HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF THE BIBLE?
We all know to some extent that a fundamental component to becoming a gospel-centered disciple is learning to read and study the Word of God. Yet, which one of us can honestly say that we have not struggled at times to do exactly that? It may not be that we lack the desire to hear from God in his Word, but every time we open the Bible we become confused, distracted, or frustrated leading to an overall sense of despair. We are immediately overwhelmed with all sorts of seemingly fragmented narratives, odd laws, and ancient portions of wisdom that don’t make sense to the Christian when trying to interpret it in bits and pieces—which is precisely the problem.
The Bible was never intended to be reduced to isolated events and individual stories that give us moralistic guidelines and proverbial advice. Don’t be mistaken, interpreting these bits and pieces plays an essential role to be sure, but only after understanding the sum total of these parts or the “big picture” of the Bible. Scripture tells one grand story, the story of redemption, and apart from that story much of the individual content could appear arbitrary or even absurd. Therefore, if we are to pursue Bible reading in a way that transforms us into mature disciples and plants the gospel in our hearts, we have to first identify the central storyline of the Bible. Then, and only then, will we be able to make sense of and apply the pieces.
THE STORYLINE OF SCRIPTURE
The central storyline of Scripture reveals that God is on a rescue mission to save fallen, sinful human beings from Satan, sin, and death through the coming of his Messiah. Like every good story, this story has a beginning, involves great conflict throughout, and climaxes in a glorious ending. It begins with the holy, sovereign, Triune God choosing to create the world and all that is in it out of an overflow of his goodness and loving-kindness. God created Adam and Eve in his image and bestowed upon them the unique responsibility of being his vice-regents and ruling over the earth (Gen. 1:26-28). He made them without sin to exist in perfect, intimate relationship with him and one another (Gen. 1-2). But instead of enjoying the presence of God forever, they tragically chose to believe the lies of the serpent rather than the voice of God and committed treason against the Holy One (Gen. 3:1-7).
As a result, sin and death entered the world and now all experience death, devastation, and division from that first sin (Rom. 5:12). Genesis 3:14-19 recounts the curses that came into the world through sin. The picture seems totally bleak; it’s filled with pain, misplaced desire, alienation, frustration, decay, and death. From humanity’s perspective it appears as though all is lost. But the story is not over.
Tucked inside the curses is a glorious glimmer of hope. God promises that One will come and do what our first parents failed to do—crush the serpent. Genesis 3:15 says,
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
This verse tells us that there is going to come One from the offspring of the woman who will crush the serpent (Satan). Though he will suffer harm, he will ultimately inflict decisive defeat over the serpent. This verse is known as the protoevangelium, the first announcement of the gospel. Don’t miss the weight of this—the gospel actually appears in the beginning of the story and shapes the hope of the entire storyline. From Genesis 3:15 on the promise of the Serpent-Crusher (a Savior/Messiah figure) is anticipated on every page of Scripture. And it is this anticipation that forms the structure of the entire Bible and drives the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation. This means that each time you open your Bible, whether you find yourself in the Old or New Testament, you are on a search for this great Serpent-Crusher, the One who is going to bring you the good news you so desperately need.
Day by day as you study the Scriptures learn to continually ask: Where is the Serpent-Crusher? How does this passage point towards Jesus or how was it fulfilled in Jesus? Where does this verse stand in relation to the Christ event? This practice is essential because the hope of the Messiah is what gives meaning to every narrative, every proverb, every poem, every law, every command, and every book of the Bible. Allow me to demonstrate how this plays out in the Old and New Testament.
As the storyline unfolds in the Old Testament God’s people are continually looking for the One to come, the One who would crush the serpent, overcome death, and reverse the curse. As each Old Testament character emerges it becomes evident this is not the One of whom it was promised. Regardless of their pedigree and periodic victories they inevitably disqualify themselves from being the Serpent-Crusher through their own sin and failure. And so we come to discover that characters like Cain (though the first offspring of Eve) is not the One, Isaac (though the promised son of Abraham) is not the One, Moses (though the redeemer of Israel) is not the One, Samson (though the mighty judge of Israel) is not the One, David (though the anointed king of Israel) is not the One, even Solomon (though the richest and wisest king in Israel) is not the One. As each flawed character exits our hope continues to be refined and reshaped. We discover that not only will this One be born of a woman by means of divine decree (Gen. 3:15), but he will also be a divine Son and rule as King on an eternal throne (2 Sam. 7:12-16). With every portrait presented and with each hint of this Savior disclosed our desire for his coming is intensified. Thus, we continue to look on every page of the Old Testament with great anticipation and a sense of angst for the appearance of the Serpent-Crusher.
