The Overarching Story of the Bible

Stories stick. We easily forget facts and propositions, but stories stick with us because our own experiences and relationships (our personal stories) find greater meaning by attaching to broader patterns greater than ourselves. Shared stories also build community as individual stories find their place in an overarching narrative.

The Christian community’s foundational stories are contained in the Bible. Unfortunately, the Bible is often assumed to be a collection of rules and propositions with random stories sprinkled about for flavoring. We remember some of the stories and a few of the rules (do not murder, do not judge), but we fail to see, and therefore attach ourselves to, the overarching story of the Bible. This failure to see the overarching story of the Bible not only makes the Bible seem less relevant, it causes us to relate to the stories of the Bible in a piecemeal way that fails to take us up into the bigger patterns and perspectives that the Bible itself commends. We can’t remember the Apostle Paul’s theological arguments against Gentile circumcision in Galatians, but we do remember the story of David defeating Goliath. The story is more memorable, but without an idea of how it relates to the overarching story of scripture, we read it as an isolated story with only limited points of attachment. Those points are usually of the “be like  (or don’t be like) the protagonist” variety. The result is that we may relate David’s battle with Goliath to a challenging situation that we are facing, but we fail to see how that story is only one episode in a larger story that points to God more than it points to David (or points to us for that matter). The stories of the Bible, as well as the propositions and commands, are part of an overarching story of God’s relationship to His creation. When we see the big story, we are able to fit our personal stories into that greater narrative, which gives us a larger perspective and a meaning that transcends ourselves. Even the lists of places, tribes, and commands seem more relevant because they are a part of a larger story.

Theologians of the past few centuries have debated if one can assume any unity to the Bible. After all, the Christian Bible consists of 66 books written by various authors over many centuries. However, the various biblical authors themselves assume a connection between their message and previous prophets. First Peter 1:10-12 reflects this assumed connectedness: Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” The author of First Peter assumes the unity of God’s revelation and work, which connects his generation and the stories of previous and future generations. The unifying element to all these stories is that the main character is also the author of the story. God Himself is writing and starring in this grand story of redemption. He tells the story to and through His people. The diverse human authors of the Bible bring different perspectives and contexts, while the Holy Spirit’s inspiration brings an overall unity as God progressively reveals himself and works in the course of human history. A deep understanding of the Bible requires an appreciation of both the diversity and the unity of the Christian scriptures.

For this reason, church leaders should consider teaching the overarching storyline of the Bible. We fit into God’s story, plan, and purpose for the world. True fulfillment and meaning are found when we fit our stories into God’s story. Moreover, getting a view of the sweeping landscape of this grand story creates awe. Too often we “can’t see the forest for the trees” because we focus on proof texts and select passages of scripture while losing sight of the beautiful landscape of the overarching story. Of course, the awe-inspiring story also gives us insight into the awesome nature of the Author (and main character) of that story.

How do we teach the overarching story of the Bible in a way that is faithful to the Bible’s own presentation? How do we teach such a long and connected story in units that people can actually follow? These questions will be addressed in the next blog post. I will explain that this story is structured by God’s covenants and then give an example teaching/preaching series (and other resources) on the overarching story of the Bible.

Questioning our Individualism and its Affect on the Church – Ephesians 4:1-16

In my last post, I pointed out how the individualistic assumptions of our Western culture affect how we read the scriptures. Below, I share a sermon outline that intersects with that subject. This sermon examines Ephesians 4:1-16 and how our individualism affects our view of the church and church leaders.

Introduction: The individualism of our culture often bleeds into the church. For instance, American Christians tend to have a “lone ranger” mentality. We often think our spiritual growth and health only involves God and us. Sure, we view the church as a means to serve our spiritual needs, but if the church does not serve us in the way we want, we go shopping for another church or retreat into a purely individual religious experience. In a similar way, Christians often talk about pursuing God’s “calling.” Unsurprisingly, this calling is thought of in individual terms, as if God directs an individual to pursue some ministry or task apart from connection to others.

