidden tree, the cursed tree, and the healing tree.

The Story of the Lamb

We can tell the story of the Bible as the story of the lamb. This story begins back in Genesis when Abel, who was a keeper of sheep, brought an offering of the firstborn of his flock to God. We trace this story of the lamb to that day when Abraham was called to make an offering of his firstborn son, but God provided the ram. Interestingly, this ram’s head was caught in a thorny thicket and God provided this ram to be sacrificed instead. In Abraham’s day, God provided one lamb as a substitute for one person, Abraham’s son Isaac.

As we go through the Bible, we come to Exodus. In Exodus, God’s people are enslaved in Egypt. There, we see that God made provision for one lamb to be sacrificed for one household at the Passover, so that their firstborn sons would not die when judgment came down on Egypt. We move to Leviticus and we read about God’s instructions for the Day of Atonement in which a single animal was sacrificed for the sins of the whole nation of Israel. But of course, all of these lambs were just preparing God’s people to recognize his provision in Mary’s little lamb.

Finally, the day came when John the Baptist looked up and he saw Jesus coming toward him and he said, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus was God’s provision of one lamb to die not for one person, or for one family, or for one nation, but for one world. Throughout the Bible we have it pictured for us again and again that anyone who wants to be made right with God can do so only on the basis of the lamb that God has provided. But the story doesn’t end there because we discover at the end of God’s story that into eternity we see the Lamb of God at the very center of God’s plans for the world.

The Apostle John was given a vision into ultimate spiritual reality, into the heaven that will one day come down so that the entire earth will become the new heavens and the new earth, and what is at the heart, at the very center of that reality, John says:

I saw a lamb standing as though it had been slain (Revelation 5:6).

He not only saw the lamb, he heard the people of God and the living creatures and the voice of many angels, and what are they saying? They’re saying:

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
     to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
     and honor and glory and blessing! (Revelation 5:12).

To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
     be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! (Revelation 5:13).

So the story of the Bible is the story of three trees, and it is the story of the lamb.

The Story of the King and His Kingdom

It’s also the story of the king and his kingdom. I smiled recently at a tweet sent by one of my friends, Gabe de Garmo, and it was a picture of his wife and daughter getting ready to board a flight to Orlando, Florida, and the tweet said, “Watch out, Disney. I’m on my way with two more princesses.” Now, I didn’t grow up immersed in as much Disney culture as today’s children. If you’re around my age, you know what I’m talking about. I only had that opportunity on the occasional Sunday night when we weren’t at church and we got to stay home at 6:00 on Sunday night and watch The Magical World of Disney. Anybody else relate to that?

But the appeal of Disney magic is not difficult to grasp. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a handsome prince ruling over a kingdom, or a princess with perfect hair and an 18 inch waist and a closet full of gowns? But most of us have figured out at one point or another that wishing upon a star has not had the power to make that so. But perhaps the reason that stories of kings and kingdoms capture our interest is because they do actually reflect a childlike longing that somehow along the way we have trained ourselves to deny.

Perhaps there is something deep inside us that knows that there really is a kingdom in which we could be cherished by the prince and protected by the king, a kingdom in which no one has to be afraid or go hungry, but everyone enjoys perfect peace and safety and love, a place where we can finally be at home. My friends, this isn’t just the fodder of fairy tales, and it isn’t simply escapist denial; it’s actually the hope that the Bible holds out to us. The Bible is the story of a kingdom that you and I are invited to experience in part now and in fullness forever.

It’s the story of the true king who rules over his people with perfect love and justice. It’s the story of God’s commitment to bring us into his home where his covenant promise that he made to his people throughout the Bible, that covenant promise of “I will take you to be my people and I will be your God,” will finally become the uninterrupted reality that we will live in forever. This story of the true king and his kingdom begins this way.

A Kingdom Established and Fallen

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). You see, the Bible begins by telling us that God is the majestic king over the world. His kingdom is the heaven and earth that he created from nothing. Adam and Eve lived in this perfect garden paradise called Eden as the creator king’s loyal subjects, and they were there enjoying his provision and his presence right there with them, because here is the kingdom of God as it once was. It was God’s people (at that point, Adam and Eve), in God’s place (at that point, the Garden of Eden), under God’s rule (his clear instruction for them to be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth and subdue it and eat freely of every tree in the garden, except for one). In fact, as Graeme Goldsworthy has taught:

The kingdom of God throughout the Bible and throughout history is always this: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.