The New Testament opens with a jaw-dropping reality, the Messiah has come but not in the manner expected. The Serpent-Crusher, the King of Israel, the One greater than Solomon was finally here and he had come in the form of a baby, God himself clothed in flesh and blood, born of humble estate. The way in which Jesus came was so counter-intuitive, so ironic, and so unexpected that few had eyes to see and receive him. Even more so, the means by which Jesus defeated the serpent was wildly misunderstood. Who could have known that he had to first be crushed to ultimately crush the serpent? Yet, as the story unfolds we discover that not only was his death the victory over Satan and demons, but his resurrection was his vindication as the sinless Son of God and the Savior of the world.
The New Testament reveals that Jesus inaugurated the kingdom, paid the penalty for sin, conquered death, and defeated Satan. He rose to life, invited his followers to participate in the greatest mission ever conceived, ascended to heaven, and then poured out his Spirit in fulfillment of the New Covenant promises. He told us that he is coming back one day for his bride. So now the church waits in eager expectation for the return of Christ, the consummation of the kingdom and the full reversal of the curse—the regeneration and recreation of all things. Best of all, the New Testament tells us how this whole story ends and the ending is really, really good. Let’s just say like in all good stories the King slays the dragon, receives the kingdom, and gets the girl.
WHY THIS STORYLINE MATTERS FOR US
The story begins in Genesis 1 and develops over thousands of years and through different cultures and contexts, but all the while it is setting the stage for the coming of the Messiah and the rescue of God’s people. Therein lies its focus—the whole Bible forms a single storyline that is inseparably connected and intended to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ from Genesis to Revelation. This means that the Old Testament is vitally important for believers today because it provides the salvation-historical context in which the gospel will come. Without understanding this desperate need for the Serpent-Crusher to come and defeat Satan, sin, and death you cannot fully appreciate nor comprehend the magnitude of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the New Testament is also essential for believers because it is only there that we discover who the Serpent-Crusher is and how he obtains victory through his sinless life, substitutionary death and vindicating resurrection. We learn that Christ is the Hero of the story—the second Adam, the true Israel, the divine Son of God, the eternal King, and the hope of the nations.
When we understand this, when we fully accept that the Bible tells one story pointing towards one Hero, only then will we be able to interpret the whole Bible and all of its parts in a manner that is cohesive, Christ-centered, and God-glorifying. If you have believed the gospel and become a follower of Jesus you need to realize that this is your story. The Bible tells the story of your redemption, of your salvation.
This story helps us to see that it was as if we were in the garden, it was as if we ourselves had rejected the Word of God and believed the lies of Satan. We all came under the curse of condemnation and became alienated from God. Each one of us stands as helpless as Adam and Eve to defeat the enemy and draw near to God on our own merit. The truth is that we simply cannot save ourselves. You cannot be your own hero anymore than I can be my own hero. But there is good news, the Serpent-Crusher has come on your behalf and has taken God’s wrath upon himself defeating sin and death so that you can be in intimate relationship to the Father. One has come to do what Adam failed to do and, ultimately, what you and I have failed to do. This is at the heart of the story—Jesus has radically succeeded where you and I have completely failed!
Understanding this changes everything, especially the way we read the Bible!
When I truly began to understand how the hope of the Serpent-Crusher was laced throughout the entire Bible my eyes were opened to the Scriptures in profound way. I started reading every part of the Bible in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. My heart was softened and my affections were stirred so deeply by the Scriptures. I started to crave the Word; I simply had to know more about this story. I found myself learning and rehearsing the storyline of Scripture, seeing how each part of the story pointed towards Jesus. I began to realize that my own story only makes sense if it fits into the bigger storyline of Scripture. Since Christ is the ultimate reality, my narrative does not have meaning or purpose apart from his story. The two have become so closely intertwined that they are now inseparably linked. When I read the Bible I am reading the saving story of Jesus Christ while simultaneously seeing how my own story fits into his storyline. It’s absolutely transformative. Thus, I would urge every one of us to know this story—be intimately familiar with it, savor it, think on it, study it, and ultimately, allow your Bible reading and interpretation to flow from this glorious redemptive storyline.
Whitney Woollard has served in ministry alongside her husband Neal for over six years. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and just finished her Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. She is passionate about equipping disciples to read and study God's Word well resulting in maturing affections for Jesus and his gospel message. Neal and Whitney currently live in Portland, OR where they call Mars Hill Portland their church home. Follow her on Twitter @whitneywoollard.