Relearning the Scriptural Story

Holy-Bible-Stone

A segment of Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea in California. Photo by Troy Meier.

By Brian D. Russell-

“All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players / They have their exits and their entrances / And one man in his time plays many parts / His acts being seven ages.”

–William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”

These words remind us that our lives are part of a larger story. The modern world flashes a multitude of competing stories and images constantly. All seek to draw us into their narrative web. What story or stories shape us? What images and visions propel us forward in our lives?

What novel, short story, film, or movie best represents your life as you currently see yourself? As a professor, I’ve received interesting answers from students over the years. Many of us resonate with underdog stories of courage and overcoming odds, romantic tales of love, or the adventures of super heroes. Yet there is One Story above all others and it beckons for our lives. It is the Bible. As we seek to advance God’s kingdom in our day, we must re-engage this story so that we can live as the missional people whom God created us to be.

The Bible is the story of God’s relentless love for all creation. Its narrative traces God’s desire to redeem a lost humanity and heal a broken creation. When we read Scripture, we encounter the Creator God who invites us to participate with him as he advances his mission to bring restoration, forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, peace, hope, and love through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the Bible, God reveals his character, his purposes, and his plans so that we may live as the people God created us to be.

Scripture Study

Too often today we live by sound bite Bible study. We grab onto a single verse or a collection of single verses drawn from across the Bible. This is better than no Scripture, but it robs the Bible of its coherence and inter-connectedness. Scripture tells a story that needs to be pondered deeply as a whole. We need to learn to read smaller sections in light of the whole Bible to give them context and richness. The flesh desires a sound bite, but the soul craves a real meal.

Recall the words of the psalmist in Psalm 1 about the happy person delighting in the law of the Lord and meditating on it day and night (1:2). The psalmist imagines a life permeated by the Scriptures as the key to successfully navigating through the world. The writer advocates an attitude of delight and a habit of regular devotion for the journey of life. The psalmist observes “your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my way” (119:105). Scripture guides us through the world. We need to learn to delightfully digest the Bible’s words so that we can live confidently regardless of life’s circumstances.

The Bible’s Story

When we think about the biblical story as Christians, it is vital to begin with Jesus. This allows us to read it in light of its key event: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

When Jesus begins his earthly ministry, he announces the arrival of God’s kingdom and calls for his audience to respond by aligning their lives with the values and ethos of the kingdom (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15). Jesus immediately moves to call a community of disciples who will follow him so that he can teach them to fish for people (Matthew 4:18–22). Jesus creates a missional community to reflect and embody the ethos of the kingdom to and in the world.

How do disciples embody the kingdom? By repenting or realigning their lives in light of Jesus’ life and teaching. This provides a model for us to engage the Scriptures. We read the Scriptures to learn God’s ways and respond by realigning our lives so that we can serve in God’s mission. Now we can move back to the beginning of the Bible and read the whole as a means of realignment.

Creation. In Genesis 1-2, God creates all that exists. At the climax of creation, men and women are formed in God’s own image (Genesis 1:26-31). All humanity is empowered to serve as God’s visible representatives and ambassadors to the rest of creation. Humanity exists to point all creation to the true God and serve as his hands, feet, and mouthpieces. Men and women live in harmony with God, with one another, and with the created world. This is life as God intended — full of peace, harmony, justice, and love. It manifests fully in the Sabbath rest practiced at the end of each week (Genesis 2:1-3). These images instruct us by teaching us God’s original vision for life. They also help us to understand the salvation that God brings through Jesus as a restoration of God’s original vision for humanity.

Fall. In Genesis 3-11, the harmony and wholeness of the original creation breaks down due to human sin. At the heart of sin is our desire to live beyond the good boundaries established by God. In the narratives of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, and the Tower of Babel, we discover that the world of Genesis 1–2 has descended into brokenness, rebellion, and alienation. St. Paul will later describe our condition this way: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The essential problem in our world is human lostness. Due to our tragic choices, we are not living as the people whom God created us to be. Genesis 3-11 paints the world as it is apart from a moment-by-moment relationship with God. The good news is that God does not leave humanity to itself.