The influence of these cultural assumptions on Christians and the church makes for unhealthy and unbiblical ideas and practices. The Bible’s assumptions and instructions differ from our culture’s as Ephesians 4:1-16 will demonstrate. This passage calls us to be unified to a local body and dependant on the diverse gifts and roles within that body to grow us into Christ-likeness. Moreover, we are called to serve through the local body and Church leaders equip Christians to carry out that ministry. Pastors and church leaders are just one part of the body, and Christ is the true head whom every member follows. Continue reading

Western 21st century Assumptions upon a 1st century Text: Individualism.

The New Testament came through first-century writers who held to particular assumptions and a particular worldview. As twenty first-century Christians seek to discern what those writings are saying to them, they carry different assumptions and a different worldview. This discrepancy often causes contemporary Christians to interpret the Bible in a way that the authors never intended. For those Christians who hold to a high view of scripture, the author’s intended meaning is inspired by God and the guide and authority for faith and practice today. It is crucial, therefore, to be aware of our assumptions and the subtle ways they steer our understanding of the text.

Today’s blog addresses individualism. Western 21st century culture sees everything through the lens of individualism. Merriam-Webster defines individualism as “the belief that the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society or group.” Western Christians unconsciously adopt this individualistic worldview because it surrounds us every day and in every interaction. In contrast, the biblical writers and their audiences were surrounded by assumptions that emphasized the community. While the biblical texts also addressed individuals, they did so through the communities these individuals belonged to. Contemporary Christians tend to read the Bible in the opposite direction–as if the Bible is addressed primarily to individuals and secondarily to the communities these individuals belong to.

The disconnect between 21st century versus 1st century assumptions manifests itself both in theology and practice. From my experience as a pastor, the affect on practice is more pervasive because assumptions guide every person whether they think about them or not. Churches are filled with people who interpret the Bible, their lives, their relationship to God, and their relationship to others through the lens of individualism.  Continue reading

A Preaching Outline of Revelation 5

Below is a preaching outline/manuscript (with explanatory comments) for Revelation 5. I recently preached on this passage in a couple different churches, and this outline served as the framework for each sermon. Even though I don’t read my sermons, I prefer an outline that is more like a full manuscript. For me, the process of writing it out solidifies the best way to say it, making it easier to remember.

Notes on the outline: * I put the sermon texts (ESV) in italics because it makes it easier to glance down and find my place in the outline as I work through the text.       * For the same reason, section headings are in bold, as well as important points. * I often underline lists of examples/points/thoughts. * Things in parentheses are not in my original outline but are explanatory notes for the benefit of people reading this blog.

*INTRODUCTION: (Tailor to each church.)

*CONTEXT:              Revelation chs. 1-3 contain messages to 7 churches of the apostle John’s day. But in Revelation 4:1, the message turns to a vision about things in the future. Revelation 4:1: After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”  John is brought into the heavenly throne room of God and is shown a vision of the last days of human history!

*THE TEXT:

Revelation 5:1-4  Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.

Continue reading

10 “How-to” Steps of Biblical Interpretation

In the Bible, God spoke through and to particular people at a particular time in history. How can we rightly understand the Spirit-inspired author’s meaning as intended, so we can communicate and apply that inspired meaning to contemporary hearers (including ourselves)? These questions are answered through biblical interpretation (a.k.a. hermeneutics). Too often, Christians misinterpret the author’s intention because they do not understand elements from the author’s world, or they read their own worldview, culture, and literary conventions into the author’s writing in a way far different than the author would have intended. A basic knowledge of interpretative methods helps avoid misinterpretation. In an effort to give a simplified “how-to” of interpretation, I have created the following “10 How-to Steps of Biblical Interpretation.”

 

A Basic “How-to” of Biblical Interpretation

     Grant Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral is a terrific book on biblical interpretation and should be on every Christian worker’s reading list. For those who cannot work through its 500 pages of interpretive meatiness, the following steps will borrow from and distill Osborne’s (and other’s) work to produce a how-to for interpreting the Bible. Continue reading