So God’s people, Adam and Eve, lived in God’s place, the Garden of Eden, and everything about it was good, perfectly good, until they rebelled against God’s rule. A rival kingdom actually invaded God’s kingdom in the form of a serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to reject God as their king. He told them that they could be kings of their own kingdom and that their king was actually withholding something good from them, but it was a lie.

When Adam and Eve rebelled against the loving rule of their king, everything that was once so beautiful became broken and they were forced out of God’s kingdom of Eden. But God, the good king, was not content to make peace with this ongoing alienation. So he began working out his plan to restore his people to his kingdom. He did this by declaring war, not on those people who had rebelled against him, but a war against sin and death. Ever since then, two opposing forces have been at war in the world: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.

A Kingdom Re-established Over a Little Land

But the Bible makes it clear that God is accomplishing this restoration of his kingdom, not through an instantaneous edict, but through a lengthy historical process. God is working out his plan to bring his people back into his place to live under his rule by calling one man, Abraham, to himself. He made incredible, undeserved promises to Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great people and that his people would live in a place, the land of Canaan, where they would live under his loving rule.

When this family grew and was enslaved outside of this place that God had intended for them, he brought them out and he gave them his law so that they would know how to live under his rule once they were in his land. This land was supposed to be a land flowing with milk and honey, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, the paradise that God’s people had once enjoyed. If they obeyed him there, they would live there enjoying its abundance forever.

But as we trace the history of Israel in the history books of the Old Testament, we see that the people of God repeatedly proved rebellious to God’s rule, and ultimately they too were exiled from the place that God had given to them, the place where God had come down to dwell among them, inhabiting the holy of holies in the temple.

Yet, God’s continued his commitment to have a people for himself, living in the place he provided under his loving rule. So as they lived in exile away from God’s land, a faithful remnant hung onto God’s promises that he would come and reign as their king, that he would not only bring them back, but that he would be there with them as their king through the Anointed One. When that faithful remnant of God’s people was finally able to return to the land, they waited there for this greater king and the greater kingdom to come, and then the king came.

The Coming King

He came saying:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15).

When Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us, it was the kingdom of heaven breaking into the realm of earth. Have you ever been outside on one of these beautiful Minnesota sunshiny days? Maybe it’s been raining, but then all of a sudden you can look out and you can see a ray of sun peeking down through dark clouds. In a sense, that’s a picture of what we’re talking about. The glory and beauty of the kingdom of heaven broke through the veil between heaven and earth in the incarnation of Christ. All that the kingdom of Israel had been pointing toward for centuries was becoming a reality with the coming of the true king.

Yet while the kingdom was at hand at the king’s first coming, it didn’t come in power. It came in weakness. The reality is that Jesus didn’t really seem like a king, at least he wasn’t the kind of king the Israelites were expecting. I mean, kings are born in palaces, not cattle stalls. Kings expect to be served, not to serve. Kings robe themselves in royal garments, not with a towel to wash everyone’s feet. Kings wear crowns of gold, not crowns of thorns.

Clearly, Jesus was not a king — and his kingdom was not going to be a kingdom — like the kings and kingdoms they were used to. This became evident when Jesus got up and began to teach. The paradoxical wisdom of the kingdom of God he spoke of was actually quite different from the accepted wisdom of the kingdoms of the world in their day. He said that the greatest people in God’s kingdom were those who serve (Matthew 23:31). He said that we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). He said that it’s actually more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). He said that the only way to save your life is to lose it (Matthew 16:25).

Jesus taught people to pray. He said, pray this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,your will be done,
     on earth as it is in heaven.

Now I wonder, how do you think God’s will is done in heaven? In his heavenly throne room, all creatures serve him with a glad yes. I mean, there’s no pause to determine whether or not his command suits anyone’s preferences or if it’s going to fit into their busy schedules. Of course, sadly, we know that’s not at all the way it is here on earth. Jesus was teaching us to pray that this disparity between heaven and earth would be eradicated, and one day it will be.

A Mystery Revealed

Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was constantly pulling back the curtain to reveal what the kingdom of God will be like when his kingdom comes in all of its glorious fullness. He healed those with diseases, showing that sickness and disease have no place in his kingdom when it comes. He commanded demons to depart because nothing evil will have its way forever in his kingdom. He stilled the sea, showing that all nature submits to his command in his kingdom. He fed multitudes, revealing the abundant satisfaction to be found in his kingdom. He raised Lazarus to life, previewing the day when the bodies of all of his kingdom’s subjects will be raised to resurrection life, fit for living forever with him in his kingdom.