Israel. God’s answer to the lostness of humanity and the fracturing of creation is to call a new people to serve in his mission. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram and his family to be the beginning of a people through whom “all families will be blessed” (12:3). Israel lives as a people of promise. God reveals himself to the world through his interactions with Israel. In particular, God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt in the Exodus and his giving of the Law at Sinai serve as key moments of salvation. God teaches his people that the response to saving grace is an ethic of love (Deuteronomy 6:45 and Leviticus 19:18). We love God and neighbor as God uses us to extend his blessings to the world as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). God’s people are the hands, feet, and mouthpieces of God for the rest of the world.

As we read the rest of the Old Testament, Israel’s stories of land, kingship, temple, exile, and restoration serve to instruct God’s people in the potential and the pitfalls of living as God’s mission people in the world.

God sent the prophets whenever his people were unfaithful. The Prophets served to call God’s people back to their roots while simultaneously looking ahead to a new age of salvation. This new age of salvation is precisely what Jesus announced when he proclaimed the arrival of God’s kingdom.

Jesus the Messiah. After calling disciples, Jesus demonstrated the arrival of the kingdom through his powerful teaching and miraculous actions. Jesus modeled a missional lifestyle by his movement across the land of Israel to bring healing, hope, and salvation to those especially on the margins of society. The narratives of Jesus’ actions, his memorable teaching, and his parables instruct his followers on how to live out the kingdom in community as God’s missional people.

Jesus’ death and resurrection serve as the means of extending salvation and forgiveness to the world and for guaranteeing the victory of God’s kingdom for all eternity.

Church. After the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus sends forth his disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16–20; Acts 1:8). From Acts through the Letters, the New Testament reports the spread of the Gospel across the Roman empire and offers instructions for Christ followers on holy living and on how to create missional communities that will advance the Gospel locally and internationally.

New Creation. The Bible ends with the book of Revelation’s vision of a New Heaven and New Earth (Rev 20–21). Throughout Scripture, God offers assurances to God’s people that the future is secure. The Bible does not offer a specific chronology or map of how the future will unfold, but it declares confidently that God’s victory is guaranteed and that the future will be beautiful. There will be a return to the relational wholeness of Creation and God will be worshipped for who he is and what he has done. The purpose of these visions of the end is to encourage us especially during trials and tribulations to confidently practice faithfulness because we know that our future is secure.

Pastors and teachers can proclaim this big picture annually to give congregations the bird’s eye view of the Bible so that they have the context for digesting any smaller section in light of this whole.

The Bible’s GPS

For the Bible’s story of Creation to New Creation to become our story, we must continually realign with its message. Whenever we read, teach, or preach Scripture, we need to respond to the demands that it makes on our lives. If we read or hear it as a seeker, it calls us to align with God’s vision; if we receive it as a follower, it calls us to realign with it.

Following Jesus assumes that we are moving constantly into the world in fulfillment of God’s mission. Scripture serves as our map for the journey. It is our guiding voice to keep us aligned and on course. In times when we find ourselves off course, the Scriptures will call us to realign with the values and message of the Cross.

The Scriptural story as I’ve described it emphasizes three areas: mission, community, and holiness. Just as we can use GPS technology in our travel by car, we can use the Bible’s GPS to help us navigate our journey and ask the right questions as we read the Scriptures.

G = Global Mission. God commissions his people to spread the Gospel. Who is my mission? How does this text help me to understand God’s mission? 

P = People in Community. God calls his people to live and serve in community. Who is my community? How do we need to change in order to live as God’s missional people? 

S = Spirit Transformed. God shapes his people to be Christ like. What kind of person do I need to become in order to live out this text? 

As you read the Scriptures alone or better in community, ask the questions of GPS and be ready for transformation. Through the power of the Spirit, God will shape and form you for his mission. Be careful though. Reading the Bible this way will change your life.

Brian D. Russell is Dean of the School of Urban Ministries and Professor of Biblical Studies on Asbury Theological Seminary’s Florida-Dunnam campus in Orlando. He is the author of Invitation, a ten-week Bible study that guides its readers through the big story of the Bible and empowers them to find their place in God’s mission. It’s available at onebook.seedbed.com

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