In the obedience of his life, Jesus revealed the perfect righteousness that permeates his kingdom. In his sin-atoning death, Jesus proved that sin and death no longer get the last word in his kingdom. In his resurrection, he previewed the future hope of all of those who will populate his kingdom. In his ascension, he entered into the current realm of his kingdom. At Pentecost, God poured out his Spirit on his people, empowering his people to take the gospel of his kingdom to the ends of the earth. Today, the kingdom of God is spreading across the world as his gospel goes out and is embraced by all who will repent and believe.

The kingdom of God is no longer bound up with just one country like it was in Old Testament Israel. God’s kingdom comes now to people of all nations as they bow to Jesus as king. In its simplest, the kingdom of God is where the king is. It’s where he rules and reigns. So, as he rules and reigns in your life, that’s the kingdom. As he rules and reigns amongst his people, the church, that’s the kingdom. Everywhere his will is done, where his justice is accomplished, where his righteousness is lived out, where his gospel is loved, is the kingdom. Everywhere his subjects are saved by his hand, everywhere his enemies are vanquished by his power, and everywhere his commandments are obeyed, that is the kingdom.

So if you want to know how to enter the kingdom of God, it is to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done in my life, in my heart, on this earth, in the same way that your will is done gladly by all of the angels of heaven.” It is to say, “Jesus is Lord.” He is Lord over my choices, Lord over my finances, Lord over my future, and Lord over this family. He is Lord over this church. He is Lord over my company. He is Lord over this land. Calling upon Christ for salvation is bowing the knee to his kingship. It is never anything less than that because he is never anything less than the true king.

You see, what saves people is the grace of the king who reigns over them, and how we need his kingdom to come in all of its loving rule. It does come even now as we live as citizens of heaven in this world. Because for now, the kingdom of God is God’s people, which are all of those who are joined to Christ, who are living on earth as citizens of heaven, God’s people in God’s place — this temple being built with living stones, the church, under God’s rule, experiencing the blessings of the New Covenant. You see, for now, the kingdom of God is a community of sinners who have been washed by the blood of the king, seeking to please the king, longing for the return of the king.

The Return of the King

Do you sometimes wonder what God is doing in the world and where this world is headed? The goal of history is this: his kingdom come and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. You see, there will be no more rebellion tolerated when his kingdom comes. That ancient serpent who is called the devil, he will be destroyed forever by King Jesus. There will be no more sickness tolerated when his kingdom comes. There will be no more mental illness, no more birth defects, no more metastasized cancer, no more diabetes, and no more drug addiction.

No injustice will be perpetrated when his kingdom comes. There will be no ethnic cleansing, no economic oppression, no sexual abuse, no sinful patterns will be accommodated when his kingdom comes. There will be no gossipy comments and no envious thoughts and no long, lustful looks. No natural disasters will bring catastrophe when his kingdom comes. No one will drown in a tsunami or starve in a famine when his kingdom comes. There will be no darkness, only glorious light; no more tears, only ongoing joy; no more death, only ongoing life.

My friend Gabe sent another tweet a couple of days after he sent that one warning Disney that he was on his way with two more princesses. He had taken a picture walking down Main Street at Disney World and he wrote with it, “Looking forward to the day I get to be in a real kingdom with the king.” Me too, Gabe. Because that’s when we’ll finally be at home. It will be wonderful to live in a kingdom where there’s no more sickness and no more pain and no more tears. But the best thing about the kingdom will be the king seated on the throne at the very center. The face that will capture our attention will be the face of the king.

You see, it’s the presence of Jesus the king that will make heaven what it is now and what it will be when his kingdom comes to earth and his kingdom is going to come. He is going to come. He says, “Behold, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:12). Friends, when he comes, his coming will not bring a conclusion to this grand story of the Bible, but actually a new beginning. We, his people, will find our place in a new garden in which nothing evil will ever enter and we will eat from the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruits, this one that brings healing. The Lamb of God will have taken away the sin of the world and we will worship him. The kingdoms of this world will have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ (Revelation 11:15), and he will reign forever and ever. That’s the big story of the Bible.

attends Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, in Franklin, Tennessee, and teaches at conferences around the country and internationally, including her Biblical Theology Workshops for Women. She and her husband host Respite Retreats for couples who have faced the death of a child and are co-hosts of the GriefShare video series.